It isn’t arson: untangling climate misinformation around Canada’s raging wildfires

It isn’t arson: untangling climate misinformation around Canada’s raging wildfires
June 23, 2023 The Narwhal

By , The Narwhal

This story originally appeared in The Narwhal and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Space lasers. That’s the reason some people gave for the catastrophic burning of Lytton, B.C., in 2021 after a historic heat wave set a new temperature record in Canada, exacerbating a wildfire that essentially destroyed the town.

And while the idea seems wild, it wasn’t even the first time the conspiracy theory had been floated. As far back as 2018, space lasers were blamed for causing wildfires in California, some tinged with antisemitic theories the space lasers were owned by Jewish bankers.

So it almost seems quaint that a not-insignificant chorus of Canadians blame the current wildfires sweeping across much of the country on climate activists and laser-less government operatives willing to drive into the woods and strike a match.

Supposedly it’s arson, not natural forces or human carelessness coupled with a hotter and drier climate, that’s the real culprit for the choking smoke that has kept children inside, blocked out the sun and made it nearly impossible to breathe.

These theories aren’t quaint, and they’re not just being spread in fringe digital corners.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith didn’t flinch in early June when asked by talk show host Ryan Jespersen about reconciling her push against federal climate and environmental policies with the intensity of the current wildfire season and its link to climate change.

“I’m very concerned that there are arsonists,” she said. “There have been stories as well that we’re investigating and we’re bringing in arson investigators from outside the province.” (Arson is not a major factor in wildfire ignition — more on that later.)

It’s not just Smith. Canadian politicians across all levels of government are not aligned on what started the fires and what needs to be done to combat them, a discord that is fuelling a deep misunderstanding of this intense and destructive climate moment.

There is real fear, in Alberta and beyond, about what these fires represent. They are burning during a critical time for climate policy discussions that will have an enormous impact across Canada, particularly in the oil and gas heartland.

Hardly anyone in the country is unaffected. There is a direct and visceral threat to home and security for the tens of thousands who have been forced to flee. Then there’s a fear of job loss and security for those who work in sectors including oil and gas. Not to mention the physical and emotional stress on firefighters forced to work without adequate resources or funding.

Millions more Canadians have been trapped under smoky skies caused by fires thousands of kilometres away.

Everyone is carrying the anxiety of a changing planet.

The discussions that need to happen now — that should’ve started long ago — are complex and wide-ranging, and the solutions they result in will require unprecedented co-ordination across ideologies. Along with better approaches to fire prevention and management, governments need to cope with misinformation and social media companies that allow it to spread.

Given all of that, space lasers can seem like an easy out.

Here’s a rundown of what we know about how the wildfires actually started and the truth behind the most prominent conspiracy theories. It’s also a look at who benefits from spreading untruths and what politicians and social media platforms could be doing to stop the climate disinformation blazing across the country.

Just how on fire is Canada right now?

Natural disasters at their worst seem cinematic and fictional. And this year, for the first time in our collective memory, the entire country was very much on fire.

Since March, 11 provinces and territories have been affected by thousands of forest fires, many of them out of control. Canada is on track for its “worst wildfire season” in recorded history, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in early June. You could see the fires from coast to coast.

British Columbia saw the single-largest wildfire in its history this year in Donnie Creek. Alberta was the most impacted overall in May, forcing the government to declare a provincial state of emergency that lasted a month. Almost 40 per cent of the country’s fires were in Quebec in mid-June, threatening to evacuate more than 15,000 people. Newfoundland and Labrador saw 34 wildfires before May 1, compared to only two fires in the same period last year. Nova Scotia saw its largest recorded forest fire in history; more than 16,000 residents were evacuated from the Halifax area.

The sheer cumulative effect was, well, apocalyptic. A wall of smoke descended across the U.S.-Canada border. New York City experienced its worst air quality since a dramatic smog event in the 1960s. Skies turned orange, horizons and skylines disappeared.

North America has never experienced fire like this before. It is scary and visceral. In Ottawa, the smoke became the perfectly haunting metaphor: parliamentarians and policymakers were trapped in the heavy fog, unable to act or see ahead.

And it’s not over: the large Donnie Creek fire is expected to keep burning for several weeks.

