Premonition of the future
Australia’s fires are a perfect illustration of the environmental crisis facing the planet, writes Eddie Ford
What is happening right now in Australia is a catastrophe on a nearly unimaginable scale – large parts of that continent are on fire, with no sign of it subsiding. In fact, things could get worse.
Almost 2,000 houses have been destroyed so far in the months-long bushfire crisis, with temperatures likely tosoarbytheweekend-leadingtofear that fires could merge to create a new mega-blaze. Every state and territory has been affected this summer, but the biggest fires are burning along stretches of the eastern and southern coast. That includes areas around Sydney, Adelaide and now Melbourne. Fanned by strong, highly changeable winds, temperatures above 40 ̊C and widespread drought conditions, some of the more than 200 fires are burning so powerfully that they are forming their own weather systems - even causing lightning strikes sparking new blazes, through pyrocumulonimbus clouds that can reduce ground-level sunlight in the same manner as a ‘nuclear winter’ effect.1 No wonder the New South Wales transport minister, Andrew Constance, told ABC radio: “This isn’t a bushfire: it’s an atomic bomb”.
With smoke enveloping cities, doctors have warned of increased respiratory dangers - especially to vulnerable people such as the elderly, children and pregnant women. The Bureau of Meteorology reported that visibility in Melbourne was less than a kilometre. More than 6.3 million hectares have gone up in flames - one hectare being roughly the size of a sports field. Putting that into some sort of perspective, some 900,000 hectares burned in the 2019 Amazon fires and around 800,000 hectares in 2018 in California. The NSW Rural Fire Service pointed out that by the beginning of the week, 3.41 million hectares had burned - in the past few years, the total area burned for a whole season was about 280,000 hectares. The Gospers Mountain fire, which started in a lightning strike north-west of Sydney in late October and has now burned about 500,000 hectares, is now combining with others on the NSW central coast to create a mega- blaze. Gospers is almost certainly the largest single ignition-point forest fire recorded in Australia and, for mid-latitude forests, possibly the world – a monster that is near impossible to contain unless there is substantial rain.
Terrifyingly, one study estimated that half a billion animals have died in NSW alone. Obviously, the fires do not only kill animals directly: they also destroy the habitat, leaving survivors in afarmorevulnerablestate,evenafter the fires have gone. More than 100,000 cows and sheep may also have been lost, which is devastating for farmers. Australia this summer2 has had a particularly hot, dry spell across the country, thanks to a natural weather phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, similar to El Niño, whereby you get different sea-surface temperatures in opposite parts of the Indian Ocean. Temperatures in the eastern part of the ocean oscillate between warm and cold compared with the western part, cycling through phases referred to as “positive”, “neutral” and “negative”. The dipole’s positive phase this time has been the strongest for six decades, meaning warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. The result: higher-than- average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia.
However, needless to say, rising
CO2 levels are having an especially devastating effect on Australia, which has been getting hotter over recent decades and is expected to continue doing so - another terrifying notion. On December 18 an average maximum of 41.9 ̊C was recorded, which comes on top of a long period of drought. At the risk of stating the obvious, the more extreme weather patterns and higher temperatures increase the risk of bushfires and allow them to spread faster and wider.
Of any continent inhabited by human beings, Australia is the most ecologically fragile. When humans first got to the continent about 60,000 years ago, they were confronted by megafauna - huge marsupials of all sorts, not to mention rich vegetation. When presented with the opportunity of a free lunch, the first aboriginals - representing a somewhat degenerated form of ‘primitive communism’ – were able to kill these large animals easily, in vast numbers, as they were completely docile, unwisely having no fear of humans.
The upshot was that these new arrivals managed to wipe out the megafauna in an extraordinarily short period of time, the same as in northern Eurasia and the Americas. The majority of megafauna, like, famously the mammoths, became extinct within the last 43,000 years or so - for example, in Japan about 30,000 years ago, in North America 13,000 years ago and South America about 500 years later, in Cyprus 10,000 years ago, in New Zealand 700 years ago. In Australia the only animals that survived were those that could run fast, fly away, live under water or bury themselves underground.
