Corona and Climate: The Pandemic Has Changed Everything and Nothing

As the ash has settled and a nation bunkers down, Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter reflects on the shift in social conscience and the growing challenge to political corruption and inaction.

Photo by Thomas Griesbeck, via Unsplash

Standing quietly one morning under the mature Queensland brush box tree (Lophostemon confertus) that grows, wildly out of scale, in the back corner of our tiny inner city courtyard, I’m joined from nowhere by a pied currawong (Strepera graculina) who looks at me, steadfastly, from its target-like eye.

With oafish anthropomorphism, I say good morning to the bird. The pied currawong continues to stare studiously, moving only slightly, assessing, I suppose, whether this loud and brightly clad biped represents an immediate threat, or perhaps a source of food.

It is just another uncanny midweek morning in inner western Sydney suburbia, in a year that already feels a decade old. We live under an air route that is now empty of planes, the flight path becoming quickly grown over with clean sky. And like countless others around Australia under pandemic lockdown, I’m working from home today.

I feel a surge of gratitude for privilege and I want to share my appreciation of good fortune with the currawong but do so only silently. I’m grateful to be in employment, I now think in silent secular prayer, and I am thankful for the closeness of wife and daughters whom I not only love but deeply enjoy being with; for friends and neighbours and a society that is holding up; for utilities that work, for food and drink that is healthy and available; and for peace.

So much has been revealed this year.

“The chickens of climate inaction had come home to a foul and bitter roost.”

More than seventeen million hectares of green was turned to black: that’s an area greater than the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Slovenia combined, or more than five times the size of Taiwan, or more than 16 times the size of Lebanon. In North Queensland, the third great bleaching of our Great Barrier Reef was the most extensive yet, erasing the brilliant colours of the coral into a dull white. On land and sea, so much colour and life are gone, killed by conditions of planetary heating, created by people primarily by burning coal, oil and gas and through cutting down trees. The chickens of climate inaction had come home to a foul and bitter roost.

In Australia, we have all of the resources, policy solutions and technology fixes that we need to make the rapid shift to the safety and security of abundant clean energy. It is a move that would also be immensely popular, as a very large majority of adult Australians want effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And one can only presume the margin would be even greater among the kids who will inherit the mess.

What has held Australia back is a malign complex of vested interests; the fossil fuel order, ‘game of mates’, united in the exercise of dirty power, twisting our democracy away from the common good.

Politicians may crave the sugary rewards of short-term political advantage but the distant eternal eye of the laws of physics and chemistry stare straight through the venal sophistry of petty humanity. The only choice remaining to the death cult defenders of the fossil fuel industries is to deny truth itself, an option that many have taken like their Qantas chairman’s lounge admission depends on it.

“In the era of neoliberalism, we have been force-fed the slow poisonous untruth that people are selfish self-maximisers… owing nothing to anyone.[…] It was never true, and the fires burned away those lies for any who were looking. Volunteer firefighters turned out with no thought of reward; […] people cared for one another and for animals too, rescuing, hugging, sharing, baking, witnessing, taking in and giving comfort.”

So, this spring and summer, even as the fires raged and the seas heated, there was a sustained effort by powerful forces to minimise the role played by climate change in creating the conditions for the disaster. It was the fossil fuel order’s response to their Chernobyl moment. Disinformation was politically weaponised by certain politicians, amplified by a gallery of pundits and systematically disseminated via social media, to spread falsehoods and shift culpability away from the coal, oil and gas industries. The regime was shaken but held for now.

Meanwhile, in umpteen stricken country towns, flaming valleys and day-dark backroads, and around the kitchen tables in the cities, we Australians remembered ourselves. That we are a society of people, held together by common bonds of land and sea, road and sky, kinship and friendship, communality, interdependence and fate.

In the era of neoliberalism, we have been force-fed the slow poisonous untruth that people are selfish self-maximisers, aspiring homo economicus, worth no more than our use-value and our contribution to the gross domestic product, and only as good as our own efforts in self-marketing, owing nothing to anyone, unless by dint of binding contract or as part of a communications strategy. It was never true, and the fires burned away those lies for any who were looking. Volunteer firefighters turned out with no thought of reward; professional first responders were on the frontlines of danger out of vocation; people cared for one another and for animals too, rescuing, hugging, sharing, baking, witnessing, taking in and giving comfort. The piggy banks of Australia were put to the hammer as we searched our souls and found charity.

The skies went brown and grey in the cities for days on end. Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra all took a turn at being the most polluted city on earth, as the ultra-toxic smoke choked us, contributing to the deaths of more than 400 people. Then the rains came and the last of the fires was put out. And then, just a few weeks later COVID-19 arrived, bringing our cities to a screeching halt. We looked up and long-hidden stars re-emerged, and from their immeasurable distance across the void, asked twinkling questions of where next for the human race. All life on earth is now watching, with the acute orb of a currawong. What will we do?

“Why won’t Australia respond to the climate emergency the same way we have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis?”

Every rational-minded observer asks the obvious question. Why won’t Australia respond to the climate emergency, the same way we have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis? The Morrison Government listened to the scientific and medical experts and acted prudently, in the common good, to halt the pandemic. Can we just have the same again for the climate emergency, please?

The answer is a tantalising maybe.

First, the inertia. The science writer Ketan Joshi has observed that while it may feel as if the Pandemic has changed everything, the brute facts of institutional corruption remain unaltered: “The first point is that the same people are in power, and they exist within the same power structures. … There has been no alteration to the bonds of kinship that form a glistening web between fossil fuel executives, industry lobby groups, conservative journalists and politicians in major parties. These people are still in each other’s phone books.  The second reason is that there is a pre-existing, bespoke rhetorical assumption Australia’s fossil fuel industry can easily slip into. … the largely-unquestioned mythology of economic prowess.”

And so it is that oil-and-gas-man Nev Power is handpicked by the prime minister to lead the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, his appointment threatening to the cruel hopes of a new clean energy beginning. The same people. The same power structures.

Yet there is also an unruly momentum that is building because of what we have collectively lived through. The recent visceral mass shared experience of Australians is now that of extreme climate damage – with almost 80% of us impacted by the fires – the importance of our social bonds were revealed in extremis, so too was the generative ability of government when the public good was made paramount. We know what we must avoid; we have seen afresh what is possible; we know what must be done.

So, the contest is on. The abiding metastasis of lies and vested interests that hold the nation to tortured ransom versus the democratic spirit, and the twinned beauty of sober truth and abiding hope; charged with the renewed energy of our shared recent history and driven always by the open possibilities of the deep future.

This article is part of our Corona and Climate Series, an ongoing collection of opinion pieces from leading experts in the SEI community. In a time of intersecting planetary crises, this series analyses the parallels between ecological and epidemiological crisis, focussing on questions of resilience, adaptation and justice on local and global scales.


Watch Greenpeace’s latest documentary Dirty Power: Burnt Country, an analysis that exposes how the fossil fuel industry, News Corp, and the Australian Federal Government hijacked the Black Summer bushfires to prevent action on climate change.

David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. He has been with Greenpeace for nine years, campaigning to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all its amazing diversity. He is an affiliate of both the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.