Global warming bushfire disaster in Australia

This 22 December 2019 video says about itself:

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has slammed “political inaction” in relation to climate change, writing it has contributed to Australia’s bushfire “catastrophes”.

By James Cogan in Australia:

Australian fires bring growing global climate crisis into stark relief

23 December 2019

Fires claimed more lives and property across Australia over the weekend, while once again blanketing cities such as Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in dense clouds of smoke. More than 200 major fires are still burning out-of-control and, with extreme heat and no significant rainfall predicted in much of the country, the situation is expected to worsen over the coming weeks and months.

Towns and hamlets in the Adelaide Hills suffered some of the greatest devastation, as fire tore through farms and vineyards. South Australian Premier Steven Marshall reported that at least 86 homes were destroyed, along with hundreds of outbuildings and vehicles. Ron Selth, 69-years-old, was killed while he attempted to defend his home from the flames in the small township of Charleston. Firefighters and residents were injured trying to protect property.

In New South Wales (NSW), an extensive area of forest is burning in the mountain ranges, in what are now the largest fires in the state’s history. Since September, some 2.7 million hectares have gone up in flame. The 70,000-strong volunteer Rural Fire Service (RFS) has been stretched to breaking point mobilising the personnel to fight fire fronts that are more than 11,000 kilometres in length.

On Saturday, naval helicopters had to be called in to rescue people threatened by fire into the coastal communities of Fisherman’s Paradise and Sassafras to the south of Sydney. On Thursday night, two volunteer firefighters from Sydney were killed and three injured in a vehicle accident while fighting the fires in the nearby town of Buxton.

More than 60 fires are burning in south-east Queensland. In Victoria, huge fires are raging in forests in Gippsland, to the east of Melbourne. In Western Australia, an out-of-control bushfire north of Perth had burnt more than 11,000 hectares with residents on Saturday being urged to leave while they still could.

Nationally, some 1,000 homes have been destroyed so far in the 2019–2020 fire season, with the traditionally worst period in January and February still to come. Thousands of unpaid volunteer firefighters have suffered major financial losses due to being repeatedly asked to take time off from their employment. Dozens have been injured.

The extensive fires in Australia follow the blazes that have engulfed large areas of California, Siberia, Borneo and the Amazon. In Siberia alone, Greenpeace estimates that some 12 million hectares have been burnt out this year. The unprecedented character of fires in country after country highlights the growing danger to humanity of global climate change.

The fire emergency brings into stark relief the lack of conscious planning and preparation, at both the national and state level, for the impact of climate change. Capitalist governments around the world, to protect corporate profit and the fortunes of the wealthy, have blocked any serious reductions in carbon emissions and left their populations to face the consequences.

The Climate Council report, The Facts about Bushfires and Climate Change published in November 2019, stated: “[F]or well over 20 years, scientists have warned that climate change would increase the risk of extreme bushfires in Australia. This warning was accurate. Scientists expect extreme fire weather will continue to become more frequent and severe without substantial and rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Firefighters have drawn similar conclusions in line with the science. The former chief of NSW Fire and Rescue Greg Mullins told the Guardian: “Just a 1 Celsius temperature rise has meant the extremes are far more extreme, and it is placing lives at risk, including firefighters. Climate change has supercharged the bushfire problem.”

Highlighting the degree to which the continent is drying, tropical rainforest in northern NSW and Queensland, where fires historically did not take hold, have gone up in flames this year.

Craig Lapsley, the former emergency management commissioner in Victoria, told the media on December 17: “We’ve got fires in multiple states now and potentially we’ll have fires in all states and territories in the end of December, January and February, which is a first for Australia. That is a turning point. That’s telling us it is different.”

The lack of preparation for this “new normal” is graphically shown in the reliance on volunteer firefighting services with insufficient funding and equipment. While tens of billions of dollars have been spent equipping the Australian military with everything from mini-aircraft carriers, to F-35 jet fighters and new combat vehicles, no serious investment has taken place to equip firefighting services with state-of-the-art aircraft, helicopters and trucks and staff them with well-paid, highly-trained professionals.

Several former heads of the emergency services spoke on their concerns in a feature published in the December 21 edition of the Saturday Paper.

Naomi Brown, previously chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, told the paper: “The way we’re dealing with fires now has been terrific, it has worked for many years. It is now unsustainable. The need for volunteers 24 hours a day, months on end, is going to make life very, very difficult. There is no doubt we need a national look at this. We need a serious plan.”

