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Why can’t we deal with climate change as urgently as COVID-19?

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that the world can act swiftly in a crisis. So, should that give us new hope in the fight against climate change? Nuala Hafner puts that question to ISC Patron Mary Robinson and ISC President Daya Reddy.
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3 June 2020. Share with the hashtag #GlobalSciTv on your social networks and subscribe via YouTube to receive the latest episodes.


Nuala Hafner: On this edition of Global Science. A global crisis requires a global response. The coronavirus pandemic has proven the world is capable of just that, but what about the climate crisis? Why haven’t we seen the same type of swift action?

Mary Robinson: One of the things that COVID-19 has taught us is that leadership matters because those who delayed for political reasons, for personal ambition reasons, will be cruelly exposed how they caused far more deaths.

Nuala Hafner: My guests are former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson and Daya Reddy, the President of the International Science Council. Also coming up: the case of the missing matter. We’ll get the inside story of how scientists cracked one of the universe’s greatest mysteries.

Mary Robinson: Oh, well that’s the $64,000 question. This is Global Science with Nula Hafner.

Nuala Hafner: Hello and welcome to our first episode, and there’s perhaps no better time to be launching a show called Global Science. We know that the world is focused on beating COVID-19 and that’s something that can’t happen without the best scientific advice. But of course it’s not the only crisis we’re facing. The unprecedented climate and environmental emergency also requires a universal and rapid response. So, can we expect our leaders to pay just as much attention to science as we emerge from this pandemic? To talk more about that, I’m joined from Cape Town by the President of the International Science Council, Daya Reddy, and from Dublin, a patron of the Council, Mary Robinson, who of course is also a former president of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Welcome to you both. You’ve jointly penned an op-ed where you write that COVID-19 is showing that people are ready to change their behaviour for the good of humanity. And yet Mary Robinson, this isn’t the same scale of behaviour change we’ve seen in relation to the fight against climate change. And I’m curious about that. Do you think it suggests that people still can’t accept that climate change poses a genuine threat to humanity?

Mary Robinson: I think that’s the case. People were not frightened. They were not, aware of an imminent danger in the way that everybody has become with the sudden, but very real dramatic threat of COVID-19 and people were prepared to collectively act on that. And that’s a wonderful lesson in the climate context because it is just human behaviour collectively that is protecting us from COVID-19. We have no vaccine, and if we didn’t comply with lockdown and with social distancing, washing our hands, all of that, then it would overwhelm health systems even more. And we’re protecting the vulnerable. We’re protecting health and care workers. I hope that we’re also realising that there is the threat of the climate crisis. We were just beginning but not enough to realise. And now I think we’re more thoughtful.

Nuala Hafner: Daya, what’s your view? Perhaps you could give us some insight into the level of global cooperation we’ve seen during the response to COVID-19.

Daya Reddy: Yes, absolutely. Here we have something happening in real time. The general public is seeing for itself what science advice is all about, and how the scientific community is engaging. Also, really, really important aspects of that process. Like the uncertainties. You know, it’s a little messy. It’s not absolutely clean and it’s really difficult within the scientific community, let alone then engaging with policy makers and the likes. So there is so much that we are witnessing that is, so relevant and so important to our efforts in combating climate change.

Nuala Hafner: With COVID-19 we’ve seen this general openness to and curiosity about science. There seems to be less tension and yet, Daya, the same can’t be said for climate science.

Daya Reddy: Yes. You know, maybe one could start by asking why is it so? Why is this the case with climate change? Well, look, there are many, many reasons for this, I think, but perhaps by way of example, there are a number of vested interests, industries and the like, um, in whose interests, in the short term anyway, would not be to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Let me also add at this point the role of the climate denials lobby, like anti-science movements, and pseudoscience movements. I would not underestimate their power as it were to influence particular politicians or the policymakers, who might in the first instance be receptive to such views anyway. That really does not help.

Nuala Hafner: Mary. On the one hand, we’ve seen that the world can act swiftly and that’s really inspiring when it comes to the fight against climate change. But on the other hand, these changes have brought about significant costs, particularly economic costs. Could that actually act as a deterrent in the fight against climate change?

Mary Robinson: The truth is we can’t go back to business as usual, because that was leading us to a catastrophe in a very short time. We were told by the scientists, by the intergovernmental panel on climate change in October, 2018 that we must reduce our carbon emissions by at least 45% by 2030. That’s less than 10 years away, and we were not on course. I remember being very depressed, to be honest, in January and as chair of the elders are not allowed to be depressed, we’ve got to bring hope. And I was finding it difficult, because I couldn’t see the preparations we were to be making for the COP 26, which was to take place in Glasgow. Obviously now it’s been postponed to next year, but I couldn’t see the ambition that was needed by countries, not any country to be honest. And so it was really beginning to be quite depressing and then COVID-19 hit.

