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The fossil fuel industry has corrupted our democracy

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

Despite the devastation of last summer's bushfires, Australia remains captive to the coal mining industry, writes Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.

WHEN YOUR COUNTRY catches fire and burns – like no other nation has ever burned before – the world sits up and listens.

In January 2020, the global media focus was intense and sympathetic. Every international journalist wanted to know just how bad things had gotten and how the Australian people and our wildlife were faring.

A Mexican talk show host told me that his country sent us love and solidarity. A Swedish journalist wanted to know what could be done to help.

But there was one question that was also asked, again and again. Why, reporters around the world wanted to know, with Australia in terrible drought and going up in smoke, does the Morrison Government have no effective policy to reduce carbon emissions?

And why are they so intent on digging up more coal which will make things worse? The questions struck at the heart of the Australian condition, because coal and other fossil fuels are the number one driver of climate change, which created the circumstances for the catastrophic fires of the spring and summer of 2019-2020.

Rodney Hayes lost his sustainable home, which he built over 30 years, to the fires (image by Greenpeace/WhiteGREY).

In May 2019, Greenpeace Australia Pacific released Dirty Power: an investigative documentary which showed how – despite having all the policy and tech solutions that we need to make the transition to clean energy – Australia is held back by the corrupting influence of vested interests.

At the peak of the summer bushfire crisis, the organic viewership for Dirty Power surged. People were seeking answers as to why politicians weren’t being honest about the link between the fires and climate change. 

So today, Greenpeace Australia Pacific has launched a sequel investigation: Dirty Power: Burnt Country which exposes the malign effects of the fossil fuel industry on our democracy, even as the nation burned.

During the bushfires, there was a sustained effort by powerful forces to minimise the role played by climate change in creating the conditions for the disaster. Disinformation was used as a political tool by the Morrison government. News Corp systematically downplayed the impact of climate change. Voices of truth and reason were attacked in an effort to silence them.

Social media was weaponised to spread falsehoods to shift culpability away from the coal, oil and gas industries.

News Corp, in particular, promoted climate denial amidst the bushfire season (image by Greenpeace Australia Pacific).

Faced with an epic crisis of legitimacy that would see nearly 80% of Australians directly affected in some way by catastrophic fire conditions that had been long predicted as a consequence of global warming, the protectors of the fossil fuel industry began to fight dirty.

News Corp played a particularly significant role, consistently running articles and commentary that denied the influence of climate change on the bushfires over summer and inaccurately attributing the cause of the disaster to a lack of hazard reduction burning and arson.

The News Corp stable also heavily criticised prominent voices who argued for the need for climate action to help prevent similar fires in the future, including attacks on former NSW Fire and Rescue chief Greg Mullins and NSW Liberal Environment Minister, Matt Kean.

The print media campaign was amplified across social media. Analysis of online traffic shows that spikes in social media posts using the fake news #ArsonEmergency hashtag – coined explicitly to push the false narrative that arson was behind the majority of Australian bushfires – corresponds closely to the publication dates of denialist opinion pieces published by News Corp.

The online campaign spread over December and January, driven by independent accounts, bots and trolls. In early January, the malign stories went global, including tweets by Donald Trump Jr. and syndicated U.S. cable news host Sean Hannity.

Meanwhile, as koalas burned alive and Australian children huddled on ash-stained beaches, awaiting evacuation by the Royal Australian Navy, the fossil fuel industry continued to lobby and push for new projects and expansions. Over 100 million tonnes of new coal mining projects were approved during the bushfires — including excavation under Sydney’s precious drinking water catchment.

As the fires reached their crescendo, records show that state MPs met with the fossil fuel industry on lobbyists on a weekly basis. In Queensland, the meetings occurred on average every five days. 

The fossil fuel industry persisted with plans for new projects just as if nothing had happened.

More than 30 people were killed directly by the fires and toxic smoke contributed to the deaths of more than 400 others. More than 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area and more than 50% of the Gondwana World Heritage rainforests were destroyed. A billion or more creatures were incinerated. 

Despite the appalling loss of life, property and environmental destruction, Australia is no closer to having a credible national climate change policy or plan of action to close our dangerous, ageing, coal-burning power stations or taking other effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia’s democracy is hostage to dirty power: the institutional corruption of our democracy by the fossil fuel industry and other big polluters. There is urgent work ahead to release the bonds; harnessing the power and determination of the Australian people to reclaim our democracy and create the foundations for a flourishing future.

David Ritter is an Independent Australia columnist and CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western AustraliaYou can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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