A Climate of Confusion Down Under


Just weeks into his new job, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has been tripped up by climate change for his refusal to accept a link between global warming and a greater chance of more intense bushfires.

Abbott is known for his doubts about climate change. But his repeated denial of a link has triggered a fierce backlash in Australian media and criticism from abroad, including from Al Gore.

Abbott’s comments, including an insulting remark against the United Nations’ top climate change official, rankled even more because they were made as his own state of New South Wales was being ravaged by the worse bushfires in more than a decade.

The fires, some still burning, have destroyed more than 200 homes and disrupted the lives of thousands of people. Abbott’s comments have sparked anger because they underscore his government’s weak stance on climate change just as major disasters such as the NSW fires underscore the nation’s increasing threat from a warming planet.

And bushfires are a very emotive issue in Australia. Huge wildfires have caused the nation’s deadliest disasters. Fires around the city of Melbourne in February 2009, which occurred during record-breaking temperatures, killed 173 people.

The Prime Minister and his Environment Minister Greg Hunt are seen as increasingly out of touch with the vast wealth of science on climate change that says, unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically cut globally, Australia will face greater extremes of heat, floods, drought and wildfires. That means more people, more property, more lives and the economy as a whole are at risk and that the Australian government should be doing its part in making the economy more efficient and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Already, Australians are feeling the heat after record-breaking temperatures, severe bushfires, extreme rainfall and costly floods during the 2012/13 summer, dubbed “The Angry Summer” in a report by the Climate Commission, which Abbott scrapped last month as one of his first acts in office. The commission was created by the previous government to help explain climate science to the public.

The extreme heat has not abated. According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, the NSW fires come after the warmest September on record, with recent high temperatures culminating in Australia’s warmest 12-months record with an anomaly of +1.25 °C for the 12 months from October 2012 to September 2013.

Abbott and Hunt, though, don’t seem to be getting the point. Abbott told a Melbourne radio station on Oct 23 that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was “talking through her hat” for suggesting a link between global warming and bushfires.  He was responding to remarks Figueres made in an interview with CNN when she said global warming was “absolutely” linked to wildfires and heatwaves.

”Climate change is known to alter the likelihood of increased wildfire sizes and frequencies,” she said in a separate statement issued later in the week, citing the findings of the U.N. climate panel.

Hunt earned widespread ire for his defence of Abbott’s position by stating he ”looked up what Wikipedia” said about bushfires and said it was clear they were frequent events that had occurred during hotter months in Australia since before European settlement.

Hunt was criticised for quoting from Wikipedia when he has some of the world’s top climate scientists working for him, scientists who have clearly stated the link between climate change and extreme weather events.

Abbott is no stranger to climate controversy either. He earned notoriety in 2009 for saying climate change science was “absolute crap”. He’s since moderated his view but still has doubts over linkages between extreme events and climate change.

”Climate change is real and we should take strong action against it,” Abbott told Melbourne’s 3AW radio. ”But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change — they’re just a function of life in Australia,” he added.

Abbott is right. Bushfires are part of the Australian landscape and Australians always live with the danger.

But what makes these fires different are scale and timing and the extreme weather that fueled them. These fires occurred in the middle of Spring after months of record or near-record high temperatures in NSW and a long dry spell. Historically, wildfires on this scale have occurred from January to March, the hottest time of the year.

Firefighters don’t agree with Abbott, himself a volunteer firefighter.

Michael Howes, senior lecturer in sustainability and environmental policy at Griffith University, in a commentary for The Conservation website, said studies have shown emergency workers are increasingly worried about climate change and the need for tougher climate policies.

“Quite a few of the emergency workers and planners we interviewed said we should be talking about (climate change) more, if our communities are to be better prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in NSW right now,” Howes wrote.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, speaking on Australian television, also reminded Abbott of the link between a warming planet and greater likelihood of wildfires. He also criticised Abbott for his determination to scrap a national price on carbon passed in 2011 by both houses of parliament.

”The meaningful way to solve this crisis is to put a price on carbon. And in Australia’s case to keep a price on carbon. The price needs to be at a level that’s effective,” Gore said.

Abbott is unlikely to heed Gore’s advice. Having campaigned hard on an “axe the tax” platform, he and Hunt are determined to scrap the carbon price scheme and replace it with their “Direct Action” plan to “incentivise’ carbon cuts paid for via a multi-billion dollar emissions reduction fund.

Though now in office, neither Abbott nor Hunt have fully explained how the scheme will work and what will happen if it fails to achieve the pledged target to cut Australia’s emissions to 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.

While the new government’s climate policies will face increasing scrutiny at home and abroad, Abbott and Hunt will also likely face greater pressure from future weather extremes, with the Australian summer not starting for another month.

“The fire seasons in the continent’s south-east are getting longer: the largest increase in the index of fire danger—the Forest Fire Danger Index —has occurred during spring and autumn,” The Climate Institute think tank in Australia said in a recent statement.

“Reducing emissions is not a free lunch, but neither is climate change. Global action can limit climate change risks, Australia needs to do its fair share by limiting emissions to around a quarter of current levels by 2020,” said the institute’s CEO, John Connor.




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