When in late February the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the second part of its Sixth Assessment Report – the 4,000-page volume on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – news editors choosing to cover the report had a decision to make. What image would they use to draw readers’ attention to the report and its message? Influenced by the Associated Press, most chose a harrowing picture of the Bond Fire, above, that burned nearly 7,000 acres in Orange County, California, in December 2020.

Eve Darian-Smith, professor and chair of the Department of Global and International Affairs at the University of California Irvine, had submitted the manuscript for Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis months before the release of that IPCC report. Nevertheless, she would have understood the social-psychology behind the news editors’ choice.

California wildfires had blazed in the news consistently since 2017. California’s wildfires were not only timely from a news perspective, they were terrifyingly photogenic. “Fire’s immediate danger,” Darian-Smith had already written, “stands in stark contrast to many other environmental disasters.” She elaborated:

Fires produce terrifying walls of flame and smoke and blackened landscapes that persist for months and years afterward. … [T]he physical, emotional, and psychological scars left by [wildfires] can last a lifetime.

Surely it was significant, then, that in 2022 wildfires by and large had supplanted polar bears, melting ice sheets, swirling hurricanes, and bright red thermometers as the iconic representation of climate change on the pages of many of America’s newspapers.

Or rather on the front pages of some American newspapers.* The biggest front-page story on the day the IPCC released its report dealt with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most newspapers that did find some space for the IPCC report on their front pages were located in so-called blue states. In fact, in only 5 of the 24 states that went for Donald Trump in 2020 could a front-page notice of the IPCC report be found, less than a third of the ratio for blue states.

Recurring patterns in Australia, Brazil, U.S.

Trump and his legacy play a major role in Darian-Smith’s Global Burning. The questions that his presidency and continuing influence raise about the viability of American democracy provide the basis for her comparing American wildfires with those of Australia and Brazil, two other countries in which right-learning politicians – Scott Morrison and Jair Bolsonaro, respectively – have violated democratic norms and obstructed environmental regulation, in part by denying the science behind them.

Much of Global Burning is devoted to describing and explaining the pattern Darian-Smith sees in Australia, Brazil, and the U.S. and in an increasing number of countries around the world.

  • Political and industrial leaders collude to extract wealth from the land and its people, without regard for sustainability.
  • Industries effectively capture and control state agencies assigned to regulate them.
  • Politicians, their parties, and affiliated media use campaign contributions and advertising from these industries to build and maintain messaging operations that dis-inform the public and otherwise obstruct democratic oversight, including free and fair elections.
  • They do this by playing on nationalistic fears and animosities to gain and retain power.
  • This nationalism at home is combined with isolationist foreign policies. 
  • Nationalism and isolationism lead to anti-environmentalism out of resistance to global environmental concerns. 
  • This combination of ultranationalism, isolationism and anti-environmentalism intensifies systemic environmental racism in these countries.   

In Australia, according to Darian-Smith, the mining industry effectively captured the Conservative Party, using it to overcome regulatory, legislative, and even constitutional resistance to its land grabs (including of sacred lands expressly granted to Indigenous people) and environmental despoliations.

The local effects of this destruction, combined with the global effects of industrial carbon dioxide emissions and, therefore, of atmospheric concentrations, increased the vulnerability of Australia’s rainforests to wildfire. Over the 2019-2020 season, truly horrific “bushfires” ravaged drought-weakened forests in New South Wales and Victoria, killing an estimated 3 billion animals.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential ambitions were funded by major agribusinesses and mining interests. When he took office, he promptly cut back on environmental oversight, allowing those interests to burn and then claim thousands of hectares of old-growth rainforest.

Just three years after Brazil signed the Paris Climate Agreement, promising to reduce deforestation substantially, the number of fires increased dramatically.

So too did threats to the Amazon’s Indigenous defenders. According to Darian-Smith, in 2018, the year Bolsonaro took office, 135 Indigenous people were murdered. 

Traits that Darian-Smith highlights in her accounts of Scott Morrison and Jair Bolsonaro can also be found in Donald Trump: rabid nationalism, scornful isolationism, contempt for environmental regulations and even for science itself, an eagerness to collude with wealthy interests that support him, and a willingness to evade or violate democratic norms, including free and fair elections. Trump’s connections with devastating wildfires, however, seem more tenuous.

