The cost of action, inaction and experts?

Australia's Black Summer and its response to Covid-19 show stark contrasts in the costs of not listening to the experts.

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For many of us 2020 will be one of those years we wished we could forget, in Australia our famed summer was overwhelmed by one of the worst bushfire seasons on record, then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Australia completely. Both of these events have been nothing short of unprecedented in the effects on people, the economy and our collective psyche but these events have each been handled very differently policy-wise.

Earth day 2020 arrives to remind us that, still, an even greater threat awaits us Homo sapiens, climate change. Latest modelling and reporting continue to paint a stark picture for the planet with nations being urged to keep warming below 1.5 °C [1]. To change course nation’s like Australia which has one of the highest CO2 emission per capita and the third largest exporter of coal in the world require a major shift in policy [2].

So how does policy tie the bushfires, COVID-19 and Earth day together you may well ask? Well in Australia the case of the bushfires and by extension climate change the question is “what is the cost of action?” but with COVID-19 the question quickly became “what is the cost of inaction?” and overall what is the cost of ignoring the experts?

Action

To address the economic cost of COVID-19 the Australian Government and the Reserve Bank has provided over $300 billion in economic stimulus [3]. This stimulus is to ensure businesses can remain open and adapt as needed, for workers to re-skill and up-skill at universities, to support jobs in an economy that has had to rapidly change. It is also the largest stimulus package to ever be released by the Australian Government outstripping the stimulus provided during the 2008 global financial crisis by far. It is also a stimulus that will drive the Federal Budget into further debt for years to come, something that would never have been contemplated as an option to address climate change. This is the cost of action. This is the cost of listening to the experts and one that the Australian Government should be congratulated in their willingness to pay.

Inaction

What the Australian Government’s (and indeed other governments around the world) response to COVID-19 shows is that there is a point where the economic cost has to be paid for the health and safety of the people and even more catastrophic economic costs. Black Summer was a tragedy in Australia and one that was by one economist as far back as 2008 [4] but it will not be the only effect of Climate Change. The Great Barrier Reef is facing its worse coral bleaching on record [5] which will affect Australia’s tourism industry and fisheries industry. Longer and more severe droughts will affect Australia’s agriculture and food production [6]. These are the costs of inaction on climate change, these are the costs of inaction.  

The experts?

If our recent election here in Australia has taught us anything it is that action on climate change always comes down to the question of “what is cost of action to jobs and the economy?”. Rarely do we ask the question “what is the cost of inaction?” or as I like to think of it, “what is the cost of ignoring the experts?” 

Unfortunately, the cost of ignoring the experts has become all too devastatingly clear recently. The summer of 2019-20 will be known as the Black Summer in Australia. Where 33 lives were lost in bushfires, over 17 million hectares burned, 3,094 homes were destroyed [7] and smoked stretched the width of the Pacific reaching South America. Along with the direct costs of the fires there are also the indirect costs. An analysis in the Medical Journal of Australia indicates that 417 additional, smoke-related deaths occurred, along with 4000+ hospitalisations [8]. The cost of the recovery, while still too early to be completely accurate, is anticipated to reach $100 billion (about $70 billion USD) when the costs of recovery and damage to the economy are accounted for [9].

It is clear from these figures that there is a real human and economic cost to just one of the anticipated effects of climate change. This is the cost of ignoring the experts.

But what happens when we listen to the experts? The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has provided some unfortunately dreadful examples of what can happen when you do or do not listen to the experts. There are stark contrasts between countries whose governments acted early on the advice of medical experts compared to those that did not. The difference has been a death toll of hundreds to a death toll of tens of thousands. In Australia we have been lucky in that the government has followed and continues to head the advice of medical experts in its policy decisions. This compares dramatically to policy makers who did not act quickly brushing COVID-19 off as “just another flu”. Such comparisons can give us an idea of the costs of ignoring the experts and not ignoring the experts.


  1.  “Global Warming of 1.5 °C” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018
  2.  “High Carbon from a Land Down Under: Quantifying CO2 from Australia’s fossil fuel mining and exports” Tom Swann, The Australia Institute, July 2019
  3.  “$130 billion jobkeeper payment to keep Australians in a job” Prime Minister of Australia, 30 March 2020
  4.  “The Garnaut Climate Change Review” Ross Garnaut, September 2008
  5.  “We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy” T. Hughes & M. Pratchett, The Conversation, April 2020.
  6.  “Crop yields and global food security: will yield increase to continue to feed the world?” T. Fischer, D. Byerlee & G. Edmeades, Grains Research & Development Corporation, 2014
  7.  “2019-20 Australian Bushfires - frequently asked questions: A Quick Guide” L. Richards, N. Brew & L. Smith, Parliamentary Library, March 2020
  8.  “Unprecedented smoke-related health burden associated with the 2019-20 bushfires in eastern Australia” N. B. Arriagada et. Al, The Medical Journal of Australia, March 2020
  9.  “With costs approaching $100 billion, the fires are Australia’s costliest natural disaster” P. Read & R. Denniss, The Conversation, January 2020
Go to the profile of Peter Derbyshire

Peter Derbyshire

Policy & Projects Manager, Science & Technology Australia

The opinions published on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Science & Technology Australia

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