Australia is on fire. The government, opposition, unions and NGOs are failing people. Simone McDonnell argues the fight to save ourselves and the planet is in organising to tear down the system that is tearing our world apart.
Australia is on fire. Well before summer began, the eastern seaboard of the continent has been ravaged by monstrous bushfires, unprecedented in their scale, behaviour, and ferocity. A tsunami of infernos has scorched 29 million acres of land in a matter of weeks – an area the size of Scotland. In the blink of an eye, we have entered a new era in which the nature of wildfires in Australia has been so significantly altered by climate change that some things will never be the same.
A few weeks back, in December 2019, masses of us suddenly discovered that our lives and our environment had profoundly changed. A toxic blanket of smoke from bushfires surrounding the city of Sydney descended on the metropolis poisoning its five million residents for weeks on end. The sun was suddenly a blood orange fireball infusing everything with a sepia glow, so that the city resembled the set of a sci-fi movie. We now know this ominous glow is the result of smoke settling into the troposphere 3 to 4 miles above earth, where it scatters light. Meteorologists have noticed smoke pollution reaching into the stratosphere, around 6 miles above earth, an incredibly rare event signaling just how powerful and intense the fires are. Scientists are unable to predict at this point what sort of environmental impacts this might have.
However, what we do know about the immediate and likely impacts of the fires is horrifying. It is a tragic and frighteningly rapid vindication of what climate scientists have been warning for decades, particularly in relation to the dangers of fossil fuels, and it’s a portent of what’s to come.
At the time of writing, 29 people have died thus far and over 2000 homes in New South Wales alone have been destroyed. More will die, either by fighting fires or being over-run by them. The bushfire season has only just officially begun and is predicted to continue through April.
Stories of firefighters battling walls of flames 200 metres high and “firenados” – literal fire tornados – are now everyday conversations. The heat and speed of the fires are so intense they are creating their own weather systems, never seen before. Extinctions have begun. It is estimated over a billion animals have been incinerated so far and this doesn’t include invertebrates like insects and sea animals, essential for the survival of complex ecosystems. Scientists are warning entire ecosystems may collapse. Even before the current crisis, impacts of climate change in recent decades have led Australia to have the highest rate of extinction of mammals in the world and startling rates of biodiversity loss.
Central to the climate change crisis across the world are fossil fuels, and the Australian continent is over-brimming with the burning, digging and mining of them. They fuel climate change, but also Australian capitalism. Coal is to the Australian economy what oil is to Saudi Arabia. In a global economy reliant on fossil fuels for energy supply, heavy industry and arms production, Australia is an energy powerhouse producing one third of global coal exports and is now the world’s largest liquified natural gas exporter. Australian mining companies and major corporations make billions of dollars from them and, because of their centrality to the Australian economy, receive billions of dollars in government subsidies. Last year the IMF estimated that public subsidies to mining companies in Australia, direct and indirect, totalled $42 billion.
The lasting impact of neoliberalism
Meanwhile Australian fires are being fought by the largest volunteer firefighting services in the world. Whilst the federal and state governments have been increasing subsidies to mining companies, they’ve been trashing climate scientists and the advice of senior firefighters by slashing the budgets of professional and volunteer firefighters. One of the first acts of the current conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) coalition government under its then leader and climate change denier Tony Abbott was to abolish the Climate Commission set up to be an independent advisory body to government on climate change. Current PM, Scott Morrison, infamous for pissing off to Hawaii on a holiday in the midst of fire Armageddon in December, has refused to meet with an expert body of volunteer and professional firefighters who have been asking for a meeting for over a year to discuss the risks of climate change on bushfires and demand more resources.
Morrison’s intransigence towards these former fire chiefs and refusal to do anything real to address the catastrophic disaster unfolding in Australia tells us a lot about the impact of decades of neoliberalism, how the capitalist class will respond to climate emergencies and the centrality of coal to the Australian economy. In New South Wales, one of the most fire-prone states in Australia, $12.9 million was cut from Fire and Rescue NSW (professional fire fighters) in the last state budget and $26.7 million from the Office of NSW Rural Fire Services (volunteers). This has led to the obscene situation of thousands of volunteers now crowdfunding for essential items like face masks, boots and helmets. The federal government ignored the pleas of Fire Chiefs months ago for more aerial water bombing planes. Australia had seven as of December 2019, California has thirty. Decades of neoliberal attacks on essential public services has gutted life saving infrastructure and resources of which firefighting is just a part.
As in other western countries, essential public services like emergency and health services and the welfare state have been drastically cut back amidst global neoliberal attacks on the working class. Australia regularly ranks at the bottom of OECD measurements for the provision of social services despite being one of the richest countries. Once the mining boom receded, federal and state governments have taken an axe to health services like public hospitals, emergency services such as firefighting and paramedics, and to welfare payments and infrastructure.
In this current crisis, the skeletal state of essential public services is being laid bare. Hospitals and ambulances already under-resourced have been over-run by people presenting with respiratory and heart problems caused by toxic fire smoke. Whilst medical specialists have been warning people to stay indoors and avoid exposure to fire smoke (because of dangerous P2 particulate matter in it), especially children and older people and those with heart and respiratory problems, and whilst the ratings for air quality in both Sydney and Melbourne have been consistently in the “hazardous” zone for weeks, workers have no choice but to go to work.
