Monday , July 13 2020
Home / Environment / Beneath the virus lurks a bigger emergency, but the world is distracted from the climate threat

Beneath the virus lurks a bigger emergency, but the world is distracted from the climate threat


But again the economic cycle intrudes with a recession driven by a pandemic that Bill Gates had prophesied but no nations had prepared for (by stockpiling testing kits and ventilators, for example).

In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, to their credit, still find space to record the conclusion of leading reef scientist, Terry Hughes, that there is a third major bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef now under way. This follows the bleachings of 2016 and 2017. This is every bit a climate event as were the mega fires over Christmas.

Yet the irrevocable loss of healthy coral may not galvanise the way fires did. For many the reef is a memory of a holiday, a spray of subaqueous radiance they may never have expected to see again anyway. Its loss is not going to be a personal trauma like months of smoke filled air, a house abandoned to flames, a night waiting evacuation on a beach with the sound of crashing trees.

Meanwhile, the pandemic emergency may kill off the Glasgow conference on climate planned for November. The UN event is aimed at averting runaway climate change by keeping the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. It’s being hosted by a British government with strong climate credentials that wants to ban petrol-powered vehicles by 2035 and brooks no argument about net-zero emissions in 2050 – which it has entrenched in legislation.

But who will bring together 40,000 international delegates if the virus is lurking and we’re still waiting for the save-all vaccine? If the world’s poorest countries are in a struggle for economic survival, none may have the resources to save the last rainforest cover on the planet.


A pandemic-caused economic crash may be considered a Black Swan. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the expression for his 2007 book about unforeseen events of huge consequence. History, he reminds us, is not always incremental. It can take the form of a fracture in events. On climate one might imagine, for example, a savage acceleration in the retreat of Arctic ice. Every summer hits us with alarming evidence of its growing fragility. What if the process gets steroids?

Likewise, if the breaking up of permafrost in the Arctic circle assumes an extra ferocity. That would release plumes of methane, 30 times more lethal at trapping heat than carbon, but on a scale to blow apart every calibration of how fast climate is shifting.

For Australia, Black Swan climate events could include a cyclone beyond what we have seen before, hitting the Queensland coast. Experts say there is still enough unburnt bush to give us a fire season as bad as the last, even next season – if we suffer the same malevolent mix of heat, low humidity and strong wind.

After all, it was only this month we were surprised by something I don’t recall any expert predicting: a quick fall into recession or worse, produced by a new version of the flu. A rupture in the narrative, a Black Swan.

Beneath news of virus and slump there simmers an even bigger story. The planet keeps warming. And there’s no guarantee the rate may not pick up alarmingly.

Bob Carr, a former NSW premier and Australian foreign affairs minister, is a professor of business and climate at UTS.

Most Viewed in Environment


About admin

Check Also

Sydney expects burst of wind and rain while heavy snow and dangerous surf to hit NSW

However, the complex system, which models have found difficult to predict, looks likely to move …