Here’s How To Argue Against All The Bullshit Bushfire Conspiracies Doing The Rounds
Send this to your terrible uncle in the family WhatsApp.
It’s as tiring as it is predictable: As bushfires continue to rage across three states, conspiracy theorists pop out of the woodwork to do everything they can to divert attention away from the actual causes of the crisis.
So far, at least 25 people have lost their lives, thousands of homes have been destroyed, 10 million hectares have burned, millions of trees have been lost, and at least half a billion animals have died.
Yet, from the top levels of Australian politics to your racist uncle on Facebook, a bunch of weird, half-informed (or completely misinformed) memes are doing the rounds in an attempt to move the discussion in completely the wrong direction — namely, away from talking about climate change.
And it’s very deliberate. Just the fact that we (and heaps of other media outlets) have to spend time writing this article is an example of conspiracy theorists successfully diverting resources away from talking about solutions, and towards debunking nonsense ideas.
Still, here we are.
So here’s a list of some of the most common mistruths doing the rounds, and how you can gently explain to your Weird Uncle Roger that he’s just plain wrong.
Hasn’t Australia Always Had Bushfires?
This is probably the most common one you’ll hear when someone tries to argue that climate change isn’t to blame for these catastrophic fires. “Australia has always had bushfires, it always will, and therefore there’s nothing we can do.”
And yes, Australia is a big, hot, dry, country, and we regularly have bad bushfire seasons. But what’s different this time is the sheer scale of the fires. Bushfires have never burned this hot, this widely, for such a prolonged period of time. Smoke has never filled Australian (and New Zealand) cities for weeks on end. We’ve never had to buy gas masks just to go about our everyday business. There’s nothing normal or routine about this bushfire season.
This is the worst bushfire season we’ve ever faced, and we’re not even halfway through summer yet.
So far this season 1,687 homes have destroyed & more than 21,000 buildings saved. Since 1 Jan, 771 homes lost. This figure is likely to increase. It will take time for teams to work through these areas due to limited access on isolated roads and villages. #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/ieLh9UxtFT
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 7, 2020
It’s difficult to imagine a time in the future when Australia won’t battle bushfires in some form every year, but there’s HEAPS we can do to lessen the severity of them. Speaking of which…
Is Climate Change To Blame For The Bushfire Crisis?
No one is suggesting that having too much carbon in the atmosphere caused Australia to spontaneously combust. But plenty of people (like, y’know, scientists) are saying climate change is a significant contributing factor to the severity of these fires.
In fact, this report from 2008 made an incredibly accurate prediction about the severity of the 2020 bushfire season.
Scott Morrison didn’t even tweet the word ‘climate’ for ten years. pic.twitter.com/znuWOtByIh
— Matt Burke (@matttburke) January 7, 2020
The Garnaut Climate Change Report was first handed down in 2008, and here’s what it had to say about the link between climate change and bushfires, specifically mentioning the year 2020 as the point at which the link would become painfully obvious:
“….fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020,” the report stated.
You’ll hear it a lot in this article, but to be clear: Climate change isn’t the spark that lights the fires, but it does exacerbate the conditions that turn that spark into a raging inferno. Because of climate change, Australia is hotter and drier than ever. And that means the 2020 bushfire season is only the beginning.
Can Australia Really Make A Difference To Climate Change?
This is a favourite right-wing talking point: Australia is such a small country, and our contribution to global warming is so tiny, that we couldn’t possibly make a difference.
And sure no individual country could reverse the progress of climate change on their own, that’s why all of the experts say we need unified, global action — and the last time we checked, Australia is part of that globe.
Also, Australia is the world’s second highest emitter per capita, just behind the United States. So yeah, we actually can make a difference.
Will Australia “Meet And Beat” Its Climate Targets?
This is one of Scott Morrison’s favourites. Whenever the prime minister is asked if Australia needs to do more to address climate change, he responds that we are on track to “meet and beat” our Paris Climate Accord targets.
Apart from the fact that this is just straight-up not true, it’s also misleading in a few ways.