Greg Mullins noted: “One of the problems for resourcing firefighters at the moment is that we lease large aircraft from the USA. Other countries are after them, like Chile. We have to get in early to get enough of them.”

Traditionally, both aerial and ground firefighting resources have been able to be shifted from state to state, and even from country to country. Australian firefighting crews often deploy to the US, for example, and vice versa. Under conditions in which major blazes are taking place simultaneously, this is increasingly not possible. The fire season began this year in Australia in September, when California was ablaze.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a climate change sceptic,

Don’t call climate denialists ‘sceptic’. Scepticism about everything is a healthy attitude. Denying the Holocaust, or denying climate change, is just lying. So, the words ‘Holocaust sceptic’ or ‘climate sceptic’ should not be used.

is currently the target of much of the anger over the decades of political indifference to the development of more extreme fire dangers.

On December 10, he dismissed the prospect of paying volunteer firefighters on the grounds that “they want to be out there defending their communities.” Two days later, he rejected the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index that ranked the Australian government’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions as the worst-performing internationally.

“What we cannot say, what no one can say, is those programs (to reduce greenhouse gasses), of themselves, are in any way directly linked to any fire event”, Morrison declared.

In reality, south-east Australia has become progressively drier since the 1990s, with a 15 percent decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25 percent decline in average rainfall in April and May. Average temperatures have increased across the country, and lead to more frequent extreme fire conditions.

December 17, 2019, experienced the hottest ever recorded national average temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The previous recorded high was 40.9C on December 16, which exceeded the 40.3C registered in January 2013.

Morrison only stoked public outrage by secretly going on Christmas holidays in Hawaii as much of the country burned and the major cities were choked in toxic smoke. In the face of a storm of criticism, he went into damage control, issuing a public apology on Friday and returning to Australia to meet with the families of the two firefighters who lost their lives.

Morrison’s attitude is simply a graphic example of the contempt and indifference of governments, not only in Australia, to the impact of climate change on the lives of millions of people. Under capitalism, corporate profits and the competing national interests of rival ruling classes block any rationale plan to address this global disaster.

The necessary political changes depend upon the working class taking matters into its own hands. Society on a world scale must be completely reorganised on the basis of socialist planning, to achieve massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to counter for the myriad consequences of global warming.

AUSTRALIAN PM DOUBLES DOWN ON CLIMATE POLICY Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison doubled down on his government’s climate policy Monday in the wake of a record-breaking heat wave and a devastating weekend of wildfires. Rejecting pleas to downsize the nation’s massive coal industry, Morrison also attempted to stem criticism for his decision to take a holiday in Hawaii as wildfires raged in Australia. [HuffPost]

This 17 December 2019 video from Australia says about itself:

Wildfires Cause Sydney to Declare Health Emergency

The smoke blanketing Sydney is a “public health emergency,” according to a coalition of Australian doctors and researchers who say climate change has helped fuel the wildfires that have produced unprecedented haze. Air quality is poor and people with breathing problems are being told to stay indoors.

By John Mackay in Australia:

Australia: Toxic air from bushfires rated a “public health emergency”

23 December 2019

A statement authored by 22 health and medical organisations has labelled the levels of air pollution caused by bushfires in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland in recent weeks, a “public health emergency”. The bushfire smoke in Australia in the eastern region has reached record levels of polluted air in bushfire affected areas and neighbouring towns and cities.

The statement declared: “Governments have a responsibility to protect the people they represent.” The health bodies are among the leading independent agencies in Australia for respiratory health, including the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, the Australian Lung Foundation and the Australian College for Emergency Medicine.

The group called on the federal and state governments to prioritise action to reduce health risks from bushfire smoke. “We call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to demonstrate the leadership this public health emergency demands and to implement measures to help alleviate the health and climate crisis,” it stated.

In addition, a group known as Doctors for the Environment have also described the very high levels of pollution as an “unprecedented public health threat.” On December 10, the Sydney air quality index, a measure of air pollution, was 11 times higher than that considered “hazardous.” This resulted in 234 presentations to emergency departments with asthma and breathing problems, almost double the average number of 130.

It is the fifth week that paramedics and emergency departments have had an increase in the numbers of patients with respiratory problems. In one week alone, between December 5 and 11 there was a more than 30 percent increase in presentations to emergency departments for asthma and breathing difficulties and 40 percent increase in calls to NSW Ambulance for the same conditions.

Dr Richard Yin of Doctors for the Environment said that his group had significant concerns that exposure of these high levels of pollutions may have longer-term medical effects in the millions of people exposed.

