Climate Denial, Disinformation Obscure the Cause of Australia’s Bushfire Disaster
Opinion & Analysis
Australia’s climate denial machine is kicking into high gear, with Scott Morrison’s Liberal coalition government and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire trying to separate the agony of the country’s continuing bushfire disaster from the climate crisis as its key underlying cause.
“Australia’s government is sticking firmly to a position that there is no direct link between climate change and the country’s devastating bushfires, despite public anger, the anguish of victims, and warnings from scientists,” Reuters reported earlier this week. Morrison and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor “say Australia does not need to cut carbon emissions more aggressively to limit global warming, even after a three-year drought and unprecedented bushfires.”
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They’re claiming instead that the country “should be rewarded for beating its emissions reduction targets for 2020,” the news agency added—even though it’s the world’s second-biggest per capita emitter, behind the United States, and placed dead last in the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index of 57 governments’ policies.
“When it comes to reducing global emissions, Australia must and is doing its bit, but bushfires are a time when communities must unite, not divide,” Taylor told the news agency by email Tuesday.
But environmental groups say Australia’s claim that it’s exceeding its 2020 targets depends on carrying forward old carbon credits under the 1992 Kyoto Protocol—a nifty accounting trick that helped stymie negotiations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement during last month’s UN climate conference in Madrid. Scientists, meanwhile, are pointing to the country’s 45°C “blast furnace” conditions, brought on by climate change, as a decisive factor in an historically early, intense bushfire season.
“One of the key drivers of fire intensity, fire spread rates, and fire area is temperature. And in Australia we’ve just experienced record high temperatures,” said Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University.
But the Murdoch media empire is working to obscure that reality, the New York Times contends in a news analysis published Wednesday. The story cites false narratives spread by Murdoch-owned news outlets, including claims that “greenies” would object to firefighters taking down trees to starve the fires of fuel, and that this year’s epic blazes are no worse than the bushfires of years past.
“And on Wednesday, Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp, the largest media company in Australia, was found to be part of another wave of misinformation. An independent study found online bots and trolls exaggerating the role of arson in the fires, at the same time that an article in [Murdoch-owned] The Australian making similar assertions became the most popular offering on the newspaper’s website,” the Times writes. “It’s all part of what critics see as a relentless effort led by the powerful media outlet to do what it has also done in the United States and Britain—shift blame to the left, protect conservative leaders, and divert attention from climate change.”
That strategy “is really reckless and extremely harmful,” Joëlle Gergis, an award-winning climate scientist at the Australian National University, told the Times. “It’s insidious because it grows. Once you plant those seeds of doubt, it stops an important conversation from taking place.”
“Our coverage has recognized Australia is having a conversation about climate change and how to respond to it,” News Corp. replied, in an email to the Times. “The role of arsonists and policies that may have contributed to the spread of fire are, however, legitimate stories to report in the public interest.”
But the Times analysis documents a much less balanced or objective publishing history. “For many critics, the Murdoch approach suddenly looks dangerous,” the paper says. “They are increasingly connecting News Corp. to the spread of misinformation and the government’s lacklustre response to the fires. They argue that the company and the coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison are responsible—together, as a team—for the failure to protect a country that scientists say is more vulnerable to climate change than any other developed nation.” [Though Canada is apparently not far off—Ed.]
While there have been some exceptions to the rule, “a search for ‘climate change’ in the main Murdoch outlets mostly yields stories condemning protesters who demand more aggressive action from the government; editorials arguing against ‘radical climate change policy’; and opinion columns emphasizing the need for more backburning to control fires—if only the left-wing greenies would allow it to happen.”
In fact, the Times says, Australian Greens have issued a statement supporting hazard reduction burns, and “climate scientists do acknowledge that there is room for improvement when it comes to burning the branches and dead trees on the ground that can fuel fires. But they also say no amount of preventive burning will offset the impact of rising temperatures that accelerate evaporation, dry out land, and make already-arid Australia a tinderbox.”
The Times points to an “echoing between officialdom and Murdoch media” that has raised flags with many Australians, and the “scores of bots and trolls—many of which previously posted support for [Donald] Trump—[that] have joined conservative media like the Murdoch outlets in promoting the idea that Australia’s fires are not a ‘climate emergency’ but an ‘arson emergency’.”
But after the deluge of stories and images chronicling the disaster unfolding in southeast Australia, “there’s a political storm brewing in Australia, as well,” writes Washington Post foreign analyst Ishaan Tharoor, with Morrison at its epicentre. The prime minister still “remains infamous for a stunt he pulled in 2017, when, as Australia’s treasurer, he showed up to a session of Parliament brandishing a lump of coal and a message to his colleagues not to be scared by fossil fuels.” The coal had been neatly lacquered for him by the country’s minerals council.
“This is coal. This is coal,” Morrison said at the time. “Don’t be afraid! Don’t be scared! Won’t hurt you. Won’t hurt you.”
After he became PM a year later, “Australia stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, the UN-backed mechanism that assists developing countries hit by climate disaster,” Tharoor writes. “When the United Nations chaired a climate meeting in September in New York, Morrison skipped the session. And in last month’s major climate conference in Madrid, Morrison’s government came under particular criticism for thwarting collective efforts to set meaningful emissions targets.”
Then, once he finally got home from his Hawaii vacation last month, Morrison’s “tepid brand of climate denialism” was on display, the columnist adds. “They are natural disasters,” he told media. “They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country, and they have for a very long time.”
But while “Morrison and his ilk have long resisted meaningful climate action or schemes that would raise the cost of energy,” the latest round of bushfires “may force a new reckoning,” Tharoor says.
“Debate over climate—whether it is changing, and if so what to do about it—has become a culture wars issue over the years to the point where it has proved to be a useful political device for parties of the right,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald columnist Tony Walker. But now, “the ground is shifting politically,” with more and more Australians recognizing the depth of the climate emergency.
That shift isn’t coming soon enough for author Jennifer Mills in South Australia.
“Like many volunteer firefighters, I am furious,” she wrote for the Post. “Australians see ourselves as tough characters who take care of each other in a crisis. Country people don’t express our feelings easily; we don’t like to make a fuss. But in rural areas, volunteer firefighters give up days and nights to respond to incidents as they arise. We do this because someone has to. When we rise to challenges such as this one, we expect something similar from our leaders.”
But that’s not what happened. “Six months before the fires, and then again in September, Morrison declined to meet with a group of former fire chiefs who wanted to warn him that an emergency like this was on the horizon,” Mills stated. “Rural firefighting services in Australia are state-based and largely voluntary.
They are often woefully under-resourced, and some have been subject to recent budget cuts. Volunteer firefighters like me watched this season approach—the deadly combination of intense heat and Australia’s worst drought in decades—with dread. Where were the extra resources we needed? And why was Australia still refusing to act on the climate emergency??