Thousands of people have rallied in Sydney to protest against inaction on the climate crisis, after months of bushfires and hazardous smoke in New South Wales and Queensland.
On Tuesday, the level of dangerous PM2.5 particles in Sydney’s air was as high as 10 times normal, and fires have burnt through nearly 3 million hectares of land across NSW and Queensland this season.
Outside Sydney’s Town Hall, protesters gathered wearing face masks, asking the government to act on the role global heating had in making bushfire seasons longer and more devastating.
Speakers called on the state and federal governments to increase funding to the Rural Fire Service, and provide P2 masks and Hepa air filters to firefighters, hospitals, aged care facilities and schools.
Leighton Drury, the NSW secretary of the Fire Brigades Employees Union, said that firefighters were “spread thin”.
“I am well-qualified to say that these are the worst fires we’ve had in decades, and they’re not going to get better unless we take action,” he said.
“A decade of denial about own environment changing has led to this … the solution is simple. Firefighters put out fires. Politicians put out policies and budgets. We’ve got our job, they need to do theirs better”.
Dr Janet Rowden from the Nurses and Midwives’ Association said the weeks of smoke were now posing a public health risk.
“Already four of our members have lost their homes in the fires,” she said.
“We are suffering a public health climate emergency. We need to go on for another three months we are told.”
The NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, said earlier on Tuesday the fires were “not normal” and that we “need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately”.
On Tuesday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was asked about concerns over how long the tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters – many who have been away from work for weeks now – were expected to continue without pay.
Morrison said volunteer firefighters “want to be out there defending their communities” and told media he was “pleased with the way those arrangements [between state and federal governments] are being worked out”.
The NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge told the crowd of protesters in Sydney that the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, was “missing in action” and Morrison had not done enough.
“His big policy announcement has been a draft religious discrimination bill,” Shoebridge said to loud boos.
Natalie Wasley from the Maritime Union of Australia said this week’s smoke haze was among the worst she had ever seen.
“As a wharfie, I work in extreme conditions,” she said. “We work in heat, we work in rain, we are exposed to diesel particulates, we are exposed to dust. But like you, we have never, never experienced what has been happening in the past couple of weeks in our worksite”.
High school student Amy Lamont told the crowd that a fire had threatened her home that very day.
“There was a fire two kilometres from our house, and one kilometre from old primary school,” she said. “And if you’re not directly experiencing these fires, you’re breathing in about 30 cigarettes a day.
“Students shouldn’t have to worry, when going to school, that they might come back to to a burned home.”