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Climate Change and the Australian bush fires.

by Dave Riley

[I haven't got the time today to bash these comments into a coherent post format, but I'll copy/paste them from where I invested them and come back later to edit the topic into a more useful form. And besides I've been asked to do it]

#1: The role of climate change

I'm not sure if the SP here are on the exact same page as the rest of Australia on this issue.Maybe they should study Climate Change with a bit more thoroughness than the way they've handled the topic in this article.

This primarily is a climate disaster and that disaster has roots , of course, in the capitalist system.

Sure services have been cut in regard to the CFA and these communities but, the main thing to note is that nothing could have stopped these fires.

That's the most devastating aspect. We have the death toll to prove the point that people who knew what was at stake as the inferno bore down on them, still perished.These people weren't fools or being careless.I'd guess that most could have died before the fire reached them, because the fire front would advance behind a massive radiation envelope driven by searing winds. This is how the fires jumped valleys.

You only have to look at these towns with twisted and melted corrugated iron to note that this was a sort of organic Ground Zero in action.

But in my state,Queensland, the Northern Tropics are flooded at the exact same time as Victoria burns. 60 % of the state is a declared disaster area because of the floods.

Bushfire management is complicated by the fact that the Australian bush has evolved to burn. Eucalyptus oil, for instance, found in every gum tree, is a powerful combustible. As Germaine Greer says , the indigenous population managed the landscape with fire but management can only go so far in way of amelioration when the droughts are more frequent and summer temperatures are rising.

The other factor is that the bush has been rolled right back by farmland -- so there's not an exact equivalent in the way she suggests. Nor is Australia, " a country covered with bush " as the SP says.

Land clearing has been massive in the past 200 odd years.For instance, in 1869, 88% of Victoria was forested (around 20 million ha.) but by 1987, 35% of Victoria was forested (around 8 million ha.)Today it would be even less.

My relative's farm in Yakandandah was spared yesterday by a dropping of the wind, but there's every likelihood that as conditions change that the fires could flare up again and the whole district will be at risk as it was on Sunday night.

As for the CFA...Like the Surf Life Saving Clubs across Australia -- the Country Fire Authority is a remarkable exercise in volunteerism. While it may seem politically proper to call for it to be professionalised that's not quite how the thing works as it is an exercise in community organising on a massive scale.

These volunteers should be given a wage --for their training time and call outs -- but the motivation is deeper than renumeration and it cannot simply be reduced to dollar value.

Nonetheless, there is a crisis in the CFA as a direct result of the impact of neoliberalism where familes are working longer hours and have less free time to invest in their local CFA brigade(Australia has some of the longest working hours in the Western World). More than likely these same people are wearing a massive mortgage in places, now burnt out, like Lake Mountain and Wittlesea.This is especially the case in regard to executive positions like brigade captains. That's where the administration crisis really kicks in.
Across Australia 220,000 volunteer firefighters are ready to protect our lives and property. If we had to pay them for their time, it would cost us something like $2 billion a year, but it's getting harder to attract them, and harder to keep them. Debates rage about hazard reduction burns, about whether people should stay in their houses or just get out, and about insurance levy issues. Reporter Jane Shields.
While there is sure to be a lot of chatter about the fires in way of future strategies, it's worth while noting that every time the bush is burnt, plant regrowth calls on up to 20% of available precipitation and ground water for the next 20 years to sustain the growth. This also means that less water freed from the catchment and the already thirsty river systems flow with reduced volume to any dam or irrigation network -- and the massive water crisis in Victoria (as all over Australia)worsens still more. Reference:
Paul Willis: I found it surprising when I got into this story that it was completely counterintuitive and what a massive effect it has on the environment of the whole Murray Darling system. In a nutshell what I looked at was the way that fires in the Snowy Mountains, when they wipe out the vegetation and wipe out the forests, as those forests grow back they take out water from the environment that would normally flow into the rivers, and we're talking about something like 20% of the water that would normally go into the river go into the growing forest, and this effect last for about 30 or 40 years
So this is a very vicious circle in way of the long term impact of Climate Changes.

See also:Meltdown, fires as climate emergency hits Australia: Urgent action required

#2: Default politics on the far left

The reference to Socialist Alternative also raises the same question as does the SP piece: the failure to address the over riding issue of Climate Change and chart its political as well as ecological significance. The left isn't greened up -- in fact it tends to be schematically blind to the significance of the issue in terms of campaigns and analysis.

I think it's the same in the UK too as far as I can judge.

Any left that fails that test loses a essential engagement with everyday political reality, a broad audience and organising potential. This isn't about counterposing class to climate nor of ignoring the over riding impact of capitalism on our existence.

I didn't say that the SP wasn't on the same page as the rest of the Oz left. I suggested it was isolating itself from a major political dynamic within the whole population -- the impact of climate change -- by failing to truly note its relevance.

The far left here, outside my own sector of alignment, simply fails to aggressively address that issue in terms of campaigning and the like.

The weekend before these fires saw a major Convergence in Canberra that established a national climate change movement with an agenda set for the year ahead. This was a major step forward in environment politics

We occupy its anti capitalist left wing along with a few other green lefts sprinkled across orgs , grassroots committees and academia.

