Intense foreboding hung over Australia in September. Spring was the driest on record and summer, the dreaded fire season, was months away. Already, huge fires were raging in Queensland and New South Wales (NSW) — 130 in all, including an ancient rainforest! We knew this summer would be hell on Earth, and it is.
By mid-January, 28 people had been killed, nearly 11 million hectares (more than 27 million acres) burned, 2,000 homes destroyed, whole towns gone, communities displaced and First Nations people dislocated from their traditional lands. Over a billion animals perished, including 30 percent of Australia’s iconic koalas. Toxic smoke penetrated towns and cities, pushing air quality to extremely dangerous levels. And more fires broke out in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
A young firefighter was killed in December when a “fire tornado” flipped his truck. This freak event taught shocked Australians that, under certain conditions, a fire can create its own deadly weather system.
Climate denying PM goes AWOL. As the magnitude of the tragedy unfolded, Prime Minister Scott Morrison secretively escaped to Hawaii for a vacation. But the white-hot anger of those back home forced him to return. He came out of hiding, acknowledged public “anxiety,” but insisted these “natural disasters” are a normal part of Australian life.
Science says otherwise. In early September, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) reported an unprecedented warming of the Antarctic, which would affect much of eastern Australia in the coming months. The north-south movement of westerly winds, responsible for the rain-bearing cold fronts across southern Australia, would change direction and bypass the continent.
Worst affected, warned BOM, would be southern Queensland and NSW, where rainfall had decreased 11 percent since the 1990s while temperatures, heat waves and fire risk increased. The region has also been in drought since 2017, and this conjuncture of trends is a first.
There is nothing normal about these fires. Bigger, more frequent and fierce, they are the product of human-caused climate warming.
Fossil fuel champion. Australia is the world’s largest coal and gas exporter, and these industries have willing servants in the nation’s top politicians — regardless of what party dominates. In 2017, Morrison brought a lump of coal into Parliament and touted its environmental and economic virtues. He continues to prove his value to the fossil barons. Against massive popular protest and scientific warnings, he supported the energy conglomerate Adani to mine central Queensland’s Galilee Basin, one of the largest untouched coal reserves in the world. Just last November, after Victoria Police violently cracked down on protesters outside the International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne, Morrison announced plans to protect the mining sector from “environmental anarchists.” His government criminalises protest, including “secondary boycotts,” that disrupts business, potentially or actually — laws similar to those used against unions.
His government has just cut $451 million in disaster recovery funding. Then, shamed into appearing to do something, Morrison announced a new bushfire relief fund of $2 billion — minuscule against its $42 billion annual subsidies to fossil fuel.
Global reaction. World horror and help has been breathtaking. Facebook was inundated with posts seeking how to support the fire victims. People opened their homes to the suddenly homeless. Rescue centres, so overwhelmed by the volumes of donated food and clothing, called out for money instead. Victoria Trades Hall Council mobilised unionists to do everything from handling hazardous materials to cooking and serving food. Firefighters came from as far away as the United States and Canada, and as near as Aotearoa (New Zealand). Third graders in Boston held a bake sale to “Help Save Animals in Australia!” Crafters around the world sent parcels for wildlife victims, from joey pouches and koala mittens to knitted bird nests.
Turning outrage into united resistance. On January 10, rage and action fused across our fire-ravaged country. This sharp crescendo of climate militancy — building on the youth-led global movement that brought Australian cities to a standstill just months earlier — is what Morrison wants to crush.
Fearful of massive climate demonstrations, Victoria Police and the state government intimidated protest organisers to cancel Melbourne’s rally. But the bullying backfired. Up to 30,000 people came out, even angrier and undeterred by the torrential rain. Sydney’s 30,000-plus and the tens of thousands in other cities aroused up to 100,000 protesters across the country.
However, this powerful anger and energy is being derailed into parliamentary business as usual. The central demand raised by rally organisers to “Sack ScoMo” (Prime Minister Scott Morrison) does not address the problem — profit. Equally misleading are Green Party Members of Parliament who peddle the illusion that an environmentally friendly form of capitalism is possible.
Those in the path of climate change destruction have to look elsewhere for leadership in this resistance struggle — ourselves. First Nations have an affinity with the natural world. They, along with workers, have a high stake in making the environment safe. We have the know-how and the need to protect our habitation. Our survival depends on it. First Nations people have thousands of years of experience in managing the land, including the use of fire. Workers have centuries of expertise in running scientific, medical, agricultural and service industries. The union movement needs to return to its rank-and-file roots so that the workforce can organise itself democratically, and fiercely protect our earth.
Australia’s very disasters prove the urgency! Instead of appealing to a parliamentary process that exists solely to protect capital, let’s take the reins. Organise for the nationalisation of energy under worker, Indigenous and community control. Make the fossil fuel culprits pay for the full restoration of the communities, lands and ecosystems they’ve destroyed. And it’s time big business pays back their long-excused taxes. Reversing climate warming will bring the change we so desperately need.
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