Australia’s megafires lay bare capitalism’s climate death march

January 21, 2020

From the January-February 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

Ever more of Australia’s terrain has been ravaged by fire since October, with no end in sight for weeks. The conflagration’s impact is unprecedented, leading to scenes such as the navy’s evacuation of hundreds of residents and tourists who had taken refuge on the beach of Mallacoota. Elsewhere, tens of thousands trying to evacuate were stranded for hours on gridlocked highways, while lines grew long at supermarkets and gas stations. The fires moved so fast that many people could not evacuate. There have been multiple waves of evacuations, one of which encompassed 250,000 people.

Australian firefighter’s photo of a backfire lit to prevent a fire from escaping control lines on Kangaroo Island on Jan. 3, 2020. Photo by Flickr/robdownunder

By mid-January, 28 people had died—not counting heart attacks and other deaths triggered by the toxic smoke choking cities like Sydney1See “Governments must act on public health emergency from bushfire smoke, medical groups say,” The Guardian, Dec. 15, 2019. and darkening skies and glaciers 1,000 miles away in New Zealand. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and 17 million acres burned. More than one billion mammals, birds and reptiles were killed or affected, and uncounted species at risk of extinction. So immense are the fires that they create their own weather, including fire tornados that killed some of the volunteer firefighters.

Scientists warn that burned forests have reached a tipping point much earlier than expected, meaning they will turn into shrubland, savanna or grassland, intensifying the fire cycle. At the same time, this marks the opening of an era where megafires will be common.

Climate crisis is not a threat in the far future, or even near. The disaster is upon us. The questions remain: will human society act to keep the disaster from spiraling into the collapse of civilization? And how will society adapt to the changes already underway? It is not too late, as long as we can transform the foundations of society—in other words, social revolution.

MORRISON’S HEAD IN BURNING SAND

The Australian political establishment is working hard to give the worst answer to both questions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, famous for brandishing a lump of coal in parliament, quietly left for vacation, only to return when photos of him relaxing in Hawaii enraged the public. Upon returning, he spouted more lies minimizing climate change, since Australia has “always had bushfires.” His deputy prime minister called anyone citing climate change “inner-city raving lunatics.”

The fact remains that 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record—and its driest. If humanity had not been assaulted with climate denial propaganda for decades, everyone would recognize climate change at work. However, Morrison and his Liberal Party are not the only ones spreading those lies. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire—parroted by an army of twitterbots2See “These Climate Science Deniers are Spreading Misinformation about the Australian Bushfires,” DeSmog, Jan. 9, 2020.—is busy shouting that the fires are due to arson, or Greens, or anything but climate change. Climate denial revealed itself as an extremism whose longstanding normalization eased the way for other far-right ideology to be normalized.

In the midst of the catastrophic fires, Morrison and Murdoch have focused less on protecting lives and preventing fires, or even paying the firefighters, than on protecting the privileges and subsidies granted to the coal and natural gas industries. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal and second in liquid natural gas. In the usual lying language of capitalists, they talk about the jobs that they are supposedly protecting, but it’s about profits and power, not jobs. Morrison is pushing full steam ahead the opening of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, one of the largest in the world, to export coal to India with subsidies from both countries’ governments. At the same time, his government has been pushing laws to criminalize climate protests.

That is why Morrison had to beat a hasty retreat from furious residents in some of the fire-ravaged towns he tried to visit. One viral clip showed him grabbing the hand of a woman in Cobargo who refused to shake hands, then being protected by a burly aide when the woman tried to demand funding for firefighters.

‘REAL ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE’

On Jan. 10, thousands came out in nine cities to protest “because we’re outraged about our government’s criminal negligence about the bushfire crisis, exacerbated by climate change. We are protesting to give a voice to the tens of thousands of people who want real action on climate change and real funding for relief services.” Their main demands were funding for firefighters, immediate rapid transition away from fossil fuels, a just transition for workers in fossil fuel industries, and justice for Indigenous communities, with land and water sovereignty.

Morrison and his government are not only aggravating Australia’s suffering. They banded together with the worst climate criminals, from Donald Trump to the oil companies, at the UN’s COP25 (Conference of Parties to the climate convention) in Madrid last December. They joined hands with China, India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia to block any progress.

That obstructionism stood in sharp contrast to the passion and urgency of the youth climate strikes that have spread across the globe in the past year and a half, as well as the alarm bells rung by hundreds of climate scientists and the immediate suffering wrought by fires, hurricanes, floods and drought with mounting frequency.

Despite withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, Trump still used its framework to keep major polluters from being held liable for damages to poor countries and to push for ineffective and inequitable rules for trading emissions permits and offsets.

Four years ago, the Paris Agreement was touted despite its total inadequacy, because supposedly the nations of the world would ramp up their climate action commitments by 2020. Leading up to COP25, scientists released a slew of reports in the vain hope of pushing governments to agree on real action. But the U.S. and its fossil-fueled allies stopped COP25 from even calling for countries to make such commitments, although the final text admits the gap between stated targets and what is urgently needed.

YOUTH, INDIGENOUS FIGHT BACK FOR THEIR LIVES

Having fought this obstructionism from the beginning of their school strikes, the youth organized the third Global Climate Strike for Dec. 6 to coincide with COP25. Strike actions took place in numerous cities in almost all countries. Half a million marched in Madrid, where COP25 was underway. Protesters in Washington D.C. blockaded streets and disrupted traffic for seven hours. Many actions targeted banks such as Chase that are the biggest financial backers of fossil fuel projects.