For her U.S. case study, Darian-Smith focuses on the wildfires in California, specifically those sparked by the negligence of California’s major utility, Pacific Gas & Electric or PG&E.  A utility company is not “extractive” in the same sense as the mining operations overturning metric tons of Australian outback in search of minerals or the agribusinesses torching acres of Brazilian rainforest in order to plant rows of soybeans.

Instead, PG&E stands accused of extracting money from its customers and transferring it to its executives and shareholders – without first setting aside the funds necessary to maintain and upgrade critical infrastructure for its operations. By not properly maintaining the lines, stations, switches, and towers of its electrical grid, PG&E allegedly created the conditions for accidental discharges that could grow into deadly conflagrations. Like the one that consumed the town of Paradise in the summer of 2018.

Systemic environmental racism was not a widely used frame in media coverage of California’s wildfires. By stepping back for a wider-angle, longer-term perspective, however, Darian-Smith is able to show that wealth and vulnerability were inversely correlated when it came to dealing with the wildfires and the choking clouds of smoke they created. People forced to work during the fires – for instance, migrant farmworkers, and people without air conditioning or filtration systems – suffered serious health consequences. And in these groups, people of color predominated.

An approach at great odds with those of Bolsonaro, Morrison, Trump

Darian-Smith’s approach to proposals for fighting wildfires and the nexuses of authoritarianism, isolationism and anti-environmentalism that fuel them is to think with and through fire. Fire does not draw distinctions between the human and the natural. Fire does not heed national or social boundaries. Smoke from wildfires is carried by currents of air that can encircle the globe. And slow fire has a vital role to play in keeping some ecosystems, like forests and grasslands, healthy and vibrant.

In short, Darian-Smith’s action plan is the opposite of that followed by figures like Bolsonaro, Morrison, and Trump. Her perspective is unabashedly globalist (both anti-nationalist and anti-isolationist, with humanitarianism added in) and pro-environmentalist. In her final chapter, she encourages readers to become more active politically. She applauds, in particular, the efforts of young activists like Greta Thunberg and Tokata Iron Eyes.

But in this final section of Global Burning, the broader brushstrokes used by Darian-Smith in her descriptions of capitalism and authoritarianism work against practical points of strategy.

In all three countries – Australia, Brazil, and the United States – there are opposing political parties, and even politically opposing businesses. This situation is most clear in the United States, where Joe Biden prevailed over Donald Trump in 2020 in part because he received substantial support from business leaders in more forward-looking industries. What accounts for the dramatic flips from Malcolm Turnbull to Scott Morrison in Australia, from Michel Temer to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and from Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the United States? (On May 21, 2022, Australia’s voters decisively voted Morrison and his party out of office.)

On this question, Darian-Smith provides more hints than answers.

Climate change is ratcheting up external pressures on nations’ political economies, causing some people to seek stronger, more authoritarian leaders. At the same time, the contending parties in many countries have become less centrist, in part because of the changing media landscape. But in moving further to the right, conservatives seem also to have realized the need to employ more coordinated, and often less democratic, tactics.

In the United States, the effectiveness of such tactics is enhanced by distinctly undemocratic features of the federal government, as with the Electoral College, the Senate, and the filibuster. As a result, it now seems likely that the Supreme Court – with four of its nine justices nominated by presidents who did not win the popular vote, two having been confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate that violated previous norms for “advice and consent” on nominees – will eliminate a woman’s right to choose, a right consistently supported by a substantial majority of the American people. To reclaim this right, and to preserve other human rights and the environment – liberals and moderates must also coordinate and focus their tactics over the long term.

In Global Burning, Darian-Smith attempts to assemble a big-picture puzzle from a disparate set of pieces. Not all fit snugly together. Nevertheless, by the end of the book attentive readers may well have seen enough to have their political views altered. Things that didn’t seem to be connected before will feel linked by more than daily news coincidences. Things like the abortion debate, the May shootings at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, state legislative efforts to ban disinvestment from fossil fuels, state legislative efforts to restrict voting and control the counting of votes, and … climate  change.

Reinforcing the links with climate change in coming months will be a steady stream of news stories about wildfires – wildfires in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Florida ….

If fire is the new symbol for climate change, there will be no shortage of dramatic photographs.

*The numbers provided here are drawn from the author’s March 1, 2022, analysis of more than 300 newspaper front pages displayed on Freedom Forum’s Today’s Front Pages webpage.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...