Imagine the future: Australia in 2030, part 3

© Climate and Health Alliance 2021; Australia in 2030: Possible Alternative Futures

Scenario 1 No effective policy change

Head in the sand

Australia in 2030: Possible Alternative Futures 8

Scenario 1 No effective policy change

Same as it ever was

Disasters compounding having passed multiple tipping points

Litany She’ll be (not) right, mate

Metaphor Ignoring the elephants in the room

Motto Let her rip

A great upheaval, which had been percolating for many decades, peaks and implodes during the early ‘20’s in a perfect storm of political and social unrest.

This is a world less open, less prosperous and less free. After COVID-19 prompts leaders in many countries to assume emergency powers, a trend towards centralised, authoritarian rule grows in several regions. Right-wing nationalist-populist governments and parties now resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell riots and attacks on property. Armed conflict on a global scale increases as water and other resources come under growing pressure and the forced mass migration of climate refugees reinforces nationalism and heightens hostility.

We fail to plan

In Australia, we remain under-prepared for inevitable extreme weather events, choosing badly managed adaptation responses under crisis rather than enacting sound strategies to drastically cut emissions and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. There is a short period during COVID-19 where decisions are evidence-based and strongly guided by science, but we soon fall back to discrediting, ignoring or censoring scientists and any expert who contradicts populist government rule.

Many Australians feel helpless in the face of constant trauma through skyrocketing unemployment, geopolitical relationship collapse, trade wars, health crises, cyber attacks and a rolling cascade of extreme climate disasters. We live in a permanent state of anxiety.

Trust in government is broken. Locked into positions of denial and obfuscation, our political leaders steadfastly refused to lift their gaze and develop a strategic long-term approach or even pretend to plan for any policy scenarios beyond their political terms.

We make the wrong choices

Instead, a series of reactive stimulus measures are directed at industries like weapons manufacturing, gas expansion, road-building and coal mining.

Opportunities to build new economic frameworks – around emerging industries not based on intensive land modification and with little water demand, such as bush food, local sustainable production, nature and culture-based tourism, arts, recycling, high-tech manufacturing along with the renewable energy revolution – are ignored. Government bets on the wrong horse by sinking billions into oil and gas, despite an irreversible plunge in demand for fossil fuels.

Business and industry entrepreneurs take advantage of revolutions in technology and renewable energy, stepping up to fill gaps such as energy efficiency in the built environment.

This is largely spurred by spiralling energy costs and solutions are not equally distributed. Low- income households without solar now spend 40-60% of their income on energy bills, unable to take advantage of plunging prices in battery storage and high-efficiency solar cells. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, high-income households who can afford solar and storage have almost zero energy bills.

We undermine our precious assets

Despite the huge impacts of climate extremes on ecosystems and people’s wellbeing, governments inexplicably persist with significant clearing of native vegetation, the poorly planned allocation of water and rolling back environmental protections starting with the EPBC Act amendments in 2020. Clean drinking water has become an increasingly precious resource due in part to an explosion in fracking activity. This is mostly concentrated away from east coast metropolitan areas and instead focuses around regional and remote lands including Indigenous lands, due to outcry from city dwellers.

Social fractures are exacerbated by the atmosphere of uncertainty. Differences in ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, ability and geography are weaponised into social and political divisions. This increased tribalism and polarisation is fed by algorithms on social media. Credible professional journalism continues to decline and Australians rely on social media for news, which is largely controlled by private vested interests.

There are some positive trajectories, such as communities providing solutions to environmental, and social challenges, e.g. there is a growing grassroots community movement of mutual aid and collectivism. However, current efforts and support at the ballot box for public expenditure on public good aren’t enough to combat the trend towards social fragmentation and division.

Overall, the country feels like it has retreated into a deeper state of self-interest.

The wealth gap has widened with worsening of inequitable structures, such as the casualisation of the workforce and unstable employment relations. Those in top tier income brackets benefit from tax cuts, and corporate influence grows.

Meanwhile, vulnerable Australians fall further behind, leading to increased competition for public goods. In the economic devastation that followed the pandemic, rates of homelessness rose with informal communities growing in caravan parks on the outskirts of our cities. Fewer children complete high school education, with tertiary education increasingly accessible only to the rich.

We fail to invest in our health

Once the envy of many developed countries, our public health system is now in disarray. Despite a clear need highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, governments fail to reform healthcare.

Demand for some services such as mental health support soar, while services like telehealth are hobbled by slow internet capacity. Health outcomes, particularly for vulnerable remote and rural communities, fall further behind.

The life expectancy of First Nations people drops in parallel with higher rates of unemployment and incarceration.

Practitioners must ration prescriptions as a series of extreme weather events interrupt global supply chains, leading to shortages of basic medicines like antibiotics and blood pressure medications and critical anti-cancer drugs. The decade witnesses a mass decline in healthcare worker numbers, as older retiring professionals leaving the sector greatly outnumber graduates entering it.

Our future does not look any brighter.

We see further ecosystem loss.

Though all Australian states and a growing number of businesses, including some major energy and fossil fuel companies openly support a 2040 net zero emissions target, national policies remain weak and we fail to meet 2030 targets. Not even further loss of vast areas of the Great Barrier Reef can motivate meaningful action to lessen future impacts. Instead we see public investment into building sea walls and technology-based solutions to protect coastal property and buildings along ‘high value’ coastlines despite being impacted by sea level rise. Inundated coastal areas without financial resources to adapt, such as in the Torres Strait, are simply abandoned.

While many other economies respond to COVID-19 and transition, we fail to adapt. Many of Australia’s traditional trading partners slip away. Markets for beef, dairy and wheat exports to South Korea,

Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia all decline as eating habits change while markets for our coal and agricultural products disappear when the EU introduces border tariffs for carbon intensive goods. Once a regional poster-child for trade,

Australia is now seen as a poorer relative, failing to rise to many 21st century challenges.

