Dr. Holloway and Associate Professor Star. Photo by Catherine Leo.

Associate Professor Cassandra Star and Dr. Josh Holloway have been awarded one of eleven prestigious Climate Obstruction Research grants from the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN), headquartered at Brown University. The internationally-competitive grant will contribute toward research examining attribution of bushfires and wildfires to climate change in the media in the United States, Canada, and Australia. 

Intense bush and wildfires occur frequently in all three countries, command significant public attention and often prompt intense debate around cause, blame, and policy solutions. The research project, Extreme Event Attribution in Media Reporting of Wildfires in the US, Canada, and Australia: Anti-reflexivity and the Climate Countermovement, examines how, following bushfires, competing political actors use the ‘crisis-induced opportunity space’ created in the public sphere to advance or resist political action aimed at mitigating climate change. 

Advocates point to well-established links between climatic change and bushfires, while groups broadly representative of a ‘climate countermovement’ seek to deny and distract from growing scientific certainty in connecting specific natural disasters to climate change

Print and digital media serve as main sites for this contest. 

For instance, in 2018, US Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, claimed that “radical environmental groups” were responsible for the spread of wildfires in California. Climate change, Zinke insisted, had “nothing to do” with the fires. Instead, environmentalists protecting forests from logging and preventing fuel reduction efforts were allegedly the cause of the disaster. Assigning blame to environmentalists, and claiming fire prevention policy failure, were regular tactics used by the Trump administration to deflect and deny attribution of wildfires to climate change. Social media and certain media outlets also spread false claims of Antifa and ‘far left’ activists intentionally lighting fires.   

Likewise, Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer of bushfires saw widespread, false claims of arson, spread not only through social and digital media, but notably by the mainstream press – particularly News Corporation print outlets. 

So rife were unsubstantiated claims regarding the fault of environmentalists and the Greens, international media released detailed fact-checks debunking the assertions Wildfires in Canada have prompted a similar debate. 

Common to all, frames of uncertainty or unreliability of science, arson, and blame or the responsibility of specific groups, emerge as regular responses.  

 What connects the country cases is not just similar domestic politics surrounding wildfires, but the growing transnational spread of climate countermovement ideas, rhetoric, strategy, and personnel. Of course, links between climate change and natural disasters have long had a political element. Yet, the extent and form of misinformation, counter-attributions of blame to specific groups, and interlinking with other political contests, point to shifting climate change politics.  These developments highlight the potentially changing strategies, organisation, and targets of climate countermovements. Natural disasters have become opportunities for undermining science and attacking political opponents – in a fashion that challenges journalistic norms and core components of democracy. 

 Star and Holloway’s research will evaluate and systematically compare the dynamics of media reporting on wildfires and bushfires in the United States, Canada, and Australia, combining content and thematic analyses. These analyses will be coupled with an examination of organised local, national, and transnational political action by political parties, think tanks, and lobby groups to obfuscate, distract, and delay climate action. The research aims to reveal: the frames and themes in wildfire reporting amid climate change; whether climate countermovements exploit wildfire reporting to delay climate action; and the transnational spread of countermovement ideas, strategies and personnel.