Poor air quality has long been recognised in numerous population studies to be detrimental to human health and to lead to premature deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution. It is the fine particulate matter in polluted air—extremely small particles micrometres in diameter— that are known to be associated with the negative impacts of air pollution. During a bushfire, these particles can reach very high concentrations in the ambient air.

The particulate matter can penetrate the lungs and smaller particles can penetrate the bloodstream, which can have detrimental impact on both lungs and the cardiovascular circulation. The smallest measured particles are known as PM2.5s, representing particles 2.5 micrometers in size or about 3 percent of the diameter of a human hair.

In one of the most comprehensive worldwide epidemiological studies known as the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, data from 2017, published last year in the Lancet medical journal, demonstrated that long term exposure to PM2.5 was considered to be a leading risk of global disease burden. The study, which examined trends from 1990 to the present, demonstrated exposure to these particles increased risks of lower respiratory infections, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and diabetes mellitus.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported earlier this month that in the Greater Sydney area over the past five years, the Air Quality Index (AQI) that measures PM2.5s recorded only five events where the maximum measured on a given day was an AQI of 100, indicating poor air quality. In November and December this year there have already been 80 days reaching this level, with one-quarter of these days reaching an AQI above 200.

On the worst day of this period to date in Sydney, the AQI reached 669 which is the equivalent to smoking 30 cigarettes a day.

Professor Mark Taylor from Macquarie University, who researches environmental pollution and risks to human health, told the Sydney Morning Herald that bushfire smoke has complex chemistry, which can be carcinogenic even at low concentrations. “Exposure to particles has a cumulative effect over a lifetime and even if the impact of short-term exposure is minuscule, multiple exposures to high levels of pollutants will have an effect,” he said.

Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr John Bonning said that the heat waves associated with bushfires are also a serious threat to health. “Heatwaves can also lead to increased presentations for conditions such as heat stroke, cardiac events and mental health issues,” he said. “This disproportionately affects some of our most vulnerable patients, including the elderly and children. It is also an equity issue, as people without insulated homes, or who are unable to afford air conditioning, are at increased risk.”

Senior fellow at the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research at the University of NSW, Dr Christine Cowie, told the ABC that breathing in high amounts of fine particles could affect physical development. “It is uncertain how medium-term exposure to these sporadic bushfire pollutions events impact on long-term health,” she said. “However, we do know that current evidence indicates there is no safe lower threshold of exposure to [particulate matter] pollution.”

Dr Cowie also said there was concern about the most vulnerable members of the community. “Certainly, people who are repeatedly exposed to high levels [of air pollutants] and if they’re children for instance or elderly, it’s likely to impact on their lung function.”

While studies were underway, there is limited research into what this exposure can do on a large population in a major city. “No one can say definitively what happens after a two-month exposure to those high levels, other than if you’re susceptible, you’re likely to have increased respiratory problems,” she said.

Professor Francesca Dominici of Harvard University in the US is the senior author of a study which revealed that short term exposure to fine particles in pollution can impact a wider range of medical conditions beyond lung and cardiovascular disease.

Dominici told the ABC Health report: “Even though we don’t know yet all of the clinical pathways that could have led to this disease [lung disease], we do know that inhalation of fine particulate matter penetrates deep into the lung and initiates a series of inflammations that could simultaneously affect multiple organs.”

The study’s authors say the comprehensive analysis provides timely evidence for the upcoming revision of the WHO air quality guidelines.

This latest evidence is among a large body of data that demonstrates air pollution is significantly detrimental to human health.

The catastrophic bushfires have been burning since August from one side of Australia to the other, some four months earlier than the normal fire season. They have killed eight people, destroyed more than 700 homes and burned through more than two million hectares of land.

The fires have exposed the criminal negligence of governments, state and federal, Coalition and Labor alike. These governments have for decades presided over budget cuts to firefighting services which now almost entirely relies on volunteers and have watched as entire towns in remote and rural areas run out of water making it increasingly impossible not just to fight the fires but to inhabit the towns at all. Like governments around the world, none of those in Australia has seriously addressed climate change that is exacerbating the prevalence of fires.

These same governments have ignored the warnings of the health and medical professions and the increasingly strident concerns of firefighters.

Currently, emergency departments struggle to keep up with existing demand and are poorly equipped to handle dramatically rising numbers of patients impacted by the negative health effects of bush fires, let alone the long term consequences of poor air quality.

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