Current Issue #488

This summer of fire is a tipping point that must not be spun

Sia Duff
Burnt-out trees line the road outside Lobethal

South Australia’s last major natural disaster, the 2016 storms, inspired bad faith attacks on renewable energy that helped derail years of climate policy in Australia. We should take care to avoid the lessons of this fire season being corralled into more inaction.

The 2019/2020 fire season is already shaping up to be an indelible moment in Australian history. For weeks our news bulletins and social media feeds have been filled with sobering images of red skies, scorched country and human despair and solidarity – the stuff of dystopian climate disaster fiction brought to life. From the Adelaide Hills to Kangaroo Island and over state lines, it seems everyone knows someone who has been evacuated, or who has lost something dear.

With remarkable clarity this wave of news coverage has laid waste to the usual rhetoric of evasion and obfuscation that have let successive Coalition governments delay meaningful action on climate change for the best part of a decade. In September Scott Morrison said children should be at school instead of striking over their climate anxieties; by December, we saw schools in Sydney close over air quality concerns, followed by harrowing images of children being evacuated by sea. In November, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack dismissed the links between climate change and bushfires as being the “ravings” of “woke capital city greenies”; by January, footage of the Prime Minister being hounded out of a country town was ubiquitous. Even the argument that Australia has only a minimal impact on the global effort to reduce emissions rings hollow as the world’s media is gripped by the realities of climate change playing out in Australia.

But as these talking points reach their use-by date, new myths have bubbled up to take their place. A persistent, and frequently debunked claim that “green tape” and protestors, rather than lengthening fire seasons and difficult conditions, had derailed preventative load-clearing quickly spread across social media. The likes of Barnaby Joyce and mining magnate Gina Rinehart have used these theories not only to shift focus from the impact of climate change, but to push their ever-present calls for the government to “get out” of regional Australia’s affairs – code for graziers, irrigators and land clearers to be given free rein to further reshape the country, as if the state of the continent after two centuries of unchecked colonisation isn’t already a cautionary tale.

By January, a narrative emphasising the role of arsonists came to the fore, with media reports of police targeting people over fire-related offences allowing for a flood of commentary conflating a mixed crop of negligence and incompetence with the relatively small proportion of malicious arsonists. This has in turn given fuel to social media conspiracies blaming an unexplained #ArsonEmergency for making these fires worse than usual. Then, there’s the recurring emphasis on drought being the primary cause of particularly dangerous conditions – as if rainfall is somehow unconnected to a changing climate system.

The effect of this flood of counter-narratives is cumulative, and dangerous. The nuance of a fifth paragraph clarification in a news report doesn’t matter on social media when an ambiguously written headline, uncritical opening lede, or a year-old photograph of a single group of environmental protestors is screenshotted, retweeted and broadcasted across local communities and the globe alike by bad faith trolls, bots or regular Australians whose wariness of climate politics has been fanned by years of hyper-partisan media coverage.

Once these narratives become the accepted truths, they can become near-impossible to unpick. We can see this in how South Australia’s 2016 blackouts are widely remembered. At the time, a once-in-50-years storm downed 22 transmission towers, with visuals of pylons dramatically cowed by storms almost as vivid as the flood of images from this month’s fires. They clearly illustrated a conclusion that was eventually born out: it was the widespread damage done to the infrastructure between points of generation and consumption, rather than the form of power generation itself, that led to the system breakdown.

And yet, for years South Australia became an oft-cited case study for the supposed risks of rapidly decarbonising the grid, reinforcing the perception that renewables are an inherently unreliable form of power that can plunge an entire state into darkness. 

There are few better illustrations of how the climate debate has broken down in the past decade than then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull opportunistically using these blackouts to score points against a Labor state government and appease the climate-denying base in his own party room. Nevertheless, even this version of Turnbull proved too aggressively pro-renewable for the Coalition’s right wing, and he was deposed as leader for a second time. Indeed, the scepticism around renewables that his 2016 comments evoked only emboldened the opposition to the National Energy Guarantee that ultimately doomed Turnbull’s Prime Ministership.

All of which makes his successor Scott Morrison’s attempts in January to claim that his government has “always acknowledged the link” an ambitious bit of spin, even for him.

Too often calls to avoid ‘politicising’ disasters are a cover to allow vested interests to write history as it happens. In the coming months we will see these counter-narratives persist; that naïve greenies have stopped the good work of deforestation and animal grazing. That a mysterious wave of arsonists has been setting the fires.

But as these blinkered alternative facts jostle to the front, they work to sideline a broader reality that is as clear as day: this summer is the inevitable arrival of projected scenarios that our leaders have ignored for years, confident that they would be punted down the road beyond the more pressing concerns of winning the day’s news cycle, or the next election. And yet, there are already attempts to shift the narrative away from the reality that climate change has dramatically altered the state of the continent, and real action is needed to prevent it getting much worse.

Yes, support to ongoing firefighting efforts and the recovery effort should take priority. But when the fires do die down, and the dust settles, Australia cannot allow the agreed-upon takeaway message to be co-opted while we continue to emit carbon at the highest per capita rate on the planet, and lead the world in fossil fuel exports. We cannot afford to lose another decade.

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Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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