Australian Wildfires Threaten New Prime Minister’s Anti-Climate Agenda

CREDIT: AP Photo/New South Wales Rural Fire Service

Remains of a structure are in a crumpled pile after a wildfire destroyed the building, at an unknown location in Australia, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013.

In early September Tony Abbott was elected the next Prime Minister of Australia. Around the same time bushfire season got off to an early start. Now heading into summer Down Under, it seems Abbott, a former volunteer firefighter, and bushfires may intricately linked for the long-term as a new spate of fires has fueled heavy debate over Abbott’s plans to dismantle the country’s climate change agenda.

The current round of bushfires, happening outside of Sydney in the Australian state of New South Wales, has already destroyed more than 200 properties over the last five days. New South Wales’ Premier Barry O’Farrell declared a state of emergency yesterday due to a continuing combination of warm, dry weather and strong winds that make containing the fires more difficult. Mandatory evacuations are being considered for up to 25 townships.

With the weather hampering firefighters’ efforts, the fires themselves are hampering Liberal National Coalition leader and PM Abbott’s agenda to roll back Australia’s efforts to combat climate change. In his victory speech Abbott named scrapping Australia’s carbon emissions tax as a major priority. He has since said that he would dissolve both the lower house and the Senate if his plan is blocked.

Shortly after being elected, Abbott made good on his campaign trail promise to abolish the country’s climate commission, an independent but government-funded panel of experts studying the effects climate change on the country. It has since been reborn as the Climate Council, a privately-funded body with the same well-known leader, professor and conservationist Tim Flannery, and will be funded by public donations.

September 2013 was easily Australia’s warmest September on record, at nearly five degrees Fahrenheit above average. It also marked Australia’s record for warmest 12-month period for the second consecutive month.

It would seem neither the public nor the climate are on board with Abbott’s intention to treat climate change as a burdensome nuisance best left ignored lest it disturb his other priorities, like advancing Australia’s coal industry. Coal mining has helped power the Australian economy for decades and with demand rising across Asia, Australia could double exports by 2020 and overtake Indonesia as the world’s largest coal exporter.

With fossil-fuel interests deeply entrenched in the Australian economy and political system, the recent bushfires have exposed the raw debate over climate change simmering on the surface.

In an article in the Guardian, Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt, wrote that the extreme and early bushfire season this year is an example of “Abbott failing in what Ronald Reagan reportedly described as a government’s first duty: to protect its people.”

Bandt, part of the Australian Greens party that played a crucial role in helping pass the Carbon Reduction Pollution Scheme in 2010, argues that Abbott is ignoring climate change risk in exchange for short-term opportunism. He worries that Australia will become the first-ever country to introduce a price on pollution and then repeal it. And he draws comparison between what Abbott is doing and how the Tea Party functions:

“While much of the rest of the world is moving forward with action on climate change, including introducing carbon pricing, Abbott is taking us backwards. The OECD might urge action, but Abbott is as deaf to the economics of climate change as he is to the science. Like the Tea Party in the US, he has adopted a radical anti-market position, regardless of the economic consequences, as a political tool to mobilize extreme public opinion. In office he beats the same Tea Party drum, engaging in a new culture war, this time on climate action.”

Bandt has since been accused of politicizing the disaster. Environment Minister Greg Hunt and his Coalition colleagues rebuked Bandt, with Hunt saying “There has been a terrible tragedy in NSW and no one anywhere should seek to politicize any human tragedy let alone a bushfire of this scale.”

Christine Milne, leader of the Greens, tweeted that those unwilling to address the link between climate change and the bushfires were engaging in climate censorship.

The debate over politicization is exacerbated by flashpoint statements over whether climate change is to blame for the fires. Retired Monash University researcher David Packham, identified as an expert by the Australian Associated Press, said global warming is a gradual process which doesn’t explain major bushfires.

Alternatively, former rural fire services commissioner Phil Koperberg told the Australian, “We have never had this in October. This is a feature of slowly evolving climate. We have always had fires, but not of this nature, and not at this time of year, and not accompanied by the record-breaking heat we’ve had.”