Have you heard the good news? One of the key institutions holding back climate action in Australia – Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – is suddenly on Team Climate Action! Today, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the company’s Australian outlets are set to launch a campaign urging “the world’s leading economies” to embrace a target of net zero emissions by 2050; to be fronted by columnist Joe Hildebrand. The details aren’t out yet, but I contend that we can comfortably predict what it will look like.
It will be a centrist, pro-business approach to climate action. It will make a show of dismissing the “hysterics” of climate activists, while urging governments, including Australia’s, to set distant, meaningless and non-binding climate targets. It won’t allow any room for emissions reductions in line with the 1.5C goals or the Paris agreement; no short-term meaningful targets or actions such as those highlighted in the IEA’s recent ‘net zero’ report. It won’t argue for a coal phase-out by 2030, or the end of all new coal, gas and oil mines in Australia, or a ban on combustion engine sales by 2030-2035; all vital actions if Australia is to align with any net zero target.
It’ll champion controversial technologies like CCS and fossil hydrogen. It’ll highlight personal responsibility: tree planting, recycling and electric vehicle purchases. It will not propose or argue in favour of any new policies; at least none that might reduce the burning of fossil fuels.
How can we know all this before we’ve seen the actual campaign? It’s easy – let me explain.
Done with denial
Here’s a remarkable statistic for you. In the month of August this year, global media coverage of climate saw its highest volume since the December 2009 Copenhagen climate meetings. That’s partly down to the release of the IPCC’s AR6 Working Group one report into climate change, six years in the making.
That report reiterated something extremely important: every single tonne of carbon dioxide does damage. Actions must be immediate and aggressive to align with the most ambitious pathways. Delay is deadly.
No media coverage records for Australia: coverage of climate change has dropped almost entirely off the radar relative to the high volumes of late 2019 and early 2020 (partly driven by the Black Summer bushfires).
During the Black summer bushfires of 2019-20, I did a few interviews about Australia with baffled and perplexed international reporters. “What is going on over there? Why did the people elect such a climate laggard?”. A key part of my response was to pin blame on Australia’s media industry. Mostly on News Corp, which dominates the country’s uniquely concentrated media landscape, and which is notorious for its heavily politicised climate views. In fact, a recent study quantified this in historical terms, analysing media coverage within Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia for its climate science accuracy.
By a comfortable margin, News Corp’s Daily Telegraph and the Courier Mail scored the second and fourth worst among every media outlet analysed between 2005 and 2019 (The Australian wasn’t included in the analysis). Australia has, in general, seen the least accurate climate science coverage from 2013 onwards, despite a general rising trend in scientific accuracy over the past decade. For a decade and a half, News Corp lied about climate science with the blatant aim of protecting the revenue streams of the fossil fuel industry, and protecting its political allies.
This is important as a historical study, but today, it’s increasingly irrelevant. As the study points out, the accuracy of climate science has essentially plateaued in media coverage, with outright denial consigned to the dustbin.
The authors highlights that “the terrain of climate debates has shifted in recent years away from strict denial of the scientific consensus on human causes of climate change toward ‘discourses of delay’ that focus on undermining support for specific policies meant to address climate change”. The fundamental goal is the same – staving off action – but the way it manifests is very different.
Delay is the main game
There are many substantial recent examples of this. A good one was the severe blackouts that spread across Texas in February this year, which were immediately blamed on wind power failures, alongside easily debunked claims that snows and ice were blocking solar panels and freezing up wind turbines in Texas and around the world.
This isn’t climate change denial: it’s “mitigation denial“. That is, a move away from denying the problem exists and towards decrying its solutions as utterly unacceptable. An important part of this performance is pretending to have a moment of having seen the light, but then continuing to commit the same acts of delay as before.
Murdoch’s The Sun, in the UK, did precisely this. In October 2020, The Sun launched a ‘Green Team‘ campaign that focused on ‘individual responsibility’ in the lead-up to COP26, to be held in Glasgow at the end of this year. It wasn’t long until they were celebrating their own victory in freezing fossil fuel taxes.
