Australia Can Only Save Itself if it Fixes the Rot in its Political System
A media landscape dominated by Rupert Murdoch and big mining political interests is leading Australia to a climate catastrophe, argues CJ Werleman.
The scale of the destruction, devastation and death resulting from Australia’s climate change fires is almost impossible to comprehend. It’s like nothing we have seen before and it has been likened to an “atomic bomb”, with more earth scorched than three times that of the recent Amazon and Californian fires combined.
The fires have left the world aghast with images of fire tornadoes, charcoaled destruction, post-apocalyptic skies, mass evacuations, military deployments. These, alongside the disablement of critical infrastructure, brings to mind thoughts of a war zone and not that of one of the most peaceful and prosperous nations on earth. Some Australians have now become refugees in their own country. And the hottest summer on record has only just begun.
“Incredibly, the response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been not to defend their country but to defend the coal industry, a big donor to both major parties – as if they were willing the country to its doom,” observed The New York Times in an article entitled Australia is Committing Climate Suicide.
It seems not to matter to the country’s conservative party or its allies in the Rupert Murdoch-dominated media that these fires have wiped out an area the size of Belgium, half that of the United Kingdom, or three US eastern seaboard states, taking with it more than 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles and putting many on the brink of extinction.
What matters, evidently, is defending the conservative coalition – the Liberal-National parties – at all cost. It has stubbornly refused to accept irrefutable and evidence-based climate science and, in turn, to reduce carbon emissions. It’s as though the Australian Government is standing on the bridge of the sinking Titanic and yelling “life rafts are for squeamish liberal hippies – the rest of us will be fine”.
The fact is that Australia is the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas and is the world’s largest emitter of carbon emissions per capita. It is ranked 57 out of 57 countries on climate change action, while holding the second greatest share of climate change deniers in the developed world – even as these fires have required the largest peace time evacuation and military deployment in the country’s history.
Australia’s political response to the ongoing catastrophe has made its Government a Titanic-like punch line.
“The scale of the country’s wildfire emergency has few precedents,” remarked the UK’s Financial Times in a damning editorial. “But it has been exacerbated by a regrettable lack of leadership from the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Beyond Australia’s shores, his Government stands as a reproach to any leaders tempted to follow its lamentable response to the deepening threat of climate change.”
The newspapers of more than 100 countries have heaped scorn and ridicule on the Australian Government’s culpability in doing nothing to address climate change, despite the fact that the country’s mean temperature has risen by more than one degree Celsius since 1911, making it especially vulnerable to the consequences of a warming planet.
“You know your country is in trouble when the people of Syria, Venezuela, Somalia and Bolivia are looking on with dismay,” said climate change journalist Alan Austin.
Conspiracies with Consequences
For nearly two decades, Australia’s conservative governance – the Liberal Party – has made climate change denial party orthodoxy, with the country’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott branding the science behind it as “absolute crap”. The current leader, Scott Morrison, once reassured the country that there is nothing to fear from coal while holding a chunk of the black mineral during a Donald Trump-style parliamentary stunt in 2017.
The more Australia burns, the more absurd and dangerous the anti-climate change conspiracies have become, with right-wing pundits and politicians blaming anything but the consequences of an overheating planet. These conspiracies include: blaming environmentalists for opposing hazard reduction burns, erroneously blaming the Green Party’s fuel reduction policies, a failure to clear deadwood from forests or create firebreaks, the expansion of settlements in wooded areas, the “sun’s magnetic fields”, and even gay sex – as former Australian rugby union player Israel Folau suggested.
In a television interview, the former New South Wales Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins threw cold water on the Government’s central assertion that the current fires are a result of environmentally friendly or Green Party policies by saying that “the problem is it’s drier and hotter” and that the window for fire reduction burns is becoming smaller due to the fact the fire season is becoming longer. “Fire hazard burns don’t come without risk,” he added. Longer droughts, changes in rainfall patterns, and record-busting temperatures have made the window of risk longer and greater, thus stymieing hazard reduction burns.
“These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires,” Professor Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, who has been researching bushfires for 40 years, told The Guardian. “They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”
Media and Mining
The Murdoch-owned The Australian, a daily broadsheet that is slavishly devoted to denying climate science on behalf of its most significant advertisers – big oil and gas corporations – has gone so far as to even accuse the Bureau of Meteorology of fudging its temperature data records to emphasise global warming – an egregious abdication of ethical journalism through an unapologetic promoting of sinister disinformation.
“Far from being a fudge to make warming look more severe than it is, most of the Bureau’s data manipulation has in fact had the effect of reducing the apparent extreme temperature trends across Australia,” observed Lisa Alexander, a senior lecturer at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.
It is no secret that Australia’s Government is working hand-in-hand with the now dominant right-wing media ecosystem in denying or minimising climate change and, within this, the power and influence of the mining industry – the country’s most lucrative pursuit – is hidden in plain sight. Since 2011, mining and energy corporations have donated $8.4 million to the conservative coalition’s state and federal branches. Comparatively, the Labor Party, which accepts climate science, has received only $2.8 million.
“Fossil fuel and energy companies are some of the largest donors in the country; flush with profits from repeated commodity and investment booms, as a sector they rival the big banks (and, in recent years, the four big accounting firms) as the most dominant industry in political donations,” according to Bernard Keane. “A persistent flaw in political coverage in Australia is the inability or refusal of most journalists to explore the systemic and structural motivations for much of what happens in the political class.”
Australia is on fire, but the current destruction is merely a preview of what is to come. Temperatures will continue to soar in the coming years, droughts will become more protracted and political inaction all but guaranteed.
If Australia is to save itself at some point in this century or the next, it will need to fix the current rot in its political system – one in which political donations lack transparency and in which climate change denial is encouraged by a media landscape dominated by Rupert Murdoch.