The world of alternative facts is fast becoming an alternative reality. How else to explain the coverage of the bushfires emergency by broadsheet newspaper The Australian – one of the only major international titles that finds itself unable to link the devastation unfolding across the country with the breakdown in the climate that the burning of fossils fuels is ushering in.
Since November last year, these fires have destroyed more than 6 million hectares of bush, forest and parks and taken the lives of 24 people and countless animals. It is feared that more than 20,000 koalas recently perished on Kangaroo Island.
How has The Australian responded to such events? On 18December, it celebrated booming Australian coal exports to China – the same day that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology announced that the country was experiencing its hottest day on record. The Australian government continues to believe that the nation’s future remains within the rich coal deposits that lie under Australian soil, and is not being challenged on that position.
The impact that fossil fuels are having on the country’s climate are plain: they are contributing to prolonged heatwaves, droughts and wildfires that have destroyed Australian ecosystems and communities. Echoing the government’s position, however, the country’s national paper argued in its own editorial column that those attributing the country’s bushfires to climate change were suffering from an “attention-clamour disorder” and creating a “faux climate emergency”.
In this alternative reality, there are no reasons to slow down the mining, export and burning of coal because lethal heatwaves and raging fires are explicable by seasonal variability. And even if these events have been made likelier by humans’ impact on the climate, the only way forward is more fossil-fuelled growth, burning more coal to build bigger economies which can insulate themselves against further climate meltdown.
But the actual reality, out in the Australian bush and its oceans, stubbornly refuses to adhere to this narrative.
Sydney is facing a public health emergency as its residents choke bushfire smoke. Large sections of the Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by rising sea temperatures. Climate change is threatening what Australians cherish most.
Many Australians have become accustomed to multi-year droughts and summer bushfires. Recent polling by the Lowry Institute found that 64 per cent of Australians now see climate change as “a critical threat”, beating cyberattacks from other countries and international terrorism. Most also want to decarbonise the country.
Australia is the second largest exporter of thermal coal in the world. In 2018, it mined 208m tonnes of the stuff, bringing in $26bn for the Australian economy. Attempting to resolve the tension between climate action and climate-wrecking coal mining has arguably led to the downfall of a string of Australian prime ministers. Most recently, Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull by successfully framing the Turnbull’s carbon reduction plans as a threat to jobs and prosperity.
Back in 2017, Morrison held up a lump of coal in the Australian parliament and proclaimed, “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.” He then reminded MPs on the other side of the house that it was dug up by the men and women who vote for them.
It’s no secret that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the publisher of The Australian, has been a staunch supporter of Scott Morrison. Given that the organisation owns 140 newspapers across Australia, that support can be translated into sustained media pressure. Back in May this year, Australia’s opposition leader Bill Shorten argued that parts of News Corp should declare themselves as “political parties” given the degree to which they were campaigning for Morrison’s party ahead of the general election. That campaigning includes newspapers continuing to highlight a risk to the economy from climate-friendly policies, while downplaying the risks to the planet of a rapidly-changing climate.
And so, despite the climate crisis unfolding literally outside its Sydney offices, The Australian celebrates coal and continues to frame the bushfires as a natural disaster.
It will be impossible for this position to be maintained forever; sooner or later, increasingly extreme weather will make it untenable.
The risk, of course, is that when reality does bite, it may be too late to act.