© Climate and Health Alliance 2021; Australia in 2030: Possible Alternative Futures
Scenario 2: Marginal and insufficient change.
It’s getting awfully hot in here. The uncomfortable truth of failure to act.
Litany Maybe later
Metaphor Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
Motto What about me?
As we dust ourselves off from the storm of COVID-19 impacts of the early 20’s, there are signs we’ve learned some invaluable lessons. These prove short-lived.
We think and act short term.
While a COVID vaccine saves many lives, it also provides an excuse for many to return to ‘normal’, some even feeling the need ‘to make up for lost time’ by diving into hyper-consumerism. Advances in social policy during the pandemic are not maintained despite evidence that the next health crisis lies just around the corner. Promising policy proposals suffer lack of consultation and backlash from vested interests and this soon stymies progress. Just as widely happened post GFC, we fall into the trap of once again opting for short-term relief.
Failing to imagine the opportunity, innovation and optimism available from a brave new approach and staying the course, government and business retain a GDP-centric economic model that assumes markets will eventually solve everything. Our leaders cannot accept we need to fundamentally change to survive.
Equity, and security, suffer.
Policies to address systemic failures, such as increased support to combat unemployment, are trialled, but continues to disadvantage Indigenous people and women. Despite a stronger social movement for tackling inequity there is no meaningful policy response. Growing rural communities are increasingly disadvantaged by insufficient access to jobs, education and health services. Many issues, from civil liberty violations and corruption to housing affordability, remain major concerns, deepening divides in our cities. Protests and demonstrations increase. Outbreaks of violence spark fears Australia will follow US patterns of civil unrest.
Technology introduces many advances – and some unforeseen outcomes. Driverless vehicles are now widely used across a range of industries and robots commonly perform house cleaning and home security in wealthier households. AI has advanced diagnostics and targeted treatment for many chronic illnesses (even though this unexpectedly undermined campaigns promoting healthy behaviour). But access is unequal and serves only wealthier urban Australians.
In many ways we all feel worse off through a now entrenched loss of trust in governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations and the media. Unless this can be restored, it will remain near impossible to build consensus and address many of the challenges we now face.
It feels like groundhog day.
We remain exposed.
Extreme weather events are inconsistently managed with weak attempts at risk prevention. Without systemic change, we remain exposed to the catastrophic impacts of intensifying fires, floods and droughts. Health and social impacts are more common as a result. Our ecological systems continue to decline. The only regions to be listed under new conservation agreements are in remote areas with extremely harsh conditions such as poor soils, steep gradients or swamplands and therefore offering no value to industry for development.
Many of our wild places may never recover.
While the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament gathers emphatic support, Australia continues to fall short in addressing Indigenous disadvantage and empowerment across all areas.
We continue to ignore the lessons and insights from our Indigenous people when it comes to management of land, fires, our waterways and the sea.
At an individual level, we see a sense of entitlement and expanding consumerism nurtured in part by anxiety around an uncertain future. But there is also a growing movement towards vegetarianism and ethical, low-impact consumerism. Despite demand, local production does not keep up, limiting the expansion of an ethical and sustainable food system. Prolonged droughts impact many of Australia’s food bowls, driving up food prices, and contributing to obesity and chronic health conditions among those on lower incomes as they are forced to rely on cheaper, processed, unhealthy foods.
We innovate, but too slowly.
Local cooperatives form to address market failures in low carbon and greentech industries and to provide stable and ethical employment. Unions increasingly direct their super funds to invest in small manufacturing projects, such as plastics recycling, organic farming, and community renewable energy projects, and there is small but steady growth in jobs in these initiatives. But the pace of change is slow and unequally distributed, and lacks support from state and federal governments.
Online learning is now more interactive and many classes now cater for hundreds of students, with less time at school for high school students, and university students accessing 50% of all lectures and tutorials online. Despite ethical concerns, limited safeguards and regulations manage tech companies, leading to privacy violations through widespread surveillance and data mining.
Meanwhile, the prognosis for human health has, in many ways, stagnated. Latest reports suggest that without dramatic intervention, future generations are likely to experience shorter lives, with higher rates of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and mental ill-health than those alive today.
A surge in demand for mental health services in the early 20’s is partly mitigated through investment in services but healthcare financing and delivery does not substantively change through the decade. Though a wider range of practitioners are now funded under the Medicare Benefits Scheme for primary healthcare services (including nurse practitioners, midwives and chiropractors), tertiary health systems still focus on short-term responses and symptoms instead of causes. There is little acknowledgement of the social, cultural or ecological determinants of health as the National Preventive Health Strategy maintains its narrow focus on alcohol, obesity and cancer and does not recognise climate change as a health threat.
We are governed by vested interests.
The National Climate Action Summit in 2024 saw many solid commitments to climate action from many sectors, including healthcare, tourism, urban development, and agriculture, as well as local government. But fossil fuel lobbying stifles our real potential for a prosperous, green economy. Deeply influenced the fossil fuel lobby and corporate interests, the Federal Government locks into emissions growth by prioritising gas and coal, largely for export. Our continued reliance on fossil fuels leaves us poorly positioned in the transition to net zero carbon by 2050, compared to the rest of the world. The Federal Government is unable to pass or implement legislation to cut carbon emissions within critical timeframes.
