COVID-19: A glimpse of what climate-induced system collapse could look like

OPINION: Here we were thinking pandemics were just material for movie scripts, when COVID-19 abruptly upended life as we knew it.   

Suddenly the decades-long, earnest focus of anxious epidemiologists was noticed, heard and believed by everyone - not just other scientists and Doomsday Preppers. 

The developed world’s restrictions on movements, sudden shutdown of industries and businesses, massive job losses and disruption of education took most of us by surprise.  

The health systems of many countries – even the most developed - have been overwhelmed, unable to cope with the demand. Doctors have made impossible choices: who lives and who dies? 

The impact of COVID-19 in Australia and across the world will be significant in the short term and the economy will take many years to fully recover.  

With vaccines being developed and government economic stimulus underway, this is a crisis the world will emerge from. The world will look different, but we will still be breathing.   

Runaway climate change threatens similar systems collapse to COVID-19.  But, in this case, there is no short-term exit strategy.  

There is no vaccine or silver bullet to undo decades of rampant emissions.  

If the systems we rely on to support our health and well-being collapse there is no short term technical or economic fix. 

Increased air pollution (as we experienced with the bushfires this summer), and the increased spread of communicable diseases brought by hotter climates, will together massively strain our healthcare systems. 

The flow-on impacts to the economy, unemployment and education are likely to be at least as significant as we are experiencing now but much longer lived. 

These impacts will be even greater for vulnerable communities across the world.  

Fortunately for Australia, it looks like the impacts of COVID-19 will not be as severe for us as for many other countries. This is largely due to the decisive actions of our state and federal governments. 

If only this type of decisive action were taken to address climate change, we could avoid the devastating impact of global warming on our health, environment and economy and ensure a safe and secure future for our children.  

The good news is that it is not too late.  

To ensure a climate-safe future, state and federal governments urgently need to: 

Set more ambitious emission reduction targets in line with keeping the global temperature rise to within 1.5C 

Accelerate the transition to a low-emissions economy in Australia, with clean and sustainable jobs 

Support the re-greening and reforestation programs that build community resilience and act as carbon sinks 

Build the capacity of vulnerable communities, in Australia and overseas, to deal with the ravages of climate change 

Many commentators and interest groups will argue we can no longer afford the climate action price tag after the economic impact of COVID-19.   

They will argue that we must prioritise economic recovery at all costs.  

But it does not need to be an either/or choice. The trillions of dollars of economic stimulus injected into the COVID-19 response around the world could accelerate the transition to a net zero economy, creating a wealth of clean and sustainable jobs with it.   

As the International Monetary Fund prepares to lend $1 Trillion USD to over 100 countries hit by coronavirus, its Chief, Kristalina Georgieva, has said that we must do everything in our power to make it a green recovery. 

Around the world countries are already doing this.  

Twenty-five percent of the European Union’s 750 Billion Euro COVID recovery budget has been allocated to climate action. And in one of the first major elections of the pandemic period, the South Korean Government was re-elected with an absolute majority, after re-affirming its commitment to end coal financing and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, while also responding to pandemic. 

Many countries, including Australia, will face unmanageable suffering and devastation if global warming passes 1.5 ̊C. 

COVID-19 has shown us that now is the time to act - to ensure we never reach that point. The COVID-19 response cannot be used as an excuse to delay action when it is needed most. 

- Evan Davies is  World Vision Australia’s Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Action 

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