Since October, more than one hundred wildfires have consumed sixteen million acres across Australia, an area the size of Denmark. Twenty-seven people have been killed, three thousand homes have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands have fled to the beaches of Victoria awaiting rescue by the Australian navy. More than one billion animals, Kangaroos, Wallabies, Koalas and many species of birds including Penguins are feared dead from the inferno.
News stories appeared in the country’s large media outlets and on the internet, claiming that it was arsonists, not the record heat and drought, that is causing the continent to burn.
The giant Australia News Corp television network and The Australian, the country’s largest newspaper, came out with stories blaming arsonists and “environmental terrorists” for starting many of the fires, not the heat trapping greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The News Corp and The Australian are owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, himself an Australian, who also owns Fox News and other conservative outlets in the US and the UK.
Social media chatter first showed up in January on Twitter, #ArsonEmergency, claiming the fires were started by dozens of criminals. It claimed there is no “climate emergency” but an “arson emergency.” A researcher at the Queensland University of Technology identified 300 Twitter bot and troll accounts that were contributing to the #ArsonEmergency hashtag. More than 200,000 posts of the false narrative were made on social media.
The clear consensus among members of Australia’s scientific community is that the wildfires, the most extensive and destructive in Australia’s history, are a direct result of the country’s record breaking high temperatures and severe droughts, not the work of arsonists. The hottest year ever recorded in Australia was 2019. In December the average high temperature across Australia was an eye popping 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Eight of the ten hottest years in Australia’s history have occurred in the last fifteen years. The wide expanses of dry bush, forests, national parks, farms and ranches are a tinderbox and experts say summer lightning strikes set them ablaze.
Ben Shepherd, the New South Wales Rural Fire Inspector, said that lightning was the main cause of the devastating bushfires across the state. The Australian ABC news outlet reported, “Only about one percent of the land burnt in New South Wales this bushfire season can be officially attributed to arson, and it’s less in Victoria.”
The New York Times ran an article this week that the Murdoch news outlets have engaged in a campaign to deliberately mislead the public, claiming that the fires are from arsonists, not climate change. The Times said that Murdoch has joined forces with Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who has enthusiastically supported the country’s giant coal industry. Morrison has been reluctant to link climate change and the proliferation of carbon emissions to the wildfires.
E-mails were leaked from an employee of Murdoch’s Australia News Corp, Emily Townsend, who worked in the company’s finance department. She condemned the company’s reporting of the wildfires as an irresponsible “misinformation campaign.”
“The reporting I have seen in The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun is not only irresponsible, but dangerous to our communities and beautiful planet that need us now more than ever to acknowledge the destruction we have caused and start doing something about it,” wrote Townsend.
She found it, “unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies.”
Though Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels accounts for only 1.3 percent of global carbon emissions, the Australian coal that is exported for fuel in other countries is not added to this national tally. Australia is the largest exporter of coal in the world, mainly to China, India and Southeast Asia where newly built coal-fired electric generating plants are proliferating. During the Madrid climate conference, Australia was accused of using accounting tricks to manipulate its commitments made in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia’s own power plants are 75% coal-fired, the fossil fuel that contributes the most carbon emissions that create the greenhouse effect and global warming. By contrast, the US has closed down half of its 500 coal-fired plants and today coal fuels only 27% of US electricity generated, down sharply from 52% in 1997. The UK has an even more aggressive policy to eliminate its dependence on coal and has shuttered almost all of its coal-fired power plants, leaving only a handful that will be shut down by 2025.
The Murdoch news outlets have ridiculed Australia’s climate protesters, who have gathered in the tens of thousands in recent weeks to criticize Prime Minister Morrison’s unpreparedness for the fires sweeping across the continent.
Australian’s are outraged at Morrison’s seeming unwillingness to link climate change to the fires and they are critical of his cozy relationship with Australia’s $70 billion coal industry. Morrison’s Liberal Party receives large campaign donations from coal. Morrison said those who support action on climate change are “effete snobs” who wish to impose their will on a quiet majority.
Morrison suggested that public rallies to pressure climate action by government and fossil fuel companies should be outlawed. His deputy prime minister labeled those who are concerned about global warming as, “ raving inner-city lunatics.”
“Australians have never been fussed about trying to impress people overseas or respond to what others think or what we should think or what we should do. We have always made our own decisions in Australia,” said Morrison, as reported in The New York Times.
Skepticism about climate change and an intentional misinformation campaign are not new to conservative news sources, conservative political parties in the West and the fossil fuel industry. Climate change denial began as well-funded, carefully crafted effort in the US by the oil company giants in the 1980s.
The oil industry’s lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, has spent billions of dollars in a very successful misinformation campaign to sow doubt that fossil fuels contribute to climate change or that climate change is caused by human activity. They fund organizations like the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity that hold conferences, write position papers and actively lobby government against policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They hire researchers at universities to publish “scientific” papers that question the relationship between fossil fuel emissions and global warming.
Harvard professor, Naomi Oreskes and California Institute of Technology professor, Erik M. Conway’s expose’, Merchants of Doubt, published in 2010, reveal the elaborate misinformation campaign mounted by big oil to confuse the public about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Companies like Exxon modeled their misinformation campaign on the tobacco industry’s own successful public relations strategy to create doubt that cigarettes can cause cancer and heart disease. They even hired many of the same researchers that big tobacco used to create doubt and confusion that fossil fuels contribute to climate change.
The Australian author and environmentalist, Clive Hamilton, wrote Requiem for a Species in 2010 where he explained that the foundations of climate change denial lie in the US. After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatives could channel their freed-up energy to oppose climate science.
“[S]ustained and often ruthless exercise of political power by corporations who stand to lose from a shift to low-and-zero carbon energy systems,” wrote Hamilton, “is the most immediate reason for the failure to act on global warming.”
An oil company’s biggest financial assets that determine future profits are in the ground as oil and gas reserves. If the public mounts a campaign to pressure government to sharply reduce fossil fuel emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the reserves become stranded assets.
Perhaps even more significant than a fear of a government policy that would sharply reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in electric generation, transportation and industry, is a profound concern among some conservatives that the environmental movement is but a Trojan horse that will unleash greater government regulation of all private enterprise, not just big oil and big coal. That deep concern abounds in conservative strongholds in the private and public sectors across the globe, not just the US and Australia.
Unfortunately, there are no industries that are self-regulating, especially the powerful fossil fuel industry. They only follow policies that make for greater corporate profits even at the expense of rendering our planet uninhabitable. The only counterbalance to the awesome power and influence of giant corporations is in fact, government. Only governmental authority can reign in big oil, gas and coal.
The coal industry of Australia, in alliance with the Morrison government and supported by Murdoch media outlets, believe that any public recognition of the negative effects of carbon emissions that have created severe heat, drought and wildfires, will create a political environment that will impose much stricter governmental regulations and control over the private sector. They believe that such an outcome must be prevented at all costs, including their unabashed promotion of a false narrative about climate change and wildfires.