Australia wildfire coverage is long on koalas, short on causes

Though coverage of the Australian fires was slow to take off, it’s begun to capture more international attention, while highlighting the effects of climate change.

Image Credit: EPA

If you’ve only been following the bushfires ravaging Australia through the headlines popping up on your social media feeds—which, let’s face it, is more popular than reading newspapers these days—it’s probably been in a series of isolated images: kangaroos fleeing fires en masse (People, 12/31/19), koalas begging passing motorists for sips of water (CNN, 12/30/19), local residents having to be sea-lifted to safety by the Australian navy (CNN, 1/3/20), fires generating their own storm clouds (The Hill, 12/30/19) and turning glaciers black as far away as New Zealand (Independent, 1/2/20). The New York Times (1/2/20) cited a local official warning of a coming “blast furnace,” and noting that the fires had led already led to the largest mass relocations in the nation’s history.

Though coverage of the Australian fires was slow to take off—leading New York magazine (12/31/19) to worry that disasters are starting to get lost in “the white noise of catastrophe”—it’s begun to capture more international attention, while highlighting the effects of climate change: Scientific American (12/31/19), in a story headlined “This Is What Climate Change Looks Like,” noted southeast Australia is now in an unprecedented third straight year of drought conditions, and called the link between the fires and human-caused climate change scientifically undisputable.” Yet media have mostly remained resistant to addressing which human policies helped lead us to this point, and what will be needed to prevent matters from getting much, much worse.

Bushfires, an annual occurrence during Australia’s dry summer months, began early this season, with a wave of fires in September in Queensland and New South Wales on the nation’s east coast (Guardian, 9/7/19). By early November, the city of Sydney had been placed under its first-ever “catastrophic” fire warning (Washington Post, 11/11/19), though the most international media attention they received at the time was following a report that koalas had been rendered “functionally extinct” in the wild (Forbes, 11/23/19)—a report that turned out to be a claim from a single koala conservation group that most scientists felt was far premature (National Geographic, 11/25/19), though thousands of koalas and hundreds of millions of other animals (CBS News, 1/2/20) are estimated to have perished in the blazes.

While much of the coverage has focused on the results of the conflagration, most reports have at least noted that the especially hot, dry weather fueling the fires is the expected result of climate change, an issue that has become increasingly central to Australian politics in recent years. NBC News (12/18/19) noted the irony of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison—leader of the world’s largest coal exporter, which after Morrison’s coalition took power in 2014 repealed a carbon tax that had been passed two years earlier—opposing greenhouse-gas reduction measures, even as 7 million acres of land was on fire, thanks in part to the climate crisis. (The number of acres burned has since risen to 12 million.)

“It was terribly disappointing,” Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at the Australia Institute, told NBC:

Australia is literally on fire right now, and it’s clearly linked to climate change in terms of its severity and duration. But instead of going there to rally the world behind the need for greater climate action, Australia was lobbying to do as little as possible.

But even as nearly every story name-checked climate change, some paid little attention to the particulars. The Wall Street Journal (1/1/20) noted deep in a story on the bushfire crisis that in California and Australia alike, the trend is “toward bigger, faster-moving and more destructive wildfires, due in part to climate change”; it immediately followed this by quoting Morrison as saying, “We will rebuild and we will stay strong,” noting that the prime minister had been “criticized for taking vacation during the wildfire crisis”—but never mentioned the criticism he’s received for his staunch advocacy of coal in a nation especially susceptible to the consequences of a warming climate.

And few news outlets took the time to mention that for climate scientists, this year’s wildfires were hardly a surprise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s  2018 report predicted both a decrease in overall rainfall and an increase in heavy, isolated storms, leading to “more droughts and more floods.” And a 2017 paper (Nature, 5/15/17) projecting the impact on Australia if the world warms by an additional 2 degrees Celsius found that water crises on the level of the “thousand-year drought” that devastated Australian crops in 2006 can be expected to double in frequency, while coral-bleaching events like the one that struck the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 will become three times more common.

By failing to cite the scientific literature, media reports left readers without the most important part of the story: Not only has human activity—and, in particular, the fossil-fuel industry, which helped re-elect Morrison last spring via campaign donations (Australia Institute, 9/17), pro-coal advertising (Sydney Morning Herald, 2/2/18), and the creation of a puppet political party to keep the pro–carbon tax Labor Party out of power (Guardian, 4/24/19)—helped lead to a world where humans and kangaroos alike must routinely flee unprecedented wildfires, but if left unchecked, it could make matters much worse. The Australian coal industry greeted Morrison’s re-election by calling for the construction of new coal-fired electric plants (Guardian, 5/20/19); the Daily Beast (1/2/20) noted that if current policies continue, “by 2030 Australia, with 0.3% of the global population, will be responsible for 13% of the globally generated greenhouse gases.”

The real test will come when the fires are over—bushfire season typically lasts through February—and we see whether images of parched marsupials accompany coverage of, say, debates over U.S. carbon taxes or car fuel-economy standards. That koala may have had more reason to hate Qantas than we ever knew.


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