Australia, Environment

Climate emergency as Australia hit by unprecedented fires

Marx21’s Australian sibling organization Solidarity shares an update on the catastrophic and climate-change driven fires engulfing the country.

Double the area of the 2019 Amazon fires burnt. Apocalyptic scenes as skies turned red and smoke turned day into night. Thousands stranded in coastal holiday areas. Cities blanketed by smoke, producing some of the worst air pollution on the planet. Over a thousand homes lost and 19 confirmed dead so far as hundreds of fires continue to burn. And warnings that there is worse still to come.

Australia is in the middle of its worst ever bushfire season as the climate emergency dramatically plays out.

The country has always been known for its bushfires. But what we are seeing now is far from normal. Former Fire and Rescue boss Greg Mullins went public to say the summer was “the worst I have ever seen,” part of “a new age of unprecedented bushfire danger”.

The fire season is starting earlier and running longer, with major fires three months before summer had even begun this year. Drought conditions have produced the lowest rainfall on record between January and August across parts of eastern Australia. Without rain, huge areas of the country are so dry large fires have been unstoppable once they get going.

Climate change is producing hotter and drier conditions that are making bushfires in Australia more dangerous and more frequent.

Its impact has become blindingly obvious. Carol Sparks, mayor in the small northern NSW town of Glen Innes where two people died, said bluntly, “It’s climate change, there’s no doubt about it.”

But conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who once held up a lump of coal in parliament, has dismissed the concern. He even disappeared on holidays in Hawaii at the height of the bushfire crisis.

Residents turned on him when he visited the fire-hit town of Cobargo, with one telling the Prime Minister he should be “ashamed of himself” and had “left the country to burn”.

His government is full of fanatical supporters of the coal industry. Like Trump he campaigned in the last election promising to support new coal mines and jobs in coal. Mining companies exported $26 billion worth of the stuff last year.

During recent international climate talks Australia was fingered as among the developed economies “furthest off track” on meeting its Paris climate targets, with the second most emissions intensive energy sector among G20 countries.

Climate is a class issue

But the scale of this year’s disaster has directly impacted more people than ever before. Anyone working outside in major cities like Sydney and Canberra has faced days of hazardous air quality due to smoke from the fires. Canberra had the worst air quality of any city in the world on one day in early January.

Workers at ports and construction sites have stopped work due to unsafe conditions. Under industrial laws there is a right to stop work when there is a serious risk to safety. But asserting these rights requires strong workplace union organisation.

At Port Botany in Sydney bosses have tried to force outdoor work to continue in hazardous conditions. One company has docked pay for 600 employees who refused to work.

Climate change is a class issue—the worst impacts are going to be felt by workers and the poor. Those already working in unsafe or dangerous conditions are at particular risk.

Action around the immediate impacts also needs to be connected to the wider social threat the fires pose.

The immediate need is for more funding for firefighters and hazard reduction work. This means not only reversing recent funding cuts but more jobs to deal with the consequences of a hotter climate. This could mean jobs on country for Indigenous communities to help care for the land as well as more staff in national parks.

Instead of privatisation, we need government investment in renewable energy and public transport to slash carbon emissions. The fight for jobs and a just transition should be at the centre of the climate movement’s demands.

Many workers in Australia joined the global Strike for Climate in September. But we will need more working class involvement to have the power to win change. Otherwise the bushfire disaster is only a sign of things to come.

James Supple