The Australian bushfires have sent shockwaves around the world. Pictures of burned animals and reports of people killed have fuelled calls for action on climate change. Almost a billion animals are estimated to have died in the flames. Still, while the numbers are shocking, stories of the fires are easily drowned out in the mass of apocalyptic news bombarding us every day.
This interview offers a personal perspective on the events. It also digs into the forces preventing action on climate change. Daniel Barraza is a Master of Communications student at Victoria University in Melbourne. Having lived in Australia for many years, he talked to me about the Australian Bushfires.
Newscoop: Do you remember when the news of the bushfires first broke? What did you think or feel?
Daniel: When I first heard about it, it didn’t seem like a big deal, because in Australia we often have bushfires. In the summertime, since I can remember every summer, we’ve always had bushfires. At that point it wasn’t as big as it became later on. Starting off, it just seemed like a normal bushfire season that had just begun, and that it was just going to be normal. I didn’t think too much about it. I knew about them, but they didn’t impact me as much because we’re so used to them here.
Newscoop: When did you realise that it was different than previous bushfires?
Daniel: Probably when we started seeing how big they were and just how much area they were consuming, the amount of animals they were killing, and just how powerful they were becoming and the ferocity of them. Even when conditions changed, the bushfires didn’t. So, they kept on burning and they just kept on moving and destroying everything without stopping — even when they cooled down and there was a bit of rain.
Newscoop: Across Australia but also globally, the current bushfire crisis has triggered something often described as eco-anxiety. Feeling grief, frustration, helplessness and fear about the environment. I’m trying to imagine what it was like, living there while it happened. What was it like to see your home country being destroyed like that? What was it like to live in Australia for the last few months?
Daniel: Obviously it’s confronting to see when you see the images of hectare after hectare just charred to a crisp. Animals burned alive and homes destroyed. It’s kind of confronting. Especially when you know that scientists, looking back, had been predicting something like this could have happened. You see that governments really didn’t want to do anything about it or were oblivious to it or were in denial about what was happening. You feel helpless because even though politically I feel climate change is a big issue, government doesn’t see it as such. So, then it’s frustration at the fact that other people don’t see it that way, why these bushfires sort of happened. Obviously, I’m not blaming anyone. But I’m just saying that people’s inability or unwillingness to realise that something like this could happen in a way led to these bushfires being as big as they were. So, a sense of frustration, like you said. Also, you start to selfishly wonder how it’s going to impact you. Especially, when you see how the air quality became the worst in the world in Canberra and other cities as well so then you wonder about the health effects you’re going to suffer, both long-term and short term.
Newscoop: We’ll touch on climate change in a bit. Can you tell me what was the general atmosphere or mood in Australia during the last two months? Among your peers or your family?
Daniel: People were just shocked and just in disbelief. I don’t think people could really understand, even as you watch the news and you see and you listen to the reports of how much land was burned, but you still can’t comprehend that it reached such a scale. I guess people were just confused, shocked. Obviously, people, friends who lived out in the bush feared for their lives. There was also a sense of resignation in the fact that there was nothing they could do. You could look after your house and look after your livestock as best as you could. But in the end, if the bushfire came, it was coming and it was going to take everything, no matter what you could do. So, I guess there was a sense of hopelessness and inevitability with it all.
Newscoop: You already mentioned all the animals who have died in the fires. Some experts estimated that almost a billion animals could have died in the bushfires. How do you feel about that?
Daniel: Obviously, it’s something that’s quite painful. As you know, Australia has really diverse and unique animals that aren’t found anywhere else. So, for us to lose such a big population is something that shouldn’t have happened. It didn’t need to happen and at the end of the day these animals were left defenceless. As you said, a billion animals could be lost. Most of the population of koalas and other unique animals could be wiped out for no reason.
Newscoop: What would you say other countries can do to help with the bushfires? In the last few weeks I saw a lot of people asking for donations or supporting people in these ways. Is there any organisation for example, we could support to help from abroad?
Daniel: Probably Salvation Army. Just because they have the people and the resources to go in. They know what they’re doing, they’re trained. I’d also say give to the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Obviously, I feel bad for the people who have lost everything but also consider the animals. Trying to rebuild their habitat and trying to develop breeding programmes to bring back populations of the koalas that have almost become extinct and the kangaroos. So, I would say, give one to the Salvation Army to help the people and the firefighters especially. Many of them are volunteer firefighters. So, they get some money back for the time they’ve had to give up and the money they’ve lost by combating fires and protecting people. And also, to the RSPCA and the Wildlife Authority to be able to start breeding programmes and other resources to bring back these animals on the brink of extinction.
Newscoop: I’d like to move on to climate change and the politics arounds it, especially the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who faced a lot of criticism about the way he handled the crisis. What is your opinion on that?
Daniel: Can I swear?
Newscoop: Yes, but I probably can’t post that.
Daniel: Alright. I would say he is one of the most inept, out of touch and delusional prime ministers of all time that we’ve ever had in this country, including Tony Abbott and John Howard.
Newscoop: That’s a big statement. Do you agree that he handled the crisis in a bad way or could have acted differently? What do you say?
Daniel: I mean I would say going on a holiday in the middle of the worst bushfires this country has ever seen is probably the lowest thing you could ever do.
Newscoop: So, do you feel that the criticism is justified, or not?
Daniel: Definitely. If anything, it’s a bit too soft.
