The Australia fires portend a future of climate apartheid

The climate denialism of the rich and powerful is increasing the suffering of the poor and marginalised communities.

Australia bushfires
Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers and NSW Fire and Rescue officers fight a bushfire encroaching on properties near Termeil, Australia on December, 3, 2019 [AAP image via Reuters/Dean Lewins]

It will be a long hot summer in Australia. Fires of almost biblical proportions have swept across the country, devastating land, property and wildlife. More than 30 people have been killed, a billion animals have died, and more than 3,000 homes have been burned down. The cost of the bushfires has been estimated at $2bn and could climb even further.

Although heavy rain and lower temperatures this month have helped put out some fires, the threat of the blaze coming back is still imminent

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to this environmental catastrophe has been to refuse to expand measures to combat climate change. In December, as the death toll was climbing and Australian fire brigades struggled to control the fires, the prime minister left the country for a holiday in Hawaii.

His attitude and actions illustrate quite well just how the wealthy and their political allies plan to rule our burning planet.

The harrowing and apocalyptic scenes coming out of Australia are only the beginning of a new normal in which climate change will result in climate apartheid. Those with the means and the resources will leave climate catastrophe zones or otherwise protect themselves from the worst effects of climate change, while poor communities and nations of the Global South, indigenous people and people of colour will bear the brunt.

Meanwhile, global corporations will continue to lobby governments to take little action on climate change and continue to undermine the efforts of climate activists.

In a July 2019 report, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned that climate change will push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030, causing displacement, food insecurity and worsening health, and posing “dire threats” to democracy and human rights. “Perversely, while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions, they will bear the brunt of climate change and have the least capacity to protect themselves,” Alston wrote.

In Australia, this is already apparent. The country has had devastating bush fires for years, which have disproportionately affected impoverished areas. Aboriginal communities continue to be subjected to discrimination, marginalisation and dispossession, their land seized to make way for more resource extraction.

Although the country – one of the world’s top coal exporters – is clearly suffering from the devastating consequences of climate change, more coal mines are being built on aboriginal land and more coal is being exported.

Meanwhile, the ruling political elite of the country has consistently refused to take major action on climate change, dismantle the coal industry, and undertake a massive divestment from fossil fuels. Its attitude of climate change denial has been buttressed by a regressive media establishment dominated by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Australia is not the only country with a history of brutal colonialism which has taken a cynical, cruel and nihilistic approach to the environment, climate activists and vulnerable populations.

Six months ago, another country was experiencing devastating fires – Brazil. There the Amazon forest, which is considered a bulwark against climate change, was burning under the watch of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another climate denialist.

In Brazil, 98 percent of indigenous land falls within the Amazon, which means that forest fires also disproportionately affect indigenous communities.

Bolsonaro not only did not take adequate action against the blaze, but his aggressive anti-environment rhetoric was also seen as encouraging farmers to start fires and clear land for more farms and pastures. Even worse, he has been accused of inciting genocide, as his political stances have emboldened acts of violence and murder against indigenous people.

Bolsonaro has also implemented a number of troubling policies that will hurt efforts to preserve the environment. Those include cutting the budget of the Brazilian environmental protection agency, easing fines for illegal pollution and deforestation, and lifting bans on growing sugarcane in the Amazon and protected tropical wetlands.

The situation in the US is not that much different, either. Last year, US President Donald Trump, another proponent of climate change denialism, threatened to cut funding for forest fire management in California after the state went through another wave of devastating fires. There, too, impoverished communities have faced the worst of the blaze.

Trump also personally intervened to cut and withhold billions of dollars in funding to Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria and a recent earthquake, because he claims the territory is corrupt and ungrateful. In doing so he followed in the footsteps of President George W Bush, whose administration launched a pathetic response to the devastation in predominantly black communities in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Trump rolled back nearly 100 rules designed to protect the air, land and water, and is removing environmental protection for half of the nation’s streams and wetlands. Under his watch, the US Department of Homeland Security labelled climate activists as extremists alongside mass killers and white supremacists.

Apart from these regressive policies in Australia, Brazil and the US, wealthy nations around the globe are increasingly militarising their borders to prevent a growing number of climate refugees from seeking asylum on their territories. European nations, for example, have increasingly relied on harsh measures and dubious deals with repressive regimes and violent non-state actors to keep refugees away from their borders.

These climate apartheid proponents behave as if their walled fortresses, air-conditioned and high-altitude enclaves will insulate them from the worst ravages of climate change and its most devastated front-line victims. But the reality is that there is no bailout from a climate catastrophe, even for the rich.

By now it is clear that change will not come from the top. The business and political elites are bent on maintaining the status quo, however deadly it may be.

For this reason, it is the grassroots that has to mobilise to defy climate apartheid and push for urgent climate change that includes not only divesting from fossil fuels and cutting back on global emissions, but also reforming the world economy away from the growth frenzy that currently drives it. Also, we must fight for robust economic and social rights, including a strong social safety net, social security, access to food, shelter, healthcare and decent work for all.

Global grassroots mobilisation is the only way to prevent climate apartheid from taking root and taking adequate action to save the human civilisation from dying out because of its own folly.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.