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