The earth is breathing easier

hot air balloons in the sunset: optimism that we can deal with climate change

By Toni Hassan, a founding member of the Women’s Climate Congress and the former Communications Manager at the Public Health Association of Australia.  First published in Pearls and Irritations.

Major cities and their birds are breathing easier. Across China, smog has given way to the colour blue. Even the snow-capped Himalayas are visible from parts of Northern India for the first time in local’s memories.

Here in Australia, bike sales are up and with fewer cars on the road fewer wild birds and animals are being injured.

Seismologists are reporting that the upper crust of the Earth is quieter. Less transport means much less emissions. In the United States the price of oil briefly turned negative because so little was being used that the storage facilities were filling, leaving traders due to take deliveries with the prospect of nowhere to put it.

At home, many of us are returning to our gardens. There’s a shortage of seedlings at Bunnings. Even apartment dwellers are starting balcony gardens and “grow your own” food clubs.

Might some of the changes wrought by coronavirus last? There are reasons to feel optimistic:

1. In this instance the prime minister has acted on the science. Rather than talking about the cost of his measures, he is prioritising human lives.

2. The national cabinet of the prime minister and chief ministers and premiers is working so well that it might continue. It would have the potential to drive the changes needed to deliver a low carbon future.

3. We’ve been reminded that global events have local impacts and visa versa, a realisation that will be needed to help get a handle on climate change.

4. The pandemic has allowed (forced) many of us to live life more slowly, an experience that will help us rethink things. Further, it’s shown we can continue to work, albeit in a different mode from home and that we don’t need to fly as much.

5. With public work on climate change less pressing (this year’s international conference has been postponed — it’ll be in London next year), behind the scenes fresh thinking is emerging. When public attention returns to the topic, positions will have loosened.

6. In that spirit, a national body called the Women’s Climate Congress has been developed in Canberra with the aim of working towards life-nurturing solutions rather than engaging in conflict. Initiator, Dr Janet Salisbury told me “If we can recognise with COVID-19 that there are personal sacrifices and a loss of freedom for the greater good, then we can do it for the climate emergency also.”

Dealing with the threat of the virus might turn out to have been a dress rehearsal for dealing with the threat of climate change, as well as threat of future pandemics. In both cases the costs of acting quickly are far lower than the costs of waiting and seeing how things develop.In the very least, this public health crisis has offered both experience and language to talk about and promote climate health (People in the climate movement have often talked about global warming in terms of the Earth having a fever, not unlike the experience for virus sufferers).

Both threats require an agile public service, one prepared to reimagine what’s normal.

That’s not to deny the usual battles old industry will fight. Some businesses are ramping up pressure on the federal government to reduce red or green tape so developments are fast tracked. Expect other pressure to get citizens to consume like never before.

Governments should resist. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. Surely, we cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

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