The scale and intensity of the Australian bushfires crisis is hard to wrap your head around. Since October, the bushfires have claimed at least 28 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes, and razed an area of land nearly the size of South Korea. Experts say more than a billion animals may have been wiped out. But as firefighters battle blazes on the ground, an unprecedented right-wing disinformation campaign rages online in which overzealous environmentalists, arsonists, and exploding manure piles, not human-induced climate change, are blamed for the ongoing crisis.
Even before the fires became international news, conservative politicians in Australia were blaming environmentalists for wildfires in general. In November, Barnaby Joyce, a prominent member of the National Party, said the Green Party had contributed to worse-than-usual bushfires by blocking fire reduction methods like land clearing. Since then, MPs from Australia's conservative coalition government and right-wing pundits have frequently invoked the Greens to deflect any attention from the government's policy failures on climate change.
But the Greens are a minority party with little power in government, and the idea that they have prevented blocked fire reduction measures has been resoundingly rejected by experts and fire chiefs.
So too has the so-called "arson emergency," which was featured in articles published in right-wing publications like the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian that falsely stated 183 arsonists had been arrested since the start of the bushfire season. The figure went viral after being picked up by conservative news outlets and shared on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr., Sean Hannity, and other popular far-right figures. In actuality, only 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting bushfires.
"It's lies and it's bullshit. The obfuscation, the deliberate and willful misleading of the Australian public, the climate denialism, all of these features of the current government are putting Australian lives, the economy, and Australia's future at risk," said Bianca Nogrady, a freelance science writer who's been reporting on climate change and bushfires for more than a decade.
In late December, Nogrady and her family had to flee their home in Blackheath, New South Wales, as two bushfires bore down on the Blue Mountain town from either side. They returned days later to see their home had miraculously been left untouched; there were marks where the fire had cut across the backyard. That day most of Blackheath was spared the devastation that has befallen so many towns along Australia's east coast this summer.
"Greens don't have a single thing to do with hazard-reduction measures and policies. It would be funny if it wasn't so intensely morally bankrupt of [conservatives] to point the finger at the Greens," Nogrady said. "The blame for this situation falls squarely, not just at the feet of this government, but every previous conservative coalition government that has willfully denied the science of climate change."
Climate denial conspiracy theories aren't unique to the current bushfire crisis. Misinformation about all-powerful Green lobbyists and bureaucratic green tape surfaces every bushfire season, pushed by fringe groups and conservative Australian media outlets. Right-wing pundits in Australia have been blaming Greens for fires while simultaneously shrugging off concerns about fires for years. And this sort of rhetoric is common worldwide. In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed the "gross mismanagement" of state forests for wildfires in California that ended up killing 85 people and last year Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro bizarrely accused environmental organizations of starting the mega-fires in the Amazon rainforest.
"What is new this time around is the scale and the spread… suggesting there was a hungry audience looking for superficially believable claims that can be used to reassure themselves that their worldviews are not countered," said Ketan Joshi, a communications consultant currently writing a book on climate change denialism in Australia.
Research conducted by the Queensland University of Technology showed that Twitter accounts with the characteristics of bots or trolls were spreading disinformation about the responsibility of arsonists and Greens. While bots can't solely be blamed for this disinformation campaign, it's clear that social media has allowed unvetted and false claims to spread far and wide.
"What appears to have happened is that Australia's bushfire crisis—like other crises, including the burning of the Amazon rainforest in 2019—has been sucked into multiple overlapping fringe right-wing and conspiracy narratives which are generating and amplifying disinformation in support of their own political and ideological positions," wrote Elise Thomas, a researcher at Australia's Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre.
"The information ecosystem in which natural disasters play out, and which influences the attitudes and decisions the public makes about how to respond, is fundamentally different from what it was 50, 20 or even five years ago," Thomas continued. "Disinformation is now, sadly, a normal, predictable element of environmental catastrophes, particularly those large enough to capture international attention."
Just how much Australia's right-wing government stands to gain from the disinformation campaign remains to be seen. Recent Guardian polls have shown Prime Minister Scott Morrison's popularity has plummeted as a result of his handling of the bushfire crisis, with respondents thinking he's arrogant and out of touch. In the last week, Morrison has changed his rhetoric on how the government intends to address the climate crisis, but is unlikely to offer anything substantive in the way of revising emissions targets to the levels recommended by the United Nations and other experts to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius.
"[This crisis] has impacted everybody in some way, with many having suffered loss and trauma that most of us won't begin to understand," said Joshi. "Though Australia's conservative media and political elements have gotten good at dodging responsibility, I think Australian people know that what is causing real-world pain, and they want it to stop."
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