Phil Sandford and Derek Mortimer writing on the bushfire catastrophe from Australia
When British explorer Captain James Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in the Endeavour in 1770, he encountered a landscape carefully managed by its Indigenous inhabitants. For over 60,000 years the First Nations peoples had employed the controlled use of fire to create productive agricultural land, reminding some observers of stately English gardens.
On the 250th anniversary of Cook’s visit, large swathes of Australia have been devastated by apocalyptic fires that have raged almost unchecked, the worst in European recorded history. In a country already ravaged by a three-year drought, nothing has been seen like it for the intensity of heat, the speed with which the fires spread and the vast areas they covered as bushfires combined to form mega blazes. The infernos swept from alpine tops to the edge of the sea, consuming forests, farms, villages and entering towns.
By early January, twenty-seven lives had been lost, 1800 homes destroyed and smoke haze many times the safe level had blanketed rural and regional towns and Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
The effect on the environment is incalculable, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated the total animal death toll at 1.25 billion, insect deaths at 240 billion, plus an unaccountable destruction of reptiles. Six million hectares of land have been burned, and counting, double the size of the Amazon fires last summer, and twice the size of Belgium. Some of it is pasture but much is forest, including rain forest that has never before burned.
New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia declared states of emergency and residents of many towns were ordered to leave. In scenes reminiscent of disaster movies, many residents of Mallacoota, on Victoria’s east coast, had to be evacuated by Navy ships.
There is a palpable rage throughout the nation at Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government’s denial of climate change and his absence from the scenes of carnage until long after they had devastated vast areas. None was more explicit than in the village of Cobargo, southern NSW where a father and son had burned to death. Morrison tried to grab the hands of a reluctant woman, and a male fire fighter refused to shake his hand,
The fires began in September last year yet the Prime Minister was holidaying in Hawaii when the situation reached crisis point and he has continually downplayed the significance of climate change in the bushfires, aided by the Murdoch press. Morrison proudly brought a lump of coal into Parliament last year and opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese toured Queensland touting the use of coal just prior to the crisis.
The Acting Prime Minister while Morrison was in Hawaii, Michael McCormack, attacked ‘climate change hysteria’, adding ‘there has been a lot of arsonists out there’. He also blamed ‘self-combusting piles of manure’ for the fires.
While the bushfires raged Energy Minister Angus Taylor, widely seen as a climate change denier, was at the Madrid Climate Summit, joining Brazil in using carryover carbon credits, an accounting loophole, to meet the Paris emissions targets. Taylor did not even mention the disaster raging back home in Australia.
Tens of thousands protested against the Morrison government’s response to the bushfire crisis on 10 January in seven Australian cities, including Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Demands included funding for firefighters, relief and aid for affected communities, land and water sovereignty for indigenous communities, an immediate transition toward renewable energy, and a “just transition” for workers in the fossil fuel industry.
The NSW government cut 35% from the budget of the NSW branch of Fire and Rescue. According to the Fire Brigade Employees Union, ‘We have fewer firefighters now than we did eight years ago. Our trucks are old. We need more specialist equipment, not less. Some of our existing stations desperately need updating. We need safe protective uniforms and safe (sic) equipment. We need training. We need support after traumatic events. There is no fat to cut . . . a significant amount has been taken from the “expenses” budget – which is largely made up of our wages.’
Front line fire fighters were at one stage even crowd funding on social media to buy respiratory masks to protect them from thick choking smoke because of government failure.
The bushfires have a special significance for First Nations people like Lorena Allem: ‘Like you, I’ve watched in anguish and horror as fire lays waste to precious Yuin land, taking everything with it – lives, homes, animals, trees – but for First Nations people it is also burning up our memories, our sacred places, all the things which make us who we are.’
Climate change has been a critical issue in Australian politics in a way that contrasts sharply with the situation in Britain. In 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared it the great moral issue of our time but was unable to get an emissions trading scheme through parliament. He was replaced by Jullia Gillard, who introduced a carbon tax against fierce opposition. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said he would never lead a party that denied climate change and was dumped for climate sceptic Tony Abbott, who won the 2013 election after a vicious campaign against Gillard. When Turnbull replaced Abbott in 2015 he was under the control of the climate sceptics but was nonetheless in turn replaced by Scott Morrison.
After first claiming that the bushfires were a state responsibility, Morrison is now saying that the bushfires are terrible, but not unprecedented, and will be overcome with ‘Aussie spirit’.
The Morrison government also has an abysmal record in relation to the threat facing several Pacific islands from rising sea levels. At the Pacific Islands Forum last August, Morrison dismissed the threat. ‘If the world doesn’t reduce emissions’, said former Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga ‘. . . island countries like Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and others will be submerged into the sea by 2060.’
A group of 23 former emergency service chiefs, including representatives of every state and territory, warned in April 2019 of the dangerous situation that was developing, with forecasts of hot, dry and windy conditions developing:
‘Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services. Climate change, driven mainly by the burning of coal, oil and gas, is worsening these extreme weather events, including hot days, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, coastal flooding and catastrophic bushfire weather.
‘Australia has just experienced a summer of record-breaking heat, prolonged heatwaves, and devastating fires and floods – there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind: climate change is dangerous and it is affecting all of us now.’
The former chiefs were ignored by the Morrison government and have called a bushfire summit in late March, unless the bushfires continue, that will include fire service workers, Indigenous landowners, the military, the insurance industry and local government.
The failure of the government to respond in the early stage of the crisis contrasted with the enormous surge of support in the community. Muslim community members travelled hundreds of kilometres to provide free food to affected towns and the arts community responded powerfully, comedian Celeste Barber raising $47 million. One very ironic contribution came from Australia’s former colony, Papua New Guinea, which sent 100 engineers to help.
The Greens have consistently campaigned on climate change issues and a Greens motion to declare a climate emergency, supported by Labor, was voted down by the government in October, with Angus Taylor calling it ‘hollow symbolism’.
The bushfires are an alarming warning of the irrationality of capitalism. Science and logic point to the catastrophic impact of climate change yet powerful interests stand in the way of implementing policies to deal with it. Last year, the Labor government of Queensland under Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk gave the final go ahead to the controversial huge Adani Carmichael coal mine. The mine is the first of six waiting approval in the Galilee Basin. It will produce 20 million tonnes of coal a year. Clive Palmer invested $50 billion in helping defeat the Australian Labor Party at the 2018 election and is now poised to open the huge Waratah Coal Mine, four times the size of Adani. Australia is by far the world’s largest exporter of coal, valued at US$47 billion (37.8% of total coal exports), and the world’s third-largest exporter of CO2 in fossil fuels.
The James Cook anniversary provides a bizarre postscript. When he was Treasurer, Morrison stripped $48.7 million from the Australian Broadcasting Commission budget to pay for the commemoration, which includes a statue of Cook at Botany Bay. But once again the real history of Australia is being rewritten. Cook did not circumnavigate Australia, as Morrison claimed, and the country was not terra nullius, an empty land. Yet the man who opened the way for the invasion of the country and 250 years of oppression of the First Nations peoples is being honoured.
The extensive indigenous knowledge of the controlled use of fire was ignored and the warnings of climate change scientists derided. The consequences of this are now being displayed on television screens across the world.
On Indigenous care of the land see Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (2017) and Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012).