First, the government wants to use “carryover credits” in order to meet our targets. That means taking the excess carbon credits from our old climate change targets, and counting them towards our future targets. It’s basically an accounting trick to make it seem like we’re doing a better job than we actually are. Australia is the only country in the world attempting to do this.
And that’s not to mention that fact that Australia has a long history of lobbying for lower emissions targets during global negotiations, dating all the way back to the Howard government. Just last year, the Morrison government was accused of sabotaging a global climate change deal.
To get a sense of what the rest of the world thinks about our action on climate change, just remember what the leaders of Pacific Islands nations had to say about us last year.
Does The Morrison Government Believe In Climate Change?
Scott Morrison tried to claim this recently and it’s laughable. Apart from the aforementioned accounting tricks, the Liberal party literally tore down Malcolm Turnbull’s entire prime ministership because he tried to take half-hearted action on climate change.
And even if we forget about policy for a second, let’s take a look at some of the goons who fill the government benches.
Just this week, the Coalition’s most high profile climate change denier, Craig Kelly, made an absolute dick of himself on British TV while trying to deny a link between bushfires and climate change.
Then there’s the government Senator who thinks the Bureau of Meteorology is cooking the books, the backbencher who attacked bushfire victims, the minister who says the science is “uncertain”, and the Deputy Prime Minister who thinks anyone who links bushfires and climate change is an “inner-city raving lunatic”.
There is definitely a small section of the government that genuinely believes in climate change and wants to take serious action on it — but that section is massively outnumbered by science-deniers and conspiracy theorists.
Are The Greens To Blame For Bushfires?
This is another extremely popular meme, especially in right-wing Facebook circles. The premise is that the Greens are such tree-huggers that they refuse to allow hazard reductions burns in bushland. It’s nonsense.
First, the Greens support hazard reduction burns, as it says on their website.
Second, can you name one state or territory where the Greens are in power? No, because there isn’t one. Certainly, the Greens have the balance of power in some jurisdictions, but to suggest that they’re using this power to prevent hazard reduction burns is ridiculous.
This is a complex issue, but the short version is that there are two types of controlled burns: Backburning is a firefighting tool used to create firebreaks to stop a fire from spreading. Hazard reduction is a fire prevention tool designed to decrease fuel, to make fires less likely to start and spread during bushfire season.
There are a bunch of reasons that we don’t do as much hazard reduction burning as we should. One is government funding cuts, another is… you guessed it: climate change! For example, fire services can only conduct hazard reduction burns on days where the weather conditions will allow them to do so safely. But the number of days each year where it is safe to conduct hazard reductions burns are getting fewer and fewer, because the weather is getting hotter and more wild.
As we say, it’s a very complicated issue. Here’s a handy explainer from the ABC if you want to know more.
Sometimes a photo can say a thousand words. This one snapped yesterday by one of our Air Attack Supervisors from above.
Thank you for all the kind messages of support.#NSWRFS #NSWfires pic.twitter.com/hVgMfw4j50
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 7, 2020
Are Arsonists To Blame For Bushfires?
Sure, some of the fires we’ve seen this season (and every fire season), are started by arsonists. On Tuesday, it was revealed that 183 people have been charged with with fire-related offences this bushfire season — but most of those were for throwing cigarettes out car windows or breaking laws related to fire bans. Twenty-four people were charged with deliberately starting fires, which is still obviously a higher number than you’d like it to be.
But there are other bushfire causes that are much harder to prevent, such as lightning strikes or power line failures, like the one that caused 40 deaths on Black Saturday in 2009.
There appears to be a deliberate disinformation campaign rolling out on social media right now, blaming the bushfire crisis on arsonists rather than climate change.
And again, as we’ve been saying throughout this article, it’s not just about the spark that lights the flame, whether its arsonists or natural causes — it’s about what happens after that spark. Australia is getting hotter and drier, and that’s a perfect environment for bushfires to become more frequent, more powerful and more damaging.
And The Rest
There are a bunch of other memes, photos and hoaxes relating to the bushfire crisis that are just too silly for us to debunk individually. Fortunately, the good people over at BuzzFeed have done a pretty good job of that for us.
Rob Stott is the Managing Editor of Junkee Media. Yell at him about climate change @Rob_Stott.