The devastating Australian bushfires received extensive coverage but the media did not give a true picture of the impact of the fires, argues Holly Barrow, political correspondent with the Immigration Advice Service.
As Australia’s bushfires continue to hit headlines across the globe, recent discourse has centred on the immense number of animals believed to have perished. Standing at an inconceivable one billion, this devastating loss and, in some cases, extinction of Australia’s beloved wildlife has been felt globally.
While it is undoubtedly crucial to detail the ways in which the climate crisis hurts all species and to convey the magnitude of the ongoing disaster in Australia, what the mainstream media often fails to communicate is quite how disproportionately certain demographics suffer as a result of global heating. Nor does it adequately represent the disparity in treatment of those who are displaced by such crises.
The climate crisis hurts all, however not all suffer to the same extent. Developing nations and the most marginalised communities – such as Indigenous populations – are considerably more vulnerable to the consequences of global heating. The tragic injustice is that those who suffer the most by climate-induced threats contribute the least to the causes of global heating.
Inequalities of the climate crisis
The average citizen of Mozambique, the sixth-poorest country in the world, is responsible for 55 times less carbon emissions than the average US citizen. Yet, it increasingly suffers from cyclones, flooding and other weather extremes which, towards the end of last year, saw 1.6 million people in need of urgent assistance. This overt global injustice is rarely touched upon within the mainstream media’s narrative on global heating.
Similarly, the media response to climate-induced disasters tends to be heavily weighted towards those that strike first-world countries. While Australia’s current bushfire crisis is an extreme case of such disasters, there are simultaneously-occurring crises demanding urgent attention that remain largely unheard of throughout the West. As fires rage across Australia, Jakarta’s residents face life-threatening floods, which have tragically resulted in the deaths of at least 67 people.
The stark contrast in coverage of both climate disasters seems emblematic of the very inequalities at the heart of the climate crisis itself; a brutal reminder of the prejudices that continue to plague humanity. With millions displaced each year as a result of climate-induced disasters, why does it take for devastation to strike one of the world’s richest countries for the issue to be considered imperative? What’s more, why aren’t those who contribute significantly more to global carbon emissions held to account for their failure to take responsibility when the consequences ripple across the globe?
Not only is unbalanced coverage an ever-prevalent issue within the mainstream media’s response to the climate emergency, so too is misinformation. Since news of the Australian bushfires spread, an unnerving trend has emerged. The right-wing media and climate denialists, enraged at the prospect of having to swallow their self-serving scepticism, have taken it upon themselves to propagate dangerous untruths.
The most widespread of these false claims suggests that arsonists are to blame for the bushfires and that many have been arrested as a result – a claim debunked by Victoria police. This seeks to diminish the key role that global heating plays in the fires sweeping Australia.
While it may be argued that such untruths have little bearing on public perception, these inflammatory allegations in fact stemmed from national newspaper, The Australian, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, and have permeated social media. Climate denialism is manipulative and dangerous. It attempts to push an agenda; one which, ironically, smears environmental activists by suggesting their work is no more than a catalyst for left-wing ideology.
Such narratives endorse the belief that global heating is merely a myth and, in turn, this may have a devastating impact on the preventative action (or lack thereof) taken to tackle the climate emergency. And this isn’t the only narrative that the likes of Murdoch have a firm grip on; climate denialists and right-wing populists are also keen to sway public perception on those who are involuntarily displaced by such disasters.
The Australian mainstream media has long faced criticism for its portrayal of asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom are fleeing war, persecution and, increasingly, climate-induced threats to life. A 2017 study found that News Corp Australia’s publications largely conveyed asylum seekers and refugees in a negative light. These vulnerable, displaced people are criminalised and stigmatised as an ‘other’ who puts national security at risk. Yet, as Australia’s bushfires have created their own climate refugees, the Australian navy is assisting with the evacuation of at-risk individuals, as opposed to turning them away – as is typically the approach to asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat.
This raises questions surrounding how national leaders will deal with the consistent rise in climate refugees – will those from the richest nations, such as Australia, continue to be prioritised while those from developing nations are detained indefinitely for fleeing the same threats? Or will the mainstream media backtrack, opting instead to convey those seeking asylum as the human beings that they are as opposed to ‘illegal’ criminals; admitting that, actually, we must step up to help those who are forcibly displaced.
With millions predicted to be driven from their homes and communities due to climate in the coming years, we can only hope that governments follow the recent UN ruling which found it unlawful to return climate refugees to their country of residence where they would be at risk. The conversation on both climate change and refugees is in dire need of change. The mainstream media must take responsibility for its role in public discourse and perception of the emergencies we face.
Holly Barrow works for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers providing free advice and support to asylum seekers and victims of abuse.