Mary Robinson: And I think on top of all the things that Daya has been saying, think of the compassion. That’s a really important thing. The neighbourliness, the solidarity. It’s wrong to say that COVID-19 is a great leveller. It isn’t, it actually has exacerbated the inequalities. It’s made them even more evident. So we had a broken business as usual system that wasn’t going to get us to where we needed to be, and that was terribly unequal. Can we build back better in the language of the UN, and do so in a way that completely aligns with getting to zero carbon and zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. So every country needs to fully commit to that. Every city, every town, every, every business, every community, we have to have the whole of country and the whole of community on this. And it wouldn’t have happened without this kind of openness to empathy. It could go either way. Now, in fact, I’m seeing, for example, in China, which is coming out sooner because they dealt with COVID-19 in a Chinese way pretty effectively, but they’re actually building new coal plants. That’s not a good example. They’re leaders in wind and solar and electric vehicles. If they would only just, you know, go that way even more, and invest that way even more, because new coal plants is not the way forward.

Nuala Hafner: Daya, there’s no doubt that we have a really important opportunity right now. How important is what we do next?

Daya Reddy: It is extremely important for us to be aware that there is hope. That there are not only governments, but nongovernmental organisations, various types of organisations including in the private sector, who are taking this very, very seriously and are addressing the problem with the degree of urgency that had merits. One certainly hopes that countries around the world regions around and the world will take some steps. It brings me back to the whole business of cooperation, and if I may return to COVID-19 for just a moment. On the one hand, with regard to COVID-19, we have seen astonishing levels of cooperation within the scientific community. Scientific community, health workers and the like around the world are sharing knowledge through formal means and talking to each other, and really getting to grips with the problem. We have not seen similar levels of cooperation amongst governments. To some extent, it’s been beset by political and other considerations. Coming back to climate change. In addition to everything else, we are going to need those kinds of levels of cooperation across regions into governments if we are going to be successful in addressing the challenge of climate change.

Nuala Hafner: Mary, you speak regularly with world leaders. When you speak to them one-on-one about climate change, do you get a sense of their appreciation of the scale of the problem?

Mary Robinson: Well, let me answer you in a slightly different way because it gives me great pleasure. Look at the women led countries at the moment. Like Angela Merkel in Germany, the Prime Ministers of Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand, the President of Taiwan. They took tough decisions and they brought their people with them in a really behavioural leadership way and they are doing better on tackling COVID-19. So, I think one of the things that covert has taught us is that leadership matters because those who delayed for political reasons, for personal ambition reasons or whatever, and will be cruelly exposed how they caused far more deaths, and far more illness than was necessary. And, hurt their economies more because they’d be slower to come back. So I’m hoping in a real sense we’ll see the same leadership, coming out of COVID-19 in a way that completely aligns with dealing with that other crisis. I mean, Christiana Figueres has described it quite well in a sort of visual way. We have three waves, we have the health COVID-19 wave, we have the economic wave and behind that we have the climate crisis.

Nuala Hafner: The clock is ticking. And in this moment, in this strange moment that we’re in, is there anything that you’d like to say finally about the good things that have come from the COVID-19 response that we can harness moving forward?

Mary Robinson: I do think it’s really very striking how much people are seeing the fragility of our humanity now. They are more open to compassion, to neighborliness, to cooperation together at so many different levels. And that empathy wasn’t there before in relation to climate change. I remember often trying to persuade people, you know, about climate justice and talking about the poorest countries, small Island States, people’s eyes would glaze over. It wasn’t them and they didn’t feel it. Now, when you’re open to suffering, and again, I want to make it clear that we’re not all suffering at the same level. There again, I repeat that COVID-19 exacerbates the inequalities and the degree of suffering. If you’re locked in an abusive household, if your daughter is out of education in parts of the world, or she’s into child marriage.

Mary Robinson: There are many, many inequities. But when you are suffering, you are more open to the suffering of others. And I think we have a world with people sitting at home being more thoughtful, being more open to the suffering of others. And that is my hope as we begin to come out, and if we get the leadership to come out the right way, we will learn these lessons. The rich world will become much less of a throw away world, much more thoughtful about consuming and knowing. We have a collective power which we exercised during COVID-19 together and young people will continue to lead. Maybe I could end with a very good message of the former chair of the elders whom I inherited, the chair from Kofi Annan. He often said, you are never too young to lead. You are never too old to learn, so let the young lead because it’s their future more than anything. Let the old like me learn more about how to adapt to a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Nuala Hafner: That is beautifully said and a very hopeful place to leave our chat. Thank you both so very much for your time.

