#ArsonEmergency? Climate change and Australia’s wildfires

The demonization of environmental activists is nothing new, but the trend toward criminalization is an even more troubling one considering the crisis at hand.

A firefighters backs away from the flames after lighting a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in an effort to contain a larger fire nearby. Around 2,300 firefighters in New South Wales state were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

As wildfires devastate much of the east of Australia and the country’s government makes misstep after misstep in confronting the crisis, a series of false stories about the causes of the devastation began to spread in the rightwing press and on social media. Two, in particular, have shaped the rightwing narrative about the devastation, taking the focus away from the larger issue of climate change, which scientists tell us has played a large role in unprecedented fires not only ‘Down Under’ but in California, Montana and even the Arctic over the last year.

The first argument didn’t get as much traction in the mainstream press here in North America but may be more insidious as it becomes established as a talking point over time. This assertion, mainly being made by the Australia’s tabloid press and conservative government (who, oddly, are called the ‘Liberal Party’), boiled down to spreading the idea that it was ‘environmental extremists’, led by the country’s popular Green Party, who had not allowed for forest management activities like hazard reduction burns, despite the fact that the party has long supported such measures to reduce some of the risk. Similar arguments have been used in the United States and elsewhere to take the focus away from the fossil fuel and other extractive industries that are among the primary drivers of the climate crisis.

As reported by the magazine Jacobin, “[Government] ministers — backed up by the Murdoch media empire and an army of trolls and bots — have done their best to spin the crisis as either “normal for Australia” or a result of (nonexistent) ecological red tape implemented by the Greens.”

The second talking point has proven much more popular in the short term as it, at least on the surface, seems somewhat reasonable until one really looks into the claim at the heart of it. The argument made and shared by the current U.S. president’s oldest son and far right talking heads like Fox News’ Sean Hannity, imagines that the fires are entirely caused by arson, claiming that up to 200 people have been arrested and using the hashtag #ArsonEmergency to spread this false narrative that seems to have originated in a national newspaper, The Australian, which has since corrected it.

While arson has always, unfortunately, played a role in wildfires in the country, the number of intentionally set fires has decreased this year, with 24 arrested so far, not the 200 that Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about. Most of the other charges, that led the Australian to claim up to 180 arrests, are for negligent behavior, like ignoring fire bans or throwing a lit cigarette to the ground.

In fairness to Trump Jr., it’s doubtful that he’s guilty of deliberately spreading disinformation as this requires intent. It’s more likely misinformation in his particular case, as he has always seemed to this writer to share a deep lack of curiosity about the world with his father.

Unfortunately, even a senior minister in the faraway UK government spread this lie as recently as last week, with the Conservative Commonwealth Office minister Heather Wheeler claiming in her country’s parliament that, “Very regrettably, it is widely reported on social media that 75% of the fires were started by arsonists.”

As Will Steffen, director of the Climate Change Institute at Australia’s National University told the Guardian newspaper about the danger represented by those who knowingly spread disinformation that is then disseminated even more widely by those too lazy to fact check it, “People who are for whatever reason trying to put out false or extremely misleading information are actually doing a huge disservice to the risk to human life in the future, the risk to property, the risk to the natural world, and indeed the risk to economy.”

A bigger cause of the brush fires, now as in the past, is lightning, which takes human beings out of the equation altogether. In a horrifying development, the out of control fires have created their own apocalyptic weather systems, including what scientists call pyrocumulonimbus clouds that act like storms with lightning and high winds but almost no water, allowing them to spread the fires into areas that are usually unaffected or even act as bulwarks against them, like rain forests.

In the past, rain forests also provided relief for animals escaping the fires. In these fires that hasn’t been the case, with these forests succumbing to the heat and fire and an estimated 500,000 to 1 billion animals dying as a partial result, including iconic species like koala bears, whose already beleaguered population may be reduced by 30% as a result and even more by the loss of habitat they will leave in their wake.

Showing a kind of feedback loop we might attribute in large part to climate change, the fires have also released hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the air as smoke, equal to about half the country’s annual emissions at present. https://time.com/5754990/australia-carbon-emissions-fires/

The continuing attempts by the Australian right to deny the impact that climate change seems even less genuine when we discover that, as reported by Slate.com, “In 2008, a major independent study into the impacts of climate change warned that Australian fire seasons would “start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense” in a way that should be “directly observable by 2020”.

Arresting activists instead of polluters

Just as in North America, in Australia, which, besides the fires, is having its hottest year on record, the federal government bends over backwards to protect extractive industries through subsidies and climate change denial, while state governments have been busy passing legislation to criminalize protest and civil disobedience altogether, with their main focus seeming to be environmental activism.

In the northeastern state of Queensland, work is beginning on the controversial Adani coal mine, which is set to be one of the largest such projects in the world. Activists opposed to it, including Extinction Rebellion Australia and other environmental groups, have been targeted by legislation that proposes giving them up to two years in prison if they use “lock on” devices to stop or slow down work on large scale projects, a tactic in use for at least a century through a variety of peaceful struggles not only in Australia, but throughout the world.

Without any evidence to back up her assertion, Annastacia Palszczuk, Queensland’s state premier, claimed that such devices were being “booby-trapped” by activists to intentionally injure the police who try to remove them.

The demonization of environmental activists (and to an often even greater degree, advocates for the rights of animals) is nothing new, but the trend toward criminalization is an even more troubling one considering the crisis at hand. Less disturbing on the surface, it may turn out to be one of the great tragedies of our era that so much time is being spent debunking and debating usually well-funded, wholly self-interested ‘skeptics’ than collectively rolling up our sleeves and taking action to try to limit the damage and begin to reverse a process born out of human greed in the first place.


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