How did the 2023 Canadian wildfires start?

The majority of new forest fires started in Canada in recent days are from natural causes, like lightning: Mother Nature’s energy weapon that literally sparks flames.

In any given year, almost half of the fires that burn across the country are started by lightning, but those fires account for nearly 67 per cent of the land burned, according to the federal government. There have been 2,715 wildfires across Canada already this year.

But a strike of lightning will not turn into a catastrophic wildfire unless the conditions are ripe for one.

In dry, hot conditions, the flames become raging blazes and if the wind picks up, it carries the thick smoke quickly. Such conditions will become the norm for longer periods of time as Earth’s atmosphere warms rapidly due to carbon pollution created from burning fossil fuels. Wildfire seasons will start earlier, last longer and be more intense.

As of June 20, almost six million hectares of land in Canada have burned. That’s more than the amount of land that burned in 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022 combined.

Lightning strikes have an outsized impact, according to Natural Resources Canada, because they can occur in remote, less populated areas and the fires are often left to burn. Or they can happen in clusters, with multiple fires lit at once, forcing firefighters to decide which ones to tackle with limited resources.

Humans do cause the majority of wildfires, just over half, but they tend not to be part of a balaclava-clad crowd of ne’er do wells and extremists.

Figures released by the B.C. Wildfire Service show more than a third of this year’s 460 wildfires as of June 20 were caused by lightning. Another 275 were attributed to suspected human activity, not arson but carelessness, like “vehicle and engine use, industrial activity, fireworks, sky-lanterns, outdoor flame lighting and discarding burning items (e.g. cigarettes).” That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a history of trying to blame everyone from Antifa to environmentalists for the conflagrations.

Alberta’s June 13 update on the wildfire situation showed 368 of 634 — 58 per cent — wildfires this year were human caused, which the province says covers “everything from recreational fires to agricultural incidents to wildfires caused by people on residential land.” It’s part of the reason Alberta implemented bans on outdoor fires and all-terrain vehicle use through much of the spring.

During a news conference on June 12, ​​Melissa Story, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said the service is also seeing an “emerging trend with fireworks and exploding targets.”

Lightning, according to the province, was responsible for 129 fires and another 135 are under investigation.

And yes, sometimes arson is the cause.

In Alberta, RCMP charged a man in May for a series of arsons, including what they say were intentionally set wildfires, in 2022. The man was also charged with breaching conditions for a previous charge that was supposed to confine him to his property. There was no mention by police of climate motivations for the fires he set, which also included a church, post office and rodeo grounds among targets. That same year, a woman from Kamloops, B.C., was also charged with wildfire arsons. She pled guilty and has yet to be sentenced.

“We see arson wildfires every year, in one form or another. Sometimes they’re under-represented, sometimes they’re over,” Story with Alberta Wildfire told The Toronto Star on June 8. “It’s not an emerging trend that we’re concerned about right now.”

Arson happens, but it is rare.

According to the RCMP, most of the current fires are not suspicious.

“While the vast majority of these fires have been attributed to naturally occurring sources, such as lightning, the RCMP Forestry Crimes Unit is currently investigating 12 suspicious wildfires (January 1, 2023, to June 12, 2023) where human activity is believed to be a factor,” it said in a media release on June 14. “In 2022, 21 suspicious wildfires were investigated. A total of 40 were investigated in 2021.”

So why are arsonist theories so widespread?

There’s a certain logic to trying to distract from the terror of wildfires and the changing climate that helps set the conditions for them. For many individuals, perhaps the truth is so unimaginable, unsettling and unavoidable, they refuse to accept the complex origins of the new reality.

Others have more nefarious motivations and use positions of influence to shore up their own interests — from business leaders to politicians to influencers.

Often, misinformation takes a piece of truth and twists it. In early June, the B.C. Wildfire Service released a video explaining how it uses planned ignitions — a fire management tactic that strategically burns areas of the forest a fire hasn’t reached as a way to contain it. But in a doctored version of the video going viral online, footage from the service is edited so all you see is a yellow helicopter flying above a smoke-filled forest in Donnie Creek, in the northeastern part of the province, with a torch suspended from one of the wings shooting flames into the trees. The words “it was a setup” flash on the screen.