On Dec. 9, the day after two more forest-protecting Indigenous leaders were murdered in the Amazon, Minga Indigena, the Indigenous peoples’ alternative to COP25, joined with Extinction Rebellion to block the road to the summit. Indigenous peoples only get token representation at the UN’s process, despite the fact that Indigenous-controlled territories maintain the most biodiversity and the greatest resistance to climate-fouling habitat destruction. Minga’s own summit worked out a set of proposals3See https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/10FEca7UBnwK0rlRORrL26B3hp7k5mB-u. they later delivered to COP25. They warned:

“The patriarchal, capitalist and colonialist system has brought us into this climate crisis. We see many representatives of states considering only mercantile and financial profit, without taking into account the importance of life. For this reason we understand that they are accomplices of all this destruction.”

CLIMATE STRIKERS TAKE CHARGE

Their nine recommendations ranged from ending the persecution of Indigenous leaders for protecting their territory to rejecting the commodification of nature and neocolonialist programs that pretend to reduce deforestation.

Inside COP25 itself, 300 youth strikers, working with Indigenous and other groups, took over the main plenary hall on Dec. 11 to demand that richer countries “step up and pay up” for the damage caused by spiraling climate disasters. Rather than playing around with emissions markets, they demanded real immediate limits on extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. “The oceans are rising and so are we!” they chanted. “We are unstoppable, another world is possible!”

The rising seas exacerbated the disaster in Jakarta, Indonesia, which experienced its heaviest rainfall in 24 hours on record Jan. 1. The flooding and landslides killed 67 people. More monsoon downpours are expected. Most vulnerable are poor neighborhoods, many of which have been polluted by wastewater and risk disease outbreaks, much as Hurricane Harvey spread toxic industrial waste in and around Houston in 2017. While the ocean is rising, North Jakarta has sunk eight feet in ten years, as the city’s groundwater is used up. Jakarta’s metropolitan area is the world’s second most populous, but the habitability of substantial areas is threatened, and the government plans to move the capital—but not most of the people—to another island.

While most disasters do not receive the media attention given to Australia’s fires, the truth is that wildfires are on the rise from the Amazon to Indonesia, from California to the Congo rainforest, from Russia to Greece. Recent years have also seen climate-fueled record-breaking floods, droughts and deadly heat waves in numerous countries, and unprecedented local flooding from tropical cyclones (hurricanes). Some island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives may disappear under rising seas in a few decades.

In Mozambique, devastated by two cyclones last year, more than 2.5 million people still face food shortages. Puerto Rico was more vulnerable to its January earthquakes because of the destruction from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and because of malign neglect by the racist Trump administration and the corrupt administration of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. Climate change is one factor forcing waves of refugees around the world to leave their homes, including people leaving farm work in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and seeking work in the U.S. and Mexico.

The disaster is global. We are not, as some say, sleepwalking into climate change. No, very powerful people are forcing humanity into a death march toward climate catastrophe.

CLIMATE POLLUTERS DOUBLE DOWN

Major climate polluters, both corporations and nations, are rushing to extract every last bit of fossil fuel and turn forests and peatlands into moneymaking plantations and pastures—with full knowledge that they are destroying the future of generations now living and yet to be born. Each one is on the path to spewing more and more, not less, greenhouse gas emissions, as if there is no tomorrow. And they continue to sow doubt and sabotage any restrictions.

The U.S. keeps pushing the fracking boom that made it the biggest producer of oil and natural gas under the administration of Barack Obama—who still brags about it. That has accelerated under Donald Trump.

  • China points to its increased production of renewable energy but is building 148 gigawatts of new coal-fired plants—as much as the capacity of the entire European Union.
  • Canada keeps trying to open the floodgates for its tar sands mines and pipelines to the world market, and is considering approval of its largest ever open-pit tar sands mine.
  • Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro gave the green light to genocide and burning the Amazon rainforest, resulting in a spike in both deforestation and murders of Indigenous people and environmental defenders.
  • Norway, at the same time it touts plans to lower domestic carbon emissions, plans more quietly to ramp up its oil production by 40% over the next four years.
  • Ten oil companies aim to invest $9 billion to pump 5.7 billion barrels of oil and gas from the North Sea, far more than the UK’s carbon budget allows.

YOUTH FIGHT INACTION OF THE POWERS THAT BE

Emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high last year. At the same time, scientific reports about our prospects keep getting more dire.

Top denialists in power like Scott Morrison, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump act as if they think the catastrophic consequences of climate change will fall only on the masses, and they will be able to escape it, even profit from it. They may be right, at first, but eventually the crumbling of society will catch up with those who live long enough. That truth cannot penetrate their delusions precisely because they are acting as personifications of capital. As Karl Marx pointed out, “After me the flood!” is the capitalist watchword.

No wonder so many young people are furious, desperate, anxious, frustrated! No wonder they take to the streets and denounce the inaction and lying rhetoric of governments! No wonder they want swift, radical action now!

The rush to catastrophe is a worldwide phenomenon and all the capitalist parties are complicit. However, the fanatical scorched-earth onslaught of reactionaries like Trump and Bolsonaro has raised such alarm that the climate movement is full of talk of the need to vote them out. They are indeed paragons of climate chaos, but the electoral alternatives promise only a slower path to destruction. We cannot allow our thought to be confined to this system’s limits at a time when the only practical approach is a revolutionary one. The whole system the youth are marching against is fighting them to the death. It’s time to return the favor.


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