There is some interesting research about why people reject climate science. Bits of research over the decade have essentially discovered a strong political divide around acceptance of climate science; conservatives don’t like it and progressives do. Things are so bad that presenting people with information on climate science, in the hope that that’ll change their mind, actually reinforces the rejection of science, because people are so freaked out by the information.
It’s such a weirdly powerful phenomenon that it impacts solutions, too. If ways to reduce emissions conflict with a person’s pre-existing beliefs, or are too closely associated with an opposing ideology, lead to a denial that the problem exists.
Over the 2010s, Australia became a microcosm for both phenomena, which, in the real world, operate in ways far more interrelated, interlinked and webbed than social scientists have enough time or emotional energy to admit. A renewable energy target of 42% was rejected by the conservative government because the number sounded too close to the opposition’s 50%. The country’s largest media organisation ran a decade-long project focused on attacking climate science.
As we slide into the next decade, the impacts of climate change are beginning to manifest in ways that move beyond rising temperatures. In Australia, the conditions for severe bushfires are occurring far more regularly (hot days, dry land and high winds). These conditions have been increasing for a while:
Before summer, into December and well into the new year, Australia is suffering through its most intense bushfire season ever. The quantity of land burnt, the number of fires, the smoke pollution impacts, the country’s temperatures and the number of homes lost are all breaking historical records. The broken records have become a broken record. Every single day there is some new variation of horror piled on the already towering pile of horrors.
The combination of a range of annually-shifting factors, like fluctuations in the Indian ocean have been paired with climate change to produce this completely unprecedented national disaster, leading to lost lives, to burnt husks of homes, to obliterated towns, mass evacuations, burnt lungs, dark skies and a national gloom.
The response from conservative media outlets has been the creation of fabricated falsehoods designed to offload blame onto the people trying their hardest to apply blame. Specifically, there is a claim emerging that ‘greens’ have blocked hazard reduction efforts, which happen when dry fuel loads are either burnt or manually removed. It isn’t one of those half-truths – it’s a raw, brazen and totally verifiable lie.
A News Corp journalist suggested, nearly ten years ago, that ‘greenies’ ought to be hanged for blocking hazard reduction. The meme has been kicking around for a while. But it won’t die, partly because even today, right in the actual midst of disaster, the lie is given new life by media outlets pouring active human effort into sustaining it:
There are early signs of a new meme, where fires are deliberately lit by climate activists, in the hope of simulating a disaster. The trajectory is simple – the idea emerges in the fever swamps of denialist groups, they slowly seep into fringe blogs, and from those blogs they seep into Australia’s right-wing media. It is spat back out by spittle-flecked radio men, by lumpy TV men and by a hunched, highly-paid op-ed army, back into the social media machine. First, fringe political players take it up, and it’s then absorbed by leaders from major parties. That’s reported by right-wing media. The machine is smooth, well-oiled and incredibly powerful now that it’s paired with social media websites drawing massive revenues from the viral spread of harmful pseudoscience (see: the anti-vaccination movement).
This one is currently somewhere between the blogs and the right-wing media, at the moment. It’ll be in the papers, and on the lips of politicians within days. Already, in the comments of Sky News Australia tweets, the meme dominates comments:
Already, the account of Gwyneth Montenegro, an health influencer, tweeted to her 94k followers “climate terrorism, perhaps?”, which reached around 5,000 retweets before being deleted. A Channel 7 Australia tweet declared that “Police are now working on the premise arson is to blame for much of the devastation caused this bushfire season”, now up to 400 retweets despite the voice over in the clip stating “7 News has been told that early indications are the South Coast fires were likely started by lightning”.
It is the Australian equivalent of ‘false flag’ and ‘crisis actor’ conspiracy theories that tend to emerge around mass shootings in America. Australia isn’t immune to those (a racist politician claimed Australia’s worst mass shooting was staged in a secretly recorded video), and this will surely spread deep enough into wide-audience denial networks at a time when those audiences are hungry for vindication, desperately clawing to be told that climate change is a lie, that the Greens caused the bushfires and there is nothing unique about Australia burning so badly that its smokes is spreading across the world.
Australia’s Prime Minister is not one for the fever swamps. He presents himself as calm, level-headed, chilled out and unbothered. Unfortunately, he got so unbothered that he went on a holiday to Hawaii during the bushfire crisis. He’s fumbled his way through the disaster response, intentionally grabbing the hands of people who explicitly say they don’t want to shake hands, vigorously shaking their limp limbs and then strolling away. It is the perfect visual representation of a leadership style that is 1% surface kindness and 99% sneering derision kept mostly behind the facade.
Morrison keeps dropping hints in his statements that what is happening to Australia is Business As Usual. He’s diverted to appealing to national sporting events like cricket, even as those matches face cancellation due to the impacts of bushfire smoke.
In the same way that the science of climate change and the solutions to climate change were each denied based on their perceived political toxicity by a bunch of people operating on autopilot, the impacts of climate change are also being denied. Back in 2013, this was more explicit, as Tony Abbott said ‘we’ve always had bushfires’, and then-environment minister Greg Hunt used Wikipedia to back that up. Morrison always teeters at the edges of this style of disaster denialism, but it is functionally not that different to the 2013-era format. In addition to the media efforts to deny this disaster, the political efforts will continue unabated.
When he won the election in May 2019, he declared it a victory for the ‘quiet Australians’. That may have been true, but there are far fewer of them left than May 2019. Today, there is far more climate signal and far less noise. The science has been in for years, but the real-world lived experiences of hundreds of thousands of Australians currently experiencing the largest mass evacuation in the history of the country confirms what’s been written on paper and declared in spreadsheets for the past decade.
Dispatches from Christmas dinners outline the massive success of right-wing memes in denying that Australia’s disaster is in any way related to climate change. The Prime Minister seals the deal, offering a comforting alternate reality that satisfies the craving to deny anything related to climate change, whether it’s the science, the solutions or the impacts.
If it works, it’ll kick off another decade of sustained inaction in a country that has incredibly disproportionate influence on the world’s climate system. This time, we can nip it in the bud.