Climate change and COVID-19

And the Beirut explosion (and could the same thing happen at Newcastle in Australia) and the ozone layer

Climate change and related problems will greatly impact all life on Earth, it will result in the extinction of thousand, possibly millions of species, the displacement and possibly the deaths of billions of people. Once the full impact has hit regaining the world as it was will be impossible; the damage will be with our descendants for thousands of years. Our grandchildren will inherit a greatly damaged planet.

By early 2023 it has been reported that COVID-19 has killed just under one human in each thousand (6.87 million of the total of 7.89 billion). The pandemic has done very little harm to other species or our environment; the Earth will be much the same place after the pandemic as it was before the pandemic.

We know exactly what needs to be done to slow climate change.

It has been a hundred years since the world faced a pandemic like COVID-19, since then the our civilisation and our societies have changed enormously, our population has increased enormously; we are feeling our way through the pandemic.

What has been the human response to the two threats? Minimal action over the 40 or more years in which the magnitude of the climate change threat has been recognised; huge and immediate action at great economic and social cost in response to COVID-19.

The world's governments are ignoring the seriousness of climate change just as the Lebanese government ignored the risk of the disastrous explosion that damaged a great area around the port of Beirut.

This page was started 2020/04/17, last edited 2024/05/13
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

Why the vastly different responses to the climate and COVID threats?

Why the huge and urgent response to the smaller threat and a slow and minimal response to the far greater threat?

There seems to be several reasons:

CFCs and the ozone layer

In 1974 research scientists theorised that CFCs (chloro-fluro-carbons) could damage the Earth's protective ozone layer. In 1985 it was discovered that the ozone layer was suffering damage. In 1987 the world took serious action to fix the problem.

More than 30 years later the problem is not entirely fixed, but the ozone layer is gradually healing. See Back from the brink: how the world rapidly sealed a deal to save the ozone layer for more details.

Global action was needed to save the global problem of damage to the ozone layer. It was taken promptly. Why has similar prompt action not been taken about climate change? The answer seems to be in the vastly more money involved in the fossil fuel industries than in the CFC industries.

  • The pandemic is an immediate threat, if action was not taken people would die within weeks. Climate change is not going to reach its full extent for decades, even centuries.

  • The pandemic can be, must be, controlled at the national and local levels, even at the personal level. National and state governments have the legislative and legal resources to either ignore or act on the threat; those who have acted promptly and effectively are controlling the pandemic in their jurisdiction. The actions of a single nation will have little impact on climate change, all nations must act together.

  • The pandemic is simple and obvious, climate change is complex and largely hidden and requires some exercise of intelligence and a grasp of science to understand; or at least a trust in science.

  • There has been a very effective and well funded disinformation campaign about climate change by the fossil fuel industry and their allies; there has been nothing comparable with the pandemic.

  • The technical nature of climate change together with the disinformation campaign has made it easy for those people who don't want to believe it is happening to suspend belief.

  • The fear of an immediate and personal threat is more likely to motivate people than a much greater global threat that will reach its peak some decades or centuries in the future. I have discussed an observation on this point on another page on this site.

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Action on COVID-19, continued inaction on climate change

In a budget document summarising the Australian government's response to COVID-19 in the financial year 2020-21 the Australian Treasury gave the figure for "Total direct economic support since the onset of the pandemic $291 billion, 14.7% of Gross Domestic Product and total direct economic and health support since the onset of the pandemic as $311 billion".

And the amount of financial losses suffered by businesses and individuals would probably be much greater than the government expenses.

A fraction of this amount spent of reducing greenhouse emissions would have achieved an enormous amount, but very little was spent on combating the far greater threat of climate change. The Australian government, one of the worst in the world in this regard, instead spent money toward maximising coal mining and assisting the natural gas industry (for example with a blatant gift of $600 million announced in September 2020).

In 2015, under a Liberal Abbott government, Australia ranked 60th out of 61 governments in climate performance. In 2024, under a Labor government Australia's ranking had risen to 50th of 67 governments; an improvement, but still a very poor showing. (The Labor Albanese government was elected in May 2022 after nine years of Liberal/National coalition governments.)

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April 2020

We are winning against COVID-19, we could win against climate change too

By December 2020 several effective and safe vaccines had been produced and approved. Vaccination had started in the USA, the UK and probably other places.
At the time of writing, April 2020, many nations seem to be getting the pandemic under control. My nation, Australia, has greatly reduced the rate of new cases. Even the USA, under President Donald Trump, while suffering far more cases of the infection, and far more deaths, than any other nation, seems to be reaching the peak of the infection rates.

The means to limit climate change are at hand, we just need to get serious about adopting them.

A solar farm
Humanity has the technology to greatly limit climate change

Part of a Wind Farm
Drone photo
Wind power, like solar power, can be used instead of burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, so reducing greenhouse emissions and slowing climate change.
One of the greatest sources of the greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change is the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity. Both wind and solar power are now well proven technologies that are cheaper than new fossil fuelled power stations.

Electricity generated by renewable means, such as wind and solar, can be stored in batteries, pumped hydro, compressed air or other energy storage systems.

Transport is another great generator of greenhouse emissions. Fossil fuel powered transport on sea and land can be replaced with electric or hydrogen powered transport. Converting air transport to clean energy is more challenging but progress is being made.

Renewably generated electricity can be used to generate hydrogen which can be used as a store of energy. Hydrogen can also be used to produce ammonia which is easy to transport and store and has many industrial uses and which can be broken down to reclaim the hydrogen.

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Why are fossil fuels some sort of sacred cow?

