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Heatwave: Australia burns while polluters profit

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It’s been a week of bushfire in the southern states of Australia, with locals and firefighters suffering under the conditions.

Following long periods of dry weather and now extreme heat, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania have suffered, with hundreds of fires burning across the four states.

Global Warming is largely considered the cause, raising further criticisms of the recent ’talkfest’ of the ’Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate’. Called by the United States and Australia, who both refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocols, the conference was largely a meeting of business interests with aspirations of further investment in the region and no interest in setting targets for pollution reduction.

The extreme heat has affected countryside and city alike. Adelaide saw four days of over 40 Degree heat for the first time in nearly one hundred years. Melbourne saw even top tennis players withdrawing from competition.

The weather saw thousands escape to air-conditioned shopping centres, while ambulances were called to cases of heat stroke and exhaustion. Smoke and smog blows across Melbourne. The heat has put extra pressure on the privatised electricity industries, with blackouts occurring in many southern cities.

Last year was officially Australia’s hottest year on record. Five of the hottest ten years have occurred in less than ten years. The Bureau of Meteorology blames global warming as the most likely explanation.

And it’s the summers that are really seeing the change. Last year the January-May period averaged close to Two Degrees Celsius above the 1961-90 average (an international standard of comparison). It was also the 2nd driest period on record.

Weather like this prepares the land for one thing: bushfire. Fire prevention and back-burning may reduce the risk of bushfire, but when it’s this dry and hot, fires spread quickly and out of control. Fire fronts can reach tens of kilometres wide within hours.

The bushfire sweeping through the Grampians National Park, the worst in Victoria, is still flaming after 7 days. Over 740 firefighters remain near the park, hoping to bring the fire under control with the ease in weather conditions. Fires across Victoria have now claimed three lives, 150,000 hectares of bushland, 30 homes, over 60,000 head of stock and countless native animals.

Meanwhile, the firefighters, considered heroes by most, are also fighting a battle over safety conditions.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA), coordinator of bushfire relief efforts, is one of the world’s biggest volunteer emergency services, made up of 58,000 volunteers and 400 ’career firefighters’ and 700 ’career support staff’. This enormous group of volunteer labour puts huge pressure on the wages and conditions of firefighters.

Members of United Firefighters Union have long complained that volunteers, with less training and experience, will put up with dangerously inadequate safety equipment in their desperation to save houses, and human and animal life. Instead of this crazy risk-taking, state and federal governments should fully fund fire emergency services so that volunteers are not needed and union demands can be met.

This year the union reports that firefighters are being sent into bushfires by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) “with equipment that does not meet Australian standards and digital radios that fail". Further, they are expected to work 20 hrs straight with no rest, no Administration Officer and using spare vehicles with little safety or firefighting equipment.

Firefighters are protesting in Melbourne on 6th February.

With Australia feeling the effects of extreme heat and out of control bushfires, it’s not surprising that environmentalists and scientists have heavily criticised the 11-12th January meeting of the ’Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate’. They described it as a ’pointless PR exercise’.

The six countries - USA, Australia, Japan, China, India, Republic of Korea - failed to set any emission reduction targets, despite the US and Australia remaining two of the world’s worst per capita polluters, with Japan not far behind.

The conference, organised by political leaders but dominated by business interests, did not discuss real social development, that is, improving environmental and living conditions for workers and the poor. Instead it was another forum for the world’s rich to discuss how to better exploit a region of the globe, albeit using “cleaner, more efficient technologies". Worse, they have received the assistance of millions in public funds.

Recommendations for improving the uptake of new technologies included: tax incentives for business, intellectual property rights and research consortiums controlled by business and funded by government. Australia is donating around (Aus)$100 million and the US more than $50 million per year over five years to the project.

The type of ’clean development’ conference participants have in mind is one that will bring business profits, not ease the working or environmental conditions of workers and the poor. Businesses in Australia and the US are likely to gain most profit - six of the eight Task Forces are at least co-chaired by the United States or Australia, if not both.

We can’t rely on a bunch of business crooks to commit to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at their expense, let alone to improve employment conditions and reduce poverty at the same time. But under capitalism that is whom we’re expected to rely on.

Instead we need a society that can properly plan emergency services, run power and electricity for people not profit, develop industry that both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improved working conditions, while also providing full compensation to those affected by weather extremes.

This society would require national and international coordination and planning, and need to be based on nationalised industries run for the majority, not for private profit. Such a society could not only help those in need now, but also set solid targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby reducing global warming and the increased risk of bushfires in the future.