Burning: Black Summer and the Politics of Climate Change

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Written by Geoff Watkinson

The Amazon Studios documentary film Burning explores the sociopolitical, historical, and scientific causes of the harrowing Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020, in what has become known as “Black Summer.” Directed by Academy and Emmy-award winner Eva Orner, the film opens with clips of climate change protests, smoke, fire, and a grim overview of the delicate state of the Australian bush. As the word “Burning” comes on screen, the audience is told that “the greatest tragedy of the Australian brushfire season is that we saw it coming.”

The Australian director combines interviews with climate change activists, fire survivors, scientists, and politicians to contextualize how 59 million acres burned. Greg Mullins, the former Fire and Rescue Commissioner of New South Wales, says, “I feel like we’ve just been sleepwalking into catastrophe.” Mullins is a recurrent face and voice throughout, as is Marian Wilkinson, an author and journalist, who introduces the political sparring: “There has been a concerted effort to undermine the science of climate change.” Australia, as the largest exporter of coal and gas, has reason to undercut climate science. In August 2018, when a conservative government took power under the leadership of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (the antagonist and villain of the story), their first order of business was pushing aside the climate commission.

Mallacoota resident Jann Gilbert, a fire victim who lost her house, says, “I did not predict how brutal the fires were going to be as the summer went on. It rocked Australia to the core.” Images of the 200-foot flames blaze across the screen, along with newspaper headlines, photos of destruction, and satellite images of the smoke spreading across the continent. Foreboding music amplifies anxiety. “The biggest red flag went up when the rainforest was burning,” says Gilbert. “Those forests have never burned.”

There are moments when the film overdramatizes. The accounts themselves are powerful, as are the images and facts. But it is, unfortunately, a narrative about the horrors of climate change and the political forces at bay that has been told before. Orner’s major struggle is battling against a jaded and desensitized viewer.

The film shifts to firefighters and news reports. Thousands of tourists become trapped on a beach as the fire encircles them. Brian Ayliffe, who has been fighting fires for 60 years, says, “They attacked it with bombers, large air tankers. It didn’t matter what they did; [the fire] worked its way down the coast.” All of this unfolds as the Prime Minister vacations with his family in Hawaii. Orner emphasizes this by displaying Morrison’s family vacation photos. This, the viewer is reminded, is a political story. There is a face to blame.

The viewer is reminded, as ecologist Mark Graham says, that “we’re bearing direct witness to so many processes of change playing out around us. We’re essentially right in the middle of this stretch of some of the oldest forest on the planet, unchanged for tens of millions of years. Through continents splitting apart, asteroids hitting the earth, those trees have been like an ark through time and space…The fires of Black Summer burned into these ancient refuges.”

The residual trauma from the fires is apparent. The wind is a reminder to many victims: “You could hear it,” says one survivor. “It was like a dragon.” The soot came ahead of the fire in Mallacoota, which turned a morning sky black. Camera phone footage at 9:13 a.m. shows total darkness before the sky transforms into an intense red. “It was like being on a plane that was going down,” says another survivor. “The roar and the noise of it was horrendous. I just called it a vicious monster.” The psychological damage becomes clearer as Michael Harrington, from Cobargo, discusses flashbacks. Birds drop dead from the sky. Insidious smoke invades Sydney for months. New Year’s is celebrated while the Cobargo burns. Roads are littered with dead kangaroos. It looked “like a nuclear bomb has gone off.” Pregnant women had “grey, crumbly, disgusting placenta” from constant smoke inhalation. One woman says, “This origin of life is this canary in the coal mine.”

The film pans out again, emphasizing the scale of the fires, which formed their own weather systems as smoke columns went 10 to 12 kilometers into the atmosphere. The fires created their own thunderstorms, sending fire-starting embers up to 30 kilometers away. The audience is told that 21 percent of the Australian bush burned: “we’ve entered a new era.” The fires burned more than 10 times more than they had ever burned before. Driving through New South Wales for hundreds of miles, all you see is blackened earth—“like walking out into the apocalypse.” Prime Minister Morrison goes to Cobargo and starts taking selfies, smiling, until a local yells, “You’re not welcome you fuckwit!”

Just when the trauma, pain, and destruction begin to anesthetize the viewer, Orner changes the chorus by offering a glimmer of hope. Australians take to the street and demand change—the sentiment embodied in the young activist Daisy Jeffrey. As COVID hit, Australia declared a pandemic 12 days before world health organization. The right-leaning government seemed to become socialist overnight. There was hope that actions might be taken on climate change. Instead, Morrison spoke about a gas-led recovery.

Daisy Jeffrey’s story is a story of national change: her grandfather was a coalminer in a family of coalminers. The myth of a reliance on fossil fuels is challenged by her, and by tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, who describes climate change as “the existential crisis of the human race.” Cannon-Brookes is attempting to build the world’s largest solar farm in Australia and then export that renewable energy through a network of cables from Australia to Asia.

At the end, Greg Mullins comes back into view: “We’re having fires in Greenland, the Arctic Circle—places where we never had them before,” he says. “Climate change scares the shit out of me…We need to learn together again how to really manage this land at that very large scale. This is the critical moment for humanity.” The film ends familiarly: a black screen before the credits is the backdrop for the following in white lettering: “Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to be interviewed for this film.”

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