Though human entry into Australia caused a marked degradation in the eco-system, it was sustainable until the first Europeans appeared on the scene, which saw further ecological destruction. This included rapid desertification and the introduction of all manner of invasive species - like cute bunny rabbits, which proceeded to infest the entire continent and, crazily, the cane toad. Like rabbits, cane toads can breed at a staggering rate, and their tadpoles are highly toxic to most animals, if eaten. Not forgetting, albeit accidentally, the black rat, brown rat, Pacific rat, house mouse and the five- striped palm squirrel. If you want a perfect illustration of the environmental crisis we are all facing, here it is before our very eyes - in Australia.
Itisnotasiffiresarenewto Australia, of course. But rather it is the sheer extent and ferocity of them. What is sickeningly ironic about the situation is that the current Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, went into the 2019 general election mocking environmental activists as “inner-city raving lunatics”, whilst his deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, told Radio National that “pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies” are “trying to get a political point score” for raising the link between climate crisis, drought and the devastating bushfires. Morrison can only be classified as a climate change-denier and a Trump- like champion of fossil fuel industries, like his beloved coal industry. He is notorious for his 2017 high-profile stunt of bringing a lump of coal into the House of Representatives and urging MPs: “Don’t be afraid”. Telling you everything you need to know about them, the Liberals - surprisingly winning the election - are in the process of opening up Australia’s biggest coal mineandoneofthelargestintheworld.
Adani Mining’s Carmichael coal mine and rail project, originally intending to represent a $16.5 billion investment, will at peak capacity dig up and transport about 60 million tonnes of coal a year for export - mainly to India, but also China, Japan and even Britain. In a court case we discovered that much of it will be “low quality” and “high ash”. Adani expects the mine to produce 2.3 billion tonnes over 60 years. The project will consist of a network of open cut and underground mines in the Galilee Basin region of central Queensland, an area roughly seven times the size of Sydney harbour. Five million tonnes of seabed will be dug up and dumped within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in order to expand Abbot Point for these exports. The scheme could have a potentially disastrous ecological impact upon the reef, groundwater at its site and its hefty carbon emissions - sheer madness, given the climate-change crisis engulfing the world.
According to the International Energy Agency, Australia was the fourth largest producer of coal in 2017. It also has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates. The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last of 57 countries for its climate policy, saying it had gone backwards under the Morrison government. Not that Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party are the only ones in hock to the coal industry: the Labor Party led by Anthony Albanese too has been accused of courting ‘pro-coal’ voters in the wake of its traumatic election loss.
Morrison has been described as a master tactician, but he is not doing very well at the moment. His handling of the current crisis has been heavily criticised. Pictures of him on holiday in Hawaii with his family certainly did not help, forcing him to issue an apology saying he “deeply regrets” any offence caused by him taking leave during the fires. He has been castigated for running “absolutely obscene” political ads on social media during the fires. One 50-second video released on Twitter and Facebook summarised the government’s response to the crisis - set to electronic music over images of the relief efforts, defence craft, and theprimeminister’svisitstoaffected communities.
Morrison also said that the fires were “the work of arsonists”. That might possibly be true - it would not be the first time - but you do not get the mind- boggling spread and intensity without other factors. It is wind and temperature, stupid. None of this is to suggest that if Australia dutifully abided by the Paris or Madrid agreements, then the world would be fine and Australia would not be suffering these fires. Clearly the solution has to be global.
But here is the rub. The idea of an ecologically sustainable capitalism is deeply problematic at the very least - simply because it is based on expansion for its own sake, production for the sake of production. And if you do not have expansion, then you do not have capitalism. If you wanted to design a system that stands in direct contradiction to the eco-system, then you would invent capitalism. Capitalists and their political outriders will tell you that there are near endless ways to make money through ‘going green’, which is undoubtedly true. All sorts of quack technology and con-jobs have been invented, like the complete nonsense that is carbon trading.
What climate change poses is the necessity of global control by the global population, led by the working class - that is the only viable solution. Which immediately brings up the question of socialism: the only way to deal with the question seriously - the tyranny of profit and the fast buck has to be challenged.
1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumulonimbus_ flammagenitus.
2. Australian summer goes from December to February.
Australian summer goes from December to February.↩