Fires, floods, blackouts: Climate emergency hits Australia hard
The science of climate change is established to the same degree as the science of gravity. There is no doubt that human society – distorted as it is by capitalism – is driving climate change. Nothing. If you read a climate denialist rant, you are reading the fantasies of someone denying that a ripe apple fell from a tree. Or that a river won’t go down. Or that the rain will not fall from the sky, as the rain fell on the east coast of Australia. In unpublished volumes since European colonization.
The climate catastrophe is already here; it’s been here since my life. Only propaganda from the fossil fuel and mining industry has obscured this reality. A reality that is now the lived experience of the majority of the population of this continent. And yet deniers continue to lead politics, because there is still money to be made by destroying the environment. And so the systemic absence of any strategy to mitigate or adapt to the human-enforced – capitalism-enforced – disruption of the planet’s ecosystems is not a mistake.
Australia is a good example.
The wildfires that swept across the east coast of the continent during the summer of 2019-20 were, to use the very hackneyed cliché, unpublished. (For clarity, it should be noted that similar fires also struck the Southwest.) While the number of human fatalities and injuries was thankfully low, eighty percent of the population was affected, directly or indirectly, and approximately a quarter of a million square kilometers were devastated. Approximately three billion the animals died. Now, while it is true that no event can be attributed directly to climate change, the scene has been set by years of drought and reduced rainfall. Added, of course, to more than two centuries of colonial land degradation, as European agricultural methods and dispossession superseded tens of thousands of years of traditional land management. Two years later, 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 shacks, mobile homes or tents, with limited access to basic services. They are indeed climate refugees. The pandemic has shown that governments can simply print money when the need arises. The fate of the victims is a political choice. Big business sees no profit in restoring people’s lives and homes. Which brings us to the ongoing flood disaster affecting the east coast and what awaits the devastated communities there.
The Cause of the East Coast Floods is much more directly attributable to the warming of the atmosphere. Hot air contains more energy and evaporates more water. The increase in average global temperature over the past 50 years means that rainfall events are more frequent and more extreme. There is a direct correlation – and the trend is global – with record flooding on every continent except Antarctica. Climate modeling for the past three decades is empirically confirmed by water spots on multi-storey buildings from New South Wales to Cologne to Natal. No amount of fossil fuel industry propaganda can whiten these stains. Nor prevent new, higher ones.
Nor can it erase the plight of climate refugees. It is becoming increasingly clear that residents of devastated towns in northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland are set to suffer the same lasting misery as bushfire survivors. The capitalist state lacks both the will and the organization to restore, rebuild and/or relocate communities.
The neoliberal “reforms” of the past 50 years have had a crushing economic effect. They privatized the benefits of capitalism and socialized the risks. To put it more bluntly, they shifted all the costs onto the working class, small businesses and the poor in general. The climate crisis now lays all that bare. Capitalism is synonymous with misery and death. It offers nothing in the face of the catastrophes it engenders, because it is governed only by accumulation for its own sake. Accumulation characterized by planetary ecological vandalism and human misery.
What would a well-organized and compassionate society do on flood crises, as a current example? He would provide immediate care, food and shelter, for one thing. It would clear and safely dispose of the wreckage and debris. And, together with local communities, it would plan for recovery, mobilizing all available resources from across society towards this goal. Does this seem utopian to you? Not at all. Just under 50 years ago, this was the federal government’s precise response to the obliteration of Darwin by Hurricane Tracy in 1974. Back then, neoliberalism was an ideology of the future. The impulse towards collective activity was still strong. Even given the deplorable state of remote transportation infrastructure at the time, thirty thousand people were evacuated within six days.
The triumph of neoliberal ideology is such that a centralized, coordinated and compassionate response was never considered either during the bushfire disaster or the current disaster. Indeed, Murdoch’s media was full of insinuations that the disaster was the fault of the victims for living in “flood-prone” areas. As if there were work and services elsewhere. As if at least some of the flooded areas had never been threatened in previous decades.
For me, the striking negation of “do nothing” capitalism of the Morrison government was the immediate collective response of the residents themselves. Hundreds of people have been saved from drowning inside their homes by the neighbor with the three meter dingy or jet ski. And helicopters provided by local pilots and dismayed local millionaires. Meanwhile, contract rescue pilots have complained of frustration at the lack of government orders for mobilization and assistance. The soldiers were not sent, apparently because it was too wet! And then Prime Minister Morrison, ever the conniving and dirty bully, announced that only flooded areas inside a government-held electorate would receive further relief!
It was too much, even for some government deputies. Near-universal outrage quickly extended relief to flooded communities in the neighboring constituency, which just so happened to be held by the opposition. Morrison had been surprised in real time. Yet his cynical gesture illustrates that relief distribution is not limited by resources, but by politics. The money was there all the time. But a straightforward response acknowledges the existence of the crisis. Climate deniers and their supporters cannot allow this. Climate destruction is profitable and nothing should interfere with the cycle of devastation. Not while there is money to be made.
Of course, it is 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?
First, what was possible in 1974 is certainly possible now. So evacuate those who wish to leave. There are enough accommodations in every major city, with vacant hotel suites everywhere. Second, send all necessary resources to clean up debris, restore services, and begin reconstruction. Of course, this can lead to construction delays in the investor-focused housing sector, but owners can wait for their profits! It would be easy to exempt owner-builders and social housing projects. No need to hurt those who need homes. Moreover, it would free up urgently needed machinery and building materials.
Second, empower communities to make decisions about their future and give them the resources to make those decisions.
Despite the vitriol of Murdoch’s criers, people moved to where settlements existed. That they are in flood 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 this process must be under the control of the people concerned.
Capitalism has pushed the climate too far to stem the medium-term consequences of climate change. We are in the adaptation/mitigation phase. The floods will only get worse and multiply. This is not an exercise. Catastrophic fires will also increase, although the reintroduction of indigenous land management practices would reduce this risk.
There is no need for apocalyptic preparations; humanity has the means to get out of it. But in the end, only by exercising majority control over the economy and ending the rush of infinite expansion over a finite world will we make the best 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 live there will face a miserable existence. Failure is definitely not an option.