Climate Deniers and the Phantom Arsonists They Can’t Get Enough Of

Climate Deniers and the Phantom Arsonists They Can’t Get Enough Of
Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)

Last week, California authorities announced that they had arrested a college professor under suspicion of starting several fires near the Dixie Fire, which has ballooned since starting in July to become the second-largest fire in state history. Like clockwork, the tweets started.

“Climate change to blame for college professor setting destructive Dixie fire in California,” noted rightwing ghoul Ann Coulter tweeted. “New tactic: set wildfires, blame climate change,” another MAGA account wrote, with a link to the news story. Other conservatives jumped on the bandwagon.

Nevermind the fact that the professor is only charged in setting one fire or that California’s largest utility, PG&E, has stepped forward and claimed that their faulty equipment may have had some role in sparking the Dixie Fire just like it has for so many other big blazes. The existence of a single arsonist seems to give deniers like Coulter a completely false line of rhetoric to claim that concerns about climate change are overblown.

These types of headlines create one of the handiest excuses for climate deniers like Coulter to wield — a criminal to pin the disaster on. It’s an increasingly common tactic as the impacts of climate change — and the public’s desire to reduce the use of fossil fuels and mitigate those impacts — become nigh impossible to ignore.

“Arson is easy [for deniers] because it actually exists, it has a ring of plausibility,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol. “Blaming [a fire] on an arsonist means it wasn’t climate change. You can say, ‘if it hadn’t been for this bad guy, there wouldn’t have been this bushfire.’”

Arsonists are nothing new. But they account for just 7% of all fires ignited in California, making intentionally lit fires a small portion of all blazes. Large actors like utilities such as PG&E — which pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter last year for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire — account for a bigger chunk as do unintended sparks from campfires, burning debris, and vehicles. For anyone not steeped in climate denial, it’s easy to see how arson can coexist with other factors like climate change and poor forest management to create enormous and dangerous wildfires. Human-sparked fires are intensified by human-caused intense heat and drought and spread in forests mismanaged by humans for decades.

The tweets around the Dixie Fire have echoes of a hoax that spread across social media in early 2020, when rumours flew that arson, not climate change, was really to blame for the devastating Australia bushfires. Similar misinformation spread last fall that antifa was behind some of Oregon’s most destructive wildfires on record, which led to right-wing vigilantes setting up unofficial armed “checkpoints” to catch the culprits. All of this is easily debunked.

But in a summer of seemingly endless wildfires occurring around the world that featured the hottest month in recorded history, arsonists are still getting an undue amount of attention. Claims of arson have sprung up in the wake of Turkish wildfires, with government officials and an army of Twitter bots and trolls pushing the theory. Other leaders in Mediterranean countries also besieged by fires have made sometimes confusing claims about the causes of the fires, putting heavy emphasis on the role of arsonists. In Algeria, 22 people have been arrested in conjunction with causing the fires that have killed at least 71 people, and a lynch mob even killed another man accused of arson.

Still, it’s hard to see how some people could earnestly think that a global horde of arsonists are somehow singlehandedly causing increasingly devastating wildfires, all while arguing the overheating planet plays no role — or cling to that explanation even as we repeatedly see other types of intensifying climate disasters.

“Denial is an intriguing phenomenon because it occurs in situations where you think, ‘Jesus, you know… really?’” Lewandowsky said, comparing some forms of climate denial to a covid-19 patient on their deathbed refusing to believe the disease is real. “The function behind denial is often emotional regulation. When something becomes too upsetting, it’s easier to deny than to confront that problem. If you own a home that’s been consumed by wildfires, it’s easier for some people to say, ‘no, that’s arson,’ so they can blame somebody, than to accept that it’s climate change, which is something they have no control over. At least in principle you have control over an arsonist.”

I asked Lewandowsky whether he thought there was something special about arson that drew deniers to this explanation over others. Was it a conservative impetus to create a criminal, or some sort of us-versus-them mentality at work, or just a basic misunderstanding of how science works?

“I don’t think there’s a deep connection between arson and conservative thought,” he said. “I think it’s just whatever is plausible.”

John Cook, a research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University and the founder of the Sceptical Science blog, agreed with Lewandowsky when I asked him the same question. “I think [deniers] like any explanation of the cause that’s not human-caused climate change,” he said. Cook pointed out that one of the GOP’s most contentious new members of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has floated the conspiracy theory that space lasers operated by Democrats were responsible for starting the Camp Fire. It’s even more unhinged than the claims of arson, yet is still an explanation accepted as plausible in some QAnon circles. “Regardless of the phenomenon, they’ll always grasp at any alternative explanation,” Cook said.

In this context, it’s clear that deniers’ continual use of arson to deny climate change isn’t mixed up in any kind of reality, but rather an expression of pure denial psychology and a drive to create control. That, in turn, makes it easier to see the similarities between blaming fires on arson and other factors. Last week, the Washington Post reported on how some conservative towns in Oregon in the path of the Bootleg Fire were still sceptical about climate change, instead attributing the fire to forest mismanagement and acts of God even as it raged towards their homes.

Unfortunately, seeing arson as just another tactic in the climate denial playbook means that getting through to people who are set in their denial is that much harder. Cook told me about research that shows that people with strong climate denial views didn’t shift those viewpoints when they experienced extreme weather or disasters. That means some people are going to keep clinging to any explanation for wildfires that isn’t climate change, from arson to space lasers. Explaining the relationship between fossil fuel use and rising temperatures probably won’t do any good when it comes to your uncle yelling about antifa and arson while Tucker Carlson blasts in the background.

“Generally speaking, the odds of changing the mind of your cranky uncle are almost nothing,” Cook said, before pausing for a beat. “That said, my dad was a climate denier, and I was not getting anywhere with my arguments with him, but I still talked to him over a period of years. At some point, he just switched and stopped being a climate denier.

“I don’t think there’s any killer argument or anything. I still think there’s value in talking to people, be empathetic about their position — but be realistic about the odds of changing their minds.”