Australia Has A Bullshit Problem

When we debate the calculated lies of bad-faith actors, we turn away from a desperately necessary discussion about how climate change is making our country more dangerous, and what we need to do to address that danger.

scott morrison bushfires climate change

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If you could fight fire with bullshit we would all be just fine.

There’s plenty of it around, and it’s designed to protect leaders who failed us from the consequences of their failure, leaving volunteers and everyday people to step up in a crisis.

Australia is in the middle of the worst fire season we have ever seen. Ten million hectares of bushland have burned. People in every part of the country have been hurt, and 28 have died.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and thousands have lost their homes.

We are not alone in this. Fire seasons in globally have become longer, hotter and more dangerous. There is an abundance of evidence that this is not normal.

This Is Not A Surprise

Our leaders have known about the danger for a decade. A 2008 report on the dangers of climate change warned that longer, more dangerous fire seasons would be seen by 2020 if we didn’t act soon.

A group of 23 former emergency chiefs have been sounding the alarm about the current fire season and the lack of preparation at a national level since April last year. Despite their concerted efforts, both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor refused to meet with them for months.

Then, as the disaster developed, our leaders left their posts. In what can only be described as a failure of judgement and leadership, Morrison took a holiday to Hawaii which he instructed his staff to keep secret. David Elliot, the minister responsible for emergency services in New South Wales, was in Europe as blazes tore through the Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury and South Coast regions.

The situation for Morrison didn’t improve once he returned home. Locals gave him what his Liberal Party colleague Andrew Constance described as “the welcome he probably deserved” when he visited firegrounds for photo-ops.

The PM exacerbated this by forcibly shaking hands and issuing mistaken statements of gratitude that no lives were lost in a community mourning a father and son. Footage of a volunteer firefighter pulling his truck up in front of TV cameras and offering the PM a blunt and forceful recommendation that he go and get fucked reflected the national mood.

Misinformation Spread Like Wildfire

It was against this background that a concerted and organised campaign of misinformation emerged.

A large number of social media users began to spread false and baseless claims that the fires were part of a plot to clear land for a high-speed rail network. Others falsely claimed that arsonists were encouraged by ISIS.

According to data from state governments, less than one percent of the area burned in New South Wales, and none in Victoria, was caused by arson. That didn’t stop the Australian running an article falsely claiming that 183 people had been charged with arson in New South Wales, despite the actual figure being 24.

Shortly after the article was published, a senior News Corp employee sent an all-staff email decrying their employer’s coverage of climate issues.

False claims that the Greens had prevented hazard reduction burning have been circulating as well. The fact that the party has never held government at either a state or federal level appeared not to get in the way of people repeating this easily disproven lie.

The pertinent facts are these: Our leaders have known for years that climate change would make our fire seasons longer and more deadly. Despite this knowledge they sabotaged local and international efforts to address climate change, exacerbating the danger.

And when that danger was realised — when people’s homes burned, smoke blanketed cities and towns, thousands were displaced, and people lost their lives — most of those leaders were ineffectual or absent.

They say you shouldn’t play chess with a pigeon. It knocks the pieces over, shits everywhere and struts around like it has won.

When we spend our finite energy debating the calculated lies of bad-faith actors, we turn away from a desperately necessary discussion about how climate change is making our country more dangerous, and what we need to do to address that danger.

What Do We Gain By Fact-Checking?

Fact-checking false claims easily shows them to be lies.

But what do we gain by fact-checking people who aren’t interested in the truth? A national mythbusting expedition is not that much better than a discussion that takes these lies seriously. Richard Nixon’s claim that he was “not a crook” didn’t convince anyone of his innocence — it introduced people to possibility that the President could be a crook.

But what do we gain by fact-checking people who aren’t interested in the truth?

What should give all of us hope is that we have shown that as a country, we are better than the current avalanche of calculated, deceitful, self-serving bullshit. For every troll account and backbencher sharing confected lies and conspiracy theories, there are countless ordinary people helping in whatever way they can.

Celebrities and billionaires raising millions might have grabbed most of the headlines, but the collective effort of everyday people is even more impressive and important — from volunteer firefighters to the people behind Find a Bed which has connected people affected by the fires to strangers who can open their homes and hearts to fellow Australians who need help.

It’s our leaders’ responsibility to embody this same resourcefulness when it comes to action on climate change. The price of accommodating and appeasing backbench climate deniers like George Christensen and Craig Kelly is too high to pay.

Right now, we must survive the fire seasons, mourn the lost, and rebuild what has burned. Then we must turn to the necessary action without being diverted by misinformation campaigns that only benefit those who want to continue the “business-as-usual” approach that has already failed.

It’s time to break down the false binary between “jobs” and climate action that has been constructed for the political convenience of climate deniers, and show the world that as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, we are ready to lead action to prevent it.

Lachlan Williams is a writer and communications consultant based in Melbourne. He has worked for the union movement and advised a Labor MP. You can bother him on Twitter