Yes, arsonists started some of Australia's fires. No, it doesn't mean climate change is fake
Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

With vast swaths of Australia up in flames, debates are raging over what has caused the unprecedentedly intense fire season. And along with those debates, a slew of disinformation is swirling around the internet, clouding people's understanding of what's happening in the land down under.

Recent headlines about people being arrested on arson charges have only added confusion to the chaos. So let's clear a few things up.


The New South Wales police department has stated that 183 people, including 40 juveniles, have been arrested on fire-related charges during the 2019/2020 bush fire season. The police department noted:

  • 24 people have been charged over alleged deliberately-lit bushfires
  • 53 people have had legal actions for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban, and
  • 47 people have had legal actions for allegedly discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land.
New South Wales has been hit hard by the fires, as has the state of Victoria. However, a Victoria spokeswoman told The Guardian, "There is currently no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and the North East have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behavior."
However, media outlets ran with '183 people arrested for arson!' (or the more exaggerated '200 arsonists arrested!)' headlines, which bots and trolls and people who don't actually read articles started sharing as fact. Climate change deniers began pointing to such headlines as proof that claims of climate change contributing to the out-of-control fire season are bunk. Conspiracy theorists started claiming that environmentalists and eco-terrorists are the ones starting the fires as a way to push the big, bag climate change agenda.

Oof, people. Let's look at what we know.

RELATED: Climate change is not a partisan issue. So, let's stop treating it like one.

Yes, some fires in Australia were started by arsonists. That's actually not unusual. More fires appear to have been started by people being negligent—also not unusual. Fires in remote areas are most likely to be caused by lightning. In fact, there are nine causes of fire ignition recognized by fire investigators—and no, climate change is not one of them. But that doesn't mean climate change isn't a contributing factor.

What some people seem to be missing is that no one is claiming that climate change itself is igniting fires. That doesn't even make logical sense. Where climate change plays a role is in setting the stage for fires to start and spread easily. Intensely dry, hot conditions—which are exacerbated by global warming—create a virtual tinderbox out of the landscape.

Stefan Rahmstorf, climatologist and lead author of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, says the bushfires have been exacerbated by two factors that have "well-established" links to climate change: drought and record heat. Last summer was the hottest on record in Australia, and the country has also seen record-low rainfall this season.

"Due to enhanced evaporation in warmer temperatures, the vegetation and the soils dry out more quickly," Rahmstorf told Time. "So even if the rainfall didn't change, just the warming in itself would already cause a drying of vegetation and therefore increased fire risk."

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People pointing to the arson headlines seem desperate to downplay the role climate change is playing in the bushfires, but scientists aren't having it.

"There are now disingenuous efforts to downplay the clear role of climate change in worsening the intensity and severity of the Australian fires, or to blame 'arson' as a way to distract from the growing threat of climate change," Peter Gleick, climate scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in California, told Time. "These efforts should be called out for what they are: gross climate denial."

So yeah. Fires start for many reasons, including arson and negligence. That's not debatable. But fires spread faster in certain conditions, and the fire conditions in Australia this season are linked to climate change. That's not debatable, either. Arson arrests aren't any kind of proof that climate change isn't real. Not even close.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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