January 10, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Bushfires and climate change communication: Between amplification and attenuation

For about a decade I have been thinking and writing about extreme weather events and their links to human-induced climate change, and this included quite a few references to Australia, especially droughts, heatwaves and bushfires.

I thought the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico, lived through by some of my family, was bad. I thought the Californian wildfires were bad. I did not expect how bad things could be until I ‘saw’ the Australian wildfires. The images in my Twitter stream are just heart-breaking, especially of the destruction of homes and habitats, people’s lives and animal lives, as well as, of course, plants and trees. Some species might even be on the brink of extinction.

For some time now I have been saying that climate change communication will become obsolete once climate change begins to speak for itself. Now, with the bushfires, it can’t speak much louder than this, can’t it? It’s using a megaphone and an amplifier. So, how is this eloquence reported in the press? Is everybody now saying “Listen people, we have to get together to do something about climate change, the climate has spoken”. Not a bit of it, it seems, especially in Australia.

Why is this? And what does this mean for climate change and environmental communication? To answer these questions we have to know a bit more about the connections between wildfires and human-induced climate change and also between wildfires and Murdoch-induced press reporting…

Wildfires and climate change 

Since the Californian wildfires in 2018 in particular, there has been a lot of talk about the connection between climate change and wildfires, and the connection is clear, as detailed for example in this report report by Dr Neil Burrows on ‘Lessons and insights from significant bushfires in Australia and overseas’ published in May 2019: “The recent global trend of increasing wildfire activity and associated damage to human communities and the environment, and of escalating wildfire suppression costs, is well documented. The primary driver of this is global climate variability (climate change) attributed to increasing levels of atmospheric ‘greenhouse gasses’ resulting primarily from the burning of fossil fuels”. (HT @ret_ward here)

One can, of course, also refer to the IPCC report on ‘Climate Change and Land’ from 2019 which says for example: “Increases in global mean surface temperature (GMST), relative to pre-industrial levels, affect processes involved in desertification (water scarcity), land degradation (soil erosion, vegetation loss, wildfire, permafrost thaw) and food security (crop yield and food supply instabilities). Changes in these processes drive risks to food systems, livelihoods, infrastructure, the value of land, and human and ecosystem health. Changes in one process (e.g. wildfire or water scarcity) may result in compound risks. Risks are location-specific and differ by region.” 

As Katherine Hayhoe has pointed out, human-induced climate change is a threat multiplier. It loads the dice. 

The Australian press 

In Australia 58% of daily newspaper circulation is dominated by Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp. What does this mean for climate change reporting and, by extension, bushfire reporting?

As stated in an article by McKnight published in 2010: “In 2007 the global media company News Corporation announced that it would become ‘carbon neutral’ and generally endorsed scientific warnings about global warming. Its CEO, Rupert Murdoch, signaled not only that the media group held a corporate view toward the issue of climate change but that its editorial coverage would henceforth change.” Things have changed since then, especially in Australia. 

Murdoch himself says that there are no ‘climate deniers’ in his news empire. But that does not mean that pronouncement made by the Murdoch press don’t talk endlessly about ‘alarmists’ and ‘warmists’. If these are the enemies, then the non-alarmists (who play down warnings about the dangers of climate change) and the non-warmists (who play down the dangers of global warming) are…. I leave it to you to fill in the blanks. 

In a Guardian article on this topic, we find a number of examples of passages published in the Australian press that make for interesting reading, as for example this one: “This is nuts. Therese Rein, wife of Kevin Rudd, thinks prime minister Scott Morrison could have stopped fires in NSW by changing the world’s climate. Wow. That’s religion talking, not science. This global warming hysteria is totally off the dial.” As readers of this blog know by now, framing science as religion (which has a long tradition in Australia and elsewhere), is a sure indicator of climate ‘scepticism’. 

This made me think. The quotes in the Guardian article are mostly from end of November/early December. So I wondered what the reporting was like now. I therefore looked at the last 20 articles published in The Australian, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The following quick ‘analysis’ will show that while anthropogenic climate change can work as a threat amplifier, the press (and the expert voices it strategically quotes) can work as a threat attenuator. While one calls for action, the other calls for dithering.

Bushfires and climate change in The Australian

As usual, I used the database Nexis to access English speaking newspapers. A search for ‘bushfire’ OR ‘wildfire’ gave me 434,895 hits overall on 6 January (between 1969 and now; unfortunately, there is no way to make Nexis produce better graphs than this). 

The Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian published 8,624 articles since 1995 on the topic, and of these 1,229 contain the word ‘climate’.

For this post I could not analyse over a thousand articles. So I decided to take just a snapshot of the last twenty and see how the reporting on the bushfires played out.

As expected, I found quite a few articles and letters to the editor denying or downplaying the link between climate change and the bushfires, but also a few discussing these links.  