Nuala Hafner: Well, we’ve spent the first half of the show talking about the future of planet earth, but there’s been some rather big news from the wider universe. For the past three decades, astronomers have been trying to locate all of the normal matter that is supposed to exist in the universe. As one scientist put it, and I love this quote, it’s been a true embarrassment that we haven’t been able to find it. Well, there’s no need to be embarrassed any longer. Scientists reported in the journal Nature this week that the matter has been located. One of the authors of the paper is Associate Professor at John Pierre McQuart from the University of Curtin, of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. Thanks so much for being with us. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you know the matter was missing?

Jean Pierre McQuart: Well, we looked at the early universe, the imprint of the big bang, the relic radiation from the big bang, and from that, were able to deduce how much matter there was in the universe when it was in its infancy. And that was about 4 or 5% of the total AR content of the universe. So that’s how much we knew was there. But when we looked with optical telescopes at the present day universe, we looked up how many galaxies there are, how massive they are. Our sums came in embarrassingly short. We’re a factor of two out. We had missing matter.

Nuala Hafner: And we should clarify this is ordinary baryonic matter, like totally separate from dark matter, meaning that in theory we should be able to see it.

Jean Pierre McQuart: Oh, absolutely. This is, this is the stuff that you and I are made of. The table, the chairs, the atmosphere, planets, stars, galaxies, all the stuff that we see, all the stuff that you and love. It’s all baryonic matter. We would be able to detect far more easily if it went up in a far more dense state. The problem is that it’s distributed very sparsely throughout the universe and that makes it very difficult. But it’s completely different from dark matter who only influences a gravitational one. If we were to shove all of this dark matter together, we wouldn’t be able to see it still.

Nuala Hafner: So how did you go about finding it?

Jean Pierre McQuart: Oh, well that’s the $64,000 question. So we used a very special piece of kit in Western Australia called the Australian ska Pathfinder. And it has this ability to see a very large patch of the sky all at once. It can see about the equivalent of 64 moons in the field of view. And that’s essential if you’re going to to look for fast radio bursts, which are the things that we use to detect this missing matter. If you don’t know where these things are going to occur or when, then you need to see as much of the sky as possible. And that’s what ASCAP does for us. It sees as much of the sky as possible, so it casts a net far and wide across the sways of the universe. And then when it does find them, the next party piece is that it’s able to localize them, to pinpoint their positions. So we are able to go to an optical telescope and say, ah, it came from precisely that galaxy and that point in that galaxy. And that’s, that’s the real crux of it. It’s like real estate. Location, location, location.

Nuala Hafner: Right. So you’ve solved one mystery with locating the missing matter. But now there’s another mystery in terms of these FRBs and we don’t know what causes them. Are there any theories?

Jean Pierre McQuart: There are plenty of theories. And, until recently, actually there were more theories for what causes FRBs than there were. FRB is known, which is not an entirely pleasant state of affairs, but this situation has reversed and indeed telescopes like ASCAP arrival to actually ECAP the information on these FRBs on timescales, down to nanoseconds. And so you’re able to actually look at the physics of the emission of those things. So although we’re very far from knowing definitively what causes FRB’s, we’re getting some very important clues.

Nuala Hafner: Jean Pierre, earlier in the show we were talking about climate change. As someone who studies the wider universe, what are your thoughts on how humans treat our planet?

Jean Pierre McQuart: Well, I think the physics on climate change is pretty unequivocal and if you want evidence for that throughout the universe, one only has to look as far as our neighbor in the solar system, Venus, which is by no means closest to the sun. That’s Mercury. But the main surface temperature of Venus is so much higher than all the other planets in the solar system. And that’s an example of a runaway greenhouse effect and you wouldn’t want to be on the surface of Venus.

Nuala Hafner: John Pierre McQuart, thanks so much for being with us on Global Science.

Jean Pierre McQuart: A pleasure Nuala.

Nuala Hafner: And that brings us to the end of our first show. Global Science is a co production between the International Science Council and the Australian Academy of Science. Our mission is to keep you reliably informed by hearing directly from the world’s leading scientists and science advocates. Make sure you follow us on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter for our regular updates among our guests. On next week’s show, one of the fathers of the internet Vint Cerf. What does he see as the next phase in the digital revolution? Hope you can join us for that. I’m Nuala Hafner. Bye for now.

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