Fires, Floods, Failures: The climate emergency strikes Australia hard

Demanding action in the midst of the 2020 bushfire crisis. Photo by Alison Thorne.
Demanding action in the midst of the 2020 bushfire crisis. Photo by Alison Thorne.
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The science of climate change is settled to the same degree as the science of gravity. There is no doubt that human society — as distorted as it is by capitalism — is the driving force behind climate change. None. If you read a climate denial diatribe, you read the fantasies of someone who would deny that a ripe apple will fall from a tree. Or that a river will not flow downhill. Or that rain will not fall from the sky, as the rain has fallen on the east coast of Australia. In volumes not previously experienced since European colonisation.

The climate catastrophe is already here; it’s been here for my lifetime. Only the propaganda of the fossil fuel/mining industry has obscured that reality. A reality that now is the lived experience of the majority of the population of this continent. And yet still the deniers drive the politics, because there’s money still to be made in trashing the environment. And so the systemic absence of any strategy to mitigate or adapt to human-forced — capitalist-forced — disruption of the planet’s ecosystems is not a mistake.

Australia is a case in point.

The wildfires that swept the continent’s eastern coast during the summer of 2019-20 were, to use the very well-worn cliché, unprecedented. (For accuracy, it should be noted that similar fires hit the southwest, as well.) While the number of human deaths and injuries was fortunately low, eighty percent of the population was affected, directly or indirectly, and around a quarter of a million square kilometres laid waste. An estimated three billion animals died. Now, while it’s true that no one event can be attributed directly to climate change, the scene was set by years of drought and reduced rainfall. Added, of course, to over two centuries of colonial land degradation, as European farming methods and dispossession supplanted the tens of thousands of years of traditional land management. Two years on, the landscape is still scarred, with some ecosystems wiped out, some species extinct, and many communities simply abandoned by governments.

Many people still live in sheds, mobile homes or tents, and have limited access to basic services. They are, indeed, climate refugees. The pandemic has shown that governments can simply print money when necessity dictates. The plight of the fire victims is a political choice. Big business considers that there’s no profit in restoring people’s lives and homes. Which brings us to the ongoing flood disaster affecting the eastern seaboard and what lies ahead for the devastated communities there.

The cause of the east coast floods is much more directly attributable to the warming atmosphere. Warm air contains more energy and evaporates more water. The increase in average global temperature in the last 50 years means that rain events are more frequent and more extreme. There is a direct correlation — and the trend is global — with record-breaking floods on every continent, except Antarctica. The climate modelling of the past three decades is empirically confirmed by the high water stains on multi-storey buildings from New South Wales to Cologne to Natal. No amount of fossil fuel industry propaganda can whitewash those stains. Nor prevent newer, higher ones.

Nor can it erase the plight of the climate refugees. It is becoming ever clearer that the people of devastated northern New South Wales and southeastern Queensland towns are set to suffer the same enduring misery as the bushfire survivors. The capitalist state lacks both the will and the organisation to restore, rebuild and/or relocate communities.

The neoliberal “reforms” of the past 50 years have had one overwhelming economic effect. They privatised the benefits of capitalism and socialised the risks. To put it more bluntly, they shifted all of the costs onto the working class, small business and the poor generally. The climate crisis now lays all of that bare. Capitalism equals misery and death. It offers nothing in the face of the catastrophes it generates, because it is governed only by accumulation for its own sake. Accumulation characterised by planet-wide ecological vandalism and human misery.

More than two years on and some in these communities remain homeless. How long will those devastated by the recent floods have to wait? Photo by Alison Thorne.

More than two years on and some in these communities remain homeless. How long will those devastated by the recent floods have to wait? Photo by Alison Thorne.

What would a properly organised, compassionate society do about the flood crises, as a current example? It would provide immediate care, food and shelter, for one thing. It would safely clear and dispose of the wreckage and debris. And, with the local communities, it would plan the recovery, throwing all the available resources of the entire society towards that goal. Does that sound utopian? Not in the slightest. Just under 50 years ago, that was the precise response of the federal government to the obliteration of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Then, neoliberalism was an ideology of the future. The impulse towards collective activity was still strong. Even given the woeful state of the remote transport infrastructure of the time, thirty thousand people were evacuated within six days.

The triumph of neoliberal ideology is such that a centralised, coordinated, compassionate response was never considered either during the bushfire catastrophe nor the current disaster. Indeed, the Murdoch media was full of insinuations that the disaster was the fault of the victims for living in “flood-prone” areas. As if there was work and services elsewhere. As if at least some of the inundated areas were never at risk in earlier decades.

For me, the outstanding negation of the “do-nothing” capitalism of the Morrison government was the immediate collective response of the locals themselves. Hundreds of people were rescued from drowning inside their homes by the neighbour with the three-metre dingy or the jet ski. And helicopters provided by local pilots and appalled local millionaires. Meanwhile contracted rescue pilots complained in frustration about the lack of government orders to mobilise and assist. The military was not sent in, ostensibly because it was too wet! And then Prime Minister Morrison, ever the conniving, grubby bully, announced that only flooded areas inside a government-held electorate would receive extra relief!

That was too much, even for some government MPs. The near universal outrage saw relief quickly extended to flooded communities in the neighbouring constituency, which just happened to be held by the opposition. Morrison had been caught out in real time. Still, his cynical move illustrates that the distribution of relief is limited not by resources, but by politics. The money was there, all along. But a direct response acknowledges the existence of the crisis. The climate deniers and their backers cannot permit that. Climate destruction is profitable and nothing must interfere with the cycle of devastation. Not while there’s money to be made.

Of course, it’s one thing to call for the ousting of a government or the abolition of a brutal economic system. Which is, of course, the only sustainable way to deal with the climate crisis. But what can we demand of governments right now?

Firstly, what was possible in 1974 is certainly possible now. So evacuate those who wish to leave. There is ample accomodation in every major city, with vacant hotel suites everywhere. Secondly, send in whatever resources are necessary to clean up debris, restore services and commence reconstruction. Sure, that may lead to construction delays in the investor-driven housing sector, but the landlords can wait for their profits! It would be an easy thing to exempt owner-builders and public housing projects. No need to hurt those who need houses. Moreover, it would free up urgently needed construction machinery and materials.

Secondly, empower communities to make decisions about their futures and give them the resources to make those decisions.

Despite the vitriol of the Murdoch shouters, people moved to where the settlements existed. That they may be in flood-prone valleys and reclaimed swamps is the result of historical decisions, or the whim of the original land grabber six generations ago. It seems clear that in the era of climate crises, some communities will have to relocate. But that process must be under the control of those affected.

Capitalism has pushed the climate too far to stop the medium-term consequences of climate change. We are in the adaptation/mitigation phase. Floods will only get worse and more frequent. This is not a drill. Catastrophic fires will increase, too, although the reintroduction of Indigenous land management practices would minimise that hazard.

There’s no need for doomsday preparations; humanity has the means to get through this. But ultimately, it is only through the majority exerting control over the economy and ending the scramble for infinite expansion on a finite world that we will make the best out of a bad situation. And the time to act is right now! No more denial, no more delay, no more blah blah blah! Our world must not be reduced to ruins and those who will live in it be faced with a miserable existence. Failure is certainly not an option.

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