Climate action must include people-protection

February 9, 2014

Victoria’s scorching January heatwave has focused a lot of attention on the problem of coping with the immediate fallout from climate change.

According to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, in the period January 13 to 23 there were 139 deaths in excess of the expected average. There were reports of homeless people being forced away from airconditioned areas as they sought relief from the relentless heat.

How are we going to survive as climate change bites harder and harder? Clearly, the key task is to build a mass movement capable of forcing a drastic change in direction — to make an urgent transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a sustainable one. Unless this is done by the most developed countries — and very quickly — a catastrophe is inevitable.

But right now we also need to campaign for measures to help protect people from the effects of climate-change-related events such as heatwaves, bushfires and floods.

Thermal upgrade of housing

The March 2013 report of the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS), Feeling the Heat: Heatwaves and Social Vulnerability in Victoria, contains a good list of both the problems and what needs to be done.

However, it is clear that any attempt to implement these very sensible suggestions would come up against powerful corporate economic interests and the governments that serve them. Only a massive and sustained popular campaign has any hope of making serious progress here.

Consider one recommendation from the VCSS: “Introduce legislated standards to improve the thermal efficiency of the homes of those Victorians who are most vulnerable in heatwaves, particularly those with disabilities, medical conditions and chronic illnesses.”

This is spot on. But many private owner-occupiers would be unable to afford the necessary measures (proper insulation, double glazing and more vegetation). In that case, will the state pay?

And if rented properties are involved, this would mean forcing landlords to carry out the improvements. They would resist any such proposal.

Finally, we come to public housing. The state is running down this sector and quietly privatising it under the guise of a transition to “social housing”. Governments will resist the idea of a massive thermal upgrade of the remaining stock.

Heatwave refuges

The report also recommends the following: “Ensure that publicly accessible cool spaces are available in all communities and public housing estates, and that these locations are promoted to high risk groups.”

Again, this is so obviously needed. But realising this would mean a substantial financial outlay which any respectable neo-liberal government will strongly resist.

Local councils could be key players here, setting up heatwave refuges with the requisite airconditioning, toilets, showers, sleeping arrangements and support staff, and arranging transport where necessary. But councils are kept on a tight financial leash by state governments and would find it difficult to finance such a system on the necessary scale.

Bushfire refuges

Let’s look at bushfires. The Victorian royal commission into the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires made 67 recommendations. Both the ALP and the Coalition said they accepted all of them.

A very important recommendation concerned building community refuges in high-risk areas. But to roll them out on the scale required will cost a great deal of money and so far the Denis Napathine government has only built three.

The Dandenong Ranges, on Melbourne’s eastern edge, is a very high-risk area. It is home to about 60,000 residents and has heavy eucalypt vegetation, almost no extensive open space to flee to, and narrow roads — all this makes it a disaster waiting to happen. Rolling out a network of easily accessible fire refuges here would seem to be a desperately urgent priority. But the government is proceeding at a snail’s pace.

The above has focused on just two of the impacts of climate change: heatwaves and bushfires.

There are many others. Rising sea levels will pose the question of relocating people to higher areas — will the state assist or will people be abandoned to their own resources?

Human need versus corporate greed

Climate change will also impact on our food supply, both the availability of certain foods and their cost. Are we to be left to the mercy of Coles and Woolworths — you get what you can afford — or will the state assist (by rationing, pegging prices, establishing publicly owned outlets, and so on)?

Climate change poses the issue point blank: the welfare of the community versus the wealth and enrichment of a tiny handful of super-rich; human need versus corporate greed.

Each heatwave, each major bushfire, will only intensify public unease. The climate movement and progressive forces have to be able to respond to this growing concern.

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