how it started how it's going pic.twitter.com/p1ZVOnOKmX
— Zach Boren (@zdboren) March 3, 2021
The UK’s Daily Express, another hyper-conservative outlet that ‘saw the light’, continues to publish articles attacking climate activism and, more significantly, framing climate action in an explicitly “eco nationalist” way, as UK writer Sam Knights highlights in this article in Novara media. He says,
“Make no mistake: these newspapers are not your friends. They are not your allies. Their politics are not in any way ecological. They are deeply racist, reactionary, right-wing publications. Their sudden interest in climate change is not to be celebrated – it is a terrifying indication of things to come:”
Last week, @GreenpeaceUK, @WWF, @nationaltrust, and @friends_earth signed up to the "green crusade" of the Daily Express. Just ten days later, the rightwing newspaper has already run two articles attacking Greta Thunberg… Surely these charities will now withdraw their support? pic.twitter.com/Xz5NcjLu8N
— Sam Knights (@samjknights) February 18, 2021
It’s notable that these examples seem to manifest in the UK, and less so in similar anglophone countries like Canada or the US or New Zealand. Those are led by centre-left parties and politicians, but the UK’s conservative embrace of climate action is surely a model that Australia’s PM Scott Morrison pines to replicate. Sure, the UK certainly is miles ahead of Australia in terms of climate action – but there remains a very significant gap between Boris Johnson’s climate policies and where the country actually needs to be to align with the carbon budget that its independent climate advisor body has laid out.
A technocratic, rich white country with a government more concerned with optics than doing what needs to be done to protect people from being hurt by fossil fuels. Morrison’s obviously inspired by the UK, but Australia’s conservative media outlets are increasingly inspired, too.
Net zero by sometime after I retire, please
This is all coming to a head at COP26. George Brandis, Australia’s attorney general, who once declared that “coal is very good for humanity indeed”, is now High Commissioner for Australia to the UK, and has significantly ramped up the broader greenwashing exercise that the government has been enacting over the latter half of last year and most of this one. As I wrote in RenewEconomy, that means creative accounting, dodgy charts and deceptive framing, all designed to paper over Australia’s significant failure to reign in emissions.
Morrison will almost certainly set a net zero by 2050 target before COP26, but it’ll be packaged with a collection of loop holes that allow for rising emissions in the short term. It is dawning on the government just as it is dawning on News Corp: the best way to protect the fossil fuel industry today is not to deny the science, but to pretend to accept it. This is not the end of climate denial. It’s evolution from a common ancestor.
That this effort will be lead by Joe Hildebrand is telling enough. His previous work on climate change does exactly what a centre-right campaign like this would be best at – decrying both sides as ‘hysterical’ while failing to propose anything meaningful or substantial.
This @Joe_Hildebrand piece is a near-perfect example of what I mean when I say that this is more about reassurance and excuses than it is about persuasion.
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) October 6, 2019
We can also see hints of what a conservative climate message looks like in a previous editorial from the more progressive News Corp outlet, NT News, which – of course – continues to host syndicated climate denial from the Sky News Australia channel. Ditto for News dot com.
This is News Corp's northern territory outlet.
Note the 'affordable' – a reference to the conservative meme that decarbonisation is bad because it's too expensive.
Even in accepting the need for action, they need to throw in messaging from previous fossil fuel advocacy. https://t.co/HifYmyX2R3
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) January 15, 2020
What might reasonably seem like a surprising change of heart in News Corp’s stance on climate is actually a long-term tactical shift that has been occurring for at least a few years. Whatever policies they failed to destroy through their earlier campaigns, they will try and reframe through racist, nationalistic, technocratic and pro-business frames.
Whatever policies they can delay or destroy, they’ll simply keep running scare campaigns about, insisting that ‘the balance isn’t right’, and that the threat of climate action is greater than the threat of climate change, as they always have (in Australia, News Corp’s partnerships with Google and Facebook mean these campaigns to destabilise climate action are growing more powerful and more harmful every day). When the next federal election comes around, the “COSTS OF NET ZERO” scare campaigns will ramp up in Australia as they are in the UK, and News Corp will be at the forefront, pleading that acting too fast will cause catastrophe. Absolutely mark my damn words: this is what will happen.
Net zero by 2050 isn’t enough. We’ll know that the denialism has truly ended when organisations like News Corp treat the IPCC’s latest report like it’s real. That is, when they acknowledge that every additional unit of greenhouse gases causes harm to life on Earth, and that actions to stop their release must be as fast as possible. That climate change is an emergency that requires rapid action to wind down the fossil fuel industry in a just and equitable way, and that its replacement must be grown to full size with just as much passion and urgency.
This campaign won’t look anything like that. We know what it will look like – and it won’t be anything surprising at all.