Australian bush fires reignite climate change debate

Environment minister says fires ‘just a function of life Australia’

After two deaths and more than 200 homes lost amid hundreds of fires, the bushfire threat has abated in New South Wales. But it may only be a temporary respite.

Sydney is on track to record its hottest or second hottest October since records began 154 years ago. July and September 2013 are already in the record books as the hottest for those months, with August falling just short.   Most of New South Wales faces an elevated fire threat for months, with above average temperatures expected until the end of January.

It was figures such as these which led Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to enter Australia's renewed climate change debate. "We are really already paying the price of carbon. We are paying the price with wildfires, we are paying the price with droughts," she said.

Australia's prime minister Tony Abbott, who still works as a volunteer firefighter, accused Figueres of "talking through her hat".


"These fires are certainly not a function of climate change. They're just a function of life in Australia, " he said. Environment minister Greg Hunt, using an online source, backed Abbott's view. "I looked up what Wikipedia said just to see what the rest of the world thought," he told BBC radio. "It opened up with the fact that, 'bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year due to Australia's mostly hot, dry, climate'."

For a brief period on Thursday Hunt’s own Wikipedia entry was changed to say: “Since the 2013 election, Hunt has become the minister for the environment. He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise . . . He is notorious for using Wikipedia to conduct research on environmental issues . . . despite having access to a vast bureaucracy staffed by some of the finest and most dedicated minds in the nation.”

One of the new government's first acts upon winning power last month was to abolish the Climate Commission, which had been set up by the previous Labor government. Most of the scientists and businesspeople from the Climate Commission then immediately formed the independent Climate Council.

Prof Lesley Hughes, part of the council and an ecologist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, said: “Southeast Australia is experiencing a long-term drying trend . . . consistent with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on extreme weather . . . When you have more frequent hot days and less rain, it increases the likelihood of extreme fire weather. The fires in New South Wales are being influenced by these conditions.”

Al Gore rows in
Former US vice president and climate activist Al Gore also entered the debate in an appearance on Australian television.

“Bushfires can occur naturally, and do,” he said. “But the science shows clearly that when the temperature goes up and when the vegetation and soils dry out, then wildfires become more pervasive and more dangerous.”

At least one of the fires, however, did not have anything to do with climate change. The defence force has admitted that explosives training on army land was responsible for a fire that has destroyed three homes and burned through 47,000 hectares of bush.

St Vincent de Paul is one of many charities helping those who affected by the bushfires. Its general manager of fundraising, Julie McDonald, says there has been a huge outpouring of support. “I think it’s because we can see ourselves in this situation. You can put yourself in the shoes of someone whose house has burnt down.

“I’ve never seen anything like it . . . people have been so generous,” said Ms McDonald, who is from Dublin.