As was the case with the Californian fires, blame was apportioned to ‘greens’, to various policies and changes to policies (e.g.: “It’s all about fuel, not climate.”) etc. (In my little sample I couldn’t find reference to arson, which was strange)

Echoing the quote in the Guardian article mentioned above, one letter to the editor said: “It seems the Prime Minister is responsible for the severe drought, hotter weather and terrible bushfires. He is also apparently responsible for climate change. Crazed commentators think we live in a sealed continent. The Greens never blame China or India for their CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, fires, droughts, foods and cyclones will still happen, climate change or not.”

Some voices are portrayed as “shrill”, such as Greta Thunberg’s or Extinction Rebellion, while others are quoted as trying to stem the hype around climate change: “[Judith] Curry’s message to children is ‘don’t believe the hype”. The same climate scientist is quoted as arguing that “we have not only oversimplified the problem of climate change, but we have also oversimplified its ‘solution’. ‘Even if you accept the climate model projections and that warming is dangerous, there is disagreement among experts regarding whether a rapid acceleration away from fossil fuels is the appropriate policy response,’ Curry says.”  

Portraying some voices as “sensible” and others as “shrill”, it is likely that readers will reject the latter and agree with the former. 

In another article climate change is said to be “a red herring”. 

However, there are a few articles by Paul Maley (Defence and National Security Editor) in particular that say that the “scientific consensus could not be clearer: anthropocentric warming has worsened Australia’s fire risk by extending fire seasons, increasing average temperature and drying the landscape”. The article quotes a fire expert, “former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins”, as saying that climate change accelerates and amplifies fire risks! 

Another article by Maley quotes Mr Mullins as stating that “the current fire season was the direct result of climate change, which he said was ‘lengthening fire seasons, reducing rainfall and making everything more flammable.”  (See also David Fletcher, Captain, Rocky Plain Rural Fire service, on Channel 4 News)

However, there are also articles that quote Mr Mullins but then go on to say for example: “Mr Mullins’s grievances about climate policy were unhelpful, however. No amount of carbon abatement in Australia would or could have averted the crisis”. This is true, but this does not mean that that global action is not needed to avoid local impacts in the future.  

Interestingly, one article quotes somebody affected by the fires as saying: “As I choke to death in Canberra in thick acrid smoke the government would already be an ash heap without the rabid support of the Murdoch media.” But then the author of the article goes on to insist that it has all happened before and that this is not the apocalypse…. 

Overall then, while one cannot tar the whole of The Australian’s reporting on the bushfires and climate change with the same brush, this newspaper still gives climate sceptic voices more weight, it seems. (On the political background to this, read this thread by Matto Mildenberger)

Climate change communication 

What can we learn from this for climate change communication? Just as there is a new normal in global weather events, there is, I think a new normal in climate change communication. In some parts of the world, even when strongly affected by impacts connected to climate change, climate change is STILL regarded as something debatable, while in others it’s regarded as something well-established that one has to act upon (see Nerlich, Forsyth and Clarke 2013).

In some countries it is therefore still necessary to continue stating ‘the facts’, just as Mr Mullins does in Australia, and to contextualise these facts by linking them to what’s happening on the ground, be it floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires or cyclones. But it is also necessary to state that there are no real ‘disagreements’ about the facts and the overall policies that follow from them.

So, it’s good to say that human-induced climate change is a threat amplifier, but it’s also necessary to say that some people and some parts of the press in particular are climate action attenuators. 

In countries where the facts are accepted as given, communicators have the luxury of helping people straightaway with enacting climate mitigation and adaptation policies, while in others they still have to continue stating the obvious. 

Despite opportunities to amplify messages about the dangers of climate change provided by the bushfires, attenuation is still going on the Australian press, in part through the quoting of strategic voices, but also through engaging in a blame game which has been analysed in a recent article entitled “Fanning the Blame: Media Accountability, Climate and Crisis on the Australian ‘Fire Continent'”.

The authors state: “Longitudinal analysis of local, state and national mainstream media coverage (2009–2016) reveals blame games that targeted environmentalists and the government, which near-silenced meaningful discussion of the complexity of fire science, impacts of climate change on weather conditions, and calls for adaptation.”

This blame game should end. Give climate change a voice – it’s trying to tell us something. Amplify it’s message, don’t attenuate it.

The future now!

Jeff Goodell tweeted a few days ago: “‘Australia is the canary in the coal mine,’ David Karoly, a top climate researcher at the University of Melbourne, told me nearly a decade ago. ‘What is happening in Australia now is similar to what we can expect to see in other places in the future.'”

Ed Hawkins, of climate stripes fame, tweeted: “Australia: “You have just experienced the future!” That is good climate change communication! What’s happening is alarming. We can’t get away from that. Such messages should not be attenuated and dismissed as alarmist. 


Image: Piqsels: Sunset through bushfires

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