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Why Climate Denial Survives While Australia Burns

Australian conservative politicians and media outlets have been in prime misdirection mode in the past few months.

Residents swim in New South Wales under a smoke-tinged sky. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

In April last year, 22 former fire and emergency chiefs from across Australia issued a statement just before a federal election, calling on Australia’s two major political parties—one of them likely to form the next government—to increase national emergency resources, such as large firefighting aircraft. According to a former fire commissioner who started fighting fires in the 1970s, Australia was only equipped to deal with the weather conditions of that era. He himself said he could no longer predict fire patterns.

By September, this group, who called themselves the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change, issued a public statement, asking why the conservative government still hadn’t set a date to meet with them. Was the inevitable burning of Australia in the driest year on record simply not a priority to them? They never got their meeting. Two months later, the losses numb the mind: fires that have burned an area larger than the Netherlands, the destruction of some of the oldest forests in the world, the deaths of nearly 500 million animals, the loss of sites that hold the history of 12,000-year-old First Nations cultures.

Climate change denialism has lingered for far too long in Australian popular culture, thanks to a conservative government that has spun the tale to its advantage and to the way information has filtered through one of the world’s most monolithic media markets. Ten years ago, I covered it as a niche issue as a rookie reporter in my home town of Sydney. Ketan Joshi, a communications consultant currently writing a book on climate change denialism in Australia, has finally seen a shift recently. “There has always been strong support for renewable energy,” he wrote to me by email, “and in the past two years, there has been a big rise in support for climate action.” Right now, he added, “Australians place it higher than ever, at the top of [their] priorities.”

But those who control the narrative—the government, the largely conservative media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch (Murdoch owns 70 percent of the country’s newspaper circulation), the executives who run the Australian economy—remain the country’s most active obstructionists on climate policy. In an effort to maintain power, they deploy classic gaslighting techniques, but on a national level, making Australians doubt themselves, their intelligence, and, chillingly, their reality. But as climate science proves itself too difficult to refute in its entirety, they’ve doubled down on one tactic in particular: misdirection.

Within these circles, the official narrative seems to be: What summer isn’t complete in Australia without the scent of bushfire in the background—like a candle lit for an extra atmospheric touch? Even now, as the smoke in Sydney reaches levels akin to smoking 37 cigarettes—my dad’s voice breaks, as does my heart, when I call home—powerful media figures spout astonishing lies and distractions. “None of these bushfires were in any way extraordinary compared to not just the last 50 years but indeed the last 150 years,” a political commentator wrote in the Murdoch-owned newspaper the Herald Sun. In the Daily Telegraph, also owned by Murdoch, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change were dismissed as giving opinions “outside their area of expertise.” On British television, an Australian federal politician speaking to Piers Morgan publicly denied any impact of climate change on the current fire conditions.

Where they can, these politicians and media pundits blame anyone they can, as long as the causes are not climate change or their own actions. Federal officials say state-level politicians in New South Wales refused their help. They point the finger at smaller political parties who have never been in power, even though logic says that these parties have never had the authority to implement whatever policies they’re being blamed for. They issue statements one might expect in The Onion’s satirical coverage with straight faces: The deputy prime minister linked the fires to “self-combusting piles of manure.”

Another Murdoch-owned publication, The Australian, appeared to blame arsonists for the fires. “Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183,” the headline read, as if nearly 200 people had been caught contributing to the current crisis. Like the most effective stories that make us question reality, the story was both wrong and just right enough to be plausible: Police arrested 183 through all of 2019, not simply the latest summer season that started in November last year, and many of the arrests were for improper care with machinery or cigarettes. Police in Victoria have refuted the notion that the fires there were started by arsonists, and there’s no question that climate change has contributed to the fires’ unprecedented spread.

The point of these articles, Joshi said, is “misdirection.” The rumors have “spread so quickly, and with such fervor, because the climate change link to bushfire season is essentially undeniable now. The aim is, of course, to inspire so much exhaustion that, when faced with expert views, people simply dismiss them as part of the same flurry of contradictory claims.”

Misdirection rather than outright denial has its political benefits. “This ‘teetering on the brink of climate change denialism’ serves the prime minister,” emailed James Walter, a professor of political science at Monash University. “It prevents the sort of fragmentation within the party that brought down [Malcolm] Turnbull,” he said, referring to the previous prime minister, “because it mollifies the denialist faction. It’s about containing internal party turmoil (and possibly satisfying the coal lobby, which is very strong). It also ensures he gets the backing of the shock jocks and the Murdoch press.”

And when it comes to the public, misdirection works in part because the conflict over climate change is an emotional one. “Climate policy in Australia is deeply divided along left-right political lines and caricatured as a battle between the environment and the economy,” Rebecca Colvin, a scientist at the Australian National University, who researches the link between human psychology and environmental practices, told me by email. “Sharing certain perspectives ... can be performed in order to affirm group belonging. While the literal text may be climate denial, the subtext is ‘I’m like you, and I’m not like them’,” she wrote. “It just so happens that the balance of evidence rests with one ‘side’ of this climate pseudo-debate and not the other.”

But these lies are no longer about hypotheticals. Like the well-worn plot of a terror movie, a scary story is entertainment until it isn’t; that is, when it becomes real. “Deniers have already sucked massive amounts of life from society,” Joshi said, “both in terms of hours spent pleading with them and through the literal impacts of climate change on people and creatures.”

On Friday, thousands of people across Australia showed up to protest against their government’s handling of both the bushfires and climate change. Echoing similar campaigns in the United States, instructions to email members of parliament are circulating the internet, with a letter drafted and uploaded to Dropbox for convenience; the letter calls for politicians to take direct action against climate change. My local federal member is Scott Morrison, the current Australian prime minister, and I’m not convinced the letter will work, but I did it anyway.

Time and again, those writing on the climate crisis have pointed out a terrible discrepancy in the situation: Those who are more responsible will suffer less, those less wealthy and less powerful will suffer more. As Australia’s fires have shown, that future is already here. Morrison took his wife and two daughters on vacation to Hawaii for Christmas, saying that, despite the crisis, he didn’t want to disappoint his family. Meanwhile, just before New Year’s Eve, a woman escaping fires in the southeastern corner of the country took a photo of her 11-year-old son steering a boat. She had been forced to escape to the water with her two children in a tiny dinghy. Her son wore a face mask. Behind him, light from the bushfires suffused the sky like fresh blood.