Australian climate sceptics in charge as bushfire season begins

Australia letter: prime minister has dismissed climate-change science as ‘crap’

Australia’s bushfire season officially started last week, and after a warm, dry winter authorities are preparing for the worst. The national maximum temperature was up by 0.68 degrees across the country, and rainfall was 28 per cent below the long-term mean.

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, the temperature in Sydney rose to 35.5 degrees. It was the city’s hottest two consecutive September days on record.

Last year was Australia's hottest on record, and five separate studies concluded that human-induced climate change was a contributing factor. It got so hot the bureau of meteorology had to add a new colour – bright purple – to the top of its temperature chart. Wildfires raged in New South Wales and Tasmania, and much of the country was in severe drought.

Australia has more to immediately fear from climate change than almost any other developed country, but the man ultimately in charge of addressing these enormous challenges, prime minister Tony Abbott, has infamously dismissed the science underpinning climate change as "absolute crap".


No minister for science

Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition won power a year ago on a promise to abolish the carbon tax introduced by the previous Labor government. And abolish it they have, laughing and high-fiving each other in parliament as they did so.

One of Abbott’s first acts as prime minister was to abolish the Climate Commission, which had been established to give advice on the effects of and potential solutions to global warming. On the same day he also did away with the position of science minister. It is the first time since 1931 than an Australian government has not had a minister for science.

Australia's per capita carbon emissions are the highest of OECD countries and among the highest in the world. In February, the government launched a review of its 20 per cent renewable energy target, which was helping the country meet its Kyoto Protocol commitment to carbon reduction. Environment minister Greg Hunt appointed businessman and climate change sceptic Dick Warburton to chair the review.

In 1990, while at university, Hunt co-authored a thesis entitled “A Tax to Make the Polluter Pay”. His conclusion was: “Ultimately it is by harnessing the natural economic forces which drive society that the pollution tax offers us an opportunity to exert greater control over our environment.” But if Hunt was ahead of his time then, now he just tows the Liberal party climate sceptic line – he had a look of great relief on his face as the carbon tax was repealed.

Warburton’s report is due soon and it is widely expected it will recommend slashing the renewable energy target, which will mean more coal-fired power and less wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy.

Another government appointee, Abbott's chief business adviser Maurice Newman, not only doesn't believe in global warming, he actually believes the opposite, warning recently in an opinion piece for the Rupert Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper that the world was "ill prepared" for global cooling. He also accused other countries of being hostage to "warming propaganda" from climate scientists.

Tim Flannery, head of the Climate Council – an independently-funded body set up by members of the abolished Climate Commission – said "[Newman] is just demonstrably wrong".

Pressing problem

“This is a fundamental problem for the prime minister, who needs to make him do his job. Anyone would be deeply embarrassed by this kind of performance. I have no idea where this idea of global cooling has come from,” said Flannery. “What he’s saying fundamentally misrepresents the interests of business, which faces a huge risk, along with the rest of us, from climate change. He’s using his position for a personal crusade in what, I think, is a serious dereliction of duty.”

With an El Niño weather pattern developing in the Pacific Ocean, Australians have been warned to expect severe temperatures across the country from now until April. Higher temperatures mean an increased risk of bushfires, and the cities of Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth are all predicted to experience heatwaves.

Despite voting into power a government they knew gave little credence to climate change, a recent poll found 45 per cent of Australians see global warming as a “serious and pressing problem,” up 5 points since 2013.

Abbott and his ministers must fear in their darker moments that they might in time be known as the people who fiddled while Australia burned.