Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has doubled down on his refusal to strengthen his administration’s approach to climate policy as his country burns. While Morrison acknowledges that climate change is one factor driving the fires, he is unwilling to consider reversing his government’s poor record on climate action to help prevent similar disasters happening again.
In recent days, Morrison’s position has been bolstered by a group of fringe climate science deniers pushing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the relationship between the fires and climate change.
Alex Jones’ NewsWars
An article on the alt-right website NewsWars makes the false claim that “authorities in Australia are working on the premise that arsonists and lightning strikes are to blame for bushfires that have devastated numerous areas of the country, not ‘climate change’ as many global warming alarmists have claimed.” Independent factcheckers from Climate Feedback judged the article to be “misleading”, saying the claim's “flawed reasoning misunderstands that fires are exacerbated by hot and dry conditions and Australia is currently facing a severe drought amidst increasing temperatures.”
NewsWars is published by Alex Jones, who has been described as “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit which tracks hate groups.
Want to know more about the people and organisations spreading climate science denial? Check out DeSmog's Disinformation Database
Jones has interviewed numerous climate change deniers on his InfoWars radio show including Lord Christopher Monckton, Marc Morano, John Coleman, and James Delingpole. Jones has promoted the idea that the United Nations seek a “global government” and has described the UN as “the founders of the global tyranny” when criticizing the 2009 Copenhagen climate change negotiations.
Jones’ material has been variously banned or suspended from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for violating the sites’ respective guidelines around abusive behaviour and hate speech.
Myron Ebell and Patrick Michaels
Two stalwart climate science deniers and fossil fuel industry promoters published an article in the Washington Examiner arguing that, “it’s very convenient for alarmist greens to blame the fires of Australia and California on global warming. In reality, the policies they themselves advocate are the culprits.” In other words, they claim that only poor land management is to blame — not decades of rising emissions and global temperatures.
Myron Ebell is the Director of Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). In 1998, Ebell was a member of the “Global Climate Science Communications Team” (GCSCT) assembled by the American Petroleum Institute (API), which worked on a plan to convince the public that climate change was uncertain. In September of 2016, Myron Ebell was selected to lead Donald Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency transition team, though he later admitted he had never actually directly spoken to the President.
CEI has received over $1.5 million from the oil giant ExxonMobil. It has also received a combined total of over $6 million from the secretive DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, groups used by organisations including the industrialist billionaires the Koch family to funnel funds to conservative causes.
Patrick Michaels is a relatively recent recruit to the CEI, having previously been director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute. He has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the energy industry to spread misinformation on climate change.
In an interview about the fires, Australia’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott told radio in Israel that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions were “not the only, or even main factor” in driving climate change, the Guardian reports. In the same interview, he said the world was “in the grip of a climate cult”.
Abbott gave the annual lecture for the UK’s principal climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), in 2017. In the speech he said rising carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning could be “beneficial” and compared acceptance of human-caused climate change to religion. University of Melbourne climate scientist Dr Benjamin Henley said at the time that the lecture was “full of falsehoods, miscomprehension, and basic untruths.”
The GWPF has recently promoted at least seven articles trying to play down or counter the message that the fires were related to climate change.
Not to be outdone, Viscount Christopher Monckton, a man who once rode into the annual UN climate talks on a camel felt the need to “nail the childish myth that global warming caused the bushfires in Australia” in a long blog post.
A journalist by trade and former advisor to the Thatcher government, Monckton’s assertions on the causes of climate change have been widely discredited. He has also been reprimanded by the House of Lords for falsely claiming to be a sitting peer and warned not to use official imagery on his presentations.
Another fringe blogger arguing that climate change has less to do with the fires than credible scientists suggest is Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. On his blog, he argues that population rises and natural variability can explain the raging fires.
Spencer is an advisor to the Cornwall Alliance, formerly the Interfaith Steward Alliance (ISA), an evangelical Christian group that claims environmentalism is “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.”
Australia is home to one of the world’s most influential media moguls, Rupert Murdoch. Yet his outlets “continue to spread climate denial, attack other outlets providing lifesaving coverage, and ignore local fire threats,” according to a report from nonprofit watchdog Media Matters for America (MMFA).
MMFA points to multiple commentators on Sky News Australia who refer to those saying climate change is driving the fires as having “joined a cult” and “been brainwashed.” One commentator, Andrew Bolt, reportedly called the “big global warming scare” a “con” when discussing the fires. Bolt is one of many conservative-leaning commentators to attack youth activist Greta Thunberg, calling her “deeply disturbed”.
The Murdoch-owned The Australian has also published multiple opinion pieces attacking the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for its comprehensive coverage of the fires, the Guardian reports, including its reports linking them to climate change.
Multiple reports have also pointed to the role of social media bots helping to spread conspiracy theories to counter the claim that climate change is driving the fires.
Analysis by Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Timothy Graham found a “current disinformation campaign” on Twitter’s #arsonemergency hashtag due to the “suspiciously high number of bot-like and troll-like accounts”, the Guardian reported.
Analysis by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation found “some of the suspicious accounts were amplifying unproven suggestions arson had been the overwhelming cause of Australia's disastrous bushfire season.” These claims have been contradicted by official statements from Australian police.
In contrast to the misinformation, a large number of climate scientists have been busy talking to the mainstream media to explain the links between climate change and the bushfires.
Stefan Rahmstorf, a lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, told Time that Australia’s record high temperatures and droughts have both driven the fires, and that both have “well-established” links to climate change.
Likewise, Australian National University climate scientist Dr Imran Ahmed, University of Sydney ecologist Glenda Wardle, and Richard Thornton, the chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, all told the BBC that climate change was “exacerbating” conditions that drive the fires.
So contrary to what climate science deniers, unqualified commentators and bots would have people believe, there is a large body of research showing the bushfires are “undeniably” linked to climate change.
Main image credit: Sean P Anderson/Flickr CC BY 2.0. This article was corrected on 14/01/2020 to remove an erroneous statement about the Evangelical Climate Initiative.