[Marxism] Australia Burns Again, and Now Its Biggest City Is Choking
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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
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
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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
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
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
“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
“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
Isabella Kwai contributed reporting.
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