Ignoring the clear scientific links between the climate crisis and this year’s apocalyptic wildfires on the West Coast, coverage on Fox News and Fox Business has downplayed and denied the role of climate change in these devastating fires, deflecting from climate science while pushing President Donald Trump’s perennial claim that forest mismanagement is to blame. At least two Fox programs have even falsely suggested that an organized campaign of arson is responsible for igniting the fires in the Pacific Northwest -- a harmful conspiracy theory that has also quickly spread across social media platforms.
Fox shows are following a playbook that they have used with other major fire disasters linked to climate change, including last year’s catastrophic bushfires in Australia and previous catastrophic fires in California.
The goal of Fox’s coverage is always the same: deflect from the scientific reality of climate change and paint Democratic policies as the true culprits in worsening the wildfires.
Deny and downplay the climate crisis
Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson is leading the network on denying the indisputable connection between climate change and the catastrophic fires burning on the West Coast. On three recent episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host and his guests spread dangerous disinformation about the fires.
On September 10, Carlson claimed that “there’s no evidence” climate change contributed to the western wildfires, instead arguing that state regulations and energy grid mismanagement were the real problems responsible for the blazes. Carlson took this a step further on September 11, when he called climate change “systemic racism in the sky” and stated with a straight face that “there is not a single scientist on Earth who knows whether or by how much these fires may have been, quote, ‘exacerbated’ by warmer temperatures caused by climate change.”
To top it off, Carlson invited Marc Morano -- perhaps the most notorious climate denier in the U.S. -- on the September 15 edition of his show to falsely claim that these fires are “not unprecedented” and that it’s really just “climate ambulance-chasing at its core” and “weaponizing weather events” to link them to climate change.
The exact same line of “weaponizing weather” was used on an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight last year to dismiss climate connections during the Amazon fires. During a segment discussing those fires in August 2019, climate-denying meteorologist Joe Bastardi claimed that “if humans are causing climate change, it's very, very slight,” and said that any attempts to pin the Amazon fires on climate change was “weaponization of the weather.”
Carlson’s climate-denying rants fly in the face of well-established scientific evidence that climate change is both prolonging the fire season and intensifying the size and scale of the fires. Climate scientists have also called these wildfires “unprecedented” and linked a climate-fueled drought to conditions worsening the fires.
Additionally, Carlson’s claim that “not a single scientist” can link the fires to climate change is also demonstrably false -- and taken laughably out of context. Climate scientist Daniel Swain addressed this point on Twitter, noting that his featured quote from Carlson’s show was “fundamentally misrepresenting climate scientists' public statements on wildfires and climate change”:
Carlson is no stranger to peddling dangerous climate misinformation. Just last year, he invited Morano to hype a silly, debunked document that claims clouds are responsible for global warming. In March 2019, he stated without evidence that if climate change is affecting natural disasters, “it might be making them in some ways better too.” (Earlier that same month, the Fox host also baselessly accused undocumented immigrants of killing more people in the U.S. than climate change.)
In addition to outright denial, the network has regularly downplayed the connection between climate and the catastrophic fires. A Media Matters study from 2018 found that Fox ran only two segments on California’s wildfires in November of that year that mentioned climate; both of those segments downplayed the role of climate change.
In recent days, Fox shows have attempted to downplay climate’s role by politicizing the climate argument and purposely shifting blame for the fires to other issues. Neil Cavuto did just this on the September 10 edition of Fox Business’ Cavuto: Coast to Coast:
On the September 14 edition of Special Report with Bret Baier, correspondent John Roberts provided cover for Trump’s outright denial of climate change by calling it a “glaring difference of opinion” with California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Later on in the show, Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt attempted to pass off Trump’s clear climate denial as a problem for both sides of the political aisle, calling his response an example of “why people hate our system, because when bad things happen, the two parties want to pick and choose what’s to blame. … Instead, what they hear is politicians picking and choosing the things they like from the menu.”
This strategy of partisan obfuscation also has precedent on Fox: During California’s 2019 fire season, Fox & Friends responded to Newsom criticizing Trump’s assault on climate action by bringing a talk show host with no background in science, Mike Slater, to explain why “liberal policies are really to blame” for that year’s massive wildfires in California.
Jumping to blame “forest management” practices for the fires, while generally ignoring the role of climate change
On the September 14 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director Daniel Berlant dropped a rare example of climate truth on Fox:
DANIEL BERLANT (CAL FIRE): In California, there really is no debate that our fire seasons are getting longer. We are seeing larger fires and more explosive fires. In fact, on average right now, our fire season is on average 75 days longer than they were just four decades ago. And so, you know, we can debate all we want, but I can tell you here on the ground, we are seeing fires that are incredibly destructive and incredibly fast moving.
But right after this segment, guest host Sandra Smith interviewed Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) to downplay climate’s role in the fires and instead promote “sound scientific management” of forests and his Trillion Trees Act, which climate scientists say is absolutely not a way of solving climate change, as the best solutions to worsening wildfires.
Poor forest management has played a role in California wildfires along with climate change and the expansion of people moving into the wildlife-urban interface, which “has increased the likelihood that wildfires will threaten structures and people.” But from watching coverage of the fires in numerous Fox segments, one would probably come away with the idea that it’s been only California’s forest management policies driving the worsening fires.
The jump by Fox to assign blame to the state for poor forest management as a tactic to downplay climate change goes back to at least 2018, when Trump first blamed California’s forestry policies while touring the aftermath of the deadly Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise. At the time, Trump’s response was parroted by Fox News host Sean Hannity, who stated that he was “right” to blame California wildfires on poor forest management, and Fox’s Laura Ingraham, who on her radio show cherry-picked a BBC article to claim that “Trump was right” about wildfires and forest management.
