Bushfires are as much a part of the Australian summer as blue skies and lazy days at the beach. Nature designed eucalypts to burn. In dry spells they turn to tinder. All it takes is a lightning strike or a match. While every summer brings bushfires, some are worse than others. Ten years ago 180 people died in an afternoon. Eighty died on one day in 1983. These days pass into history with such names as Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, Red Tuesday.
But the recent fires were like no fires before them. By the time summer officially arrived in December they had been burning for three months. They started 500 miles north of Sydney and made their way down the south-east coast. The best fire services on the planet could not put them out. By Christmas more than 44 million acres had burned, including ancient Gondwanan forests in which fire is all but unknown. For days capital cities filled with smoke. In coastal holiday towns it was pitch dark at midday and people huddled on beaches waiting for the navy to evacuate them.
The land will eventually recover, though probably not all the diverse species that inhabit it, and perhaps not the Gondwanan remnants. Farmers will replace their dead sheep and cattle, replant their fields and vineyards. Homes and lives will be rebuilt.
By contrast, the transformation of the political landscape might be permanent. Though some culture warriors will not welcome it, the fires have created an opportunity to remake the national conversation about climate change.
Reporting the bushfires
The heroes of these fires were thousands of volunteer firefighters. Three American volunteers whose plane crashed while water bombing fires near Canberra, were among those who died.
Journalists also played essential roles. The bushfires reminded us how quickly our digital world becomes analogue as soon as the power goes out and the cell phone towers go down. Radio, and especially the national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, provided a 24-hour flow of information, critical to life-or-death decisions people had to make as the fires veered in their paths.
Journalists and photographers from every media organisation covered the fire front and brought the tragedy into homes around the world. Reporters working in threadbare regional newsrooms stuck to their beats through physical and emotional exhaustion, in some cases even as they fled their own homes.
The local and international awareness their reporting generated is the main reason for the astonishing sums flooding into agencies involved in the recovery effort.
But the fires also turbocharged the tribalism of Australia’s media.
Journalistic trench warfare is not what Australia needs right now.
As Damien Cave observed in The New York Times, the fires became a battleground for culture warriors. “Instead of common-sense debate”, Cave wrote, “there are culture war insults.”
Before the fires started the war was largely between those who accept the science of man-made climate change and those who don’t. As the fires grew into a catastrophe, the extremes of the argument contracted as the old deniers insisted that no one could say unequivocally the fires were a result of climate change, and the Greens in Parliament, with characteristic charity, fed the beast by insisting they were.
As for the media, it’s the popular view that on one side of that argument lay science and on the other News Corp. A fair-minded review of News’ various outlets reveals an editorial line that acknowledges the science and the need for action but emphasises the challenges and costs that accompany any radical phase-out of the fossil fuels on which Australia’s first world living standard depends.
Yet it’s undeniable that this approach has been overshadowed by sceptical and climate activist-baiting commentary on its opinion pages and, more loudly, on News’ Sky News channel.
With the discernible shift in public mood as a result of the fires, some of News’ competitors have been unable to resist the urge to call them out. News Corp partisans have predictably fired back, while reporters jousting on social media have amplified the tensions.
This is understandable. As emotions go, the impulse to cling to opinions long after they cease to be defensible is only matched by the urge to say, ‘I told you so’. But journalistic trench warfare is not what Australia needs right now.
A more constructive national conversation
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was hurt by a series of misjudgements during the fires. Heading to Hawaii for a family holiday as the fires reached a crescendo was only one of them. His ineptness upon returning made George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina look deft.
More fundamentally, the confluence of scientific evidence, an increasingly vocal populace, and fires that in scale and duration dwarfed every monster of the past, has shifted the debate to uncomfortable ground for a government in which climate sceptics hold considerable sway.
In a speech to an incredulous audience at the National Press Club in January, Morrison explained that his Government did believe the climate science and that he was stepping up “practical” responses.
It hasn’t stopped members of his Government from peddling sceptical interpretations of the role of climate change in the fires, advocating loudly for new coal-fired power stations, and generally making it difficult for the Prime Minister to reset his message.
While this season’s bushfires might not have been unprecedented in the ways some have claimed, they were not entirely unexpected.
In a prediction of uncanny accuracy, one of Australia’s leading energy policy experts, Ross Garnaut, wrote in an independent 2008 report on climate change that “fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020.”
Garnaut has just published a new book — Super Power: Australia’s Low Carbon Opportunity — in which he argues Australia can turn the climate change challenge into a profit-making opportunity.
He says Australia has the renewable energy resources and the scientific skills to become the natural home of an increasing proportion of global industry.
That’s a narrative that could win heart and minds, and possibly elections. But, more importantly, it’s a narrative that might lift the country beyond the reach of the culture wars.
This is where good journalism comes in. The temptation will be to focus on the internal divisions and shortcomings as the Government seeks to reposition itself. That a series of governments for various reasons, including no doubt the persuasive powers of the fossil fuel industry, failed to act on Garnaut’s original report, makes the temptation all the stronger.
But there is now an opportunity for media to focus on policy looking forward rather than politics looking back.
As Garnaut notes, “broadly shared knowledge is the foundation of good policy in a democracy.” Without it progress will be stymied by ignorance or wilful opposition.
At this critical moment, journalism in Australia can push governments towards necessary policy by helping to build the corpus of shared knowledge that informs debates rather than fuelling partisanship.
The Judith Neilson Institute will play a small part in supporting this where it can. It has, for example, initiated a program to put scientists in newsrooms. It is looking at ways to expose journalists to new approaches to audience engagement through ‘constructive’ or ‘solutions’ journalism.
But ultimately editors and proprietors will decide the issue. For inspiration they need look no further than the work of their journalists and photographers during the fires. If the devastation their people so ably and conscientiously recorded does not persuade them we need a more constructive national conversation, then nothing will.