Argument

Australians Are Ready to Break Out of the Cycle of Climate Change Denial

Catastrophic fires make it hard for media to stick to old narratives.

A woman walks past a mural depicting a koala and firefighters in Melbourne, Australia
A woman walks past a mural depicting a koala and firefighters in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 14. Luis Ascui/Getty Images

Australia, the fossil-fueled paradise at the bottom of the world, is too easily misunderstood. The summer bushfire crisis has reinforced views of Australia as a country that for too long kicked back in sun-soaked, carefree denial of the greatest threat our species has faced. Yet, amid the intense grief felt by every Australian right now, the possibility of change flickers nearby.

The world sees Australia as locked in a cycle of denial and calamity. As Robinson Meyer wrote for the Atlantic, “maybe Australia will find itself stuck in the climate spiral, clinging ever more tightly to coal as its towns and cities choke on the ash of a burning world.” There is not a lot of hope that Australia might be prodded into kicking its coal habit after its first terrifying trip to the emergency room.

Critics ascribe this to Australia’s monochrome media landscape. Right-leaning outlets rule the nation, with each city’s News Corp. masthead dominating readership. A few younger digital outlets like News.com.au – also owned by News Corp. – are slightly more progressive, but monoliths run highly politicized angles in both straight reporting and blogs. Key figures such as Terry McCrann, Tim Blair, and Miranda Devine churn out high-frequency, low-research blog posts tuned to each day’s target, whether it’s a climate policy, a piece of research, or an individual scientist or advocate. Step into a train station in Sydney’s Central Business District, and you will be met with the 10-foot-tall head of the right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt on bright LED advertising boards, urging you to subscribe to his daily broadcasts about the supposed climate change hoax.

There is, of course, a relationship between the demands of the readership and the content these outlets deliver. But the proportion of the audience coming to these papers for outright climate change denialist content is likely to be vanishingly small, given the pointed lack of disbelief in climate change in the general public in Australia. The U.K.’s the Sun and the Times have much less of the anti-climate science nonsense found on Australia’s sites, despite both the U.K. and Australia sharing similar levels of public acceptance of climate science.

The Australian media pathology has been a specific one, and it’s one that has exercised disproportionate influence over politics. News Corp.’s Sky News channel is barely viewed by most Australians, but it is blasted into the nation’s Qantas airport lounges, in which you’ll find the country’s executives and politicians sipping free-flowing red wine. It also has limited broadcast on regional channels and, anecdotally, it tends to be the channel legislators tune into in the halls of Canberra. It does not have a large audience, but the audience it does have skews toward power and influence.

There have been some spectacular clips posted by Sky News on social media. In one clip, the far-right shock jock Alan Jones attempts to explain Australia’s “tiny” contribution to global emissions using a packet of rice. It is the saddest two minutes of television you will ever see. In another, someone referred to as a “business astrologer” is invited on to explain why climate change is a hoax. The life visibly drains from the show’s hosts as the astrologer explains how planets many light years distant from Earth are a better explanation for changing weather patterns than the last century of emissions.

Sky News’ particular style of ludicrousness can be traced back to a talk delivered in early 2012, in which the U.K.-based activists Christopher Monckton, who does not accept mainstream climate science, proposed the creation of an “Australian version of Fox News.” “Frankly whatever you do at a street level—which is what you are talking about here—is not going to have much of an impact compared with capturing an entire news media,” he declared. Behold: the platform for the business astrologer was born.

Above the city-based bloggers and the Sky News ranters sits the Australian. It is climate change denial for the people who’d never see themselves clutching a tabloid rag or diving into the comments section on a website. The newspaper provided written support for a half-decade campaign against the pseudoscientific “wind turbine syndrome,” running articles about lambs suffering deformities and eggs without yolks, linked by the paper to the presence of low-frequency noise from wind farms. The Australian’s dedication to denying the science of climate change has a long history, summarized by the Guardian journalist Graham Readfearn here. Its archives will be historically significant for many decades to come as the primary Australian arm of the deadliest pseudoscience of the modern era.