Neither of these segments mentioned climate change. Even worse, Ingraham glossed over the major mentions of climate in the BBC article, which specifically stated that “many experts point out that climate change has made things worse” in relation to those fires.
This framing of the fires by zeroing-in entirely on forest management doesn’t hold up to what climate science is saying -- especially this year. Fire scientists have said that “climate change, not forest management, is a driving factor behind the state’s fires becoming worse and more deadly.” Wildfire expert Stefan Doerr has also stated, “The bottom line remains that the extreme meteorological conditions are the main drivers for these extreme fires,” and he specifically noted hotter, drier, and windier conditions with climate change “has now created a tinderbox of vegetation.” Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe also pointed out on Twitter that it’s a myth to suggest that “the only reason wildfires are burning more area is because of poor forest management.”
Fox’s attempts to cast blame solely on the state’s leadership for poor forest management also fall flat when you consider that the federal government owns the majority of land out west -- in California, 57% is owned by the federal government, while the state government only owns 3%.
The network’s discussion of forest management hit a high point during midday of September 14, when Trump visited California and once again blamed forest management for the wildfires, ignoring climate change. In one example on the September 14 edition of Outnumbered Overtime, Fox contributor Jason Chaffetz called Trump “absolutely right” and blamed the wildfires primarily on a lack of clearing brush, saying “Democrats have been the biggest impediment to doing so.” Later on The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld stated that forest management is “the problem in California. It's not climate change. It’s forest management.”
Other examples abound. On two separate occasions in the past week, Fox Business’ Varney & Co. hosted conservative talk radio host Larry Elder to talk up poor forest management. On the September 8 edition, he agreed with Trump’s comments and said, “You can’t do a whole lot about the weather but you can do something about the fuel that these fires feed upon that makes these fires so intense and so serious.” Again on the September 14 edition, he repeated that forest management is the biggest issue in fighting the fires and said that “Donald Trump does not believe in climate change alarmism.”
On Fox News, Environmental Progress president and climate contrarian Michael Shellenberger appeared on the September 10 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight to talk up the role of poor forest management at the expense of climate change, claiming that the media’s climate coverage of the fires “has been really irresponsible.” He largely dismissed climate change again on the September 14 edition of Fox News @ Night, when he falsely stated that saturated wood fuel “is driving the intensity of these fires. It's not climate change.”
Later that night on Hannity, host Sean Hannity again made forest management the focal point of blame for the fires, calling it “an important piece of the puzzle.”
Advancing the dangerous arson conspiracy theory
While the conspiracy theory that arson is behind the wildfires has not yet been as pervasive on Fox News as it was in January, when the network’s prime-time hosts pushed the debunked idea that arson was driving the Australian wildfires, it has already been pushed by at least two of Fox News’ shows covering the West Coast fires.
As Media Matters reported on September 14:
During the month of September, record wildfires made worse by climate change have raged across California, Oregon, and Washington. As the fires have spread and officials have tried to contain them, a conspiracy theory claiming that “antifa” has been behind the wildfires has spread across major social media platforms. In reality, as NBC News noted, incidents like “lightning, faulty or knocked-down power lines and accidents” have been reported as the cause of many of the fires. Authorities, including the FBI, have been forced to rebut the false “antifa“ claim as people have refused to evacuate and militia groups are getting active.
The use of focus on arson as a counter-narrative to climate change follows the exact same playbook used during Australia's deadly wildfires from late 2019 into early 2020, when Murdoch-owned media and other right wing outlets peddled false claims that arsonists were to blame for the historic blazes, and not climate change. However, this talking point was debunked; as one study found, only a handful of blazes out of 11,000 were deliberately set. Notably, the arson conspiracy theory now not only distracts from the climate crisis, but is also an attempt to vilify activists protesting police brutality. For right-wing media, this false narrative is the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone.
On the September 13 edition of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Jedediah Bila briefly discussed a story accusing a supposed left-wing activist of deliberately setting fires:
JEDEDIAH BILA (CO-HOST): Another man is accused of setting a fire near a Washington highway. A report says he is a regular attendee of defund police rallies in Seattle. That last detail unfolding [is] pretty amazing. It is really incredible to see.
WILL CAIN (CO-HOST): These arsonists, as of yet we do not know exactly their ties to any extremist organizations or what their motivations might be, but I think one thing is clear: We now know many of these fires in the West were set intentionally. What does that reveal, Pete? What it reveals is the brazen political monopolization of a tragedy by people like Gov. Gavin Newsom who quickly jumped out and blamed these fires on climate change. There’s no tragedy, there’s no moment too soon to jump and advance your political agenda and pin awful events on your political opponents.
While discussing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s recent climate speech on the September 14 edition of The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham brought up arson unprompted, asking, “Did Biden anywhere in that speech lay out his solution to prevent any wildfires in the future or the people who are actually intentionally setting them in California, including antifa?”
Her guest, Victor David Hanson, glossed over this comment and directed his ire at Biden for even considering to blame climate change for the fires.
The mentions by Fox hosts are particularly irresponsible and egregious given that several days earlier both The Intercept and The New York Times reported that these claims were unfounded and that local law enforcement were “pleading with the public to stop calling 911 to pass on unfounded rumors that antifascist political activists have intentionally set the blazes.” On social media, the arson rumors have been pushed by a number of far-right accounts and groups including QAnon, which the FBI identifies as a domestic terrorism threat. It is alarming that Fox is undermining law enforcement and continuing to align itself with dangerous factions in spreading such conspiracy theories.
Fox has, and continues to be, the main purveyor of climate denial in the United States. It’s no surprise that their minimization of climate change’s role in this year’s western wildfires is lazy, cheap, and similar to Murdoch-owned Australian media’s role in downplaying climate change from earlier this year; we can expect to see more of it in the future.