The toll of Australia’s Black Summer of bushfires

Australia’s Summer of Crisis  was published by the Climate Council of Australia in March, describing the economic and climate change impacts of the bushfires of 2019/20. Although the bushfires were widespread, the report focuses on the two most severely affected areas of the country:  New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. It estimates that there was a 10-20 percent drop in international visitors, so that the tourism sector alone will lose at least $4.5 billion.  Bushfire-related insurance claims in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria totalled an estimated value of $1.9 billion.  The report also estimates the unprecedented climate impacts – between 650 million and 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere ( Australia’s annual emissions are around 531 million tonnes). The report states that the hot dry conditions which fuelled the fires will only worsen, and calls urgently for an end to fossil fuel production and export, and a plan to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions to net zero.

Health impacts

Unprecedented smoke‐related health burden associated with the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Australia”, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (March 12) estimated that bushfire smoke was responsible for more deaths than the fires, and extraordinary health impacts. The researchers estimate there were  417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems and 2027 for respiratory problems, and 1305 presentations to emergency departments with asthma.  The article is summarized by The Guardian here  , which also reports that the authors have obtained funding for follow-up studies through the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR), funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council .  The CAR website offers fact sheets and research summaries about bushfire impacts.

 

Clean energy can drive Canada’s economic recovery

The oil and gas industry is in an unprecedented crisis, as explained in an April 1 blog by the International Energy Agency: “The global oil industry is experiencing a shock like no other in its history” .  Yet on March 31, in what Common Dreams calls “a shameful new  low”,  the Alberta government announced a $1.5 Billion cash infusion to “kickstart” the Keystone XL Pipeline. Ian Hussey of the Parkland Institute reacted with “Alberta’s Keystone XL investment benefits oil companies more than Albertans” (April 2).  Bill McKibben reacted with outrage in “In the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Construction Is Set to Resume on the Keystone Pipeline”  in The New Yorker .  McKibben subsequently surveys the situation in Canada and the U.S. in “Will the Coronavirus Kill the Oil Industry?” in the New Yorker .

As the Canadian federal government continues to formulate its economic recovery plan Covid-19, loud calls are coming to invest in clean energy, not oil and gas

The International Energy Agency provides factual rationale for the push for a cleaner recovery,  in “Put clean energy at the heart of stimulus plans to counter the coronavirus crisis”.  On April 3,  an Open Letter from Canada’s clean energy sector associations was sent to the federal government, calling for a “Resilient Recovery”, and emphasizing the job creation potential of the clean economy sector – (estimated pre-Pandemic as employing  559,400 Canadians by 2030) . 

Also on April 3, a virtual rally of  56,000 people was organized by Stand.earth as part of a Bail out People not Polluters campaignsummarized by the Energy Mix.  Quotes published by Stand.earth sum up the arguments:

“… Canadians will not accept a sweetheart deal for oil company execs and shareholders to protect Big Oil’s bottom line, and prop up a sunset industry. We need every single public dollar available to save lives, support communities and rebuild a cleaner, more resilient future….Because that other crisis—climate change—hasn’t gone anywhere. In this moment, when the global economy has been shuttered in humanity’s collective battle against COVID-19, governments must seize the opportunity to change course when it starts back up again. To put people back to work building massive solar and wind farms, not pipelines. To invest in the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past.”

Earlier Canadian “No Bailout” voices are summarized in a previous WCR article , which highlights the Open Letters sent to the federal government by civil society groups and academics.   A selection of more recent calls include:  “Morneau, provinces must apply climate lens to COVID-19 recovery efforts” in iPolitics (April 9); “Pandemic response should mobilize around low carbon solutions” by Mitchell Beer in Policy Options (Mar. 26)  ;  “Let’s come out of COVID-19 with a new economy” an Opinion piece by Merran Smith and  Dan Woynillowicz in The National Observer (April 8) ; “Green stimulus offers Canada a way forward for escaping the next recession” (March 26) and “Ottawa’s bail-outs need to help airline and oil and gas sectors grow greener” (April 8),  both by Sustainable Prosperity.

Last word to Jim Stanford, in  “We’re going to need a Marshall Plan to rebuild after Covid-19 ”  in Policy Options (April 2):

“…. With the price of Western Canada Select oil falling to close to zero … it is clear that fossil fuel developments will never lead Canadian growth again. Politicians and their “war rooms” can rage at this state of affairs, but they can’t change it: they might as well pray for a revival in prices for beaver pelts or other bygone Canadian staple exports. However, the other side of this gloomy coin is the enormous investment and employment opportunity associated with building out renewable energy systems and networks (which are now the cheapest energy option anyway). This effort must be led by forceful, consistent government policy, including direct regulation and public investment (in addition to carbon pricing). Another big job creator, already identified by Ottawa and Alberta, will be investment in remediation of former petroleum and mining sites.”

New climate change research network launches, saying climate won’t wait for the pandemic to end

A new network of university researchers launched on April 2: the International Universities Climate Alliance (IUCA) .  The  network will  showcase climate change research from 40 universities in 18 countries , with a wide range of disciplinary expertise, including engineering, economics, law, social science and planning, as well as climate science.

With a website tag line, “Collaborating for Climate Impact”, the IUCA states in its  official press release :

“Alliance members are to work together to identify the most effective ways to communicate research-based facts related to climate change to the public. Members will engage in work across climate change science, impact, mitigation strategies and adaptation.”

The network is spearheaded by the University of New South Wales,Sydney, and also includes the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, the Sorbonne, and from Australia, University of Melbourne and Monash University as well as the UNSW. From Canada, only McGill University in Montreal is included so far in the full list of member universities, here .  A deliberate strategy was to include universities from emerging economies in the group.

