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The giant fires in Australia: the media downplays the connection to the climate crisis

The specific reasons for the outbreak of huge fires in large areas of the world vary: intentional ignition, human error, or downed power lines, but they are all related to the climate crisis that creates the conditions that allow their development into huge fires and their rapid spread

Ran Ben Michael, Angle - Science and Environment News Agency

The fires in the state of New South Wales in Australia, 2019. From Wikipedia
The fires in the state of New South Wales in Australia, 2019. From Wikipedia

The koala hospital in Port Macquarie, Australia, has turned to crowdfunding to raise donations for its clients: hundreds more animals are coming to it with burns and dehydration due to the huge fires in the states of New South Wales and Queensland. This is a small detail in the midst of a dramatic human and environmental disaster, but the media attention to it, as it turns out, is lacking.

Huge fires have been raging in recent years around the world - in Alaska, California, Canada, the Amazon forests, Central Africa, Carmel, and now in eastern Australia. The specific reasons for their outbreak vary: intentional ignition, human error, or downed power lines, but they are all related to the climate crisis, which creates the conditions that allow their development into huge fires and their rapid spread, which creates great difficulty in dealing with them. The connection between fire and its forms and the environmental change caused by the human race led researchers to call the current era the Pyrocene.

In Australia, a prolonged drought dried up the vegetation, led to the death of trees, and thus created the fuel for fires; A lack of long-term precipitation, high temperatures, winds, low humidity, the drying of the soil and the reduction of moist areas (such as swamps) allowed the fire to spread in an unprecedented manner and wreak great destruction. A long-term review indicates that the optimal conditions in Australia (as in the USA) for the fires to break out are most likely a result of the climate crisis and they are becoming more acute with the continuation of global warming.

The giant fires are not a local or transient event. The smoke from the fires in Australia made its way to South America within a few days. Even on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, a distance of about 10,000 km from the source of the fire in Chile and Argentina, the concentration of carbon monoxide particles in the atmosphere reached 100-80 parts per billion (ppb), almost at a level defined as air pollution. The sudden exposure to high levels of pollutants, especially respirable particles smaller than 2.5 microns (thousands of mm) PM2.5, which are able to penetrate deep into the lungs and cause an increase in respiratory morbidity such as bronchitis and asthma and an increase in the risk of ischemic stroke (resulting from blockage blood vessels in the brain), especially among sensitive populations such as the elderly and children, when long-term chronic exposure is also linked to an increase in cardiovascular morbidity and even early mortality. When the fire passes through urban areas, it leaves behind soil contaminated with toxins from the decomposition of the materials that make up the buildings (plastic materials, asbestos, etc.). Fighting fire also has a price: the flame retardant chemicals (made mainly of phosphorus salts, similar to agricultural fertilizer) cause damage to vegetation and especially to aquatic animals, which are sometimes forgotten when trying to save human life and their property.

inconvenient truth (depends on who)

Even though the cause (climate crisis) and the result (disaster) were discussed in a report by the Australian Government Meteorological Service, the recent fires ignited a debate between the authorities there. The former fire commissioner of the state of New South Wales claimed that the government ignores the connection between the trend of change and the unprecedented conditions for the formation of fires and their intensity. Alongside a group of heads of emergency services, he warned of the danger even before the outbreak of the current wave of fires. The local government representatives also criticized the Australian federal government for the climate policy that endangers the population.

The Conservative government, for its part, dismissed the criticism as an attempt to politicize a humanitarian disaster, but its actions do not lead to reducing Australia's part in the climate crisis. It supports the continued development of the mining industry in general, and coal mining in particular - Australia is the largest exporter of coal in the world - despite their close connection to greenhouse gas emissions. A few days before the fires broke out, the conservative prime minister pledged to outlaw activist opposition to this policy, which escalated with the decision to open a controversial new coal mine. According to him, it is possible to meet the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions without harming the economic development of the mining industry, but this blanket statement is not consistent with scientific research. The Australian target for reducing emissions is relatively modest and a survey by a think tank in the country revealed that most Australians fear the effects of the climate crisis and expect sharper policy measures.

Is the media to blame?

A possible reason for the gap in public debate regarding the role of the climate crisis in the fires is the media coverage. In 2012, a researcher in the field expected that the giant fires would also fuel the public discourse in the field of climate; It didn't exactly happen.

An American organization examined the references to the subject at the end of October this year, around the recent wave of fires in California: out of all the news reports, only about 3 percent mention the climate crisis, and these include both weather reports in the wee hours of the night and a negative reference (such as on the Fox network, which tends to be skeptical of the crisis the climate).

This is a slight improvement over the global heat wave of 2018, when only one in 127 mentions cited the climate crisis as an influencing factor. The same is true for media that cover the climate crisis well (eg the New York Times) but avoid seeing it as a factor related to extreme events. A review in Canada of the local media's coverage of the issue of forests, an important natural resource in the country, also shows that the climate crisis is often absent, and especially lacks coverage of a complex picture in which several variables together affect the state of affairs. A similar diagnosis was also raised in the context of Australia and Japan.

