Denialists Are Blaming Anything but Climate for Canada’s Fires

Arsonists, space lasers, pyrotechnic drones; the global right wing is on the hunt for a culprit responsible for Canada’s raging wildfires. Not on the suspect list: climate change.

As a cloud of smoke floated from raging fires in Quebec across the Eastern Seaboard, turning the Manhattan skyline a hazy orange, conspiracy theorists on both sides of the border began peddling steadily more outlandish explanations for the unprecedented burns. In the process, they made clear just how little they understand the climate.

As it stands, there are 45 out-of-control wildfires in Canada—primarily in Nova Scotia, central Quebec, and Northern Alberta. The smoke from those fires is drifting southward, bathing New York and Washington, D.C. in health-threatening smog.

Scientists have been warning for years that climate change—not just hotter temperatures, but droughts and more extreme winters—would lead to more intense forest fires. Now that their predictions are coming true, people are grasping for other explanations.

The fire season has already lengthened in some parts of Canada, and government scientists say it will extend by more than a month in large swaths of the country before the end of the century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates that wildfires are going to become more intense in the years to come. The panel’s sixth assessment report, from 2022, specifically warned that urban dwellers should anticipate “reduced air quality because of wildfire.”

The World Meteorological Association’s most recent forecast for global temperatures anticipates that the world is set to heat by 1.8 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels in the coming years. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, envisioned that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to plateau by this year, and decline precipitously by 2030, if the world was to limit warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But there’s a fierce, and large, contingent of deniers of anthropogenic climate change, and a little thing like mass wildfires isn’t going to stop them. The main line from the Canadian right is that the burns are the work of criminals and firebugs, and that governments are simply “blaming the fires on ‘climate change’ and on the ‘climate crisis,’” as Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington wrote Wednesday. Others, like former NHL player-turned-conspiracy theorist Theo Fleury, have taken the idea a step further, alleging that progressives are weaponizing the fires to force “climate lockdowns” on the masses. Taking that idea even further, right-wing politician Maxime Bernier accused “green terrorism” for starting the fires.

All this misinformation misses the forest for the (burning) trees.

Right-wing media outlets have seized on reports that police are investigating arson as a possible cause for these fires. As Warmington wrote in the Sun, “It’s too early to say [whether] the early fires in Quebec were started on purpose or as a result of climate change.”

The reality, of course, is not an either/or proposition.

Given that about half of Canada is forested—totaling some 894 million acres—wildfires are a regular occurrence. As of the end of May, Canada was experiencing about 1,800 wildfires across the country: only about 15 percent higher than a normal year.

There is a litany of causes for these fires, lightning strikes and human negligence being the chief drivers. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported that about half of 2022’s forest fires were set by humans, deliberately or accidentally. (They reported 45 fires that were prescribed burns.)

Yet the 2022 fires were manageable, as the country saw relatively cool temperatures and—in some places—heavier-than-normal rainfall in the spring. When wildfires occurred in some regions of the country that summer, other provinces were able to dispatch resources to help.

What’s different this year is the scale and intensity of the fires. In a normal year, about 230,000 hectares of forest in Canada would have burned by the end of May. This year, nearly 2.8 million hectares burned. And it’s only getting worse. The fact that the fires are affecting multiple parts of the country at once means resources are stretched thin.

This didn’t come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. Modeling done by Environment and Climate Change Canada, a government department, predicts the whole country is in for a summer nearly twice as hot as normal with lower precipitation. Wildfire forecasts, meanwhile, predicted that most of the country would face considerably more severe conditions than an average year. Those forecasts, unfortunately, seem to be dead on.

It is certainly true that police in Alberta, Quebec, and Nova Scotia are investigating arson as a possible instigator for some fires. Police in Alberta have laid charges against a man who deliberately set a number of fires, some of which sparked wildfires; those fires, however, were extinguished in early May. Police in Quebec are investigating arson, too, but officials believe lightning strikes caused the fires in the province’s more remote regions. Police in Nova Scotia, meanwhile, have been investigating a series of arsons—mostly burning garbage—but say they are unconnected to the wildfires.

The idea that wildfires could be blamed on arsonists—or wayward gender reveal parties—also cropped up during California’s brutal 2021 wildfire season, as well as during blazes in Greece and Algeria. But arson simply fails to explain the increasing intensity of these fires.

Arson isn’t enough of an excuse for some denialists. Some, such as the New York Post’s Miranda Devine, have argued that Canada’s climate policies actually caused the fires. The infernos can’t be explained by climate change, she argued; rather “it’s bad forest management.” Cherry-picking a few data points, she alleged that “green ideology and chronic government underfunding mean that the forests currently ablaze have not been managed properly for years.”

