Australia’s climate change bushfire disasters

This 10 December 2019 video says about itself:

Thousands of people rally outside Sydney Town Hall to demand urgent climate action from Australia’s government, as bushfires continue to burn along the country’s east coast.

By James Cogan in Australia:

Ruling class bereft of answers while catastrophic fires escalate across Australia

4 January 2020

Catastrophic fire conditions exist today throughout much of Australia, from the southwest of Western Australia, across South Australia, to Victoria, the island state of Tasmania, and New South Wales (NSW), to the southeast of Queensland and areas of the tropical north. Another severe heatwave is moving across the continent, generating temperatures that may breach historical records that were broken only a few weeks ago. New fires are expected to ignite, while strong winds are predicted to fan the hundreds of blazes that are already burning. Hundreds of thousands of people were urged yesterday to evacuate the most-at-risk areas.

Summing up the situation in a large swathe of NSW, stretching virtually the entire length of the state, the deputy commissioner of the largely volunteer Rural Fire Service (RFS) told a press conference: “We can’t stop those fires. We can’t stop the fires we already have.”

The unfolding catastrophe has utterly discredited the Liberal-National Coalition government headed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which just months ago was boasting of its refusal to accept that Australia should take greater action to reduce carbon emissions.

In September, Morrison condemned teenager Greta Thunberg, and the climate protests she led, for “raising the anxieties of children in our country.” Even as the fires worsen, he has continued to downplay the undeniable relationship between long-term global warming and the vastly increased fire risks facing the country (see: “Australia: Climate change and the bushfire crisis”).

Anger will not, however, be limited to Morrison and his government. The opposition Labor Party has held office for 19 of the past 37 years and, despite all the scientific warnings, likewise sought to delay or block responses to climate change that would impede on corporate operations and profits. State governments, both Coalition and Labor, have left firefighting almost exclusively to volunteer services, while cutting their funding and refusing to provide them with the necessary vast expansion of equipment.

At all levels, government policy has been preoccupied with reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, driving down wages and working conditions, abolishing restrictions on profit-making and fueling the speculative rise of the stock market and property values. Military spending, in preparation for new conflicts and war, has been boosted, while expenditure for essential health and emergency services has been strangled. This criminal indifference of the Australian ruling elite to the threat of climate change has its parallels around the world.

In an interview on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio on Thursday, former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins made a damning indictment of both Morrison and, by implication, the state authorities.

He declared: “We have tried since April to get a meeting with the prime minister… We had some pretty simple asks that we wanted to talk to the government about. Funding for large aerial fire tankers. People would have seen the images the other day of the Hercules coming in and dropping in 15,000 litres of retardant at Turramurra. I watched that with great interest because I was in charge of the fire there in 1994 where 17 homes were lost. That cut the fire off immediately. We’re only going to have seven of those this year. I’ve just come back from California and they had about 30 on one fire.”

Mullins continued: “[T]his was going to be a horror fire season. They [aircraft] can be a decisive weapon. If they [the government] had spoken to us back then, maybe they could have allocated more money to have more of those aircraft, but they didn’t and they’re probably not available now.”

Since the unprecedented beginning of the fire season in September, up to five million hectares has already been burnt out in NSW alone. In just the past four days, an estimated 500 houses have been destroyed in the South Coast region of the state, including in the township of Cobargo, where furious residents denounced Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday.

Today, lives and properties are under threat in the South Coast, the Mount Kosciuszko national park region, the Snowy Mountains, and the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. The RFS has issued warnings that wind conditions could result in fire and ember attacks, reaching into outer north-western suburbs of Sydney itself.

The state government of Victoria has used “state of disaster” powers to order over 100,000 people to leave southeast Gippsland—the largest evacuation of civilians since World War II. The region is proudly promoted by tourist authorities as offering “a host of wilderness and wildlife, great drives and gourmet treats”, with “the largest lake system and one of the longest beaches in the Southern Hemisphere.” Today, Gippsland and its natural beauty is ablaze, along with much of the rest of eastern Victoria. An estimated 600,000 hectares has been burnt out in the past week.

Two people have lost their lives in the Gippsland fires this week, and 21 are listed as missing. Vehicle access into a number of coastal communities has been cut off. The Navy was deployed on Thursday to evacuate some of the residents and tourists trapped in the town of Mallacoota, where a firestorm forced some 5,000 people to seek safety on the beach.

Two people lost their lives yesterday in the fires on Kangaroo Island—off the coast of Adelaide in South Australia, and advertised as “one of the world’s great nature-based destinations.” The island is ablaze with “virtually unstoppable” fires that have burnt out 100,000 hectares, or the bulk of its bushland.

Once again, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and other major population centres will be blanketed in smoke and endure “hazardous” air quality. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) issued an alarmed warning yesterday. It stated: “The length and density of smoke exposure is a new and possibly fatal health risk that many people within our community have not previously had to face.” Chris Moy from the AMA told the Guardian: “There are people who are going to probably die from these conditions.”

Nationally, the 2019–2020 fires have so far caused 24 known deaths and destroyed over 1,500 homes. Hundreds of farm buildings and other structures have been lost. Agriculture and stock losses are enormous. Over six million hectares have burnt out and scientists estimate that 500 million native animals and birds are likely to have been killed. And this is before the hottest summer months and the historically worst period of the fire season.

As with all “natural disasters” around the world, the working class and poor are paying the greatest price. Tens of thousands of workers and contractors in the agriculture and tourist industries have already been stood down or lost their jobs. The extreme temperatures and hazardous air pose the greatest threat to those with medical conditions who live in the low-income suburbs of the cities and regional towns, which are also generally the most heat-affected and have the most under-resourced and overstretched health services.

The capitalist ruling class and its political apparatus are bereft of any answers to the consequences of a climate crisis that their indifference and inaction have created.

In its latest, desperate attempt to portray itself as doing something, the Morrison government today announced a call-up of a few thousand Army reservists, who are not trained for either firefighting or emergency service provision to civilian communities.

Climate change and its consequences are, in fact, a global emergency: a reality now well understood by hundreds of millions of workers and young people around the world. It demands a global response that ends the subordination of every aspect of economic and social life to the accumulation of private profit for a capitalist minority.

The fire catastrophe in Australia should further motivate the fight to develop an international and independent movement of the working class, unified across national borders and with the perspective of forming workers’ governments that will implement the most far-reaching socialist policies.

The major banks and corporations, especially the fossil fuel-based energy conglomerates, must be brought under social ownership and democratic control. The resources must be committed to both preparing society for the wide range of predicted impacts of long-term global warming, while drastically reducing carbon emissions and stemming further threats.

This 3 January 2019 video says about itself:

Australia fires: Morrison heckled by bushfire victims – BBC News

Australia is grappling with massive bushfires fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought.

In the worst-affected state, New South Wales, fires have burned more than 4 million hectares (40,000 sq km or 9.9 million acres) destroying more than 1,300 houses and forcing thousands to seek shelter elsewhere.

Across the country, 20 people have died – including three volunteer firefighters – with most of the casualties in New South Wales.

By Frank Gaglioti in Australia:

Australia: Climate change and the bushfire crisis

4 January 2020

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.

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.

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