Firefighters fight Australia bushfires

A firefighter sprays foam retardant on a back burn ahead of a fire front in the New South Wales town of Jerrawangala amidst Australia’s devastating bushfires in January 2020

Two weeks after Australia began 2020 on fire, scores of mourners gathered for a funeral for a father and son in a small rural town called Cobargo in southeastern New South Wales. In the final days of 2019, ferocious blazes tore through that coast, decimating homes to lonely chimneys and sending thousands fleeing to famed summer beaches where skies turned bright red.

Further inland, Robert Salway, 63, and his son Patrick, 29, stayed behind to defend their farm, but the fires stopped them in their tracks. The next day, Patrick’s wife discovered their bodies. At the cemetery, fringed with blackened trees, hundreds gathered to remember them, and family friend and local councilor Tony Allen delivered a eulogy quoting advice from Robert: “‘With bush, you need to burn it before it burns you.’”

It’s a line passed on for generations in the Salway family, says Allen. It refers to the importance of hazard reduction, an age-old practice in Australia of pre-burning fuel load to reduce the intensity of the next fire. But in an age of politicized climate science, it also doubles as “a kind of code,” says Damien Cave, Australia bureau chief of The New York Times, who attended the funeral. “People who have been listening to [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison will know.”

Climate skepticism runs deep in Australia, origin of billionaire tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s media empire

The line underscores the entrenched climate skepticism in Australian society. Allen maintains that the driving force of the bushfires was excessive fuel loads and a lack of slow burns — not climate change. While hazard reduction can minimize risk in targeted assets, its impact pales in comparison to climate change, which is diminishing its window of opportunity anyway. The stance of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, the nation’s science agency, is clear: climate change is influencing the severity of the fires, corroborated again by a new World Weather Attribution study. But when climate skeptics in government and media control the message and the channels, it becomes fact for people like councilor Allen that Australia’s fires, no matter how fatal, have “nothing” to do with climate change, he says. “That’s all bullshit.”

Climate skepticism runs deep in Australia, origin of billionaire tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which has a long history of climate science denial and diversion. Across its over 150 papers and tabloids in Australia, News Corp has used everything in the fringe-science playbook to distract from the reality of climate change: mini ice ages, aerosols, wind farms make you sick, not man-made, a socialist plot, nothing can be done, and, in a January newspaper article, how global warming is good for usdebunked by the very scientist it quotes.

But in the wake of Australia’s devastating bushfire season — taking at least 34 lives, nearly 6,000 homes, and burning an estimated 50 million acres, about 27 times larger than the record 2018 California fires — the politicization of climate change in media is facing a reckoning. While climate scientists have warned about this for decades, Murdoch media’s constant deflection and distraction has entrenched confusion and doubt in the public sphere. So rather than treating climate change as an ongoing crisis like war or the coronavirus pandemic, skepticism has hamstrung the climate change story to a debate as to whether it’s even real, leaving stories untold as the planet undeniably accelerates toward a future of extreme weather.

That doubles the challenge for climate journalists, who must work overtime to not only deconstruct simplistic falsehoods purported by stake-holding industries and politicians, but also come up with creative and urgent ways to tell a scientifically complex story whose magnitude can feel beyond human grasp. “Journalism all over the world just struggles at that,” says Cave. But using innovative digital techniques paired with the old-school practice of human-driven stories, Australian journalists are endeavoring to tell a story that, says Cave, feels like a “slow tectonic shift rather than an earthquake.”

While bushfires are endemic to the driest inhabited continent on the planet, fires of 2019’s caliber are not. Last year was the hottest and driest on record for Australia, worsening an eight-year drought and parching coastal towns. Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne suffered worse air pollution than Beijing and Delhi from smoke. An estimated one billion animals perished. Experts estimate the fires emitted as much as two-thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, which could take more than 100 years for forests to reabsorb. With no weather pattern left untouched by climate change, severe floods inundated parts of the country following the fires.

Climate scientists have warned about this for decades. But the fossil fuel industry has fought back, launching a concerted “attack” on science, says Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center (ESSC) and author of “The Madhouse Effect”: “The findings of science found themselves on a collision course with the interests of the fossil fuel industry.”

Coal has a lot to lose in the climate change fight, especially in Australia. “This is our gun issue,” says Cave of the Times, comparing the outsized political power of America’s National Rifle Association with Australia’s $42-billion coal industry. It’s a baffling parallel for a developed country so vulnerable to climate change yet so rich in renewable resources. But Australia has prospered on the back of coal since the mid-19th century, booming to the world’s largest exporter. Coal underpins the electrical grid, backs conservative politics, and by way of Murdoch media, demonizes climate change as leftist hysteria. As former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put it to The Guardian, climate change is not a matter of facts anymore — it’s a matter of “identity.”

To 97% of the climate science community — the IPCC, NASA, and Australia’s most prestigious universities and institutions — the evidence is clear: man-made climate change is happening, and it’s exacerbating bushfires. But in a country controlled by a conservative government whose cheerleaders include a daily newspaper press nearly 60% dominated by Murdoch (one of the highest media concentrations in the world) and the coal industry, climate skepticism, if not outright denial, still sets the tenor for public discourse on climate change.

