By James Cogan, wsws.org
Intense heat and winds over the weekend fanned the fires that have been engulfing ever-increasing tracts of Australia since September. The south east of the continent—including the Gippsland and North Eastern districts of the state of Victoria and the South Coast, Southern Highlands and Snowy Mountains districts of the state of New South Wales (NSW)—have been the most severely impacted in recent days, along with Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia.
Raging blazes forced tens of thousands of people to seek safety in emergency centres or on the waterfront, while exhausted fire crews focused on saving properties in the face of unpredictable and volatile fires so large that they generate their own weather. Inland rural communities and coastal towns, best known as either popular summer tourist destinations or productive agricultural areas, have been cut off by road closures and the loss of electricity and mobile phone reception.
In NSW, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons stated on Sunday evening that there had been “a lot of damage and destruction.” He announced that at least 60 homes had been lost but warned that property losses over the weekend could run into the “hundreds.” In Victoria, at least 110 properties were lost, a figure that is also expected to soar as assessments are made in currently inaccessible areas.
The number of deaths attributed to the protracted 2019–2020 fire season currently stands at 24. Two men were killed on Kangaroo Island and another died fighting fires in southern NSW on the weekend. At least 1,600 homes have been destroyed, along with hundreds of farm buildings and vehicles. The Insurance Council of Australia has reported that its member institutions have so far received 5,850 bushfire claims, totally some $375 million, and expect thousands more claims. Stock losses are likely to be very high in some of fire ravaged agricultural areas.
Around seven million hectares of bushland have now been burnt out, with the most severe summer months of the fire season just beginning. By comparison, approximately one million hectares were burnt out in the Amazon fires in mid-2019 and some 765,000 hectares during the wildfires that ravaged California in 2018, and 105,000 hectares in 2019.
Conditions have eased slightly at the beginning of the week, with lower temperatures and a small amount of rainfall in some areas, though far from enough to extinguish the fires. By the end of the week, however, heat and winds will soar. Andrew Crisp, the Emergency Management Commissioner in Victoria, stated bluntly to journalists yesterday that the fires “will take off again.”
A large proportion of the Australian population is breathing hazardous air due to the sheer volume of smoke blanketing much of the country. Canberra, the national capital, was ranked last week as the most polluted city on earth as smoke blew in from fires to its north, south and east. Government departments sent notices last night to thousands of public servants not to come to their offices for the next 48 hours. The National Art Gallery and universities have closed.
“The indifference shown by the Morrison government towards the bushfire crisis and its victims is simply the sharpest expression of the attitude of the political establishment as a whole, including the Labor Party opposition. Governments at the state and federal level, Labor and Liberal, are responsible for the lack of funding for fire services, the lack of disaster planning and, along with governments around the world, for the climate change that is a major factor in creating the conditions for the widespread bushfires…”
The fire crisis is unprecedented and is the scientifically predicted outcome of long-term global warming. The rise in temperatures and related climatic shifts have resulted in the south of the Australian continent experiencing hotter conditions, reduced rainfall and more frequent and severe drought over the past three decades.
2019 is now officially the hottest year on record in Australia, meaning the 10 hottest years on record have been in the 14 years since 2005. On Saturday, the north-western Sydney suburb of Penrith was one of the hottest places on earth, with a temperature high of 48.9 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). The previous high in the sprawling working-class area was 47.3C in January 2018.
The increased impact of heat, drought and fire in the south of Australia is just one consequence of the change brought about by global warming. In the tropical north, communities are once again preparing for a catastrophic “wet season,” which now brings historic levels of rainfalls as well as the prospect of larger and more destructive more intense cyclones. The flooding in north Queensland in January–February 2019 was the worst on record.
A discernible shift is underway in how masses of people view the political parties and institutions that have downplayed or denied the reality of climate change. Successive governments, both conservative and Labor, have responded with indifference and inaction to the increasingly strident warnings and the expert appeals for stepped-up preparations. Committed to the interests of the Australian capitalist elite, they have sought to defend the corporate profits that derive from fossil fuel use, while meeting the selfish demands for tax cuts by the wealthy. Vast resources have been allocated to building up the military, while even the pretense of international cooperation to stem global warming has been increasingly cast aside.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his conservative Liberal-National Coalition government is the current focus of burgeoning popular anger. As recently as December, Morrison and members of his cabinet were continuing to insist that there was no need for “anxiety” as Australia has always experienced fires. As the country burned, Morrison left for a holiday in Hawaii. National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack labelled those linking the conditions to climate change as “inner-city raving lunatics.”
Morrison spent the weekend in face-saving efforts to ward off criticism of his government. On Saturday, he announced the largest call-up of part-time military reservists—some 3,000 in total—to assist the firefighting effort. The decision provoked a public outburst of frustration from the NSW RFS Commissioner Fitzsimmons, who only heard of the decision from the media. He was forced to allocate staff to establish what type of military personnel were being mobilised and whether they could even be of use.