Renewable energy is displacing coal
Port Augusta
The world has responded strongly and swiftly to the Covid pandemic, but has done very little to combat the far greater threat of climate change. Certainly at least in the case of my country, Australia, our governments have not wanted to in any way reduce the profitability of our fossil fuel industries, particularly coal (Australia is the biggest exporter of coal in the world).

Why? Why should governments act on a pandemic but not be willing to harm the fossil fuel industry?

New solar power being built – coal-fired power stations shutting down

The photo on the right was taken at Port Augusta, South Australia in April 2016. It nicely symbolises the decline of coal. On the left is the new solar power-tower of Sundrop Farms. The big smoking chimney is on the Northern Power Station, SA's last coal-fired power station; which was soon to close. Further right are the two chimneys of the Sir Thomas Playford coal-fired power station, which had already closed-down. The chimney stopped smoking on 2016/05/09.

At the time this photo was taken, an average of around 33% of SA's power was generated by wind farms and another 5% by solar PV. By 2020 more than half of the power generated in SA was renewable.

But the decline of coal is being resisted by government!

Coal-fired power is not able to compete economically with renewable energy in South Australia and elsewhere, but as far as the Australian government (and the governments of the big coal producing states) are concerned, the coal industry must be protected no matter how much damage it is doing to the world.

These governments, particularly the Morrison Coalition Government, were willing to cripple the economy to fight the pandemic, but not willing to encourage the change from coal to renewable energy even though there would be little, if any, damage to the economy in the transition.

It makes no sense.

Paragraph added
In May 2022 a Labor government was elected in Australia with Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister. By early 2023 it was apparent that while the Labor government was more environmentally responsible than the earlier Coalition governments (under Abbott and Turnbull) they are still very much looking after the fossil fuel industries at the expense of future generations.

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The Beirut explosion and climate change


Size of the blast

The size of the Beirut blast has been estimated to be equivalent to 1.1 thousand tonnes (kilotons) of TNT. The Hiroshima nuclear bomb at the end of WWII was about 15 kilotons and the Nagasaki bomb was about 21 kilotons. The Beirut blast was perhaps the biggest non-nuclear blast ever.
On 2020/08/04 more than two thousand tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded causing colossal damage to the city's port area and killing at least 200 people.

What has this to do with climate change?

The ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse in the port of Beirut for six years in spite of the knowledge that it presented a risk of just such an enormous explosion. It was a disaster waiting to happen and was being ignored by the Lebanese government.

Climate change is a developing disaster that will impact billions of people and practically all life on earth, and, similarly to the Beirut ammonium nitrate, it is not being taken seriously. The risk attached to the Beirut ammonium nitrate was not taken seriously by the Lebanese government, climate change is not being taken seriously by most of the world's governments.

The recent federal governments of my country, Australia, have been among the worst offenders in the world in their opposition to moving away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy.

Is Newcastle in Australia at risk too?

Kooragang Island and Newcastle
Orica's land is less than three and a half kilometres from Newcastle CBD
Something between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate is in storage in Orica's explosives production plant on Kooragang Island in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia at any one time. The Beirut explosion was caused by around 2,750 tonnes.

The ABC has an article on it, written by Ben Millington. Millington wrote that it is within four kilometres of central Newcastle.

We are assured that it is very safe, but the fact is that it is a high explosive. It is used routinely as such in mining all over the place.

Counterterrorism and ammonium nitrate expert Professor Clive Williams from Australian National University was quoted in Ben Millington's ABC article:

"I have been to many explosive accident sites, and invariably the companies involved thought that an accident was unlikely to happen because they had adequate safety and security measures in place."
An article titled Accidental Ammonium Nitrate Explosions, written by Paul Somerville and Ryan Crompton can be read in Risk Frontiers.

At best it seems to me to be the height of foolishness to keep such a huge pile of a high explosives in a city.

In the context of this page, Orica's ammonium nitrate stockpile is a potential disaster being ignored, a little like climate change, which is a disaster that is slowly but surely developing, but largely being ignored too.

External pages on the risks of ammonium nitrate explosion disasters

Wikipedia lists eight ammonium nitrate explosions since 2000 in which people were killed, in three of those cases the number of deaths was over a hundred.

Risk Frontiers; a quote: "The accidental ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut serves as a reminder of how frequent and deadly these events are."

Thermal Stability Studies of Ammonium Nitrate by Zhe Han; a quote: "AN [ammonium nitrate]-related fires and explosions continue to occur time and again, despite the fact that AN has been extensively investigated. There have been more than 70 AN-related incidents during the last century, which reemphasize the dire need for further research on AN reactive hazards."

In Australia

WA truckie 'lucky' to walk away with his life after semi-trailer carrying blasting material explodes; ABC Goldfields, written by Andrew Chounding.

Related pages

Related pages on this site...

Australia's energy future; where I see my country's energy supply industry going in the future

Climate change

COVID-19; some thoughts

End of coal; why the coal industry is facing its end years

The potential of hydrogen in a cleaner economy

Killer coal; not only is the burning of coal one of the main causes of climate change, its air pollution kills millions of people each year

The Australian Liberal Party's poor response to reducing emissions and support for the fossil fuel industries.
  Andrew Hastie, an example of a Liberal politician who opposes renewable energy and supports the fossil fuel industries, and does so dishonestly.

Milestones in the development of human society

Potential disasters compared; which are most likely, how serious are they likely to be, and will society and the environment recover from them?

Power to (hydrogen) gas in Australia

South Australia's great success in changing to renewable energy; my state is leading the nation, even the world

Why I support the local wind farm and why you should too