U.S. President Donald Trump said this week he didn’t think “science knows” whether climate change was a factor in causing some of the worst wildfires in U.S. history. Fox News host Tucker Carlson earlier went on a tirade insisting that there’s “no evidence” the hottest ever Northern Hemisphere summer was to blame. Before the weekend, police attempted to shut down rumors that fires were set by Antifa (and the Proud Boys), as VICE News reported.
These events could be early signs of a right-wing denial strategy taking shape—the same tactics used in Australia earlier this year, say people who tracked the responses from conservative politicians and media to January’s horrific bushfires.
“As the crisis worsens, they will look for a scapegoat. The fires will be called arson (regardless of their cause) and blamed on either environmentalists or the latest progressive boogey man. In your case, I’m guessing Antifa or BLM,” tweeted Nikola Casule, the head of research and investigations for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
With the U.S. West Coast engulfed in flames, “this style of misinformation combined with America’s gun problem could have horrific consequences,” Ketan Joshi, an Australian clean energy analyst and author now based in Norway, recently warned on Earther.
The Australian bushfires burned an area larger than South Korea, killed over 30 people, and resulted in the deaths of millions of animals. As those fires grew in size and intensity, so did the effort by conservative politicians and media figures to convince people not to see the central role played by climate change.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at one point said that rising global temperatures were only one of “many other factors,” while a network of TV stations and newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp pushed a false narrative blaming environmentalists and arsonists, causing mentions of the hashtag #Arsonemergency to surge 700 percent and reach a mainstream audience. That narrative was in turn given an international platform by Donald Trump Jr. and Sean Hannity.
“The fossil fuel industry is probably pretty happy to see a lot of these things happen,” Joshi told VICE News.
Months after the devastating bushfires, public opinion in Australia hasn’t shifted hugely in favor of taking aggressive action on climate change. And though the coronavirus pandemic is likely a big factor in that, the bushfires didn’t lead to much political change. This week, Australia’s national government, which has close ties to fossil fuel companies, announced $52.9 million to boost the supply of climate-warming natural gas.
Major oil and gas companies in the U.S. don’t see the West Coast wildfires as a reason to stop drilling either. “We know we’re at a tipping point, and we need to continue to aggressively develop additional sources of clean, reliable energy if we’re going to take care of everybody’s needs,” Kevin Slagle, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents Exxon, Shell and Chevron, among other companies, wrote in an email. “But when you look at the facts, the last thing we can afford to do is shut down oil and gas production.”
Indeed, oil and gas companies are rushing to secure drilling permits in case Trump loses the upcoming election.
Appreciating this context—that having a president who denies climate change is beneficial for the fossil fuel business model—is key for pushing back on claims that the current wildfires have nothing to do with global heating, Casule told VICE News.
Avoiding mistakes that were made in Australia is also important. When #Arsonemergency took off there earlier this year, some climate advocates used the hashtag to argue against climate deniers.
“But all they ended up doing was increasing the virality of the hashtag,” Casule said. “It’s just getting the opponent’s message to more audiences.”
It’s important as well to recognize the limits of fact-checking, Joshi said. Demonstrating why the false claims made by people in positions of power—like Trump suggesting that California’s climate will “start getting cooler”—are factually incorrect isn’t very useful without a wider analysis of why these claims are being made in the first place, he said.
“The story is not about whether a lie is a lie; the story is about who’s saying the lie and what purpose it serves, how it’s spreading, and the impact it’s going to have,” he said.
Mainstream media outlets must take responsibility for their own role in enabling misinformation, said Allison Fisher, director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog group. “The media in general needs to normalize that what we’re seeing, and what too many people are experiencing, is climate change,” she said.
The Los Angeles Times certainly did that this week with its front page headline “California’s Climate Apocalypse.” But as the wildfires worsened in September, only 13 percent of cable news coverage mentioned the role of global temperature rise, according to a Media Matters analysis. More recently, some major cable shows have begun making the connection.
“If they are not even doing that, then we don’t have the possibility of discussion about climate action and solutions, about mitigation, about who’s responsible for the crisis,” Fisher said.
Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.