The military call-up, moreover, has served only to underscore the extent to which the civilian fire, health and other services have been denied the funding, equipment and staffing necessary to respond to the type of conditions they now face. Billions are being spent on the preparations for war as the expense of essential services.
In April 2019, the Morrison government was warned in a letter sent by 23 former top fire and other emergency services officials that the coming fire season would be catastrophic. They called for a national summit to discuss preparations, including urgent moves to increase the number of firefighting aircraft that would be operational over Australia before the fire season began.
Despite being the most fire-prone continent, Australia does not have its own substantial national, professionally-staffed fleet of water-bombing planes and helicopters. Instead, a joint federal-state government authority, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), contracts aircraft from private companies, many from the US, depending on their availability and price of hire. The NAFC has been requesting greater funding since at least 2016 and received only token additional resources.
The state services responsible for fighting fires outside of the metropolitan areas are largely made up of volunteers. As recent days have demonstrated again, community-based fire units with intimate knowledge of the local terrain and conditions are irreplaceable in the midst of fires. However, the personnel and equipment available to bodies such as the Rural Fire Service in NSW and Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria is inadequate.
The indifference shown by the Morrison government towards the bushfire crisis and its victims is simply the sharpest expression of the attitude of the political establishment as a whole, including the Labor Party opposition. Governments at the state and federal level, Labor and Liberal, are responsible for the lack of funding for fire services, the lack of disaster planning and, along with governments around the world, for the climate change that is a major factor in creating the conditions for the widespread bushfires.
All of them defend the profit system that places profits ahead of the lives and well-being of masses of ordinary working people. Socialism, and the vast economic, political and social change that is necessary on a world scale to address climate change, will come about only as the byproduct of an international and independent movement of the working class.
Suffer the animals—as usual
Human imbecility, self-centeredness and corruption have, as usual, taken a horrid toll on animals. The media keeps blaring about the “loss of property” and human lives (24 to date), but such casualties of this epochal but long foreseen event, sad as they are, are puny by comparison to the animal casualty figures, likely to top one billion—the vast majority killed in the most excruciating form by flames, asphyxiation, starvation and other related curses triggered by this event. And more like it are in the offing, as indicated by this article, while the political class of Australia does less than nothing.
Considering what these capitalism-intoxicated white settler populations have done with such majestic continent-sized nations; their culture-wide lack of empathy and respect for the entrusted ecoanimal systems and cultures they took possession of, we can say with authority the Australians hardly deserve Australia any more than the Americans deserve North America, as both nations have acted like raging cancers on these lands instead of loving and responsible custodians.
Australia: Climate change and the bushfire crisis
By Frank Gaglioti, wsws.org Australia is currently experiencing catastrophic bushfires throughout much of the country and bushfire smoke is enveloping towns and major cities. While the Australian countryside has always had fires that have shaped the landscape in many ways, the current fire season is qualitatively different to those in the past.
4 January 2020
Climate scientists, who have been warning of the impact of climate change since the 1980s, are highlighting the influence of global warming that is increasing the ferocity of bushfires.
Devastating forest fires are an international phenomenon. Last year has seen major forest fires in Sweden, Portugal, Italy, California, Alaska and Siberia, as well as in Africa and South America.
The driving force to the changes in the climate is the steady increase of greenhouse gases into the environment.
According to the State of the Climate 2018 report for Australia produced by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the concentrations of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have continued to increase.
Scientists estimate that the concentrations of greenhouse gases have not been so high for 800,000 years. The increases are mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels.
The steady rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases has increased global temperatures. According to the State of the Climate 2018 report: “Globally averaged air temperature has warmed by over 1 degree Celsius since records began in 1850, and each of the last four decades has been warmer than the previous one.”
NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies estimates that global temperatures in 2018 were 0.83 degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1951 to 1980 mean. The past five years to 2018 have been the warmest in the modern record.
“The long-term temperature trend is far more important than the ranking of individual years, and that trend is an upward one… The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years. The degree of warming during the past four years has been exceptional, both on land and in the ocean,” Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), said.
The steadily increasing temperatures are causing major shifts in the world’s climate.
University of Canberra climate scientist and lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth assessment report Sophie Lewis assessed that the fire danger rating trend in Australia has been on the rise for half a century.
“There is something in the climatology that has changed; it’s a very clear trend,” Lewis said.
The current intense fire season points to two indicators of the shift in climate: there is no El Niño weather pattern as occurred in the severe 2009, 2003 and 1994 bushfire seasons, and this year’s season started early.
El Niño or the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle involves fluctuations in ocean and atmospheric temperatures in the east-central Equatorial Pacific that tend to bring about hotter, dryer conditions in Australia.
A study conducted by senior research scientist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), Chris Lucas, and the manager of research and development at the Country Fire Authority, Sarah Harris, have identified the central drivers of the Australian climate.
The two scientists examined seasonal fire weather history for 44 years at 39 different weather stations in order to reveal the long-term trends affecting fire weather. They found that while El Niño is the most important cause of extreme fire conditions, the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) also have a profound effect on climate.
