opinion

An 'Arson Emergency' spread overnight. It just had nothing to do with the bushfires.

In 2020, two things cannot be true at the same time.

Every event, the internet would have us believe, has just one cause and one effect. Our opinions about that event must be simplified into a concise sentence, so as not to waste anyone’s time.

But natural disasters, along with politics and statistics, tend to be a little more complicated than that.

To start with, we know that climate change, the result of excessive greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere, has been a major contributor to the 2019/2020 bushfire season, which has seen the death of 25 people, half a billion animals, and the loss of thousands of homes.

Good Morning Britain blasts response of the Australian government to catastrophic bushfires. Post continues below. 

Video by Good Morning Britain

If it were not for 2019 being the hottest and driest year on record in Australia, with more than 98 per cent of NSW in drought, the bushfire season would not be so catastrophic.

In December, Australia hit its highest ever recorded temperature two days in a row, with the nation’s average maximum temperature reaching 40.7C one day and then 41.9C the next. The previous record was 40.3C.

These temperatures were in line with the upward trajectory of Australian weather patterns, which have been, objectively, climbing dramatically since 1910.

This year, widespread drought, higher than average temperatures, exceptionally dry bush and soil intersected with strong westerly winds driven by a negative South Annular (which, according to various scientists, is made worse by “human-induced climate change“) produced the perfect environment for bushfires.

But these things don’t necessarily start a fire. They just make the fire near impossible to put out.

As the climate debate has reared its head during the bushfire disaster, some have searched far and wide for a counter-narrative. After all, it would be convenient to point the finger at a few bad apples, rather than accept that the climate crisis is on all of us, and we need nothing less than a revolution to address it.

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That’s when #ArsonEmergency took hold.

Over the weekend, the NSW Police Force published figures indicating that since late last year, they had taken legal action against 180 people regarding bushfire-related offences. Of those, 24 have been charged with deliberately lighting bushfires.

The NSW Police Force has taken legal action against more than 180 people for bushfire-related offences since late last…

Posted by NSW Police Force on Sunday, 5 January 2020

For some, the line of thinking went: See. We knew it wasn’t the climate. It was just a few mad people starting fires. Chuck them in jail, crisis averted. 

Donald Trump Jr, the son of a President who has described climate change as a “hoax”, even shared an article titled “Arson toll hits 183”.

“Truly Disgusting that people would do this!” Trump Jr wrote. “God Bless Australia. More than 180 alleged arsonists have been arrested since the start of the bushfire season, with 29 blazes deliberately lit in the Shoalhaven region of southeast NSW in just three months.”

Included in that statistic, for clarity’s sake, are people who failed to comply with a total fire ban and discarded a lit cigarette or match on land.

What we know is that none of these acts, deliberate or accidental, started the mega-fire in NSW which has been burning since October. Instead, it was a bolt of lightning, which The Sydney Morning Herald has called “the biggest forest fire to have started from a single ignition point that Australia has ever known.”

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None of these acts caused the Kangaroo Island bushfires, which were also the result of a series of lightning strikes.

None of these acts, according to Victoria Police and Premier Daniel Andrews, caused any of the fires in Victoria.

That doesn’t mean arsonists don’t exist. Of course, they do. They are, however, relatively rare and are not responsible for the blazes currently making front-page news all over the world.

Queensland University of Technology researcher Dr Timothy Graham told the ABC that disinformation around arson in Australia is particularly complex because it has a “grain of truth”.

Fires are intentionally lit, but those statistics require context.

Listen to Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens discuss the Australian bushfire disaster on a bonus episode of Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

Dr Graham went on to analyse #ArsonEmergency, the number one trending subject on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

He found that around a third of accounts tweeting with the hashtag displayed “highly automated and inauthentic behaviour”, according to the ABCSimply, it appears they are not real people.

An article titled ‘Australia Police Say Arsonists and Lightning To Blame for Bushfires, Not Climate Change’, has been shared 100,000 times, reaching up to three million social media accounts. The headline is fundamentally untrue.

Some articles have gone even further and suggested that “ecoterrorists” were responsible for starting the fires, in some twisted effort to prove their point. There are no facts whatsoever to support such a theory.

We are currently sitting at a crossroads in human history, where misleading facts have the potential to direct our next steps.

When it comes to Australia’s bushfire disaster, arson does not stand as an alternative explanation to climate change.

They are simply two things that are true at the same time.

Feature image: Getty.

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