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Issue #1886      September 18, 2019

Youth demand action as Australia burns

Next Friday, hundreds of thousands of school students in Australia and around the world will go on strike from school to demand immediate, decisive government action to deal with climate change. In Australia they will be joined by parents, grandparents, and many others determined to get real action started.

A recent poll revealed deep concern about climate change among Australians under thirty-four years of age and a widespread public realisation that the use of coal for energy production will have to be phased out because it is the major contributor to climate change.

Students have good reason to be concerned. Last week UN Commissioner Michelle Bachelet described climate change as the world’s greatest threat to human rights, and she declared: “We are burning our future.” She was referring to the burning of fossil fuels, but it’s also true in a literal sense because catastrophic and frequent bushfires are a by-product of climate change.

Spring has only just begun in Australia, but tremendous bushfires have already broken out in huge drought-parched areas of Queensland and New South Wales. The fires have been boosted by unusually strong winds, which are also a result of climate change. Hundreds of firefighters have been deployed, but it is often impossible to control the spread of the fires.

Last week, as many as eighty fires were burning in Queensland at once, some in areas where fires have never been recorded at this time of year, and seven rural local government areas in NSW were declared natural disaster zones because of the fires.

Under climate change, fires are much more liable to break out, whether they are initiated accidentally, deliberately or by natural phenomena. Early bushfires have become a regular phenomenon over the last ten years, and there is now speculation that a bushfire season beginning in late winter will become the “new norm” in Australia.

Other factors are contributing to the bushfire crisis. Prolonged drought in the eastern states has lowered the level of rivers and dams, and in some NSW towns, the extraction of water from local reservoirs for firefighting is now threatening the supply of local drinking water. Fire-fighting authorities and rural communities will face the agonising choice of saving homes or saving the towns from having to be evacuated because of lack of water.

Last year the number of fish that died in stagnant reaches of the Murray Darling river system was shocking, but the head of the CSIRO says this year’s fish kills will dwarf last year’s, in a “fish Armageddon.” As one grazier commented, the fish are now facing extinction because “the river systems are collapsing.”

The long drought is also having a severe impact on grain harvests. Wheat, barley, and canola crop yields are down, and last financial year Australia became a net grain importer. There is now a real possibility that large arable parts of the country will eventually become deserts because of long droughts, frequent almost year-round bushfires, low river flows and deforestation.

Political economy and climate change culprits

Evidence indicates that Aboriginal people arrived in Australia at least 50,000 years ago. They learned how to care for the natural environment and developed highly sophisticated land care methods. When British settlers invaded the land they brought with them European agriculture, feral pests, and a political economy based on private property and the exploitation of labour. Hundreds of thousands of aboriginal people died from introduced diseases and genocidal attacks.

But the invaders also arrived at the beginning of the industrial revolution, which has been overwhelmingly dependent on the use of coal, gas and oil, all of which constitute a long-term menace because of their emission of carbon-bearing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The local and international use of Australia’s vast reserves of coal and gas since 1788 has made a significant contribution to atmospheric carbon, and we, therefore, have a national obligation to play a substantial part in the struggle against climate change.

The main culprits in that struggle are big business corporations that use fossil fuels in energy production, vehicular transport, and heavy industries, as well as the representatives of those corporations in our parliament. Together, they are waging a joint campaign against the transition to a carbon-free economy.

The extraction of ground and surface water for coal mining also magnifies water shortages. The Dendrobium coal mine, located between the Avon and Cordeaux dams in NSW drains 3 million litres of drinking water a day, and the huge Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin will take vast amounts of groundwater and pollute the region’s aquifers and watercourses.

Water shortages are also being exacerbated by agricultural corporations that extract excess water from rivers for high-level irrigation consumption crops such as cotton and rice, the cultivation of which is totally inappropriate for Australia, the driest sub-continent on Earth.

Partners in a crime against humanity

The state and federal conservative governments are keen to be seen doing something about the effects of climate change. But they’re unwilling to tackle the problem at its source, because that would necessitate putting a stop to profit-taking by a very powerful sector of capitalism.

The NSW government is transporting thousands of fish from the drought-stricken Menindee lakes in northern NSW to parts of the Lower Darling where the river is still flowing, albeit sluggishly.

Some Murray Cod and Golden Perch are also being taken for breeding to a special reservoir at Narrandera. In effect, the government is treating them as an endangered species, and the relocation is a desperate measure to save the species which may well become extinct if left in the rivers.

The NSW government aims to reduce emissions to zero by 2050. But that government has been responsible for the allocation of water extraction licences that have seen parts of the Murray-Darling river system reduced to a series of stagnant ponds in which fish cannot survive.

For its part, the Morrison government is offering financial help to families affected by the fires, but it won’t tackle climate change seriously. It’s still clinging to the mantra that coal-fired power plants will continue to dominate Australia’s “power mix” for the indefinite future, and it’s also toying with the idea of building new coal-fired power stations or even nuclear plants.

But coal-fired and nuclear power plants cannot compete economically with clean renewable energy production. Coal and nuclear energy generation involve the use of huge quantities of water. The operation of nuclear power plants is highly dangerous, their construction periods are extremely long and the radioactive nuclear waste they produce must be stored for hundreds of thousands of years.

Next week PM Morrison will visit US President Trump in Washington, but he won’t attend the UN Climate Emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday. Fifteen-year-old student climate strike initiator Greta Thunberg will address the meeting, and the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs will be there, but Morrison himself is virtually ignoring the event.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres has asked all member countries to outline plans to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050. However, Morrison won’t say what Australia will do beyond its current commitment to 2030, and even that commitment is based on a phony claim under which over-target emissions achieved under the former Kyoto agreement are included in claims under the current Paris agreement.

Last week, in a blatant attempt to disclaim the link between fossil fuels and climate change, David Littleproud, Morrison’s Minister for Natural Disasters, said “I don’t know if climate change is man-made.”

Droughts and fires are only part of the global phenomenon of climate change which today’s youth will have to deal with in years to come. Even if carbon emissions ceased tomorrow, sea levels and average annual global temperatures would continue to rise for decades, much of our coastal towns and cities would be inundated. We also face the loss of the major part of our agricultural areas, the spread of tropical diseases, a desperate struggle for drinking water and shelter from extreme weather, and the likely arrival of millions of climate change refugees.

The current struggle is to ensure that the people of Australia don’t suffer an even worse fate. And that will require, among a great many other things, a national energy system under the control of a federal government committed to vigorous, rapid and determined action to lessen the impact of climate change and eventually to reverse it with the aid of science.

But today’s youth certainly won’t get that from Australia’s conservative coalition. Nor, it seems, will they get it from the Labor Party, which is currently considering dumping its carbon target of a fifty percent reduction of our national carbon emissions by 2030, and replacing it with the coalition’s goal of twenty-six to twenty-eight percent.

The best hope for Australia’s youth lies in a future coalition of parties, including the Communist Party of Australia, that is absolutely determined to meet the tremendous challenges posed by climate change which our people will face this century.

Next article – Editorial – “Rule of law” for some

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