The IOD are fluctuations in sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean. SAM describes the north south movement of the westerly wind belt circling Antarctica and is an important indicator of rainfall in southern Australia.
“Long-term climate change in Australia is an undeniable reality,” Lucas and Harris state.
El Niño, IOD and SAM control the natural variability in the environment and the Australian climate. The impact of global warming on these weather patterns has created the conditions for the current catastrophic bushfire disaster.
The State of the Climate 2018 notes strong land surface temperature increases and a 10 to 20 percent decline in cool season rainfall across southern Australia since the 1970s. These changes are closely associated with increasing human greenhouse gas emissions, as well as natural variability.
A report published by the Climate Council in November 2019 entitled ‘This is Not Normal’: Climate change and escalating bushfire risk pointed out that rainfall for NSW from January to August has been the lowest on record for most of the state. Climate change has exacerbated the record dry conditions.
The increase in temperatures enhances plant transpiration leading to significantly dryer vegetation that can be set alight with the slightest spark. It has also led to the unprecedented situation where wet rainforests in NSW and Queensland have been burnt out this fire season.
“Heat is a factor too, both exacerbating dry conditions and enabling sparks to take hold. For instance, virtually the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin has experienced record-breaking heat this year (2019),” the ‘This is Not Normal’report stated.
Global warming is also causing an increase in the length of the fire season. The Australian fire season usually takes place in the height of summer in January and February, but this year the season started in early spring. The lengthening of the fire season has led to an overlap with the northern hemisphere season, making the international sharing arrangement for expensive firefighting gear, such as aeroplanes and helicopters that dump fire retardant, far more difficult.
“We’re all feeling it… As fire seasons ramp up and get longer—and they definitely seem to be doing that, the science tells us that—it places more demand on aircraft to support the firefighting,” general manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre Richard Alder told the New York Times.
One of the most devastating and tragic aspects of global warming is the increased intensity of the forest fires with many being assessed as at the catastrophic level. These fires are so fierce that firefighters are powerless to put them out.
This category of fire was first developed after the 2003 Canberra fires and the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria that killed 179 people. It was the first time in Australia that fires were known to produce their own weather pattern—a supercell thunderstorm known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud.
According to Australian Capital Territory (ACT) emergency services, this produced horizontal winds of 250 km/h (160 mph) and a vertical air speed of 150 km/h (93 mph), and the resulting pyrocumulonimbus cloud produced a flashover covering 120 hectares (300 acres) in 0.04 seconds. A flashover is a near simultaneous combustion.
Last year on 12 November the greater Sydney area, including surrounding districts of the Blue Mountains, the Greater Hunter and Central Coast, the Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions, confronted catastrophic level fires. It was the first time the category applied to such a large populated area, consisting of six million people.
Such firestorms are known to occur in unstable weather conditions accompanied by low humidity, strong winds and high temperatures. According to the ‘This is Not Normal’ report, with the greater Sydney fire “the atmosphere was relatively stable and therefore shouldn’t have been conducive to these wildly unpredictable and dangerous events. Yet it happened.”
Global warming is also producing an increased frequency of lightning strikes that start fires. A paper published in the Science magazine in 2014 entitled Projected increase in lightning strikes in the United States due to global warming estimated a 12 percent increase in strikes for every degree Celsius of warming.
According to an article published in the Scientific American in October 2017, Here’s What We Know about Wildfires and Climate Change, bushfires set up feedback loops. Trees and plant life in general are stored repositories of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. When the plants are burnt the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere increasing greenhouse gases and increasing global temperatures. In fires such as those in Alaska, Siberia and Sweden, metres in depth of peat can burn in a single fire.
“One good fire that burns a metre or two [deep] could release many thousands of years of carbon accumulation in one blast,” director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta in Canada, Mike Flannigan, told Scientific American.
Scientists predict that the number and ferocity of bushfires will increase in the future. The ‘This is Not Normal’ report predicted that from 2019, the number of “very high” or “extreme” fire days could increase by 4 to 25 percent in 2020 and 15 to 70 percent by 2050. The report cites several studies that all indicate that fire conditions in NSW and Queensland will “increase substantially by the end of the century.”
Australia is facing a bushfire season of horrendous proportions due to climate change. Scientists know what needs to be done in order to halt the steady increase in greenhouse gases but this cannot occur under the capitalist system dominated by short-term profit and the outmoded division of the world into rival nation states. Governments around the world are unable to agree on an international plan and to offer anything more than cosmetic measures.
Only a planned socialist society can end social inequality while at the same time implement an international plan to reverse the ravages of climate change.
^5000The mainstream imperialist media lie CONSTANTLY. Literally 24/7. And it's getting worse.
All of them do it: radio, tv, the newspapers, the movies. The internet. No exceptions.
The corporate Big Lie is pervasive and totalitarian. CBS does it. NBC does it. ABC does it.
CNN does it. FOX does it. NPR does it. And of course the NYTimes and WaPo do it.
Thousands of "diverse" voices telling you the same lies. Enough to convince anyone.
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