Some of the theories show how new crises are absorbed into existing disinformation spheres. As politicians and health officials advised people to stay indoors or wear masks outside, it activated people who felt COVID-19 lockdowns had curtailed their freedoms — and ignored that N95 masks prevent both the spread of viruses and inhalation of harmful smoke. Then there are those who believe the wildfires were intentionally set to destroy rural life and force everyone into 15-minute cities — an urban planning concept in which daily life exists within walking or biking distance. And there’s the long-running classic, that the wildfires are purposely lit to give the Trudeau government cover to increase the carbon price, which is one of the most effective tools to reduce industrial emissions.

“Climate is just the latest victim in a trend that has already claimed conversations around public health, conversations around migration, conversations around sexual and reproductive health rights, conversations around LGBTQ rights [and] conversations around racial justice,” Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told The Narwhal.

“The kind of underlying unifying theme is one of the so-called woke agenda and the cabal of internationalists or globalists who are instigating that supposed agenda,” said King, whose organization is an international think-tank that researches threats to democracy, including disinformation. “That can then be applied to any topic.”

That’s probably why the list of conspiracy theories is endless. There are varying (untrue) explanations of how arsonists operate, from stealing ammonium nitrate from a train to a more elaborate theory about eco-terrorists who co-ordinated the lighting of matches at the same time across the country.

None of these assertions are new this year, or to Canada — similar theories have been floated globally, as fires increase and intensify. But their veracity is deeply concerning, not only because of the growing risk of wildfire, but because of the threat disinformation poses to broader climate action.

What leads people to believe climate misinformation?

Studies have shown increased anxiety and feeling a loss of control can contribute to belief in conspiracy theories. If anxiety is increased, so too is a disposition to justify theories outside the realm of reality.

Education or intelligence don’t factor in, at least not in the way many would snidely suggest. One study from Yale Law School in 2017 showed people with higher abilities to interpret quantitative information were better at contorting facts to fit their ideological bias.

Adrian Bardon, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and author of The Truth About Denial, calls this “toxic, system-justifying identity politics.”

Humans are hardwired for a certain amount of bias and self-justification. Bardon says we often have reactions and then we find reasons to justify those reactions, not the other way around.

Existential threats — whether it’s the world burning or the loss of your paycheque — are powerful drivers of fear and conspiracy. Powerlessness in the face of global forces is visceral.

But there is also some calculation at play among the top spreaders of climate disinformation, with influencers, grifters and politicians leading the herd away from climate and toward, say, arsonists.

When it comes to climate change, the age of denialism is largely over, according to a report from King’s Institute for Strategic Dialogues. What has taken its place are strategies to muddy the discursive waters, particularly from polluting industries and those with vested interests.

“Whether through conspiracies like ‘climate lockdown,’ or by conflating climate with divisive issues like critical race theory, LGBTQ+ rights and abortion access, the goal of much climate change [misinformation] now is to distract and delay,” reads the report.

“Yet, with the window to act deemed ‘brief and rapidly closing,’ such an approach may prove fatal.”

So what are Canadian politicians saying about wildfires?

When fire season started this year, Alberta politicians were in the midst of an election campaign devoid of serious climate talk even as the province burned — shrouding cities in smoke and forcing the evacuation of homes and oil facilities.

It didn’t take long for evidence-free theories to start spreading: the idea that shadowy NDP operatives, perhaps working in concert with Trudeau, intentionally set the fires in order to help defeat the UCP. In reality, the UCP slashed the budgets for wildfire suppression in 2019, leaving a “skeleton crew” to tackle this year’s infernos.

There’s been a lot of finger pointing and climate denial as this year’s fires reached record levels, across the country and all levels of government.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said his ability to act on wildfires was limited by political differences. “What would greatly help our capacity to accelerate our fight against climate change in Canada is if I didn’t have to fight with certain jurisdictions all the time on doing the bare minimum to fight climate change, if I wouldn’t have to fight the Conservative Party of Canada,” he told CTV News in early June.

Meanwhile at Queen’s Park in the heart of Toronto — which had the second-worst air quality in the world at one point in early June due to fires in northern Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec — Premier Doug Ford refused to link the wildfire smoke to climate change. When asked about it by Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles, he accused the opposition of “politicizing the fires.”

