Jane Caro: Our Leaders Agree With Science When Science Agrees With Them

It’s interesting to see how seriously our politicians are taking scientific evidence and expert health advice regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

No doubt, the actions of people like PM Scott Morrison, Education Minister Dan Tehan, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is one of the major reasons Australia has been so successful in ‘flattening the curve’ and keeping the rate of infections and -- most importantly -- fatalities under control.

Of course, credit also has to go to the Australian people themselves. Many of us were actually ahead of our governments -- both state and federal -- in practicing social distancing, washing our hands religiously and staying at home.

As a result of the willingness of our governments and population to listen to medical experts, no doubt many lives have been saved and Australians -- like New Zealanders -- can tentatively anticipate a return to some semblance of normal life sooner rather than later.

But I can’t help wondering why, in that case, when it comes to the science of climate change these same governments have been stubbornly looking away. Even when one of their own steps out of line and publicly suggests a link between the recent bushfire crisis and climate change, as Liberal NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean did, he is roundly criticised for doing so by many of his LNP colleagues, both state and federal.

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Last week, the normally smoggy mega-city of Los Angeles found itself with some of the cleanest air in the world, and Himalayan vistas suddenly became visible to usually hazy Indian cities over 200 km away.

To return to COVID-19 for a moment, the first step towards loosening our strict isolation is happening now, largely through relaxing the rules around who can and cannot physically attend school. (Berejiklian has also announced that you can now have two adult visitors in NSW.) The pace of the re-introduction of students into classrooms varies from state to state, with Victoria encouraging minimum face-to-face attendance until at least term three and the NT encouraging the exact opposite.

The federal government has been determined to get kids back to school from the start. Indeed, they were resistant to the idea that schools move to online learning at all. They were overruled by state governments, led by Victoria’s Dan Andrews and backed up by Gladys Berejiklian. Such was the federal government’s early determination to keep schools operating as normal, Dan Tehan even threatened the public funding of private schools if they did not comply.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacted with drastic measures to fight coronavirus. Can he do the same for climate change? (Image: Getty)

Now that the numbers of new infections are falling, Morrison and Tehan have upped the ante. All the Premiers have more or less complied, except Andrews who has accepted the advice of his chief medical officer that it is still too early for kids to return to school and the ACT, which remains undecided. Hence the dilemma for parents and teachers.

Some experts are saying that the evidence indicates that schools are safe places and that children are the least likely group to be infected by COVID-19 or spread it to others. Morrison went so far as to declare that he had ‘health advice’ that social distancing was unnecessary inside schools! News to grandparents, perhaps, who must still keep away from their grandchildren.

NSW Health has issued a non-peer reviewed report that supports the Federal government’s position, saying they have found little evidence that children spread the virus. It does include the proviso that the low number of cases and infections studied may be due to the reduction in school populations since March 23. On the other side of the equation, an alert has been issued by British health authorities warning that they are seeing a worrying illness in children that could be related to coronavirus. I guess we will see who is correct after week three of term two -- best of luck to teachers and students.

But what particularly interests me is how gung-ho our LNP federal government now is on trusting science. This is a radical change. A miracle, perhaps, wrought by COVID-19. They are happy to send teachers and students back into close proximity on the basis of evidence that is certainly not ‘settled’. COVID-19 has only been on the planet (as far as we know) for less than a year, so any data is tentative at best. Researchers are making new discoveries daily. The interpretation of the small amount of data we do have is disputed. Like the Victorian CMO, some experts have warned against opening schools too soon. The point is, because this virus is so new, nobody actually knows.

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Compare this to the science of climate change. Many in the federal LNP are so hostile to the idea of climate change that our previous Prime Minister lost his job at least in part because he accepted and wanted to act on the science. Malcolm Turnbull was replaced, of course, by Scott Morrison who famously took a lump of coal into parliament explicitly to mock the science of global warming.

Yet, unlike COVID-19, we have at least 50 years of evidence about the effect of rising carbon emissions on our climate. There is virtually no dispute about the catastrophic effects among the scientific community. It is estimated that somewhere between 97 and 99 percent of scientists accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change. We also have the evidence of our own eyes, especially in Australia during our last summer. Frankly, if the science of climate change was based on evidence as slender as that which says schools are magically safe from COVID-19, sceptics would be quite right to blow holes in it.

But that’s not my point. I hope that what we have witnessed among our leaders is a sincere conversion regarding science and evidence, which will be followed up by serious action on climate change. But I worry that just as they are so pro-coal they want to keep those industries running no matter what, they are equally desperate to get the economy up and running -- what might happen if the public started to like all this socialism that’s currently in place? -- and are being too quick to throw caution to the wind.

What I fear is that when it comes to the evidence, for too many of our current leaders it may be a case of only agreeing with the science when the science agrees with them.

Featured Image: Getty