california wild fires
Wild fires in California (Image: AP)

For Australians, the pictures out of California provoke an eerie sense of déjà vu — a reminder of a summer we’d rather forget. San Francisco choking under apocalyptic blood-red skies. Homes and livelihoods incinerated in minutes. Lines of shell-shocked evacuees. 

In the United States, the links between climate change and a devastatingly severe fire season are as obvious as they were obvious during our black summer. But just like in January, the west coast wildfires have been accompanied by a barrage of disinformation downplaying the connection with climate change. 

Greenies, not climate change

As California Governor Gavin Newsom begged the country to take action on a climate emergency, President Donald Trump found another cause. 

“Please remember the words. Very simple: forest management,” Trump said to a crowd of roaring followers.

These words are familiar. Throughout last summer, senior Coalition MPs tried to duck away from any suggestion that the fires might be linked to climate change. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack dismissed links between the fires and climate as the concerns of “inner-city raving lunatics”. Scott Morrison claimed that while climate change and emissions reduction were a concern, hazard reduction was arguably more important.

A narrative emerged on the right: Australia’s fires were linked not to climate change, but inadequate hazard reduction burning. Nationals backbencher Barnaby Joyce and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro both tried to shift the blame on to the Greens who, despite their lack of political power, were stopping backburning.

Except — hazard reduction burning had been increasing. And the Rural Fire Service said if anything was getting in the way of backburning it wasn’t “greenies” but a warmer climate shrinking the window of opportunity to do it right.

In the US, the right has found numerous ways to pin the blame on Democrats. California Republicans say Democrats failed to address fuel build-up in forests — a line right out of the Nats’ playbook. And the argument that the state’s over-reliance on solar power has caused fire-related blackouts has also got traction (thanks in part to legitimacy given by the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal).

Arsonists and antifa

There was one other big scapegoat for Australia’s climate deniers: arsonists.

A news story in The Australian claimed, misleadingly, that 183 arsonists had been arrested for starting fires. Peter Dutton later said more than 200 arsonists were to blame for the fires, not climate change.

The arson frame has been repeatedly debunked, most recently by a NSW inquiry which found not a single fire in the state last summer was caused by arson.

In the US, social media is now awash with false claims linking the fires to arson. The fires have been subsumed into the country’s never-ending culture war: antifa activists and far-right Proud Boys have both been blamed for starting the fires. Local authorities in California, Washington and Oregon have repeatedly denied any such link, but the misinformation continues to fester on social media.

Australia’s black summer saw a flood of viral conspiracy theories and a big boost for climate denialism, aided by politicians that refused to talk honestly about the roots of the crisis. In America, it’s happening all over again.