Climate change Australia
(Image: AAP/Darren Pateman)

Sorry. If you believe COVID-19 will change everything, that Australia will “bounce forward” and begin a new era of sustainability, you’re indulging in magical thinking.

The momentum for climate action after the Black Summer bushfires has been trampled by coronavirus, and the economic downturn will ensure it doesn’t get back up.

How do I know this? Because we’ve been here before.

The last time there was a concerted public push for climate action in Australia was 2006. The millennium drought produced the driest year on record for many parts of the country.

Then 82% of Australians were concerned about global warming; 67% thought that if we didn’t act immediately it would be too late. Only 13% thought climate fears were overstated.

But then the drought broke, we had the global financial crisis and were subjected to a $22 million campaign by the Minerals Council of Australia — backed by the Liberal Party and some media — to stop the mining super tax.

That campaign perpetuated the big zombie lies that can’t be killed: only mining can sustain the Australian way of life and create jobs.

It cost then-prime minister Kevin Rudd his place in The Lodge and ensured no politicians would seriously challenge mining profits again.

By 2013 only 40% of Australians thought we had to act immediately and a whopping 33% thought climate risks were exaggerated.

Now look at today.

Under the cover of COVID-19, while parliaments were not sitting, we’ve seen coal and gas run rings around checks and balances. This includes a coal mine under Sydney’s drinking water, a multimillion-dollar relief package for miners, more than 7000 square kilometres being opened to gas exploration in Queensland, and the moratorium on onshore gas exploration in Victoria being lifted.

Exemptions were given to mines to keep operating while most businesses were forced to close, despite concerns about fly-in-fly-out workers spreading coronavirus to remote communities.

The federal National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission is stacked with fossil-fuel executives, and an oil and gas baron is leading the Northern Territory’s Economic Reconstruction Commission.

And the public campaigns to protect fossil-fuel interests are going gangbusters.

Companies have used the pandemic as an opportunity to boost their credentials as good corporate citizens and humanise their trade, even as their activities damage our climate and the right to a safe future.

The Adani group has a social media campaign #PortsOfProsperity, which talks about how it has kept working so #GoodnessNeverStops. BHP and Rio Tinto have promoted their donations to communities because we’re #InThisTogether.

Head of the Queensland Resources Council Ian Macfarlane had a joint press conference with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in which he was lavishly praised for his organisation donating laptops to secondary schools.

Running concurrently is the campaign for tax breaks, a reduction in environmental rules, taxpayer-funded “incentives” for exploration and “flexible” workplaces.

No, state and federal governments will not learn the lesson of the Black Summer bushfires, which, including deaths caused by bushfire smoke, killed 484 people — more than the number of Australians who died in combat during the Vietnam War.

The biggest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The public will refocus on immediate back pocket concerns, the fossil-fuel lobby will prevail in public policy, and the greenhouse gases will keep heating our atmosphere.

It’s up to ethical individuals and organisations to redouble their efforts to try to stop history repeating itself.

Belinda Noble is the founder of BeNoble Communications and the co-founder of Communicators Declare

Peter Fray

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