After the fires

This article first appeared in The Anvil, Vol 9 No 1, published on 28th February 2020.

The disastrous bushfires in eastern Australia are now out, but not before over 18.7 million hectares were burnt and 34 people killed. Sydney, Australia’s largest city, was blanketed in smoke for over a month, while numerous other cities and towns suffered similar conditions. And, despite recent rain, most areas are still susceptible – the bushfire season lasts until March at least and one dry month could start things up again almost anywhere except along the coast.

Political debate around the bushfires has been out of the Government’s control for months. They lost it when Scott Morrison was found to be on a secret holiday to Hawaii at the time two volunteer firefighters were killed, but it probably only dawned on Morrison how badly things were going for him when he tried a PR appearance in a town recently hit by fire and couldn’t find anyone willing to shake his hand.

For quite some time, there has been a large majority in Australia in favour of treating climate change seriously and taking effective action, but their strength of conviction was lacking. Other issues took precedence and public concern wasn’t enough to drive the denialists from their dominant position in the Government. All this has now changed.

Opinion polls confirm what public debate has suggested. The environment is now the biggest issue in the public mind in Australia and the demand for action is growing. The Government has had to change its position. It has silenced open deniers and has taken to stating frequently that climate change is real and needs to be stopped. Its defence now revolves around saying that its existing policies are adequate to meet the challenge. This is a lie just as much as denial is, but it has the virtue of being just plausible enough that supporters of the Government can pretend to believe it.

Beyond the Government’s official position, things have moved. Sections of the Liberal Party want to take more serious action. The National Party is having a civil war: one faction thinks the defence of coal needs to be done aggressively, while the other thinks that’s too risky. Meanwhile, Labor has announced a commitment to zero net emissions by 2050 and the Greens have a new leader who is communicating their existing policies more assertively.
None of this, of course, amounts to a solution. To the extent that the Liberals’ new stance is not just PR cover for the same old same old, it’s too little, too late. Labor is fundamentally handicapped by the craven capitulation to pressure that’s in its DNA. And the Greens suffer under the delusion that a just and sustainable capitalism is possible.

What needs to be done

Right now we have improved prospects of translating propaganda into action. The next global School Strike for Climate needs to be many times bigger than last September’s and it needs to have the social weight of the unions. The Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group advocates that workers form rank and file groups in their unions to push for turning the School Strike into a workers’ strike for a Just Transition to a zero carbon society. In these rank and file groups, Anarchists will argue that the capitalist class is so invested in its sunk costs in fossil fuels that any realistic transition requires the abolition of capitalism. It’s possible to imagine a capitalism based on renewable energy, but the existing capitalist class will fight tooth and nail to protect their investments.

Only the power of the working class can beat the capitalists who would see the world burn before surrendering their fortunes. To prevent catastrophic climate change, we need a revolution. Bringing the unions into the School Strike for Climate movement is a necessary step on that road.