[Marxism] Australia Burns Again, and Now Its Biggest City Is Choking

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 7 08:33:19 MST 2019


NY Times, Dec. 7, 2019
Australia Burns Again, and Now Its Biggest City Is Choking
By Damien Cave

SYDNEY, Australia — Flying into Sydney usually brings stunning views of 
rocky cliffs and crystal waters, but when Anna Funder looked out the 
window before landing this week, she saw only tragedy.

Thick gray smoke blanketed the skyline and the coast, stretching for 
miles from the fire front at the southwestern edge of the city, where 
dried-out forests have been burning for weeks.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ms. Funder, an award-winning 
Australian novelist known for stories of cruelty and resistance. “It was 
this huge and terrible seam of white smoke coming up from the ground 
beyond which the rest of the continent — where I was headed, where my 
home is — was invisible.

“It was as if the country were being devoured by a chemical reaction.”

Sydney, nicknamed the “Emerald City” for its subtropical beauty, is 
struggling with a summer of choking smoke. Bush fires raging to the 
north, south and west since early November have pushed smoke and ash not 
just into neighborhoods abutting the blazes, but all the way to coastal 
suburbs more than 50 miles away.

All of us who live here can taste the fire and feel it in our throats. 
Asthmatics are showing up in emergency rooms in greater numbers. Schools 
are canceling sports and recess. In houses built to be open to the 
elements, people are taping their windows shut; there have even been 
reports of fire alarms in office buildings set off by the smoke from 
miles away.

And the impact of this year’s wildfire season, which began much earlier 
than usual, goes beyond the physical. Rising levels of angst and anger 
are emerging all over Sydney, spreading like the haze.

As many here see it, Australia’s conservative government, in refusing to 
address the threat of climate change, is favoring the country’s powerful 
fossil fuel industry over its largest city, as well as the rural areas 
where fires have already destroyed hundreds of homes.

Psychologists describe a creeping sense of impotence and dread.

“The stress based on the fact that thick smoke can accelerate 
pre-existing cardiovascular conditions is one thing,” said Frans 
Verstraten, who holds the McCaughey Chair of Psychology at the 
University of Sydney. “But the other kind of stress, based on the 
realization that there is not much we can do — helplessness; the 
realization that you can’t do anything about it — makes it worse.”

On social media, the sharing of images of #sydneysmoke in its many 
shades, from orange to gray, has become a regular feature of people’s 
morning routines.

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State officials have warned of the dangers. The New South Wales Office 
of Environment and Heritage said that “our network has recorded some of 
the highest air pollution ever seen” in the state.

In November, the department recorded 15 days of poor air quality, far 
beyond the monthly norm.  On Monday, the levels of PM2.5, the most 
harmful form of pollutant, were 22 times the accepted safety level — the 
equivalent of smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day. Pollution 
levels were expected to reach similar heights on Friday.

Even compared to the terrible fire seasons of 1994 and 2001, “this 
event,” state officials said, “is the longest and the most widespread in 
our records.”

With fires also raging in the state of Queensland, that means the 
pressure on Australia’s government is likely to intensify.

Climate protests have become more common. At rallies, longtime activists 
are increasingly being joined by newcomers like Emily Xu, a 13-year-old 
student who skipped school to attend a protest on Nov. 29 in downtown 
Sydney.

She and a handful of her friends, all in school uniforms, said it was 
their first rally, and that they had made the trek because the fires had 
suddenly made climate change’s threats more real for them.

“Before I was like, ‘Oh, if we don’t have coal we won’t make any money 
for our economy,’” said Ms. Xu. Now, she said, fires were approaching 
her house and her friends’ houses, making her less worried about the 
economy than about survival.

Ms. Funder, the novelist, said the failure to address climate change was 
especially hard for her three children, who are 10, 15 and 17, to 
understand.

“I can’t explain this to my children in a way that makes adults seem 
like sane, moral actors,” she said. “In this story, that’s not what we 
are. Although in every other way we try to look out for them and their 
future, in this story our failure is literally choking them, keeping 
them indoors at school.”

In some countries, such widespread environmental effects have led to 
changes in policy.

Activists angry about pollution in Mexico City pushed the government to 
impose tougher regulations for vehicle emissions. Many academics believe 
China’s quick pivot to renewables in recent years was a response to air 
pollution and citizens’ growing concerns about its impact.

In Australia, however — where the air in Sydney was ranked among the 
worst in the world last month — Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resisted.

“The response has been to double down on denialism,” said David 
Schlosberg, director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the 
University of Sydney.

Instead of addressing the public’s concerns, Mr. Morrison has suggested 
that some forms of protest should be outlawed, while refusing to meet 
with retired firefighters who have warned for months that more resources 
are desperately needed to battle the blazes.

On Friday, Mr. Morrison merely acknowledged that the haze in Sydney “has 
been very distressing to people.” He recommended downloading an app that 
tracks the fires.

Asked about a new report questioning Australia’s stewardship of the 
Great Barrier Reef, which is being killed by climate change, he repeated 
a false assertion that Australia’s carbon emissions are declining 
(scientists have shown that they are still rising).

Some critics are starting to wonder how long the government’s position 
can last.

“I really don’t see how this governmental attack on genuine concerns, 
coupled with a lack of action on both emissions and adaptation policies, 
can stand for much longer — especially in the face of increasing 
disasters and emergencies,” Mr. Schlosberg said.

At the very least, the smoky conditions are forcing everyone to question 
their assumptions about Sydney, where fresh air and ocean breezes are 
treated as a daily birthright.

At the top of Sydney Tower, the city’s tallest building, Chinese 
tourists said they were shocked by how little they could see.

In Hyde Park, a few blocks away, Julian deCseuz, 75, sat on a bench with 
a mask over his face. After a few hours of use, the white cotton was 
already a shade of dusty brown.

“Australia has always had a bush fire problem, but I’ve never seen it 
this bad,” he said. “I’ve been to Beijing and to Delhi, and it’s very 
similar conditions.”

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting.




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