I sleep reasonably well most nights. But a profound fear has gripped me over the past few weeks. Not of the current pandemic, which we have so far handled admirably by world standards.
What keeps me up is the next crisis.
I am genuinely worried Australia could be so quick to ‘return to normal’ after the immediate threat of Covid-19 passes that we’ll leave ourselves, our families, our communities and our economic structure, wide open to the next catastrophe.
Clearly, Australia’s pre-coronavirus economy was not equipped to deal with a global calamity, despite repeated warnings from scientists. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost almost overnight, schools nationwide were closed, people were confined to their homes in isolation, small and large businesses toppled, and mental and physical health deteriorated.
People have died.
Yet our national government talks about bouncing back to the way things were before.
The short-sightedness is staggering. How will we be any better equipped to handle the next major disaster?
And let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a question of when, not if.
Last summer gave us a taste of what climate change is doing to Australian lives and livelihoods. Months of choking smoke from devastating bushfires that wiped out towns, forests and wildlife.
Then we were hit by a global health pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks. Now we’ve got an escalating economic crisis.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen leaders respond rapidly based on scientific advice and set smart policies to save lives.
We can’t forget that the pandemic is not the only national crisis to hit Australians this year, coming off the back of unprecedented and deadly bushfires and drought, made worse by climate change.
The climate crisis hasn’t gone anywhere. It is waiting in the wings to do more damage to our lives, jobs and economy if we don’t take action.
My fear is that we will be so determined to get everything back up and running quickly that we will condemn ourselves to repeating the mistakes of the past. Where we have so eagerly destroyed our natural world for a quick buck.
But we have a choice. We don’t have to make the same mistakes. If we are guided by three basic principles, I believe we can set a different course and rebuild a more resilient nation.
One. Make the recovery climate and nature positive. Set a clear pathway for Australia to move to net zero climate pollution and regenerate the natural environment our lives depend upon.
Two. Use recovery measures and funding to make Australia healthier and more resilient. This will increase the capacity of people, of wildlife and nature, of essential services, and built and natural infrastructure to respond and recover from future extreme events like bushfires and pandemics.
Three. Make Australia fairer. We can use this moment to strengthen citizens’ participation and trust in democracy and better protect our most vulnerable communities.
And we can do all this while delivering jobs that will get workers and families back on their feet again.
Our governments can make public housing energy efficient and renewable-powered across the country, invest in battery storage programs and land management, and build electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure nationwide.
They can expand public transport and bicycle lane networks, upgrade Australia’s electricity grid to tap more clean energy and support large-scale energy storage, including batteries and pumped hydro.
They can get Australia exporting renewable energy to the world using hydrogen made by solar and wind energy.
They can establish an independent National Environment Fund to improve water catchments, coastal buffer zones and urban canopy, as well as provide incentives for farmers to protect nature.
For decades we’ve pitted economic growth against protecting nature and preventing pollution. We no longer have that option. And it’s not only environmentalists saying this. The World Bank, the IMF, the International Energy Agency, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and many others have also called for governments’ coronavirus recovery packages to simultaneously tackle climate change.
Legendary unionist and environmentalist Jack Mundey, who led the ‘green bans’ movement in the 1970s and who died this week after making a huge contribution to Australian life, was one leader who knew the jobs-versus-environment frame is a furphy.
Jack led actions that protected bushland and built heritage. He knew that putting people and place before profits improved everyone’s lives.
As we emerge from this pandemic, we need to re-learn that lesson.
If we continue to destroy nature and pollute our climate, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.
We must tackle the root causes of these human and environmental crises, repair the damage and make our communities more resilient. It’s time to invest in life.
Kelly O’Shanassy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation.