One is the dominating presence of Rupert Murdoch in the country’s media. The other is the catastrophic effects of climate change, showcased by the massive fires that have ravaged the Australian bush for months. The relationship between these phenomena will help decide not just the future of one nation but also the future of the world.
In a fire season that still has at least three months to run, blazes have already destroyed 24 million acres of land, nearly 2,000 homes, 100,000 head of livestock and a billion native animals. Nearly 30 people have died.
Australia was already home to some of the most volatile climate politics in the world: They are the chief reason the country has seen six leaders in about 10 years and led to the current prime minister, Scott Morrison, deposing his predecessor over support for renewable energy. When the scale of this summer’s burning season became apparent, Morrison initially remained on holiday in Hawaii, hesitant to make any sudden moves.
This high-stakes controversy over climate change is part economic: An article in the Australian Financial Review declared the country “rich, dumb and getting dumber” because of an overreliance on resources. It is part political: The influence of fossil fuel lobbies in Australia is comparable to that of the National Rifle Association in the United States.
But the primary driver is cultural. Today, Murdoch’s News Corp. and associated companies own nearly 60 percent of daily newspapers in the country. These titles have spent years deriding “climate catastrophists.” Forced to report on a real climate catastrophe, they are experiencing a disaster of their own.
Efforts to blame the fires on global warming were “hysterical,” the associate editor of the Australian wrote. Climate change was “not the era’s burning issue,” he insisted, even as the burning became literal. News Corp.’s reporting on the origins of the fires was similarly evasive. Perhaps environmentalists were responsible for not allowing hazard reduction burns, it was suggested — a factor rejected by fire authorities. Perhaps arsonists were to blame — 183 arsonists specifically, a misleading figure reported as far away as China. In fact, the state of Victoria, where 3.2 million acres have burned, is treating only a single blaze as suspicious.
On Jan. 11, the Australian posted a 1,000-word editorial with an uncharacteristic, defensive tone. “Our factual account of bushfires, climate change and the remedies, as well as our editorial commentary on these issues,” it read, “have been wilfully and ineptly misrepresented by The New York Times and Guardian Australia as climate denial.” This signature bad faith did not persuade even the company’s own staff: Earlier that day, a resigning finance executive sent an all-company email decrying the company’s “damaging” and “irresponsible” coverage of the fires and saying she found it “unconscionable to continue working for this company” when it is “contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies.” Internally, many staff quietly cheered her on.
The coverage also proved too much for members of Murdoch’s own family. On Tuesday, his son James and daughter-in-law Kathryn released a statement to the Daily Beast through a representative saying “their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known.”
But the News Corp. position has been to deny the denial. A company statement had insisted that it “does not deny climate change or the gravity of its threat,” echoing comments made by Rupert Murdoch himself at the company’s annual general meeting that there were “no climate change deniers around.” This — coupled with the announcement that the company was donating $3.5 million to bush fire relief — simply gives cover to the columnists, reporters and executives who attacked the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. In 2015, Murdoch tweeted, “A climate change skeptic not a denier,” perhaps clarifying his view of the distinction.
Yet this skepticism is of a very credulous kind. It has little respect for climate scientists but will embrace any geologist, biologist, meteorologist and the occasional astrologer with “questions” to ask. When changing weather patterns are discussed, sunspots, ice ages and faulty instruments are given precedence over carbon pollution. Even the existence of atmospheric carbon is subject to doubt: In the Australian, Ian Plimer wrote that “there are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black.”
Plimer should take a look around. Last month, I drove along the Princes Highway in New South Wales, then in the thick of the fires. The air was so smoked-filled, it reduced visibility to a few feet: All I could see were the first row of blackened trees and the hazard lights of the car in front. The sky turned to blood. Queues formed outside gas stations. Now and then, a siren would scream past. It felt like another Australian vision of the future: “Mad Max.”
When we think of industries that must change to prevent further global warming, we tend to imagine carbon-intensive concerns such as mining, aviation and energy production. But the Murdoch media and the rest of the climate denialist industry will also need a transition plan. They do not have long to implement it.