One of the explanations is perhaps the inability to observe critically during the event itself. A study of the media discourse in Colorado, where a devastating wildfire occurred in 2012, found that the anniversaries of the events were opportunities to discuss the deep reasons for its formation and the policy measures to mitigate such fires. On the other hand, limited real-time discourse prevents the integration of long-term adaptation measures near the disaster.

"Many reasons may explain the limited reference," says Prof. Eilat Baram-Zabari from the Faculty of Science and Technology Education at the Technion, "so, for example, knowledge or lack thereof. Some writers and editors do not know about this connection, or assume that readers do not know about it and prefer to avoid explanations that seem complicated. A political and economic perception will cause the subject to be consciously ignored. In addition, some of the scientific community does not communicate the science well. We know that research results should be made accessible in a narrative, human and clear way, yet few do so. It is important to convey a message of empowerment and hope, and drive to action, yet leave people with a feeling of anxiety and helplessness. Many prefer writing, even though the medium does not have to be textual, and especially on the Internet, video should be used, which is more effective for presenting the climate crisis and persuading the scientific consensus around it."

Ignoring the climatic context

True, it is almost impossible to link a single extreme event with the climate crisis and there is more than one reason for each event, on the other hand the climate crisis has an indisputable connection to the trend of extremism of the events and their frequency. Ignoring the global climate context, even in media that report on it soberly, turns the climate crisis into something that happens all the time, but supposedly, it has no consequences for the lives of media consumers.

Criticism also comes from within the field of journalism itself and a professional media magazine even recently started a project to improve the coverage of the climate crisis in the American media. One of the obstacles that must be overcome is that the climate crisis is a ratings sword: according to a survey, the American public wants to read more about the crisis but actually reads less about it. In Israel, wider media coverage of the climate crisis in the major media has only recently begun and it probably still has a long way to go.

Bottom line, the climate crisis increases the chance of huge fires and areas with a Mediterranean or similar climate - such as southeastern Australia, California and others - are particularly sensitive to the extreme fluctuations in the weather. The fires also exacerbate the crisis because they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and destroy vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide from it. Above all, they leave behind many scars, not only in koalas. Will the media pick up the gauntlet?

9 תגובות

  1. What's wrong with fires? Now different species will replace the trees, the forest restores itself quickly

  2. All in all, this is a normal cycle of the earth... to mention that tens of millions of years ago there were warmer periods and with a higher co2 concentration than today...
    Read about Milankovitz cycles

  3. The writer ignores the fact that the fires that are raging there today are directly related to the fact that the previous Australian government, which tried to push a "green ideology" based on ignorance and fear and not on facts, is the one that drastically reduced the preventive action of "controlled fires" in bush areas, which were specifically designed to prevent these fires that are raging Today. In light of the fact that the heat and precipitation data are not unusual compared to previous years, doesn't it seem reasonable to you that the fact that they did not carry out fire prevention actions (even if out of a green ideology of preserving nature) is most likely the main cause of the fires. You can even see a direct relationship between the decrease in the amount of controlled fires carried out by the Australians and an increase in the amount of natural fires....

  4. S.K. or S.K.R.? The Vikings did not sail in the waters that are now frozen, and certainly did not reach Greenland via the North Pole. I would love to know what your sources are for the increase in the population of polar bears. Didn't the number of natural disasters increase in recent years?! Fires in the Amazon, Chile, Siberia, and Australia for dessert. An increase in the intensity of hurricanes. Where is the data from? From the websites of the deniers of global insanity? delusional

  5. I read comments of deniers and don't understand!!

    When the child is sick and the temperature rises to 39 degrees, they put him in a hot bath. Don't wait for him to start creaking.

    What damage will be caused by excess caution?? Protecting the environment? The stubborn powerful, the equally stubborn people to continue to pollute because "I didn't have to" just like that. So infuriating and all this tells me that I would be an activist but just a person who prefers caution over thoughtlessness and planning over unburdening.

  6. The media also does not tell us that since the late 90s the increase in average temperature has been much less than what climate scientists predicted and they still disagree about the reason for this. that there has been no increase in the erosion of natural disasters in the last hundred years. that the polar bear population has only increased in recent decades. that despite many billions invested in research, scientists do not know much about clouds, one of the most important components of climate change, and have not been able to improve at all their predictions for the future, which have remained the same in recent decades (an increase of between one and a half to four degrees for every doubling of greenhouse gas emissions). There is much experimental and historical evidence that there have been climate changes since forever and throughout human history (for example, a thousand years ago Hawking sailed to America in northern waters that are now frozen) and the climate models have difficulty explaining why they happened.

  7. And despite everything, a young journalist in the "Israel Hayom" newspaper still attacks the "prophets of doom and global warming" every week. Maybe after reading this article he will start to think twice and maybe. Really maybe, he will also improve his mind.

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