Some initial investment in a green recovery is made but the transition, mismanaged and market-led, leaves those without adequate resources or incentives behind. For example, while there is a rise in the number of people driving electric cars, it remains unaffordable for most Australians.
We are left behind.
While a cohort of business leaders remain determined to lead the decarbonisation charge and stay globally competitive, emerging industries like carbon farming and best practice agriculture are not supported, stunting their profitability and growth.
Australia is cast adrift from the green growth of Europe and other economies, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to external shocks.
Scenario 2 Marginal Case Study
A day in the life of Esther Widjaja, a Yanyuwa girl, NT
Esther is walking to the arts centre from home, carrying a special book under her arm. It is searingly hot already and only 9am on a Saturday in July. Dry seasons are now routinely dangerous – temperatures used to be a maximum of 34°C back in 2010 when Esther’s mother was a girl. Just after Esther was born, the temperature reached 44°C and the tiny infant nearly died. These days it gets so hot that many people are dying.
Though Esther doesn’t yet realise the implications of her government’s failed policies to drastically curb carbon emissions, there are no climate solutions in sight. Her country’s stubborn reliance on fossil fuels will only help things get worse.
Esther passes the health centre where her mum works, to see the long queue already lined up in the shade. While telehealth promised to ease some of the burden on health centres, the use of video consultations is still not enough to meet the healthcare needs of the community. Many still lack access to technology to take advantage of the services available. This community, like many others, embraced telehealth services, especially when they were better funded during COVID-19, but since then, funding has fallen away, and poor internet quality limits widespread access to these services.
Esther passes the river next. Here, once healthy populations of fish have dwindled with the trend for warmer, more acidic waters, as well as rising sea levels, more intense cyclones and changed oceanographic conditions. This drop in fish levels combined with the rise in dust pollution and intolerable heat much of the year.
All of this threatens the tourism industry which forms a lifeline for the town’s economy.
That leaves the McArthur River zinc and lead mine 60kms away, as an income source for locals. Yet they are torn, as the mine also poisons the land with fires producing toxic smoke, and lead and cadmium seepage making dugongs and many fish unsafe to eat. Esther’s schoolteacher says you cannot drink the water any more either because of fracking. It turns water into poison. Environmental regulations continue to overlook all the evidence.
Ecosystem decline is not an issue unique to Esther’s community. Forced migration aka ‘walking off country’ due to intolerable heat, and declining food sources are becoming common in Australia. Governments are widely criticised by their constituents, accused of willfully ignoring the responsibility they hold towards ecosystem health. Local activist groups have become common in localised areas, one of their tactics being to intentionally contaminate land and waterways, isolating communities and cutting access to resources, in order to stir further civil unrest. Resource scarcity is an everyday occurrence.
Esther arrives at the now abandoned Art Centre and sits in a shady spot, then carefully opens her book. Esther is really smart in school. She loves to read and she’s very good at maths too. But her great passion is science. This is a book about crocodiles. When she grows up, Esther wants to be a scientist so she can help the crocodiles to come back.
Scenario 2 Marginal Case Study
A day in the life of Ramesh Khatri, 28 year old policy adviser working for a Federal Minister in Canberra
“I’m sorry I have to cancel.” Ramesh’s voice reveals little, but inside he feels the familiar swirl of cortisol that will flush away most of his exhaustion, at least, for the short term. Ramesh had been en route to brunch with a friend when the e-message came through from the Minister’s office: ‘Get here quick PFO’.
PFO stood for ‘Policy Fall Out’. “Oh boy, here we go,” sighed Ramesh as he dialled the friend he would once again stand up.
It was the middle of the week and a Time Off In Lieu day in exchange for an estimated 100 hours of overtime accumulated in just the past month. Working conditions have improved little over the past decade. Anyway, the life of an Adviser to the Minister was always going to be like that. Ministers always come first.
He knew that this one would be bad, too. Having gone public 72 hours ago with an ambitious new plan for a national health promotion strategy, creating thousands of jobs, and, there was great initial excitement at the positive health outcomes, as well as the economic boost this would bring. If endorsed, it would create 60,000 jobs, and save 30,000 lives over the next decade.
Eighteen months of tireless work had gone into the proposal. Consultation with health and medical professional groups, industry bodies, researchers and the community. Extensive rewrites after negotiations with social services, unions, and consumer groups. And a full breakdown of the economic implications. Ramesh was not comfortable with the fact that the Minister for Ageing wasn’t included in discussions, but he knew the Minister’s reputation for point scoring risked derailing the plan before it saw the light of day. That was why his Minister had chosen to shore up support and ringfence any detractors before going public. It was a risky strategy, for sure, but politics was a risky space.
Maybe this morning’s panicked message was the result of that? The health budget was consistently attacked by the right wing media who have opposed any increases in health spending since the COVID-19 pandemic. That, along with unemployment and immigration were topics guaranteed to fuel yet another media storm.
Ramesh knew the drill: Great policy is announced. Political egos are bruised. Opponents grab hold and pour petrol on it. And before you know, there are protests once again in the streets. Outrage erupts. Cries that key people were not consulted at all during the process, mingled with ‘the economy will suffer’ stories as a result of the new policy. Attempts to sweeten or soften the deal by the Minister responsible. And then a retraction, back to business as usual. And the Minister’s office retreats, licking its wounds. No wonder so few truly transformative policy ideas were even imagined these days, let alone pursued.
He picked up the pace as he neared his office. It was going to be another very long day.