Australia’s image takes hit after bushfires over lack of climate action

Australia’s image takes hit after bushfires over lack of climate action


Australia's reputation took a significant hit with its main trading partners after the Black Summer fires owing in part to perceptions of climate policy, an Austrade survey reveals.

"The belief that the fires were still burning (at the time of the survey in February) and perceived ineffective disaster management practices and inaction on climate change were also contributing to negative perceptions of Australia," Austrade's Global Sentiment Monitor report found.

Australia’s trade and investment promotion agency found the biggest reputational impacts in south-east Asia, including 31 per cent of people in China forming a worse perception of Australia.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.

Austrade, Australia’s trade and investment promotion agency, said the biggest reputational impacts came in south-east Asia, with 31 per cent of people surveyed in China forming a worse perception of Australia due to the fires; the survey results were 27 per cent for South Korea, 20 per cent for Japan and 15 per cent for Indonesia.

In the US the bushfires spurred a worse perception among 13 per cent of people, and 18 per cent in Britain.

Australia dominated global conversations during the fires, Austrade said, with 60 per cent of people around the world talking about the country at the time as dramatic images of the fires and decimated wildlife dominated news and social media.

The survey, published last month, was commissioned by the Morrison government in February and conducted as fires still burnt along the eastern seaboard. It cost $292,000 and quizzed about 10,000 people in seven countries.

On average one-third of respondents told Austrade that their perceptions of Australia improved after the bushfires, about half said their perceptions remained about the same and 20 per cent said their perceptions of Australia dropped.

It said 53 per cent of respondents would buy Australian produce, down from 62 per cent in July 2019; 60 per cent would trade with Australia, down from 65 per cent; and 49 per cent would still travel to Australia, down from 57 per cent.

Coronavirus restrictions are challenging preparations for next summer’s bushfire season.Credit:Nick Moir

University of Melbourne Asia Institute research fellow Melissa Conley Tyler said Australia's international reputation was a financial asset and "negative perceptions have a real-world effect".

"You may ask what does it matter, who cares if the world doesn’t like something we are doing?" Ms Conley Tyler said.

"We have to remember that all those foreigners are constantly making decisions about where they travel, what they buy and where their kids study."

The Black Summer bushfires torched 10 million hectares, claimed 33 lives and destroyed more than 3000 homes.Credit:Nick Moir

The election of Joe Biden to the US presidency puts further pressure on Australia to follow suit with more ambitious policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate. Australia's five largest export markets, covering 70 per cent of trade, will have net zero targets for 2050 or 2060 − including the US, China, Japan, South Korea and the UK.

"Our reputation in protecting our wildlife is damaging our international reputation and reducing our economic opportunities," said Wilderness Society policy manager Tim Beshara. "The response has to be proper environmental reform, genuine climate action and vastly increased firefighting resources, not a social media campaign."

A group of five scientists from Australian National University and Griffith University recently published a report warning that the 1 degree of warming globally had caused a "substantial increase" to the risks recorded in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

The Forest Fire Danger Index risk ratings are now off the charts owing to long-term rainfall reduction over south-eastern Australia.

Australia had record-high FFDI values in spring last year ahead of Black Summer and on September 6 almost 60 per cent of the country experienced the highest fire danger rating on record for that location.

"When the FFDI was introduced in the 1960s, the values ranged from 1-100. In 2009, the system was revised nationally to include index values above 100 and a new ‘catastrophic’ level was adopted," the study said.

The study said climate change is estimated to have made the extreme weather conditions in Queensland’s fires 4.5 times as likely to occur.

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