Australia Burns: Fireworks, Bush Fires and Denial

As 2020 approached, the sense that the barbarians were not only at the gates but had breached the walls of indifference had come to the fore. But these were not conventional human forms; rather, they were the agents of conflagration, driving people to the sea, forcing them from homes and consuming territories the size of small countries. Australia was burning.

Then it became clear that the barbarians might have been among us all along, the dedicated wreckers of the biosphere, the climate change denialists who cling to a tradition highlighted by the smug authors of Genesis 1:26: that the non-human world is there for the conquest of humanity. Unfortunately for the smug scribblers of the Bible, the earth has not been too compliant in this regard.

As the continent scorched, the annual, exorbitant display of Sydney’s fireworks that mark the opening of the new year seemed a touch vulgar. This was not a time to be solemn or mournful; the bread and circuses had to continue coming. The presenters of the ABC’s New Year’s Eve show attempted to put on a brave face, turning it to a donations run for those who had suffered loss in the bush fires. Even as they did, a floating haze was evident; Sydney could not escape from the reality that it was surrounded by flames.

Australian towns are starting to sound like besieged forts and desperate holdouts. The Victorian seaside town of Mallacoota has been elevated to something like a First World War Verdun against the onslaught of fire. Thousands had gathered on Tuesday at the boat ramp. Pictures of a blood red sky have been taken, most notably that of Allison Marion’s picture of her son, Finn. But will the flames pass? The question is never far away from those engaged. For those directly fighting the flames, deaths are accumulating. Men like Sam McPaul of the Morven Rural Fire Brigade have become the fallen warriors of hoses and salvation.

The Morrison government, despite the calamities, would not let up in its boastful assertions on environmental soundness. Energy minister Angus Taylor, who is Australia’s de facto environment minister (that portfolio has little relevance in Australia, except for granting mining approvals) took to The Australian to claim that the country had a record that should make people proud. “Australia meets and beats its emissions-reduction targets, every time.” The Kyoto targets were outdone by 129 million tonnes; the 2020 targets will be met by 411 million tonnes.

But the technique of such praise is always slanted; Australia was positively virtuous in climate change policy, yet was only “responsible for only 1.3% of global emissions, so we can’t single-handedly have a meaningful impact without the co-operation of the largest emitters such as China and the US.”

Australia had been fighting climate change as dedicated troopers against the odds. Pity that the odds were themselves compounded by his government’s own scepticism at the very idea that disastrous burning events might be an effect of climate change. Selective accounting is the panacea sought in this regard, and Taylor does so by picking figures that exclude, for instance, emissions from the fossil fuels Australia digs and exports. Like an arms exporter with an amoral compass and a mind for the selective, the claim here is that Australia cannot be responsible for what others do with the earth’s loot, despite actually providing them in the first place.

Those actually versed with export and production figures tend to raise their eyebrows when Taylor takes to the podium of praise. Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, was politely damning. “I would characterise [Taylor’s article] as a selective use of statistics that make Australia’s emissions trajectory look good, when in reality it does not look good at all.”

A study by Climate Analytics published in July 2019 does much to shred the Taylor worldview in this regard. As the authors note with severity, “Australia is the world’s largest coal (thermal + metallurgical) exporter, accounting for 29% of traded coal globally in 2016 and will soon be the world’s largest natural gas (LNG) exporter. As a consequence, Australia’s global carbon footprint is very significant, with exported fossil fuel emissions currently representing around 3.6% of global emissions.”

Hardly insignificant, and even more damnable considering that Australia is in the big league when it comes to per capita emissions of carbon, including exports. China, for instance, is surpassed by a factor of 9; the US by 4, India by 37.

The prime minister is proving unconvincing in his efforts to fight the storm. A tweeted statement from Scott Morrison gave the impression that this was merely another housekeeping exercise to complete, the fires manageable interruptions to the perfect Australian life. “Federal Government, especially our Defence Forces, are working together with the Victorian Government to respond to Victorian bushfires. VIC CFA are leading the response.” He noted how both he and the Victorian premier had been in “regular contact” admitting that, “Reports of persons unaccounted for are very distressing.”

His new year address sank like an unprized lead balloon. He conceded that 2019 had not been without difficulties. “But the one thing we an always celebrate in Australia is that we live in the most amazing country on earth and the wonderful Aussie spirit that means we always overcome whatever challenges that we face that we always look optimistically into your future.” Australia remained exemplary as a “place to raise kids”. The disasters, on the other hand, have not been singular. “Whatever our trials, whatever disasters have befallen us, we have never succumbed to panic.” A true man of advertising, to the last.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

April 06, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 and the Failures of Capitalism
W. T. Whitney
Donald Trump, Capitalism, and Letting Them Die
Cesar Chelala
Cuba’s Promising Approach to Cancer
David A. Schultz
Camus and Kübler-Ross in a Time of COVID-19 and Trump
Nomi Prins 
Wall Street Wins, Again: Bailouts in the Time of Coronavirus
Dean Baker
Getting to Medicare-for-All, Eventually
Dave Lindorff
Neither Pandemic Nor Economic Collapse is Going to Be a Short-Lived Crisis
Sonali Kolhatkar
Capitalism in America Has Dropped the Mask: Its Face is Cruel and Selfish
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 7 Pro-Contagion Reversals Increase the Coronavirus Toll
David Swanson
A Department of Actual Defense in a Time of Coronavirus
Ellen Brown
Was the Fed Just Nationalized?
Jeff Birkenstein
Postcards From Trump
Nick Licata
Authoritarian Leaders Rejected the Danger of a COVID-19 Pandemic Because It Challenged Their Image
Kathy Kelly
“He’s Got Eight Numbers, Just Like Everybody Else”
Graham Peebles
Change Love and the Need for Unity
Kim C. Domenico
Can We Transform Fear to Strength In A Time of Pandemic?
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Files Lawsuit to Stop Logging and Burning Project in Rocky Mountain Front Inventoried Roadless Area
Stephen Cooper
“The Soul Syndicate members dem, dem are all icons”: an Interview with Tony Chin
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?