Most recently and very significantly, the Australian was responsible for mistakenly reporting that, as wildfires have swept Australia in recent months, the number of people supposedly arrested for lighting fires was 183. The real figure was 24 charged with deliberately setting fires, with the 183 number including fire-related charges such as discarding cigarette butts and irresponsible barbeques. This post, along with a tweet from the right-leaning news outlet Seven News also exaggerating the role of arson in the ongoing bushfires, went viral worldwide, feeding a right-wing conspiracy theory that the fires were lit by eco-terrorists trying to fake climate disasters. Australian police exasperatedly insist arson is not a major cause of the disaster, and it is a moot point, anyway. Climate change makes fire spread quicker and through a larger area, rather than igniting blazes.

Yet there is a reason these outlets now lean toward misinformation on specific issues rather than generalized climate change denial. Public acceptance of the science has increased significantly since the 2010s. A 2019 YouGov poll surveying respondents around the world found only 10 percent of Australians either reject a human role in climate change or deny it is changing at all. On the global stage, Australia does lean denialist, but the difference between it and other countries is not dramatic. The United States currently sits at 15 percent rejection of change or a human role, Germany is at 7 percent, and Norway matches Australia at 10 percent. Around the world, climate change denial has lost its voice.

Since the election of the current government in 2013, there has been little for the News Corp. machine to lock its jaws onto. Wind turbine syndrome is dead. Renewable energy has, consistently, been well-loved by Australians. A 2019 poll from the Lowy Institute found that 61 percent of respondents want immediate climate action even if that involves significant costs, and that 47 percent prioritize lowering emissions in the power grid (compared to 38 percent for lowering bills and 15 percent for reducing blackouts). The May 2019 federal election did temporarily provide fodder, with News Corp. outlets framing stronger targets and electric vehicle incentives as the harbingers of economic ruin, but that moment was brief, and the organization has regressed back to boxing with ghosts.

Worse still for media outlets trying hard to protect fossil fuel companies, 2019 has been a turning point, with support for action moving even further upward. Suddenly, the issue tops rankings of priorities. The September 2019 climate march protests drew hundreds of thousands of Australian onto the streets. Critics said the Extinction Rebellion protests would  alienate those supporting action, but the numbers kept growing. The bushfires crisis is still raging, so it is hard to understand what impact it has had on Australian opinion on climate action, but there is little doubt it will be significant.

The loss of targets for media attack, the rise in public support for action, and the deep red summer have combined into real consequences for News Corp. A senior finance advisor left with a strongly worded all-staff email declaring the company’s work unconscionable. A revisionist editorial by the Australian claiming that the paper had accurately reported climate science was widely mocked—including by journalists at other Australian outlets. It is hard to miss the confused nervousness that is now coming through in their mixed declarations on climate change.

Monckton’s vision for a media-dominating Fox News of Australia has failed. Pressure is mounting and, although it may wane as the fire season fades, there is a glimmer of hope that it might stick. Australians are understanding climate change not through 300-page United Nations reports but through the dryness of their throats, the ash falling in their backyards, and the dark brown skies. It is a disaster that has burned its way into every Australian life. That is new. Hopefully, it means denying mainstream climate science is treated as it should be: more like the actively harmful anti-vaccination movement than the merely quirky flat Earth movement. There are still several weeks to go in Australia’s summer. Next year’s summer might be cooler, but over time, the consequences will continue to escalate, without rapid action to cut emissions. This is not the new normal—this is the end of normal.

The rising cry of public outrage will translate into pressure through a range of conduits. There are early signs of a decrease in popularity in polling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and though we are far from the next trip to the Australian ballot box, it may well translate into enough nervousness to cause leadership instability and reduce the power of the government’s conservative, climate change-denying elements. Companies face increasing pressure too, with the German conglomerate Siemens facing, and ultimately ignoring, incredible pressure to dissociate from the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. Relationships between governments and large multinationals will sour. And the rise of public attention on the Australian government has severely weakened its already-loathed habit of blockading progress at global meetings like COP 25.

For the most horrible of reasons, there is hope for Australia. News Corp. still holds sway where it counts, among powerful decision-makers desperately seeking to soothe their guilt-ridden consciences. But like the government, it increasingly finds itself at odds with a pissed-off public. Australia might end up being the first country in the world to recognize the immediate and serious harm that occurs when we rely on a dangerous, unsafe technology to power our species. The world may not hold out much hope for Australia, but feeling the white-hot rage emanating from my long-suffering fellow Australians back home, I am sure that in 2020 the critics will be proven wrong.

Ketan Joshi is a climate communications expert working on a book about Australia's climate change story.

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