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Last week, somewhat overshadowed by the events in Washington, the Democrats took control of the US Senate. The Democrats now hold a small majority in both the House and the Senate until 2022, giving President-elect Joe Biden a better chance of getting climate actions through Congress.
Biden’s key nominees to environment and climate positions in his administration must be approved by the Senate, and the Democrat majority provides a clearer path for this.
Now we have a better picture of the climate-engaged Biden administration, the question for Australia is how the changes will affect our domestic climate politics.
An aggressive US climate policy rollout could provide a much needed dose of reality to the climate discourse in Canberra. It may also prompt Australia’s major parties to acknowledge the inevitability of a transition to a zero carbon economy.
The nominees for Biden’s climate team are both well qualified and set new benchmarks for diversity. The initial response to the picks has been positive, both from the US climate activist community and more mainstream Democrats.
Congressional representative Deb Haaland will become the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Michael Regan, currently head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be the first African American to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Biden also tapped several Obama alumni for key climate roles. The most notable is perhaps former EPA head Gina McCarthy, who will fill a newly created role as White House national climate advisor.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is nominated as Secretary of Energy, and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg will lead the Department of Transport. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment as US Presidential Special Envoy on Climate was announced in late November.
The team will be charged with delivering Biden’s ambitious climate platform, which includes:
Beyond simply rejoining Paris, one suspects Biden will want Kerry to reclaim the US’ leadership role in the global quest for zero carbon. This will create a challenge for Australia.
Our Paris targets are modest at best. However in recent years, Trump’s antagonistic position on climate action meant the US absorbed the bulk of international criticism. The Biden win means Australia’s perceived lack of climate ambition will come under greater international scrutiny.
One suspects Morrison and other Liberal leaders understand key parts of their base object to Australia being viewed as a climate laggard. That much was made clear by the ousting of Liberal MP Tony Abbott in the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah at the last election. It follows that these Liberals privately recognise their net-zero timetable needs greater precision than the current “sometime in the second half of the century” approach.
Not all in the Coalition, especially in the National Party, share this view. Some will point to electorates most vulnerable to economic harm from reduced fossil fuel extraction, reformed land-use practices and lower agriculture emissions.
But politicians need to be adaptable. For Morrison to succeed in a post-Trump world, he must shift policies in a way that satisfies wealthy Liberal voters without driving regional voters to One Nation.
The Australian Labor Party will no doubt welcome the Coalition’s international climate discomfort. But should they regain power at the next election, they will face broadly similar issues. And the Greens will push Labor for aggressive targets hard to sell in key regional electorates.
Australia’s journey to decarbonisation has more in common with the US than most other developed nations, such as those in Europe. Challenges and opportunities we share with the US include:
the need to deal with emissions from land-use (such as tree clearing) and agriculture emissions
an historic reliance on coal and coal mining
domestic natural gas extraction
high quality wind and solar resources (and hence possible future hydrogen production)
good potential to capture and store carbon dioxide underground
pumped hydro options
disproportionate political power among regional populations. `
So a credible Biden pathway for both carbon-free electricity by 2035, and a net carbon-free society by 2050, will translate reasonably well into an Australian context. Once the US shows how decarbonisation can be done, Australia’s major parties will hopefully admit the transition is unavoidable.
One hopes this acknowledgement would be reflected in domestic policies to phase out domestic coal use – perhaps adopting US systems that financially reward storage and provision of backup power. Australia must also follow Biden’s lead and plan for electric vehicles with greater urgency.
More detail and less rhetoric on climate policy would be a welcome change across Australia’s political spectrum, including specifics on how affected communities will be helped through the transition.
The Biden win is good news for climate action globally. But it will bring into sharper focus the breadth of change needed to achieve zero-carbon. And a more honest and open discussion about decarbonisation will deliver inconvenient truths for all players.
