People power the silver lining of bushfire crisis

January 16, 2020
Muslim men from Sydney took their barbecue to the Willawarrin evacuation centre.

The dire lack of government leadership over the New Year bushfire crisis contrasted strongly with the incredible community solidarity and self-organising that took place on the ground. If there is a silver lining to the bush fire catastrophe, it is this community power, which prevented more death and destruction.

This grassroots leadership should not be surprising given that ordinary people often have to make do in crisis situations.

As the bushfires raged, Coalition MPs were not to be found, demonstrating in practice their denial of the link between climate change and extreme weather.

By contrast, the incredible stories of community support including material and financial assistance, accommodation, medicine and funds for firefighters have flooded social media.

A post with a specific offer of paddocks for agistment, or accommodation, led to the formation of databases to match offers with needs.

Other spontaneous acts of solidarity abound including: refugees helping bushfire evacuees; young Muslim men from Auburn, Sydney, driving to evacuation centres with sausages, water and a barbecue, unions becoming collection points for assistance; and small businesses organising fundraisers for firefighters.

Millions of dollars have been raised for firefighting efforts and the Red Cross, showing a generosity that contrasts strongly with budget cuts to a range of services, including fire and emergency services and national parks. We need to campaign for this to be restored and, ideally, some of these community donations to be diverted to local communities organising to fight climate change.

Community pressure forced PM Scott Morrison to return from Hawaii and, belatedly, bring in the army reservists. While his ineptitude and poor judgement should be enough to force him from office, the Liberals, with the help of Murdoch, are doing what they can to drive a wedge through the country-city solidarity the crisis spawned.

Blaming “greenies” for “blocking” hazard reduction burns is about ducking for cover for the cuts to national parks and wildlife and the bigger question of fossil-fuel related climate change. Blaming people calling for action on climate change is another favourite tactic of the deniers.

They are desperate to deflect because attitudes reveal a growing chasm between popular values and those of the major parties. A poll conducted by The Australia Institute in January showed 66% of those polled believed the country “is facing a climate change emergency and should take emergency action”.

Their annual Climate of the Nation report, released on September 9, confirmed a shift in views on climate and energy.

Its key findings were:

• 81% are concerned that climate change will result in more droughts and flooding (up from 78% in 2018);

• 78% are concerned climate change will lead to water shortages in cities (up 11 percentage points over the past two years);

• 64% want a national target of net zero emissions by 2050 (compared to 15% who do not);

• 54% reject the idea that Australia should not act on climate change until other major emitters like the US and China do; and

• 62% support a levy on fossil fuel exports to help fund local adaptation to climate change.

People are also concerned about food security, species extinction, water shortages, heat waves and the melting of the polar ice caps. Nearly three-quarters wanted coal-fired power phased out and a majority blamed energy companies’ profit-making for the increase in energy prices.

More than 40% said they believed more droughts and flooding were a result of climate change — up from 32% the previous year.

These are reasons to be optimistic when things seem to be descending into hell. But it is going to take a big effort to force the climate deniers to retreat.

You can help by becoming a supporter of Green Left and donating to help keep this not-for-profit project connecting people in struggle.

[Margaret Gleeson is a life-long unionist and retired housing sector worker.]

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