We miss opportunities

Our opportunities to use the COVID-19 crisis to protect health through acting on climate change is wasted. The health outcomes of the community continue to decline, as preventable chronic illness, and climate-related health impacts, worsen.

Scenario 1 No change Case Study

A day in the life of Cara Lowenstein, urban Gen Z data broker, Norwood, SA

Cara’s 7G wearable smartphone sends a vibration up her arm to indicate an email has arrived. She lies in bed, half awake at 10am, not feeling any rush to rise. It is her day off from her job in data privacy, but the apathy in this 25 year old Kaurna woman

is more deeply rooted: Her life is definitely not going to plan.

A student during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cara has never really known a life of carefree abandon. Her parents were both made permanently redundant

in the Upheaval which began in 2020. It took many years for each of them to find work.

Those days, the Federal Government was too busy fighting for its political survival to notice people

fighting for their actual survival. Rebellion sprang up from every quarter as opposition and factions within their own party railed at ongoing policy failures, plummeting approval ratings, skyrocketing unemployment and failure to deliver any long term planning. Political leaders used the second pandemic once again to point score against leaders of other parties, rather than come together to solve challenges for the common good. Despite the OECD stating in 2020 that ‘authorities should…consider further investment in energy efficiency improvements’, this did not occur, with federal leaders firmly entrenched in a ‘gas and fossil fuel led’ recovery. A recovery that never eventuated, as global fossil fuel demand had already peaked – and unemployment continued to rise, peaking at 12% in 2022.

The Australia of Cara’s early adulthood is less open, less liberal, with fewer options and more difficult choices. Her parents are naturally worried; both were diagnosed with Corona Melancholia after ongoing pandemic fallout (many who were young and seemingly invincible in 2020 continue to suffer chronic health impacts a decade later).

Cara herself struggles with anxiety. Despite her job she can never see herself affording her own home. Though she’s fortunate to earn a good income, Cara is well aware the divide between rich and poor grows. She gets non-stop requests from charities to donate and supports several, though wonders if it really helps. And while her own industry – data privacy – is exploding with opportunity, Cara is unsure she wants what this portends.

With the erosion of trust that began last decade, and the rapid rise in remote working and online shopping during the pandemic, privacy and data protection laws were ramped up. CPO’s or Chief Privacy Officers are now commonplace in businesses.

The ‘right to be forgotten’ – the erasure of a person’s data at their own request – is now law in Australia and many countries worldwide. But as regulations and protections tighten, so too, does activity from those who seek to undermine them. Cyber crime is rampant, posing a serious and evolving threat to Australian individuals, businesses and governments. Privacy penetrating technology is the new arms race. Cara knows her job security relies on her employer’s track record for protecting privacy. But this reputation could so easily disappear with just one big, widespread hack. And at that point, there’ll be nothing that either Cara, or the healthcare system she works to defend, can do about it.

Scenario 1 No change Case Study

A day in the life of Malcolm Tingwell, Butcher and volunteer fire fighter, Narrabri, NSW

“That’s all today, thanks Malcolm.” The elderly customer digs into her handbag for payment. Evie’s fingers automatically sweep for coins until she reminds herself there won’t be any actual coins in there. Anyway, the chip built into her purse is easier to use than the coins or notes she once had, to pay for goods.

On the other side of the counter, Malcolm smiles and holds forth the RetailReader, as Evie places a finger on her purse scanner pad to authorise

payment. The butcher knows his customer would rather have purchased a better quality meat than sausages, but sausages are all she (and many customers) can now afford.

Malcolm actually thought long and hard before deciding to rebuild his business. After all, the bushfires had wiped out almost all of Narrabri in 2023; and many of those who survived never came back. And here he was, re-opening a butcher shop that needed lots of meat eating customers in an only partly rebuilt town. What was he thinking?

The evacuation order had come in the middle of the night. Malcolm was away fighting fires with the RFS on a different front, closer to Armidale. But Cheryl Tingwell was home and one of the more prepared locals, having packed their valuables some days ago. She could hardly ignore the signs: Her husband Malcolm coming home exhausted after a week away at a time, getting more nervous as the lines seemed to be moving rapidly closer to their town. It felt like the whole of NSW was ablaze.

That night, raging fire fronts swept in from both east and west. They’d already lost all of Mount Kaputar National Park and the Observatory telescope outside town but it seemed to be moving away from population centres. Then the wind shifted again, and the centre of Narrabri was suddenly in its path. Malcolm’s hands tremble when he remembers what was lost.

As a local butcher born and raised in the region, Malcolm’s family had deep connections to the region. Many mates worked for the local coal mine and the coal seam gas field that opened at the start of the decade. Backed by a Federal Government that steadfastly refused to follow the world transition to strong, new economies off the back of green industries, continued fossil fuel mining brought jobs – but it savagely divided the town. At odds with climate concerned locals, Malcolm and his mates had decried warnings that climate change was supercharging extreme weather events in Australia. They’d had floods, fires and even a cyclone around Narrabri before. Nah – this was just part of rural living.

After this megafire, he was no longer so sure.

Months after using his life savings to rebuild the shop, (as insurance companies had stopped covering catastrophic weather events long ago, unable to afford underwriting the risk), business remains slow. Malcolm can’t help wondering if he hasn’t made the same mistake as his government in failing to acknowledge the inevitable. Added to that, his lungs are shot. Malcolm jokes he’s never smoked a day in his life, but he knows many people have ongoing respiratory health issues from working in the coalmines and from exposure to smoke from the fires. He hasn’t told his wife but he’s not sure how much longer he can run the butchery.


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