This, of course, assumes Biden delivers a credible and coherent climate plan. With Republicans in a weakened congressional position for the next two years, the biggest obstacle to progress will be internal fights between moderate and progressive Democrats, particularly in the Senate.
Political leaders in Australia, and elsewhere, will be watching closely to see how Biden’s team rises to the challenge, and what their path to success looks like.
Editor’s note: Two new strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 called B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 have been found in the U.K. and South Africa and are thought to be more transmissible. In this interview, David Kennedy, a biologist who studies the evolution of infectious diseases at Penn State, explains how these new strains are different, what “more transmissible” means, what that means for the public and whether the vaccines will be effective against them.
There are actually a few different variants that are emerging that you’ve probably been hearing about recently. Two of the most common ones that people are talking about and are most concerned about are the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants. They were first detected in the U.K. and South Africa. It seems that they have been circulating since October at least but were only noticed in December. The concern about these variants is that they might have some differences in how transmissible they are and how the immune system sees them.
The data suggests that both of these variants are more transmissible. Most of the data that’s available is for the U.K. variant in particular. It’s still not clear exactly how much more transmissible it is, but current estimates are that it’s somewhere between 30% and 80% more transmissible than the original strains that were out there.
How did scientists arrive at those numbers? When spikes in cases in the U.K. raised concerns, they sequenced the virus from the cases during the spikes. They saw that there was this novel variant. They looked at the frequency of this variant farther back in time and saw that it was increasing in frequency over time. So it went from being very rare to very common. And based on the rate of increase, they estimate that it was around 70% or so more transmissible than the original virus.
The second way they determined it was more transmissible is through something called the “secondary attack rate.” What they do is, if they know that somebody is infected, they can look and see how many of their contacts got infected. And so they can do that for people who are infected with the original strain of the virus, and they can do that for people who are infected with this novel variant. What they saw was that people who had this novel variant were more likely to infect their contacts, and that increase was about 30% to 40%. So that means that this novel variant is more likely to get passed on to other individuals.
The first thing that I should say is that there’s no evidence that there’s increased disease severity as a result of these variants. So it doesn’t seem like it is now more harmful. But the concern is that more people are going to get infected, and so in total, more people are going to get sick.
But the reason this is so concerning is that you get hit with the increase in transmissibility twice. First, more people will be infected, so it is more likely that you will be interacting with someone who is infectious. And second, the virus is more infectious, so each infected person is more likely to transmit it to you.
With that said, the basics of how we’re supposed to live our lives and how we’re supposed to control this are essentially unchanged. The mitigation measures that we have in place, things like social distancing, wearing a mask, avoiding indoor shared spaces, reducing any unnecessary risks, are still the best measures that we have to try to control this. At least until we all have access to vaccines.
If we look at the smallpox vaccine, we never saw resistance evolve to it. It’s the same for measles, polio and the majority of vaccines that we have. We never have to update them, and they just keep working.
But there have been vaccines where we do have to update them because resistance evolved. And so part of the concern about these new variants is that there might be evolution of resistance to the vaccines that are currently being developed.
The reason people are concerned is that a lot of the mutations in these new variants are in the site targeted by the vaccines, something called the spike protein. But just because we’re seeing changes in the spike protein of these variants doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to undermine the vaccine.
What researchers have seen is that one of the mutations found on both the U.K. and South Africa variants doesn’t seem to have any effect on how our immune system sees the virus, so that’s good news. But another mutation found on the South Africa variant does seem to impact how our immune response sees the virus.
We’ve learned that if you take blood serum from somebody who was previously infected with the old version of the virus, and you try to use that serum to stop the virus containing this new mutation, you need a higher concentration of the blood serum to neutralize the virus. That means that there’s a difference in the way that our immune system is seeing the virus. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine is going to be less effective. But it’s certainly something that needs to be studied more.
These are two of the mutations. There are many more mutations in these variants, which scientists need to continue to study.
