The horror of the devastating and apocalyptic fires in NSW and Victoria has not only dampened the New Year party mood, it has fanned anger over the government's obvious failure to respond to the climate emergency. Singer Tex Perkins' middle finger salute to the Prime Minister during Sydney’s New Year's Eve concert summed up the public mood.
But the ruling class is determined to fight the climate war on behalf of the fossil fuel corporations.
Scott Morrison's New Year message that Australia is the “most amazing country on Earth” referred to the outpouring of neighbourly goodwill on display throughout the fire emergency. It is his desperate attempt at appeasement. But, if he thinks this will work as cover for his government’s climate inaction he should think again.
It is true that if not for the heroic efforts of mainly volunteer firefighters, emergency personnel and other valiant community efforts, more people would have lost their lives and more homes would have been destroyed in NSW and Victoria.
But what sort of system has to rely on volunteers to carry out dangerous frontline work in a crisis situation? What sort of system fails so spectacularly to mobilise the resources urgently needed to respond quickly to what is clearly an unprecedented state of emergency?
A system in crisis is the answer.
We have known about the dangers posed by the climate emergency for decades. Fire chiefs have been warning for months, if not years, that there is more at stake in a warming world than just a hotter summer.
And yet, the planning for this “fire season” has been a disaster; volunteers have saved the day; the army has only recently been summoned to help. But, after years of budget cuts, there are not enough people and not enough equipment. Communities have been forced to fundraise for a service they never agreed to cut.
So far this “bushfire season” across Australia, 18 people, including firefighters, have died and more than 1200 homes have been destroyed. However, more than 16,000 have been saved. In Victoria, up to 4000 people had to find shelter on a beach, while fire raced towards them.
The infernos have created microclimates that have started more fires. The devastating cost to wildlife, including many endangered species, has not even begun to be counted.
State and federal governments have significant resources that they failed to mobilise, or did so far too late. The corporate sector has additional resources that also could have been socialised to deal with the fire emergency.
Bending to corporate interests, the City of Sydney and NSW government decided that the Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks show “must go on”, thereby missing a valuable opportunity to lend support to the new national discussion about what real action on climate change has to look like.
The system's failure to respond is generating a lot of discussion. More and more people are drawing the conclusion that any system that prioritises profits over people and the environment will be unable to adequately respond.
But powerful voices in defence of the status quo — including that we need “volunteer” fire fighters and that the fire emergency will end with a bit of rain — are being deployed to dampen that down.
To prop up collapsing public confidence in the failing system, all manner of excuses and fake apologies will be proffered to derail what is really needed: nation-wide emergency summits to discuss real solutions.
A national discussion on why the state failed to protect communities from climate change-driven fires is important because it opens up the space for a deeper discussion what it would take to seriously address the climate emergency.
The climate emergency movement has grown quickly over the past year, and we can be confident it will continue to grow as the fire “season” continues to lengthen.
Those already a part of this movement need to be open to new initiatives, and work to unite the disparate parts at critical junctures around concrete solutions — such as the call to pay rural firefighters, for a hefty boost to the bushfire emergency budget and for the rapid decarbonisation of our energy.
The organised climate emergency movement is still too weak. It needs to rapidly expand but to do that it needs new organisers — young and old — who will help bring people together to take action.
We need to work on an emergency response that builds on the practical, generous spirit that has been on show for weeks during these catastrophic fires.
We are living in an epoch of climate war. It is the result of a toxic corporate profits-first system. The only hope we have of long-term survival for our planet is to stop the small climate-denying elite and restore collective social control over society's resources.
[Pip Hinman is an anti-coal seam gas activist and a member of Socialist Alliance.]