The decision to launch now, amidst the “information saturation” of Covid-19 was explained in a press release from the University of New South Wales:

“This new platform is needed now more than ever as the world grapples with providing a coordinated approach to tackling climate change. …Notwithstanding current urgencies around the COVID-19 pandemic, the alliance members decided not to delay the formation of the alliance due to the pressing and ongoing need to accelerate climate change mitigation and improve decision making.”

That theme is expanded in  a related  press release on April 1, titled simply: Climate change mitigation can’t wait for Covid-19 to play out.

An expanding role for experts

The experts in the new International Universities Climate Alliance (IUCA) may benefit from the important and highly visible role of scientific experts in the fight against the pandemic.  Lesson #1 in Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood’s blog,  6 lessons for climate action from Canada’s COVID-19 response is “Listen to scientists.”  He argues: “At every stage of this pandemic, the public narrative and the associated policy response has largely been guided by epidemiologists and public health officials. ….Yet climate scientists are still sidelined in the public discourse and climate policy is still guided more by short-term political considerations than physical evidence. The climate crisis demands a more central role for climate science.”

Another  recent comment  in After the Coronavirus, Two Sharply Divergent Paths on Climate”  from Yale350 (April 7)  states: “Some policy experts are optimistic that victory over the coronavirus will instill greater appreciation for what government, science, and business can do to tackle climate change. But others believe the economic damage caused by the virus will set back climate efforts for years to come.” The article outlines the two approaches, with a general view that the politics of the U.S. may continue to conspire against informed fight against climate change, while the EU will continue to follow a more evidence-driven path. 

Canadian unions providing Covid-19 Resources for members

Although unions are not unaware of the long-term perspective of the Covid-19 pandemic – as for example, in “New Social Contract can rebuild our workplaces and economies after COVID-19” by Sharan Burrow of the ITUC – the main focus for Canadian unions seems to be to actively respond with policy advocacy and practical information covid19 logoresources for their members. The Canadian Labour Congress has built a dedicated Covid-19 Resource Centre which includes policy positions and demands, as well as fact sheets useful for individuals – for example, regarding legislated sick leave provisions in each province, or community information regarding domestic violence resources.

The CLC has also compiled an exhaustive collection of links to the Covid-19 information of individual unions across Canada and the U.S., here . Although there are differences among unions, most are compiling and updating resources and links which provide specific information for their members, especially regarding their health and safety rights and the financial supports available in the crisis. Some examples:  Amalgamated Transit Union ;  Canadian Union of Postal Workers  ; Public Service Alliance of Canada ; United Steelworkers; and Unifor  .

Other unions such as NUPGE or the Vancouver District Labour Council   are focused on advocacy and demands for government action for front line workers.  Toronto and York Region Labour Council  and the B.C. Federation of Labour provide both. Check the complete listings at the CLC website for the wide range of information available, and also check the list of  advocacy and organizing resources at the Broadbent Institute, constantly updated by Dr. Jennifer Robson.

Covid19HELP_Demands_ftAnother important resource for frontline workers:  Ontario’s  Fight For $15& Fairness  campaign  for Health Emergency Labour Protections (HELP).  Their demands for emergency health leaves and reforms to EI requirements in the Covid-19 situation are outlined here and here in French

These demands are also endorsed by the Decent Work and Health Network  in their press release .  Like  Fight For $15& Fairness, the DWHN is sponsoring a petition, as well as organizing a Zoom-based webinar for health workers in COVID-19, on April 1.

 

Can the fight against COVID-19 help the climate change fight?

With the world reeling under the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, some are trying to make sense of our disrupted world, and find lessons and hope for the fight against climate change.

One thoughtful and useful article is  “Can COVID-19 create a turning point in the fight against climate change?”,  which appeared in Medium on March 13.  Acknowledging that the pandemic is distracting attention and resources from the climate fight, author Kaveh Madani  argues that “The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us some lessons and implementing some reforms that are essential for success in mitigating the climate crisis.” Specifically, economic and financial reforms; reduction of GHG emissions; the move to “virtual life”, including teleworking; reduction of aviation travel and consumerism; the importance of science; the interconnectedness of our global world, and conversely, the importance of individual action.

Another widely-cited article  appeared in Fast Company, “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus? . The article quotes May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, who finds hope in the fact that: “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time… And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis.”  The downside? The response to the climate threat has not been as swift and strong, which she attributes to the perception that it is a “ somewhat distant problem, despite the growing number of climate-related disasters that happen every year”, and because “in the climate crisis, powerful companies have a lot to lose if the world acts decisively, and with the virus, though many people are losing money, there’s no similarly massive opposition to trying to address the problem.”

Two articles on March 15 in The Energy Mix explore how the Coronavirus has disrupted the oil and gas industry, and how that may help the climate fight.   “Coronavirus Triggers OPEC+ Breakup, Drives Deepest Oil Price Dive in 29 Years” (March 15)  summarizes the geopolitics and oil price collapse;  “Oil War and Covid-19 Create Risk, Opportunity for Clean Energy”  (March 15)  summarizes the opinions of several market analysts who argue that “It doesn’t make sense to reduce your investment in renewables if the oil price crashes …It’s more logical to reduce your investment in oil.”  Amongst possible benefits:  governments would reduce fossil fuel subsidies and redirect funding to health priorities, and  investment redirected to clean energy would strengthen that sector.

Finally, Avi Lewis of The Leap wrote a Globe and Mail Opinion piece, “In the midst of converging crises, the Green New Deal is the answer in which he argues: ” In the midst of all these terrifying and converging disasters, this is perhaps the greatest opportunity – to shatter the shackles of austerity thinking and see the potential for government to do big things, like actually lead a democratic and inclusive response to the climate emergency at the speed and scale that science and justice require.”