The summary here is that at least one of the mutations seems like it could be relevant, but there isn’t good evidence to suggest that means the vaccines are not going to be effective. Vaccines tend to be robust against evolutionary change. And so my hope and my expectation is that the vaccine protection will be robust.
Through recent natural disasters, global upheavals and a pandemic, Australia’s political centre has largely held.
Australians may have disagreed at times, but they have also kept faith with governmental norms, eschewing the false allure of populism beguiling voters elsewhere.
Our federal and state governments enjoy broad public confidence and draw their core legitimacy from the middle ground, whether it be centre-left or centre-right.
But if Australians followed the 2020 presidential race in the United States with greater-than-usual interest, it was because when boiled down, it presaged a plausible descent for Australia’s politics, too.
Last November’s poll offered a choice between two fundamentally different futures for the US.
On the one hand, there was an assumption that free and fair elections, the rule of law and concepts such as pluralism and civility are central to government and society.
On the other, there was an angry, polarising disintegration, in which rules can be broken, facts undermined, critics abused and the usual accountability mechanisms silenced.
As a partner democracy with deep cultural, economic, and strategic ties with the US, Australians lapped up the theatre of the Trump versus Biden contest. But many also worried the verdict of America’s 150 million-plus voters would have material implications down under.
Strategically, these implications included a continuation of the US global retreat, which had already seen China moving to fill the leadership void.
Domestically, it might involve the insidious adoption of Trumpist methodology within Australia’s political right.
Manifestations of the latter are already advanced in sections of our news media, and the willingness of political leaders to bluster through mistakes and exposed wrongdoings, refusing to apologise, explain or resign.
This is a key take-out of the Trump approach: notions of honour and tradition, long relied upon to protect probity and avoid conflicts of interest, can be ignored. Those seeking transparency or who uncover maladministration can be depicted as political opponents or extremists, motivated by hatred and prejudice.
For the Westminster tradition, where confidence rests on protections only ever partly codified, the dangers are existential.
Evidence of this deterioration can be seen in the marked tendency of governments to stare down calls for resignation, ignore significant public disquiet, and press on.
In 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian admitted an intimate association dating back years with a disgraced former MP who, it turned out, had been arranging property deals for commission, even as a backbencher.
Berejiklian’s defence amounted to a blunt “I’ve done nothing wrong”.
The origin of forged documents, released by federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor to defame the Sydney City Council, has never been properly explained.
Explosive revelations of political interference in a A$100 million federal sports grants program have never been conceded (although, Berejiklian recently admitted “political” allocation is standard practice when forced to explain similar outrages in a state program).
There is also the A$30 million Leppington Triangle land purchase which benefited a political donor, but brought no resignation. And the Robodebt debacle, which caused massive community suffering and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but cost nobody their job.
Contrast this with the response in The Netherlands where the entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, resigned on Friday. This was over a scandal involving child welfare payments, which had led to parents erroneously being labelled fraudsters.
As Rutte explained,
We are of one mind that if the whole system has failed, we all must take responsibility, and that has led to the conclusion that I have just offered the king, the resignation of the entire cabinet.
The two scandals are remarkably similar in nature, and in the scale of the taxpayer-funded recompense, but could scarcely be more different in the level of political responsibility taken.
Previously, ministers have resigned over comparatively technical breaches. This includes the unwitting importation of a Paddington teddy bear in the 1984 case of Labor’s Mick Young – the bear, which would have attracted an import duty measured in cents, was actually in his wife’s luggage.
A Berejiklian predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, quit in 2014 after advising the Independent Commission Against Corruption he had no recollection of receiving a single – albeit valuable – bottle of wine. Announcing his resignation, he said,
I do accept there is a thank you note signed by me, and as someone who believes in accountability, in responsibility, I accept the consequences of my action.
The army minister Andrew Peacock offered to resign in 1970 after his wife appeared in an advertisement for Sheridan sheets. A few years later, two Fraser government ministers fell on their swords over a colour TV carried into the country but declared as black-and-white on a customs form.
