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15 Jan 2020

A Firefighting Ex-Australian Prime Minister Is The Face Of Climate Change Denialism

Tony Abbott is a former prime minister, a volunteer firefighter... and an icon for climate change deniers.

Mick Tsikas / AAPIMAGE

Abbott volunteering with the Rural Fire Service on Jan. 10, 2020.

At first glance, it looks like a straightforward fan page for volunteer firefighters and former conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott.

The profile picture shows Abbott in front of an Australian flag. The cover photo is a picture of the Abbott family. Many of the recent posts celebrate Abbott's efforts as a volunteer fighting Australia's catastrophic bushfires.

But sandwiched between those posts are others decrying the “climate cult”, the “feral media” and “globalists and socialists”.

The Facebook page, titled “Tony Abbott’s Support Page”, has 44,000 followers. And as Australia’s bushfire crisis has intensified, the page's engagement levels have rocketed in response to posts questioning the science of climate change.

On Tuesday, the page published a post that has performed better than any other in the last six months — attracting 52.6 times more engagement than the page's average, measured by the social media analysis tool CrowdTangle — celebrating "climate deniers" as rational and educated thinkers, contrasting them to others who "blindly" follow what they see on television.

The post has been shared over 1,000 times.

The third best performing post in the last six months, published on Saturday, blames the “feral media” for failing to tell Australians about arsonists.

“We have to rely on international papers to tell us about the arsonists in Australia because our local press can't write or spell the word arsonist its [sic] most important that you believe the fires are from climate change,” says the Jan. 11 post, sharing a UK article about an Australian firefighter from the Northern Territory — far from the centre of the current bushfire crisis — who was arrested for arson.

The post has been shared more than 1,200 times — more than any other post on the page in the past month.

The role of arson in the current bushfire crisis has been exaggerated and deployed by climate sceptics who argue that climate change is not responsible for the crisis.

In fact, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has reported that only 1% of the land burnt in New South Wales this bushfire season can be attributed to arson, and even less in Victoria.

Another recent high-performing post on the page is a rudimentary graphic describing climate change as a “made-up catastrophe used by globalists & socialists to instil fear and guilt to tax, regulate, and remove our freedoms while pretending to be saving the planet.”

It has been shared more than 700 times.

Other posts performing above the page's usual metrics describe climate change as a “scam”, argue that 41 climate disaster predictions in the last 50 years have failed to come true, and quote a climate change-denying scientist claiming that the climate change movement is “the greatest mass delusion in the history of the world”.

The page, which also shares anti-LGBTQ content, has questioned climate change in the past, but the focus has increased as the bushfire season has rolled on.

BuzzFeed News contacted an administrator over Facebook Messenger. They declined to say who ran the page, but said there were several moderators. They said they had received no endorsement from Abbott.

"This page is political and of course we publish anything to do with support for a good man, true Australian and former PM and if you care to scroll back as many years as you like you will see we cover all sorts of topics," the message said.

The administrator said that climate change was "natural", questioned humans' role in changing temperatures, said Australia was known for its bushfire seasons, and pointed the finger at arsonists and fuel loads.

Other pages dedicated to Tony Abbott — “I’ll stand by Tony Abbott” with 36,000 fans, and “We support Peter Dutton & Tony Abbott”, with close to 5,000 — have also shared content disputing the link between the bushfires and climate change. (Dutton, the home affairs minister, hails from the same conservative wing of the Liberal Party as Abbott.)

While there is no suggestion Abbott influences or sanctions the pages' content, the pivot to climate science content reinforces his role as a figurehead for climate denialism in Australia.

In the past few weeks, Abbott’s official page has showcased his efforts on the bushfire frontlines in his role as a volunteer with the Rural Fire Service. It has avoided weighing into the raging debate about the conservative government's policy response to the threat of climate change.

But the former prime minister has a well-known history of questioning the science of climate change, infamously describing it as "absolute crap".

In December 2019 he told an Israeli radio station that the world was “in the grip of a climate cult”, and denied that carbon emissions were driving global warming. He has stated that the climate is changing and Australia should do what it “reasonably can” to reduce emissions but should not “turn our economy upside down”.

Abbott served as Australian prime minister from 2013, when he successfully unseated the centre-left Labor government with a campaign to repeal its price on carbon, until 2015, when his party replaced him as leader with the more moderate Malcolm Turnbull.

While the Liberal-National coalition was returned to government at the 2019 election, Abbott lost his seat to an independent whose platform centred on climate action.

The irony of Abbott risking his safety to fight the unprecedented bushfires — whose severity most people attribute to climate change — while remaining a figurehead for the deniers, is a microcosm of a tension evident in many of Australia's conservative and climate-denying Facebook pages.

These pages' posts often reveal horror at the fires and the destruction they have caused, but are equally insistent that climate change has nothing to do with it. Instead, they blame fuel loads, failed hazard reduction policies, the Greens and arsonists for the natural disaster.

Pages including The Quiet Australian, True Blue Australia and Australian Conservative News have also been sharing Abbott-related content in recent weeks.

Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.

Hannah Ryan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Hannah Ryan at hannah.ryan@buzzfeed.com.

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