(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

For a while, News Corp executives and editors thought they could brazen out the bushfire catastrophe.

They thought they could run the conspiracy theories that arsonists and a lack of fuel reduction (as a result of out-of-control Greens) were the real cause of the fires; pretend it had nothing to do with climate change; and demonise the criticism by other outlets of the coverage of The Australian, The Telegraph, Sky News and other Murdoch platforms for denialism as a kind of war on free speech and diversity of opinion.

Things fell apart pretty quickly.

The arson argument was rapidly exposed as a lie by police, and even foreign outlets like the BBC and Vox as well as fact-checking sites demolished claims advanced by The Australian and extremist websites. The claims about lack of fuel reduction were debunked by the most authoritative figure of all — NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

He specifically rejected the idea, advanced by News Corp and the government, that a lack of hazard reduction burning was a key cause. Conspiracy theorists were also unable to come up with any actual evidence that Greens politicians at any level had stopped hazard reduction.

And even as News Corp defended its coverage, cracks were appearing there too.

A News Corp finance manager, Emily Townsend, went public with a damning email that nailed the “irresponsible, dangerous and damaging” coverage by the company. On Tuesday, a panicked News Corp announced a $5 million donation to bushfire relief (Australian journalists were the only people who retweeted its puff piece on the donation).

Five million dollars is a tiny fraction of the tax News Corp and its predecessor companies have dodged in Australia over the decades, but that was forgotten in the self-congratulation.

However, any positive reaction beyond “arsonist offers a fire extinguisher” was overwhelmed when James Murdoch slammed News Corp’s climate denialism, particularly its “ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary”.

The Australian would usually respond to high-profile criticism with a holy war against the critic — dozens of articles running to tens of thousands of words smearing them. But this time, the calls were coming from inside the house. The high-profile rejection of thermal coal by BlackRock’s Larry Fink only added to the sense that denialists were increasingly isolated.

With its standard blatant climate denialism looking less sustainable by the day, News Corp had limited options. Then they remembered the old lesson: if you’re losing an argument, change the argument.

Thus the NT News, purporting to offer some sort of departure from the in-house denialism, declared it was time to discuss climate change — but not, it insisted, by “armies of keyboard warriors”. Australia needed “real, affordable solutions”.

Of course Australia had a “real affordable solution” in place with the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme, which drove down emissions with a minimal impact on inflation, but News Corp led the charge against that.

An idea of the kind of debate News Corp wants was indicated in The Daily Telegraph editorial yesterday. It noted that “Australia contributes only a very small amount of human-generated carbon dioxide” but that decreasing emissions would “demonstrate Australia’s global goodwill”.

The editorial went on to laud Scott Morrison’s climate strategy while criticising Labor for failing to have a policy.

So we have an idea of what kind of climate debate the Murdochs — James apparently apart — would accept: around “affordable” solutions that reflect the government’s woefully inadequate emissions targets and its current strategy (whatever that actually is).

Expect to hear a lot more about “adaptation”, which Scott Morrison is already pushing as the key theme of his allegedly “evolved” climate policy (an evolution that, as John Hewson correctly pointed out, has suckered press gallery journalists and no one else).

Adaptation is, of course, critical given that we are already experiencing damage from global warming and have set a course for a further, perhaps dramatically greater, increase in temperatures. As plenty have noted, Morrison’s new emphasis on adaptation is at odds with his abolition of adaptation programs.

But emphasising adaptation only — rather than mitigation — is the fossil fuel industry’s preferred framing of climate policy.

The message is, we can’t do anything about climate change, so we’ll just have to adapt to it as best we can — and therefore we need maximum economic growth and development to pay for it.

The self-serving fatalism pedalled by “adaptation” enthusiasts is at odds with reality — we very much can radically decarbonise our economies without massive economic dislocation. The all-too-brief experience with carbon pricing in Australia demonstrates it.

And we have to — no amount of “adaptation” is going to work on a planet headed for a global increase of four degrees in temperature. But that, of course, is exactly where News Corp doesn’t want any discussion of climate science to go.

Peter Fray

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