The mere appearance of wrongdoing used to be enough to raise public confidence problems and thus end a ministerial career. Now, even the substance of dishonesty, non-disclosure or incompetence avoids meaningful sanction.
The right-wing extremism that informs Trump’s base has become all pervasive. It has certainly captured the Republican party – only ten of whose House members voted to impeach the outgoing President – despite the president’s sworn commitment to:
support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The facts show President Trump entreated supporters to storm the Congress, in an attempt to stop the lawful certification of his replacement.
It was a mark of Trumpian reach into Australian political culture that neither that outrage, nor his wilful mishandling of the coronavirus, has brought clear condemnation from the Morrison government.
Another trait of Trumpism is the tacit legitimisation of an extreme right-wing discourse of grievance, white supremacy, and anti-establishment conspiracy theory.
Despite clear mainstream costs, senior Morrison ministers have pointedly refused to contradict or discipline their own MPs (Craig Kelly and George Chrsistensen) spreading incorrect and potentially dangerous Trumpist dogma surrounding US electoral fraud, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 treatments, and claims of left-wing agent provocateurs in the Capitol insurrection.
Drawing a typically Trumpist equivalence, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack referenced last year’s Black Lives Matter rallies – which he derisively termed “race riots” — to play down the Capitol siege while also trotting out offensive lines such as “all lives matter”.
Faced with a backlash, McCormack decried those “confecting outrage” as “bleeding hearts”.
It suggests the calculation already being made by ministers is that nourishing an extremist culture of resentment and anger is more useful to a centre-right government than courting the political middle ground.
America has already been down this path, and we know where it leads.
Health workers are at higher risk of COVID infection and illness. They can also act as extremely efficient transmitters of viruses to others in medical and aged care facilities.
That’s why health workers have been prioritised to get a COVID vaccine when it becomes available in Australia.
But just because health workers are among those first in line to receive a COVID vaccine, it doesn’t necessarily mean they all will.
Our health systems represent a microcosm of the community. Just like in the broader community, there will be health workers highly motivated to get the COVID-19 vaccine, driven by concern about risk to themselves, their family, and their patients. There will also be those who have medical conditions, those that may not be able to get vaccinated, and staff who are hesitant.
There will also be health workers with questions about the vaccine, who perhaps need further support to help them decide.
Reports from the US track vaccine hesitancy among health workers at around 29%. However, it’s important to note different groups have different reasons for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy; rates and reasons can vary across and within countries.
Protecting health workers is critical. Achieving high COVID-19 vaccine uptake among health workers will not only protect these critical staff members, it will also support high levels of uptake among the general public.
Personal health workers are the most trusted source of information on the COVID-19 vaccine.
Decision-making around vaccination can be a complex mix of psychosocial, cultural, political and other factors.
Health workers, just like the broader public, may perceive they are at low risk of acquiring a vaccine-preventable disease. They may have concerns about the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine and/or may find it challenging to get vaccinated.
While most health workers understand how vaccines work generally, they may not necessarily be experts across all vaccine types. If we want to ensure they feel comfortable to receive it and advocate for it, then we must address any misunderstanding and concerns health workers may have. This may be focused on the vaccine itself (how it was developed, effectiveness and so on), or the necessity of vaccination.
One strategy that may assist will be to work with middle managers, as they are influential, trusted and can act as vaccine advocates and agents of change. They may also play a role addressing questions or concerns where they arise. If a COVID vaccine becomes an occupational requirement for health workers, hospitals and other organisations need to include middle managers in the development and roll-out of programs. They can then help ensure staff members understand the rationale for the mandate, which staff members are targeted and why.
Investing in the staff responsible for delivering vaccines in the workplace, as well as other potential vaccine allies such as managers, can help reduce COVID vaccine hesitancy among health workers. That will benefit all of us.