Newscoop: There were protests around the country recently calling for government action on climate change. I actually didn’t know before I researched on this that Australia still has a coal-dependent economy and actually has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions rates globally. Especially as a Western, developed country. Experts also say that it has gone backwards under the Morrison government — which has been accused, as you said, of missing in action on climate change. What do you think the Australian government should do to take action against climate change?
Daniel: First of all, I would say there’s nothing this government will do. The best thing that could happen is if, in the next election, we vote out this government. I have no hope or belief that this government will do anything to reverse its climate change policy. So, for me it’s just about ensuring they give money to rebuild what’s been lost and funding programmes that help do this. In terms of political action towards climate change, I don’t think this government is going to do it. So, I don’t really have much hope that they will listen to the protests, which I completely agree with, but I genuinely don’t see things changing.
Newscoop: Okay, so you support the protests and you are of the opinion that climate action should be taken, but you’re not very optimistic that the current government is going to do anything about it. Why is that?
Daniel: Frankly it’s because they’re a bunch of right-wing ****heads who can’t accept the truth unless it’s written in the bible.
Newscoop: So, you mean they’re representing right-wing interests?
Newscoop: Okay, we’ll get to that in a bit. Would you say that there’s political division in the country concerning climate action that might be affecting the government’s inaction? Or do you feel that Australian citizens are united in the feeling of “You need to act on climate change, the government is not doing anything”?
Daniel: I would say we’re a very polarised society in a sense of… even if you look at the election, it was basically in Queensland where the election was won and lost, in a sense that in Queensland they prioritised jobs over everything so they allowed the Adani mines to go in despite the fact that reports showed how devastating it would be to the area. So, you can say it’s mainly like Sydney and Melbourne and the biggest cities are more forward-thinking and greener in a way than rural towns and the outback where they’re more focused on jobs at the expense of the environment. So, I would say we are polarised. Even when you look at young people, they are the ones that are protesting, the ones that are advocating for changes. I think that the older generations, especially the Baby Boomers refuse to believe that climate change is real. Or even if they do believe it, they don’t see it as being that big an issue.
Newscoop: Does any politician come to your mind whose climate change policy you would support? For the next election?
Daniel: Adam Bandt, who’s a Greens member for the city of Melbourne, has a good policy. I would say most of the Greens party because they’re obviously, as the name indicates, green and they’re left-wing and they care about the environment. Almost anyone in the party has a good policy towards climate change. The only thing is because they are left-wing, they are always going to be a minority party. So, it falls on the more centre party to develop something similar to what they’re proposing. But definitely Adam Bandt and Sarah Hanson Young. Senators like that.
Newscoop: Next I want to focus on Scott Morrison, but also Rupert Murdoch. The New York Times has connected Morrison to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp. Next to news organisations like Fox News in the US, The Sun in the UK, Murdoch also owns newspapers like The Australian and The Herald Sun. Their articles repeatedly downplay the role of climate change. Do you believe they could be actively working together to divert attention from climate change? If so, which interests might they be protecting?
Daniel: I would say they represent big business such as the coal industry, which is obviously a very lucrative industry in Australia, one that provides major funding for the Liberal Party [Scott Morrison] as well as other assets. So, I’d say that Morrison and Murdoch have a vested interest in keeping Australia coal-reliant.
Newscoop: Like you said before, jobs and money over environment.
Newscoop: The next questions are about the power of Murdoch and the media organisations he owns over public opinion regarding climate change. Have you noticed whether Murdoch’s newspapers really influence public opinion among people you know or other Australians? As you said, Australians are polarised — do you also attribute that partly to the media owned by Murdoch?
Daniel: I would say definitely, because it depends what you read. I read more like “The Age” and other newspapers which are considered left-wing, so the picture they present on climate change is far different to that of “The Herald Sun” and “The Australian” as well as “Sky News,” where they basically refuse to accept that climate change has played a major part, and they mainly place the blame on the arsonists that lit some of the fires. It depends on what you read, but I know for a fact that the newspapers reflect certain views as I mentioned. So, people who read certain papers will believe one thing and then others who read the other papers like “The Australian” or “The Herald Sun” believe something else. And you don’t see many cross over now. It’s become basically you either believe in climate change and you want climate change action to be taken, or you don’t believe in climate change and you don’t feel that anything should be done. And I think that comes down to the way Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls have spun stories and portrayed the issue to the people.
Newscoop: That’s interesting. It actually reminds me of an interview I saw Greta Thunberg give at the Daily Show in New York. Trevor Noah asked her whether she sees a difference when it comes to climate change to her home country and the US. She said back home it’s more like climate change is considered a fact whereas over here it’s a question of whether people believe in it or not. It seems to be similar in Australia, right?
Newscoop: What international pressure, if any, could be brought to bear on Murdoch in this moment of crisis for Australia? He seems to be all-powerful, owning media outlets in the US, UK and Australia. Is there any way at all to combat that? Maybe with independent media or something else?
Daniel: In a utopian society, you could say that hopefully the independent media outlets would be able to challenge and bring condemnation and pressure. But the reality is that when you own as much of the media as he does…He owns the majority of what people consider to be credible and reliable sources. It’s really hard to go against a man who runs the show and who can basically have a person of his choosing elected anywhere around the world. As you said, no politician is going to risk going against Rupert Murdoch when he basically ensures you’ll never be elected.
Newscoop: So, he does not only own the truth through his media but also owns the political sphere.
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