Instead, Ford touted the work of Ontario’s firefighters while failing to mention or justify his government’s decision to cut 67 per cent of his province’s emergency forest firefighting funds in the 2019 budget. Ford’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Graydon Smith matter-of-factly said “we’ve got forest fires every year in Ontario” as schools across the Greater Toronto Area cancelled recess due to smoke.

Then, on the last day of the legislature’s summer session, Ford declared Ontario’s economy “is on fire,” making a badly timed pun as 54 forest fires engulfed the province in smoke.

Why aren’t social media companies stopping the spread of wildfire conspiracy theories?

Probably because it helps them make money.

According to a report by the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition published earlier this year, fossil fuel companies spent around US$4 million on Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) for paid advertisements that spread false or misleading claims on climate issues.

The findings show “a stark comeback for climate denial” and “negligence from Big Tech companies who not only continue to monetize and enable, but in some cases actively recommend, such content to users,” the report says.

Big Tech’s failure to crack down on climate misinformation has been cited as a serious obstacle in reaching global climate goals. In November 2021, more than 400 organizations and individuals wrote an open letter demanding global action to tackle climate misinformation and disinformation.

There has been some progress. In October 2021, Google announced it would “prohibit ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.” In April 2022, Pinterest announced a policy to reduce climate change disinformation in content and ads. And ahead of Earth Day this year, TikTok amended its policies to require the removal of any content that “undermines well-established scientific consensus, such as denying the existence of climate change or the factors that contribute to it.”

On Earth Day last year, Twitter also announced a new policy to demonetize climate denial in its advertising, although that hasn’t lasted. Since July 2022, when Elon Musk took over the platform, the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition has observed an increase in climate denial content on Twitter. The group noted a concerning spike for #ClimateScam, a hashtag that “soared back up the top search results” on the site last week, according to King’s early analysis. “That was obviously linked to the stories around the wildfires,” she said.

There’s more work to be done, as the online discourse around this year’s wildfires makes clear. Canada is expected to introduce wide-ranging policy around online harms later this year, after two and a half years of discussion, and King said it can’t come too soon.

“Canada is probably a little late to the party in recognizing the threat of climate, mis- and disinformation, both at a low local policymaking level, but also, the broader trend of climate being weaponized within kind of identity politics, and dynamics of, of cultural discourse,” she said. There’s finally a recognition that climate disinformation carries “a real vector of harm,” she said, that is creating confusion and perpetuating inaction.

So why should you care?

There are a lot of climate policies taking shape in Ottawa, from clean electricity regulations, to new clean fuel standards, increased carbon prices and potential caps on emissions from the oil and gas sector. The federal government is ramping up efforts to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 after years of dithering as emissions rose.

It’s essential these policies are discussed and debated on a level playing field, not one distorted by misinformation, so Canadians feel the measures are being passed in their best interests. Especially given the profound impacts of a changing economy, in a world that’s clearly changing despite warnings that were shrugged off.

Wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons will increase floods and fire. Already, 20,000 Canadians have been displaced by this year’s wildfires. Many more will have to leave their homes behind as shorelines and floodplains shift and forests and grasslands burn. Managed retreat and its incalculable costs will challenge governments across the country.

It’s a huge problem — the existential challenge of our times. The urge to turn it into a fantastical but simple tale that has a beginning, middle and end, an obvious villain and a clear-cut spark is understandable. But these tales are just a smokescreen, distracting from the growing number of smoke signals from communities across the country desperate for serious climate action.

— with files from Denise Balkissoon

Updated June 16, 2023, at 1 p.m. MT: This story was updated to correct a typo in Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s name. It was also updated to clarify that natural causes, such as lightning, were responsible for the majority of new fires instead of all fires currently burning and to add comment from the Alberta RCMP on the number of investigations currently underway.

Updated June 20, 2023, at 3 p.m. MT: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent wildfire statistics.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Wildfire smoke can harm human health, even when the fire is hundreds of miles away – a toxicologist explains why

The Catch: Pollution problems … and solutions

Featured image: A not-insignificant chorus of Canadians blame the 2023 wildfires sweeping across the country on arson. But the truth is lightning and carelessness cause the majority of wildfires, made more likely by heat and dry conditions caused by climate change. (Illustration: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal)


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