opinion

Right now, while we're distracted, our government is setting us up for environmental disaster.

While more than 14 million Australians across three states ride lockdowns, and all eyes are on the botched vaccine rollout, there's another disaster unfolding.

Eventually, one day, COVID-19 will no longer control our lives. But by then, it could be too late to reverse the damage our government is trying to wreak on our environment. 

Right now there are two plights underway that urgently need our attention. 

The first is Australia's opposition to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee pushing ahead with plans to classify the Great Barrier Reef, one of our biggest tourist attractions, as an endangered natural site.

It points the finger at global warming and our government's inaction on climate change, with the long-term outlook for the Queensland attraction being downgraded in the UNESCO draft from "poor" to "very poor."

Watch: In early 2020, David Attenborough delivered this sobering warning. Post continues after video.


Video via BBC.

The director and president of the upcoming meeting that will decide the final fate of the reef, is China's Vice Minister of Education Tian Xuejun. Thanks to our country's current tensions with China, the Morrison government is accusing the country of having political motives, claiming they were "blindsighted" by UNESCO's proposal.

But as ABC's Media Watch has already debunked, that's just not true. UNESCO has held grave concerns about the status and outlook of the Great Barrier Reef for more than a decade. In 2015 they tried to encourage urgent action, but thanks to the Abbott government's fierce resistance the calls were pushed to the side. The same happened in 2017.

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As UNESCO's Dr Fanny Douvere told 7:30, "this draft decision is a technical, objective evaluation of the state of the reef. It's based on the best available science. That science has been very clear for many years. With just three consecutive bleachings in less than five years, water quality targets that have not been met, it's simply irrevocably clear."

In an open letter to UNESCO, world-renowned scientists further endorse the in-danger warning.

But it's not just our government's selfish desire to downplay the dangers facing the reef for short-term economical gain. 

Our freshly re-appointed Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is doing his best to undermine a 2050 target of zero carbon emissions for Australia. And as journalist Lisa Wilkinson ironically pointed out on Twitter - he's doing so in front of a literal backdrop of scorched bushland.

Australia is already embarrassingly behind the rest of the world when it comes to emissions targets. In fact, we rank last for climate action among 193 UN member countries.

The Sustainable Development Report 2021 shows Australia received a score of just 10 out of 100 in an assessment of fossil fuel emissions, emissions associated with imports and exports, and policies for pricing carbon.

But while Scott Morrison has tried to placate the criticism with claims to get to net-zero emissions "as soon as possible," his deputy, Joyce, has likened the policy decision to ordering an un-costed meal in a restaurant, as he and his climate denial return to the second most important job in the country. 

“Until you lay down a plan, and show us the costs, you haven’t arrived at a point of consideration," he told Insiders on the weekend, while telling the Australian Financial Review there was "zero" chance of the party room supporting the net zero committment ahead of the Glasgow climate summit in November.

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The cost?

If the current trajectory of global emissions is maintained, the economic cost of climate change for Australia alone will total at least $1.89 trillion by 2050.

But it's not just money that we'll lose. We face challenges beyond our wildest imaginations; more frequent and intense droughts, storms, heat waves, rising sea levels and warming oceans that will destroy the places we live and the communities we know. 

It's hard to care about other catastrophes when we're already fighting one. We're exhausted. It feels impossible to think bigger picture right now. 

But as the pandemics before it, the stranglehold COVID-19 has on us will one day be behind us. Environmental ruin, however, is not something we can simply innoculate with a vaccine. 

It looks likely UNESCO will not pander to Australia's fierce lobbying this time. But these two plights represent a larger sway - a desire by our government not to prioritise our environmental future. 

We need to maintain the defiance that saw us pour onto the streets in protest before COVID took over, even if we don't have the energy. Because unfortunately, while we're distracted, our government is undermining environmental experts' attempts to salvage global outlooks.

This isn't a news story we can just tune out of. We simply can't afford too.

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Feature image: Sam Mooy/Getty/Zhang Xinglong/China News Service/Mamamia.

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