“We’re not trying to be alarming, we are trying to be honest,” says professor Joëlle Gergis, a climatologist at Australian National University and author of “Sunburnt Country: The Future and History of Climate Change in Australia.” “Now more than ever it is absolutely critical that we are having a rational conversation about climate change. And in between the experts and the public is the media.”

Debunking nonsense is a part-time job for Giles Parkinson, founder and editor of clean energy news site Renew Economy. When the environmental journalist isn’t covering renewable energy and climate change — which he has been doing for nearly four decades—he spends anywhere from a quarter to half his time eviscerating bogus claims. “It’s extraordinary,” says Parkinson. “I’ve never seen such an extreme.”

In mid-January, it was about decarbonizing the economy. Business daily Australian Financial Review put the cost of decarbonization at a staggering $3 trillion, a number Parkinson thoroughly dissects and discredits in a lengthy article. “Even the biggest business daily newspaper can’t get it right,” says Parkinson, whose team has expanded to five since the site’s founding in 2012. “You kind of just bang your head on the table.”

By Parkinson’s calculations, the $3 trillion number is based on double counting and unfounded assumptions, like the cost of electric cars going up and the need for every home to have a rooftop solar array and battery. Studies by government and industry bodies put that at a tenth of the cost, he says. “We don’t have so many journalists anymore so there’s a lack of knowledge and specialty … to be able to see through some of the smog that occurs,” says Parkinson. Something as complicated as the energy industry or climate science requires subject proficiency, all the more reason organizations need whole desks devoted to environmental coverage.

Otherwise, unsubstantiated information around climate science can fester, especially in Australia’s polarized media landscape. “It’s almost like there’s two worlds operating,” says professor Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University and vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

On one side sits the climate acceptors. In addition to Renew Economy, there’s Guardian Australia, whose bold coverage regularly fact-checks misinformation and banned ads from companies that extract fossil fuels. There’s The Conversation, a nonprofit news site that only publishes stories written by accredited academics and researchers. Australia’s public broadcaster, Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC), calls out misinformation in its Media Watch program. Agence-France Presse’s fact-check team monitors fake news. The New York Times opened its Australian bureau three years ago. And there’s The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and Australian Financial Review, owned by the second largest conglomerate, formerly Fairfax, now Nine.

But on the other hand sits News Corp, which in some areas holds a monopoly. In a study published by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, researchers analyzed news and commentary from 10 major Australian media outlets from February to April in both 2011 and 2012. It found that news articles from three of News Corp’s largest papers, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Herald Sun, either suggested doubt or rejected the consensus on climate change 47%, 63%, and 67% of the time, respectively. In opinion pieces, that jumped to 51%, 84% and 97%, respectively.

In an encouraging report published this March by Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, researchers found that media coverage of this season’s bushfires mentioning climate change increased to 49%, up from 5% of reports about the Black Saturday fires in 2009. In this sample of articles published between September 1, 2019 and January 31, 2020, climate denialism was purported 5% of the time, down from 20% in 2009. But of that 5%, News Corp represented 59% of denialist coverage, followed by Nine, at 19%.

Amid this year’s bushfire season, News Corp’s coverage has drawn scathing backlash—from The Guardian, The New York Times, and even Murdoch’s son James, who slammed the organization for its climate denialism. In an editorial, News Corp’s national paper The Australian, said the Times and The Guardian had “willfully and ineptly” described their climate change coverage.

According to a 2011 study by the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute, climate skepticism is “predominantly an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.” Outside Murdoch’s domain of the U.S., U.K., and Australia, politicization of climate change is largely absent from the conversation. Another 2014 supporting study by Ipsos Mori found that the U.S. has the greatest number of climate denialists in the world. In contrast, more than 80% of their respondents in China, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France, and India agreed with human-caused climate change.

Murdoch has publicly said his writers are not deniers. The environment editor of The Australian declined to be interviewed. In a statement, a spokesman for News Corp Australia says its publications as a company “acknowledge and recognize” climate change and that its existence “actually makes the need for these debates”—over hazard reduction, land clearing, burn-offs, forest planning and arson—“even greater, not reduced … It is not a one or the other position.”

Except it is. “For many [organizations], they’ve moved past giving equal weight to the deniers and the science community, and that’s appropriate,” says Howden of ANU. “Because the weight of [climate science] evidence is so strong that giving it equal weight is actually biased. To essentially be unbiased, you have to actually give weight which is proportional to the evidence.”

That populist approach is being pursued elsewhere, too, given that News Corp in Australia bears many similarities to the U.S.-based Fox News, also owned by News Corp. Study after study shows that conservative media, including Fox News and radio host Rush Limbaugh, are major drivers in climate science distrust. Like News Corp, Fox News is known for quoting firebrands and contrarians over experts and disparaging scientific institutions and peer-reviewed journals.