Devine, for example, cited a 2020 paper in the Progress in Disaster Science journal, correctly noting that researchers warned that insufficient resources were being put towards wildfire preparedness. But Devine declined to cite the portions of the report that specifically lauded Quebec’s wildfire management policies, or the section that underscored how “wildfire impacts are likely to intensify as Canada’s climate continues to warm at twice the global warming rate.”

What’s more, following that report and a disastrous 2021 wildfire season, the Canadian government budgeted more than half a billion additional dollars towards wildfire preparedness and forestry management.

On Fox News, anchor Jesse Waters contended that connections to climate change were fruitless because it wasn’t the first time wildfires had raged through Canada’s east. Pointing to New England’s “dark day,” when thick smoke blotted out the sun in 1780: “Can’t blame that on climate change, everybody was riding on horses,” Waters argued. (In fact, researchers have found, those exceptional wildfires were probably caused by a combination of drought, fire as a weapon of war, and clear-cutting practices.)

Waters did correctly note that Canada is experiencing fewer wildfires than years past. That is thanks, in large part, to better fire prevention. Data analyzed by CBC, however, shows that even with fewer fires, more land is being burned. And the trend seems to be intensifying. (There is an argument that Canada has prioritized fire prevention and suppression at the expense of clearing dried brush, but that is a matter of some debate.)

None of these explanations can explain the sheer scope of these blazes. Nova Scotia’s wildfires, burning since late May, are now the most intense ever recorded in the province—and they are still out of control. Quebec’s season is, similarly, already the worst on record—between 2013 and 2022, about 173,000 acres of forest burned in Quebec. More than 1 million acres of Quebec forest have burned this year alone.

In other corners of the internet, the attempts to shift blame from climate change have grown even more ridiculous. In 2021, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene caught flack for a Facebook post from a few years earlier, wherein she claimed that “lasers or blue beams of light” were responsible for raging wildfires in California. She singled out Rothchild Inc., a favorite target of QAnon and anti-Semites, as a possible culprit.

Not deterred by the ridicule Greene got for her absurd theory, popular far-right conspiracy theorist Stew Peters tweeted to his hundreds of thousands of followers that wildfires erupting in different parts of the country was “statistically impossible to happen by accident.” Instead, he argued, “[c]learly our governments are targeting us with Directed Energy Weapons.”

Multiple fires starting within hours or days of each other, of course, is not impossible but the norm. Quebec is used to seeing hundreds of fires start across its expansive territory during the final weeks of May.

Directed energy weapons—essentially concentrated beams of microwave energy—have thus far only been good for shooting down drones in a lab setting. The U.S. Department of Defense is probably a few years away from being able to strap such a weapon to a plan to reign fire down on rural Canada.

Other viral misinformation has honed in on some more believable theories. One TikTok, viewed nearly 8 million times, shows a helicopter raining sparks down across a dense forest. “That’s how your fire started,” the TikTok text claims. Similar videos have popped up on Twitter.

In fact, the video shows efforts to get the already-raging fires under control. The process, called backburning, attempts to get ahead of the wildfire—creating a barrier at which the fire, hopefully, stops. Fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and, increasingly, drones are all deployed to try to do controlled burns to stop the fire from advancing. Officials in Alberta have confirmed that they are using backburning to try and halt the spread of the blazes.

When commenters pointed out the obvious explanation for the video, the original TikTok poster followed up with a second video showing a drone operating a flamethrower. “For those saying its backfire,” they wrote. “You sure bout that?” That video, however, was shot in 2021 and has nothing to do with the wildfires.

That TikTok account, like many advancing some of the most outlandish theories, normally posts conspiratorial and anti-vaccine content. (Peters, for example, produced an entire documentary claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines contained snake venom.)

Conspiracy theories tend to feed off each other. In recent years, many believers in COVID-19 conspiracy theories have alleged that governments are lying about the nature of climate change to facilitate the imposition of “climate lockdowns,” as former NHL player Fleury wrote on Twitter. “That’s next up on the agenda.”

Many who ascribe to this idea point to proposals for “15-minute cities” as evidence that governments have a scheme to turn cities into open air prisons.

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro has fed into this idea, telling viewers on Wednesday that “Democrats are pumping up climate hysteria and bringing back, you guessed it, mask insanity.”

As it stands, carbon dioxide emissions continue growing. It is likely that the world will not just fail to meet that 1.5 degrees Celsius target, but that it will blast past 2 degrees Celsius—recognized as a tipping point past which destruction to earth’s environment may be irreversible.

So long as the debate continues to obsess over baseless guesswork and absurd alternate explanations, while ignoring the actual climate science, the West will continue blowing past its climate targets. And the fires will keep getting worse.

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