Australia’s Big Smoke

Smoke haze as the author’s plane descends at Sydney airport on 6 December, 2019 Photo: Kenneth Surin.

I am in Sydney, having just spent 6 days in Brisbane to the north. The area around, and to the south of, Sydney has been engulfed by extensive wildfires which have been burning since August. This includes 20% of the Blue Mountains world heritage area.

According to The New York Times, in the middle of November, more than 85 fires burned across Australia’s east coast, 40 of them out of control. The Guardian said that on 1st December, about a third of the 146 wildfires then burning were not contained, and later reported that some fires would take weeks to put out.

At the end of 2018 The Guardian had already described fire conditions in Australia as “catastrophic”.

Accompanying the wildfires is a prolonged drought of historic proportions. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology says:

“When compared to other 34-month periods commencing in January, the 34 months from January 2017 to October 2019 has been the driest on record averaged over the Murray–Darling Basin (36% below the 1961–1990 average), as well as over the northern Murray–Darling Basin (40% below average) and for the state of New South Wales (35% below average). All three regions have also been the driest on record for the 22 months from January 2018 to October 2019, whilst for the 27 months from August 2017 to October 2019 rank second in all three regions; only the 1900–02 peak of the Federation Drought has been drier”.

The Bureau of Meteorology also predicted below average rainfall for most of Australia until the early part of 2020, and above average maximum temperatures from October to January.

The Climate Council of Australia (CCA) says climate change is “supercharging extreme weather events, putting Australian lives, our economy and our environment at risk”.

The CCA warns that by 2040 temperatures of 50C/132F could become common in Sydney and Melbourne unless global warming is limited to 1.5C/2.7F above pre-industrial levels (the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious level).

In addition, long-term climate models do not hold much comfort— they project a continuing decline in rainfall over southern Australia for the next century. The same models also project a decline in river flows in parts of the country.

As is the case with the wildfires in Amazonia (Brazil’s Bolsonaro: “Leo di Caprio paid to start the Amazonian fires”), Siberia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, and the droughts in other parts of the world (Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Brazil) there is an evident political dimension to the conflagrations and drought in Australia.

The two main Australian parties— centrist Labor and the rightwing Liberals—are both responsible for Australia’s water crisis.

As is the case in many capitalist countries with a significant agribusiness sector, disaster relief measures are tailored in the main to help this sector and less so small farmers.

The low-interest-loans scheme intended to tide-over small farmers during the crisis will not help much— already indebted and on their knees because the drought has devastated grazing lands for their animals, they will be hard pressed to repay these loans.

When there are water shortages on a significant scale, there must be an adage somewhere which says there will always be politicians (of all stripes) who love the idea of building dams as a putative “solution”.

Australia is no exception. To quote from an excellent article by Martin Scott on the World Socialist Web Site:

“Federal Water Minister David Littleproud [sic] recently lamented that states had done “three-fifths of bugger all” to build new dams, and similar sentiments have been expressed by Barnaby Joyce, the former federal agriculture minister, and Anthony Albanese, the federal opposition leader”.

Scott continues:

“A report from the Australia Institute has revealed that dozens of large dams have in fact been constructed in recent years, but not for the public good.

The report stated: “The recently constructed dams in the Murray-Darling Basin do not help drought-stricken towns, struggling small irrigators or the wider public. They are built with taxpayer money on private land mainly for the benefit of large corporate agribusiness like Webster Limited”.”

Australian federal governments have pursued a “market approach” when meeting water and irrigation needs in the massive Murray-Darling Basin (which drains around 1/7th of the Australian land mass, and provides water for agricultural enterprises supplying more than 40% of the gross value of Australia’s agricultural production).

The key to this market approach is the sale of “water rights” under a plan which allows irrigators to be “owed” water by virtue of a provision allowing them to take as much as 300% of their annual allocation in non-drought-years to “make up” for drought years.

The result is predictable: flows downstream are insufficient nearly all the time, and vital wetlands are deprived of the water needed for their sustenance.

Building more dams will do nothing to remedy this flawed market approach, since of course their construction will be undertaken under the auspices of a plan that is broken-backed to begin with.

You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to know that a sale conferring the right to drain a water-source in excess of the actual amount of water in it is a crazy idea that will deplete and ultimately destroy this or that river or lake sooner rather than later (definitely sooner in conditions of extreme long-term drought as is the case now).

Australia’s environmental problems are compounded by having a neoliberal coalition between the Liberals and Nationals headed by the conservative evangelical and strident Trump supporter Scott Morrison, who is a member of a holy roller (Pentecostal) church.

Prime minister Morrison sends his two daughters to a private Baptist school, saying he does this because he “doesn’t want the values of others imposed upon them”! As the tennis star John McEnroe used to say when berating umpires for their decisions: “You cannot be serious!”.

Morrison has a particular animus against environmental activists, railing in a speech a few weeks ago against a “new breed of radical activism” that is “apocalyptic in tone”, and promising to outlaw boycott campaigns directed at the country’s mining industry.

Somewhat ironically, the term “apocalyptic” is being used by the media to describe the wildfires and accompanying smog now shrouding Australia’s east coast!

Following vaguely in the footsteps of Oklahoma’s US senator Jim “Brain Freeze” Inhofe, who brought a snowball on to the senate floor to “prove” that global warming did not exist, the equally asinine Morrison once brought a lump of coal into the house chamber to show his fellow parliamentarians they need not be afraid of coal.

Just as Inhofe is in the pockets of the US fossil-fuel industry, Morrison is in the pockets of the powerful Australian mining industry. In contrast to the US and Australia, Germany has pledged to stop using coal by 2038.

Morrison is a foot-dragger on environmental issues, and has not taken the wildfires seriously enough. In fact, in a ridiculous reprise of US Republican “thoughts and prayers” responses to tragedies that have an obvious political dimension, he tweeted: “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been so directly and horribly impacted by these fires”.

In May Morrison announced that an AU$100m/$68.4m Australian Recycling Investment Fund would be set up, but there has been no sign of it so far (according to The Sydney Morning Herald).

Informed Australians know it is futile to expect Scott Morrison and the coalition government to take any lead on environmental issues, even those with catastrophic outcomes.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.