“This really is an emergency,” says Justin Gillis, columnist for The New York Times after nearly a decade covering environmental science, about climate change and the need for the media to take a stronger role in calling out skeptics. “They are liars and they need to be called liars as often as possible.”

For all the fake news going around, Parkinson can’t spend all of his time debunking. He doesn’t have the resources, and getting too bogged down in fake news would ultimately detract from the climate story he’s trying to push forward: the future of energy.

Australia is poised to become a leader in renewable energy. Technology is dramatically improving, and the country is so rich in solar and wind power that according to a report by the Australian-German Energy Transition Hub, Australia could run entirely on renewable energy by 2050. Under the most robust plan, Australia could produce 200% of its electrical demand and supply a large energy export.

There’s isn’t much left to burn on Kangaroo Island. Flinders Chase National Park, once filled with gum trees laden with koalas and laughing kookaburras, was razed into hills of eye-stinging white ash. For miles, there was no life or sound, save for charred trees creaking in the wind, waiting to collapse. The fire has only gone into hiding. Smoke still hovers over blackened fields of smoldering cow dung, and flames have taken sanctuary in ravines and roots underground. Even after they’re gone, they will find a way to come back in the future.

As the world remains on track to warm 2.7°F by 2040, fires will come back harder and longer. To call this fire season the “new normal” would be misleading, says Howden of ANU, because that would suggest a leveling-out. “What we’re looking at is quite the opposite: contagion accelerating unpredictably.”

But the problem is, these changes are not always going to be as gripping for a reader as blazing bushfires. Climate change is a slow burn. As destructive as the changing conditions are, their slow pace and massive scale is difficult to grip. How do you get drought, an ongoing eight-year phenomenon, to rivet readers the same way a bushfire does? Or yet another mass coral bleaching, now gunning for the third time in five years in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef?

In the wake of Australia’s devastating bushfire season, the politicization of climate change in media is facing a reckoning

For Peter Hannam, an environmental reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald, the key is engaging storytelling. In the run-up to this year’s summer, several signs pointed to an extreme fire season — massive dries, low rainfall, and vanishing rivers. While not the most exciting developments, Hannam knows how to make incremental environmental changes feel personal and urgent.

Last January, he examined how drought was leading to fishkills and kangaroos and other animals getting stuck in mud and wetlands. In August, he illustrated how drought was hurting rural communities, forcing firefighters to ration water, turning water salty, and hurting farmers. In September, he wrote about how ecologists were fighting fires in bush areas that had never before burned. His features wound up being highly prophetic.

“It’s the same story rewritten many times,” says Hannam. “We need the most creative minds available.”

For Adam Morton, environmental editor at Guardian Australia, nailing the perfect character was essential to the creativity behind his team’s “The Frontline” project, a six-part, multimedia series that showcased the lives of people on the frontline of Australia’s climate crisis: fires, drought, air quality, warming oceans, heat, and lost harvest. It’s a project the reporting team of three had been working on for over a year, which marries drone footage, video, audio, graphs, and text to create an immersive experience that bridges the personal and the global. The project was rolled out over the course of February, with the bushfires as the pilot episode: Australia’s new fire zone.

It began in the air: a drone shot slowly zooming out to capture Tony Groom, 81, hugging his daughter, Lisa, 52, in the burnt remains of Binna Burra Lodge, a family-run hiking retreat built in 1933 in the Queensland hinterland. Groom narrates his story as the drone pulls back, until his red jacket is just a speck surrounded by debris and blackened trees that burned in September, a time and place rarely affected by fire.

Scroll: Groom takes the reader for a tour of his land, including the tree he planted for his late wife, which burned. Scroll: maps showing Australia’s worsening forest fire danger index. Scroll: smoke billows out of a neighboring valley, overlaid by Groom’s voice as he recounts fire crawling up the mountain to his property. Scroll: into a kitchen, where Lisa tearily recounts water bombers, fire trucks, and helicopters through the night.

“So often [climate change] is a story that’s told in numbers, and the numbers are important, but they’re also eye-glazing to a lot of people,” says Morton. From diving instructors describing the loss of kelp forest around the oceans of South Australia to aborginal people reflecting on the killer heat in the Northern Territory, “The Frontline” makes the climate crisis a personal one, too.

“The Frontline” was inspired by the success of an earlier climate series called “Our Wide Brown Land.” In 2018, Guardian Australia launched a crowdfunding drive with a pitch to readers: if you value in-depth investigative reporting on the environment, then chip in and we’ll do it. On the first day, it raised nearly $45,000. They cut it off at about $90,000 when they had raised enough to cover the costs of the project. “It showed there was a huge appetite for this work,” says Morton.

And there still is. Since the bushfires, climate change has been front and center in the Australian consciousness. Morton says he has felt a “shift to the center” in terms of public understanding of climate change. And the polls say so, too. In a report published in January 2020, 72% of Australians rank climate change as a personal problem. 84% favor at least some action on climate change, with 60% of that group agreeing that climate change has been established as a serious problem and immediate action is necessary.

“Telling science-backed human stories are pretty hard things to refute,” says Morton.

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