‘Nothing to Do With Climate Change’: Conservative Media and Trump Align on Fires

Source: By Michael M. Grynbaum and Tiffany Hsu, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson dismiss scientists’ determination that climate change is a key culprit in West Coast wildfires.

Firefighters facing the Bobcat Fire in Monrovia, Calif. President Trump has blamed poor management of forestland by local officials for the blazes.
Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Rush Limbaugh told millions of his radio listeners to set aside any suggestion that climate change was the culprit for the frightening spate of wildfiresravaging California and the Pacific Northwest.

“Man-made global warming is not a scientific certainty; it cannot be proven, nor has it ever been,” Mr. Limbaugh declared on his Friday show, disregarding the mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary. He then pivoted to a popular right-wing talking point: that policies meant to curtail climate change are, in fact, an assault on freedom.

“Environmentalist wackos” — Mr. Limbaugh’s phrase — “want man to be responsible for it because they want to control your behavior,” the conservative host said on the show. He added that they “want to convince you that your lifestyle choices are the reason why all these fires are firing up out on the Left Coast.”

Hours later, that message leapt to prime time on Fox News, where the host Tucker Carlson said those who blamed climate change for the fires were merely reciting “a partisan talking point.”

“In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systemic racism in the sky,” Mr. Carlson told viewers. “You can’t see it, but rest assured, it’s everywhere, and it’s deadly. And like systemic racism, it is your fault.”

Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Carlson are two of the most prominent commentators in the right-wing media sphere, where a rich history of climate denialism has merged with Trump-era cultural warfare to generate a deep skepticism of the notion that climate change is a factor in the fires devastating the West Coast.

Like President Trump, conservative media stars dismiss climate change — which scientists say is the primary cause of the conflagration — and point to the poor management of forestland by local (and, conveniently, Democratic) officials. Fringe right-wing websites, like The Gateway Pundit, have blamed left-wing arsonists, fueling false rumors that authorities say are impeding rescue efforts.

Visiting California on Monday to witness the destruction firsthand, Mr. Trump took Western states to task for failing to manage the forests properly. During a meeting with California officials who pushed him to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires, the president said: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, replied.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Mr. Trump retorted.

The president’s comments were likely to resonate with fans of the conservative media personalities who routinely defend his agenda.

“This has nothing to do with climate change, it has nothing to do with man-made climate change, and it sure as hell would help if these forests in these timber areas were free to be properly managed, but they’re not,” Mark Levin, another popular right-wing radio host, said on his nationally syndicated show on Friday.

Conservative media stars like Rush Limbaugh dismiss climate change.
Leah Millis/Reuters

Like Mr. Carlson, Mr. Levin drew a link between climate advocacy and recent demonstrations for racial justice, suggesting that both causes — widely associated with liberals — offered a cloak for more sinister intentions.

“They want to talk man-made climate change because, out of this, they want to control you,” Mr. Levin said. “It’s just like the race stuff — ‘systemically racist’ — well, what do you want to do about it? Control you. Beat you down. You need to change your lifestyle, need to confess to something.”

Some right-wing writers see even darker origins in the outbreak of a lethal blaze.

The Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy website with a healthy online following — its chief writer, Jim Hoft, was welcomed to the White House by Mr. Trump — published posts asserting that left-wing anarchists were to blame, not the environment.

“Many arsonists have already been arrested in Oregon, Washington and California, but the Democrats continue to blame the wildfires on climate change,” a Gateway Pundit story said on Monday, alongside a video purportedly showing a woman in Oregon confronting an arsonist on her property. The site claimed that mainstream news outlets were ignoring this story because “it goes against their global warming and anti-gun narrative.”

A man in Oregon was charged last week with starting the destructive Almeda Fire in a small town that was under orders to evacuate. But the authorities say rising temperatures are a predominant cause of this year’s outbreak.

For the president’s political supporters, the notion that rogue firestarters are causing havoc is an enticing echo of a key message adopted by Mr. Trump and Republican in the presidential race: that regions of the country have been consumed by left-wing violence.

And Mr. Trump continues to play down environmental factors. Asked on Tuesday’s “Fox & Friends” about his policy plans for fighting climate change, the president replied: “You have forests all over the world. You don’t have fires like you do in California.”

Californians have been debating how to reduce the risk of deadly blazes, with some officials arguing for more controlled burns. An August news release from the office of Gavin Newsom, the California governor, noted that the state’s forests were “highly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire and in need of active, science-based management,” in part because of hotter and drier conditions created by climate change.

Mr. Newsom has called for the federal government to play a more active role in managing the state’s forests. About 58 percent of California forestland is controlled by the federal government; the state owns 3 percent.

For environmental advocacy groups, problematic media coverage of the wildfires is not limited to platforms associated with the right.

The Environmental Defense Fund, in a scathing post, said many mainstream news outlets had failed to draw a direct link between the widespread destruction and the dangerous consequences of a changing climate.

“It is like talking about the increased spread of Covid while ignoring the reason it is spreading,” the group wrote.