So what I'm saying is that the far left has a choice to either engage with this issue or default on it. And while everything the SP or SAlt says about capitalism and spending is true, the argument becomes an either/ or one of displacing (perhaps inadvertently) the significance of the climate issue -- as though climate change is just another capitalist excuse for state irresponsibility.

I've been in bushfires and I know what they are like and I suggest that this one like so many others was simply unstoppable. Firefighting only really contains fires and shifts their paths. Conditions -- fuel and weather primarily -- decide when they die out.

Such is the awesome power of Nature.

And fires are an ecological reality in the Australian bush as the flora has evolved to burn.

On the question of arsonists -- the latest research does suggest that half of bush fires are deliberately lit. But what about the other half? This is the forensic complication of humans living and working in the bush because it is so very easy to spark an inferno like this: cigarette ash, broken bottle focusing sunlight, lightning strike, car backfire, etc.

This reminds me not so much about handy 'excuses' but the sort of humanity versus nature arguments that Marx and Engels so acutely explored. A relationship that has been expanded and updated so well in the works of John Bellamy Foster.

So this is indeed a Marxist issue that is more than simply a question of class. To not see that and explore that dialectic, only causes your analysis to be shallower.

Already trade unions are taking up collections on the job and sponsoring fund raising efforts to support the devastated families made homeless and losing members in these fires. This isn't nationalism as the SAlt article seems to suggest .This is solidarity as all working people can relate to this devastation.

So my point is that this is overwhelmingly a climate change issue unfolding in the context of capitalism. These fires, in effect, more so than the ones that burnt Canberra a few years back, absolutely put climate change as one of the major issues in this country-- alongside that of the economy. This occurs when all governments here pander to the mining companies, pulp mills, big agri business, and the like and fail resolutely to seriously address the issue.

There is a view on the far left which argues that environmental issues can be accommodated under capitalism and that , in effect as it is a bias,green politics is anathema to class consciousness.

OK. Fine. Dream on comrades.But I suggest these fires tell us that we're somewhere where Luxembourg said we had clear choices between socialism or climatic annihilation.

#3: Urban sprawl and the bush

One final point on the question of class.

The Australian suburban sprawl now advances as relentlessly "into the bush" as so often the only housing many working people can afford is located on the urban periphery. To some degree that also gets distributed across regional townships -- such as some of the towns that were destroyed in these fires -- Marysville is an example. A town like Kinglake, still very much under threat, as far as I knew it when I was working on Melbourne's northern edge is part of the peripheral mortgage belt of Melbourne despite its bush locale.

Some of my workmates were living there and paying off their houses with as much overtime as they could muster.

In Sydney this quest for affordable housing is colonising the Blue Mountains as a new urban hub despite the fact that these new semi rural suburbs are over two hours drive from the Sydney CBD.

Nonetheless people will commute these large distances to their place of work for the sake of being able to afford home ownership.Up until the nineties,(before urban renewal schemes were initiated) this phenomenon was so pervasive that cities like Brisbane was becoming something like a doughnut, losing its population to shires at its periphery.In fact Brisbane's population fell for a time. The fastest growing centres in Australia were a succession of outer, semi rural suburbs.

So thats' the interface with the bush that complicates associated desires to live with nature.

Obviously all these communities have fire management practices in place: off season burning, undergrowth and roof gutter clearing, etc. These communities are always on bush fire alert.

This of course complicates the whole Nature/Society interface in various ways. But to give you an idea of how potent that can be, I was in Sydney during the 1994 fires there and it was the most amazing experience of siege.

You could stand in the very middle of this massive metropolis among cafes and retail shops and look down major thoroughfares like Oxford and George Street and see the fires burning -- not just smoke, but flames -- the suburbs along the north western border of the city. Road and rail links to Newcastle to the north were cut. The city to the north and east was surrounded by fires and a fire was also consolidating to the south of the city.

And this was before major climate change factors had been seen to kick in.

In Victoria at the moment, they are talking about building dugouts as refuges in the same way that shelters were utilised during the London blitz.

And the analogy isn't a false one. I think of Slaughterhouse 5 and Dresden as an analogy for the sort of firestorms that are now being created in these climatic conditions.

The air temperature during these Vic fires -- independent of the inferno -- was 47C! With winds gusting over 80 kilometres/hour.

(Some of the figures for these fires are mind boggling as to their speed and massive radiant heat.Another strange occurrence was that these fires' initial ignition advanced often through the tree tops and not the undergrowth.So they moved much faster while airborn like that.)

Before the Victorian events, Adelaide sweltered through a heatwave during which at least 22 people died -- from the heat alone. In Melbourne, the electricity network was overloaded and failed for tens of thousands of homes because of power demands on the grid -- mainly for air conditioning.

While 181 people at least have perished in the fires, the figures for deaths and hospital admissions due to the massive heat and pollution (from the smoke, esp among asthmatics) I haven't as yet seen.

It is this factor that most concerns me in regard to my aged relatives who live in Melbourne.

Next week, the air temperatures are predicted to rise and the northerly winds to increase again.Today the town of Mansfield was spared by a weather change.

1 Com:

Dave Riley | February 13, 2009

The Nationalist Message: 'Tis obscenely crude how much peoples' genuine desire to solidarize with the bush fire victims has been converted into sentimental jingoism.

Sufferers' all perhaps, so that we can all get used to what it's going t be like as the economic downturn kicks in.

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