Environment & energy, Government and governance, Health | Australia

11 May 2021

The disruption provided by the COVID-19 pandemic should be a unique moment of reflection for Australia, Jessica Rosien, Fiona Armstrong, and Arnagretta Hunter write.

For those not fighting for their immediate needs to be met, the world’s transition to a new normal is an opportunity for reflection. People and institutions can step back and realise that norms can be challenged, and use this period to imagine different, alternative futures – the futures we all need.

The global COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call and an insight into the many systems that were broken or inadequate in much of the world, whether it be health, social welfare, or economic systems.

Still, the outbreak of cooperation among governments and communities gave an insight into what was possible if only things could be approached differently. In the early stages of the pandemic, the bipartisanship and speed with which Australian state and federal governments responded to the pandemic illustrated how things can be different when party politics is set aside and science guides decision-making.

This gave Australians hope that the country might overcome the shortcomings of its own political, economic, and social systems to respond effectively to the threat posed by COVID-19.

But, on a deeper level, it also created hope that this was the opportunity Australia needed to seriously consider a shift in course as a society. COVID-19 began to be seen as an opportunity to fundamentally reform Australian life to respond to another complex wicked problem, and the most serious threat to humankind – climate change.

More on this: Podcast: A vision for a healthy Australia

Of course, Australia is not alone: the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for all nations to use the opportunity of the post COVID-19 recovery to invest in strategies that both effectively respond to the pandemic and tackle the environmental degradation and pollution that are driving the climate crisis.

In its Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19, the WHO calls for national governments to direct trillions of dollars committed to COVID-19 recovery toward six key strategies to promote a healthier, fairer, and greener world.

The first is protecting and preserving nature, which is the source of human health.

Second is investing in essential services, from water and sanitation to clean energy in healthcare facilities.

Third is ensuring a quick and healthy energy transition.

Fourth is promoting healthy, sustainable food systems.

Fifth is building healthy, liveable cities.

Finally, the sixth is ending the use of taxpayer money to fund pollution.

So, is that happening here in Australia? Driven by a desire to help the community and decision-makers imagine a better, healthier future, in 2020 the Climate and Health Alliance led a process with over 100 multidisciplinary thought leaders to develop possible alternative future scenarios for Australia’s direction on climate.

More on this: Sustainable energy key to COVID-19 recovery in Asia and the Pacific

These narrative scenarios were based on a few possible outcomes: no change, marginal change, maladaptive change, and radical transformative change. Of these possible alternative futures for Australia, going ‘back to normal’, with policies similar to those from before COVID-19, is most closely associated with the ‘no change’ scenario.

This is a future in which government fails to plan. That is, it is unprepared for sequential extreme weather events and climate change driven disasters, despite the warnings of scientists. The recent floods across New South Wales are a prime example, and yet still policymakers have not learned that the unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared.

Governments continue to make poor economic choices.

Witness, for example, their continuing to favour fossil fuel industries, locking economic growth to the success of sunset industries, and foregoing opportunities for long-term job creation in renewable energy.

In contrast, in the transformational change scenario, Australia would commit to a better, shared future, including recognition of First Peoples sovereignty, develop a level of planetary consciousness in the community, and truly commit to net-zero emissions.

These scenarios have now been published as Australia in 2030: Possible Alternative Futures, with an accompanying policy roadmap to guide policymakers to the preferred future, entitled: Healthy, Regenerative and Just.

This process served as a reminder that the future is not fixed, and profound changes – as evidenced by the response to COVID-19 – are possible when the stakes are high. Rather than go back to normal, Australians must collectively realise that the future is theirs to choose. Australia has the necessary intellect, wealth, and power, if it chooses to apply it, to actively shape this future.

This involves recognising that, as with COVID-19, action to tackle climate change requires some difficult to accept changes that when embraced can benefit all.

Of course, the government may opt to do as little as possible. However, given the profound risks of inaction, it must understand that stalling on climate action has consequences it cannot afford.

A few years ago, few Australians could have imagined the impact of the Black Summer fires, and still fewer could have imagined that a global pandemic and its profound impact on Australian life.

Regardless of which path it takes, Australia’s future will be quite different to what’s gone before, but only if it takes this moment and approaches it with hope, imagination, and collaboration, can it be different in that it is more equitable, caring, healthy, regenerative, and ready for the challenges ahead.

With The New Normal: In Focus section, Policy Forum is rebooting our coronavirus pandemic coverage to address the changing situation. We hope you find the discussion valuable, and invite you to join in the conversation.

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