Elderly couple walking past a social distancing sign
Photo credit: Guido van Nispen, Flickr

19 May 2020

By Dr Lachlan Blackhall, Entrepreneurial Fellow and Head, Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program.

The last six months have been tumultuous for all Australians. We have experienced the destructive fury of an unprecedented bushfire season and are now facing a global pandemic. COVID-19, and our collective response to it, is causing significant social and economic upheaval. Thankfully, our timely and collective response has likely averted a catastrophe in Australia.

While we address the immediate health and economic impacts of COVID-19, we mustn’t lose sight of other global challenges. Chief amongst these is the threat of human-induced climate change.

Unlike the immediate threats of COVID-19, the threats of climate change have often been interpreted as “over the horizon” concerns. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, humans are wired to respond to immediate threats but struggle to respond to long term challenges. Climate change is not only a long-term challenge, it is an existential threat.

Similar to COVID-19, the impacts of human-induced climate change have the potential to affect all humanity. However, the long-term impacts of climate change are predicted to result in a scale of death and economic loss that will dwarf even the most pessimistic estimates of the global impacts of COVID-19.

As we all endure a period of reduced social movement due to the pandemic, now is the time to reflect upon the lessons learned from our response to COVID-19. We should consider how these lessons learned can inform our response to human-induced climate change.

In this context, there are three key lessons we can learn from our response to the COVID-19 crisis: the value of the leadership of experts; the importance of the collective and aligned actions of government, research organisations, academia and industry, and; the significant opportunity for Australia to contribute to solutions for the world.

Throughout our response to COVID-19, experts across the country have demonstrated their leadership at our time of need. Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer and his counterparts in the states are visible examples of this leadership. Consider also the academic experts who have modelled the pandemic and the senior public servants who designed the government’s economic stimulus packages. These examples show us the value of listening to experts who have committed their lives to developing experience and expertise in their respective fields. These experts have used the best available evidence to provide guidance that is timely, appropriate, and effective.

Across many fields of endeavour, including climate change, Australia possesses globally acknowledged leaders. Our response to the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that these leaders can and will lead national responses to these challenges. We have also learnt that politicians must champion the leadership of experts and expertise. In doing so, politicians can demonstrate the national leadership that is vital during times of crisis.

This pandemic also highlights the importance of an aligned and collective response from government, research organisations, academia and industry. This is visible in the early and ongoing contributions by Australia’s medical and academic research communities who have contributed to better understanding the virological and epidemiological mechanisms of COVID-19. It is also shown in the ramping up of manufacturing and food supply chains by industry, and the timely and impactful stimulus package provided by government.

Contrast this with the divisive and often ideologically motivated debate about the existence, extent and impacts of climate change. As a consequence, Australia has struggled to reach a consensus position that even acknowledges the threats of climate change. In this context, it is impossible for government, research organisations, academia and industry to come together to respond to the threats of climate change. Surely such a serious threat deserves collective and aligned action on behalf of the Australian and global community.

In reflecting on our response to COVID-19, it is also clear that Australia has the ability and opportunity to contribute on a global scale. Through our medical research community and medical devices industry, Australia continues to contribute to the global understanding and response to COVID-19. Indeed, Australia is playing a central role in the development and testing of an effective COVID-19 vaccine

Likewise, Australia has the ability and opportunity to demonstrate, and be rewarded for, global leadership in responding to climate change. As an example, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recently singled out Australia as a potential new energy leader. IRENA highlighted our opportunity to enhance our global influence and reach, through our ability to take advantage of renewable energy technologies.

Australia is well placed to develop the technologies, business models and know-how to lead the global response to climate change. Embracing this opportunity will not only enhance our global stature and influence but it will generate significant economic opportunities and rewards for all Australians.

We are not out of the COVID-19 woods yet. However, we have seen the benefits of listening to experts and using the best available expertise and evidence. We understand the value of government, research organisations, academia and industry acting collectively. And it is clear that Australia can be a global leader in responding to these challenges. We should reflect on these learnings to provide the basis for our response to the global threats of human-induced climate change. If we do, Australia stands to be proud of our response to the long-term threats of climate change. Just as we should be proud of our response to the immediate threats of COVID-19.