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How the rich and powerful let Australia burn

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The Australian wildfires show the terrifying reality of catastrophic climate change. Sarah Bates says hope lies with the tens of thousands protesting to demand radical action
Issue 2687
A protest in Melbourne in 2019 demanding the Australian government takes action on climate change
A protest in Melbourne in 2019 demanding the Australian government takes action on climate change (Pic: John Englart/Flickr creative commons)

After months of ­wildfires ripping through Australia, fury burst onto the streets across the country last week.

Tens of thousands joined rallies to demand action on climate change. In Sydney more than 30,000 people protested and chanted, “Get rid of ScoMo”—a reference to Tory prime minister and coal industry shill Scott Morrison.

Organised by the Uni Students for Climate Justice, the group blasted the government’s “criminal negligence about the bushfire crisis”.

In Melbourne 5,000 people blocked off parts of the city centre.

And in Brisbane traffic was brought to a halt as 3,000 took to the streets chanting, “Scomo has got to go.”

The terrifying fires in Australia have highlighted how climate change could make whole swathes of territory uninhabitable. And the Australian government’s response has shown how, even in the face of disaster, politicians, bosses and the rich will put profits ahead of the planet and people.

The scale of the ecological disaster is unprecedented—and it’s far from over.

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More than 12.3 million hectares of Australia has burned since October, killing 26 people and razing thousands of buildings.

It’s estimated that over a billion animals have perished, with some native Australian species thought to be extinct as a result.

Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney estimates that so far more than 800 million animals have been killed in the state of New South Wales. “I think there’s nothing quite to compare with the devastation that’s going on over such a large area so quickly,” he said.

Although the blazes have been raging for over two months, Australia is only about halfway through its hot dry summer.

Tim Flannery, a climate scientist and former Australian federal climate commissioner, said there is direct link between the bushfire crisis and ­climate change. “The science is telling us these extreme heat conditions we’ve seen this year might occur naturally once every 350 years,” he said.

“But once you add in the influence of the human-emitted ­greenhouse gases, we’re likely to see those conditions once every eight years.”

It’s not as though the Australian government didn’t know what was coming. The Garnaut Climate Change Review—a government-sponsored body—predicted a devastating bushfire season for 2020. In 2008 it had warned, “Fire seasons will start earlier, end later and be more intense. This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020.”

Anger at the government—and Morrison in particular—is feeding into the movement on the streets.

Firefighters have spent the best part of three months risking their lives and battling the blazes. Filling their ranks are thousands of volunteer firefighters, often operating in the Rural Fire Service.

They are battling temperatures of over 40 degrees, sometimes for up to 20 hours a day.

The fires are taking place against a backdrop of job cuts and lack of investment in the fire service. The United Firefighters’ Union of South Australia is calling for a national inquiry after its members were forced to work on ageing fire trucks.

While the rich won’t be able to go unscathed in gated communities, they will never deliver the action that’s needed

The union’s state secretary Max Adlam said, “Our people work very hard on the smell of what’s frankly an oily rag.

“These people are passionate about what they do.”

The wildfires crisis in Australia shows how capitalism offers no solution to climate change.

While the country burns, Australian politicians and bosses are still determined to keep hold of the profitable coal industry. And some of the elite still toast ­champagne at plush parties.

While the rich won’t be able to go unscathed in gated communities, they will never deliver the action that’s needed. Competition among rival corporations and states means they are locked into a system based on maximising profit at the expense of all else.

This logic underpins Morrison and the Australian government’s energy and ­climate policies.

Morrison has said there wasn’t “a single policy, whether it be climate or otherwise” that could stop the threat of bushfires. He’s right that it would take more than one law—but stopping the extraction and burning of fossil fuels would be a good place to start.

In 2017, Morrison—then treasury minister—brought a lump of coal into parliament to signal his support for the fossil fuel industry. “This is coal,” he said. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared.

“It’s coal that has ensured for over 100 years that Australia has enjoyed an energy-competitive advantage that has delivered prosperity to Australian businesses.”

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Since then a mass climate movement and an unfolding ecological crisis have forced him to accept some connection between climate change and extreme weather.

But the actual commitment of the Australian government falls far short of tackling climate crisis.

The most important step would be an immediate end to carbon emissions. But instead of cutting back on oil and gas production, it’s agreed that the Adani fossil fuel company can build a new mine in Queensland.

And there are plans to construct six more. Internationally Australia held back any hope of getting new, higher carbon emissions targets at the Cop25 talks in December 2019.

Australia’s rulers had pledged to cut emissions to 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. They claim to be able to meet 90 percent of that reduction.

But Australia plans to do this by using “carryover credits”—a trick where it gets bonus points for adhering to an earlier agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol was a deal where Australia was actually allowed to increase its emissions for a time.

So Morrison can claim he will hit an emissions reduction agreed in Paris in 2015, but in reality fall far short of it.

The protests have shown an alternative to this horror show.

Demands include an immediate transition toward renewable energy, a “just transition” for fossil fuel ­workers, and land and water sovereignty for indigenous communities.

The hope lies with the mass ­movements for climate action and breaking with the profit system ­that is burning the planet.

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