Deadly class divisions
The class divided reality of the climate emergency is on stark display right now in Australia. So far, no rich people have died. If you can afford to stay inside and not go to work, be transported around in air conditioned cars, buy sophisticated air filters, live in well insulated homes with air purifiers, or if you can afford to just fly somewhere else, inside or outside the country to escape fires, your chances of dying are overwhelmingly reduced. If not, it’s a roll of the dice. People have already died from immediate exposure to the toxic smoke.
Medical specialists are unsure what the long-term impacts of breathing the smoke will be. Thousands of people have presented to hospitals with serious respiratory and health problems, having to use sick and holiday leave to be away from work. And this is to say nothing of the horrendous traumas and hardship facing thousands of people who have lost homes and communities. Parts of Australia are now uninsurable for fire damage and many people living in fire ravaged areas are discovering they are under-insured because new building costs and codes have deliberately not been factored into re-building costs by insurance companies.
The response of the conservative government to the momentous and ongoing human and environmental tragedy in Australia has been callous and pathetic, and it has enraged people. Morrison has been rightly abused when he has stepped into some communities destroyed by fires. In one of several now famous incidents a volunteer firefighter from Nelligen named Paul Parker shouted “Are you from the media? Tell the Prime Minister to go and get fucked,” to a media crew seconds before he collapsed from exhaustion and overwhelm from fighting fires.
That sums up the sentiment of hundreds of thousands in Australia. Morrison lies about climate change and Australia’s contribution to global greenhouse emissions. He won’t pay and resource firefighters. He went to Hawaii, whilst the country burned. He’s a bigot who introduced a bill to persecute LGBTQI people on the basis of religious beliefs in a press conference right at the start of the bushfire crisis. He’s part of a political elite that has overseen years of escalating authoritarian laws in Australia. He’s a smug bully-boy who told people to watch the cricket whilst the country went up in flames and over 80% of Australians are worried about climate change. For all of these things and more, there has been a ferocious backlash against him.
The fight to save ourselves
Hundreds of thousands of angry people in cities across Australia have come out to mass protests, called by socialist students who established the University Students for Climate Justice group. Consequently, Morrison’s tune has changed and some actions have been taken to assist people. Unsurprisingly though, the vast bulk of the assistance announced in his $2 billion disaster package is for businesses. You can get $75, 000 if you need to rebuild your dairy farm, but if you can’t work because your workplace burnt down, you are stuck with below poverty-line welfare for only thirteen weeks. Worse still, the federal welfare agency tasked with dispersing the funds is so under-resourced and bureaucratic that many people cannot access it because they have no power as a result of the fires.
The crisis is much worse for Aboriginal people, who have beared the brunt of racist colonial, genocidal, and neoliberal policies. Aboriginal people are watching the stolen ancestral lands they cared for – for over 60,000 years using sophisticated land-care practices, burn. Worse still, many Aboriginal people in Australia receiving welfare have been forced onto what are called ‘cashless cards’, which force welfare recipients to spend their money on certain items and cannot withdraw cash. Currently, because of this racist welfare policy, there are widespread reports of Aboriginal people starving because the shops that accept ‘cashless cards’ are closed or burnt down and they cannot withdraw cash to buy necessities.
The fight to save ourselves and our planet is now down to us. There is no one coming to save us and Australia demonstrates this clearly. The response of the “opposition” party in Australia the social democratic Labour Party (ALP) has been to line up with the conservative government, and double down on its commitment to the coal industry in an attempt to prove itself a bigger supporter of coal than the conservatives.
Coal and fossil fuels are the engine room of the Australian economy and the ALP has shown they care more for the bosses than the workers. The greatest ally Morrison has is the new leader of the ALP, Anthony Albanese. After an unexpected loss to the Tories in the 2019 federal election, the ALP concluded it should be more conservative than the conservatives, rather than tacking further left and adopting a policy of just transitions away from fossil fuels.
In this crisis, every other major institution from NGO’s to unions has followed the ALP and fallen into line prioritising national unity and stabilising the system over all else. Even the Green Party has been completely absent during the crisis, bar a few individuals making some respectable angry noises and some calls for a Royal Commission. The unions, linked to the ALP, rather than organising mass walk-outs of workers from work sites in cities choking on smoke, have been calling on workers to donate to fundraising and to volunteer to rebuild fire devastated communities. Every major capitalist corporation from banks to supermarket chains are greenwashing themselves with fundraising drives and (pathetic) donations, and the media is beginning to slip into the rhythm of normalising the crisis.
Australia is the new front in a war on our planet and on the working class and the poor. A series of authoritarian laws have been introduced in recent years, and some already put to use against protestors for climate justice. A Labour government in Victoria tried to stop a protest last week on the basis that police resources would be stretched. The same riot police who brutalised climate activists outside an international mining conference weeks ago! University Students for Climate Justice refused to back down in the face of enormous pressure from the government, police minister, NGO’s and the media and 30,000 people turned up to the protest in torrential rain- angry and demanding that the Prime Minister be sacked.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Australia, perhaps millions, are enraged about climate change and hate the government. This includes a layer of young people and workers open to the argument that we need a revolution to overthrow capitalism to stop our country from burning and the planet from being destroyed. The only thing to do is to be bold, to defy those who say we should not defy them, and to organise with those who want to tear down the system that is tearing apart our world. Another world is possible. It is needed urgently and Australia is a window into the future for the rest of the world – of either destruction, or, the foundations of a better world.