Rhetoric Over Climate’s Role In Australian Bushfires Heats Up As Blazes Burn On


Firefighters spray foam on smoldering bush to help reduce reflash fires after a blaze swept through an area west of Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013.

Shortly after his “24 Hours of Reality: Cost of Carbon” event wrapped up on Wednesday, Al Gore was back onscreen entering into the heated debate that has emerged around a deadly spate of bushfires in Australia and how much climate change is to blame.

The former U.S. vice president told a TV station in LA yesterday that “bushfires can occur naturally and do, 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.”

The fires, which are happening outside of Sydney in the Australian state of New South Wales, have destroyed more than 200 properties over the last week and continuing dry, warm, and windy conditions have led NSW to declare a state of emergency. More than 60 blazes continue to rage in the region, over 20 of them out of control, fire service spokeswoman Natalie Sanders told CNN yesterday. While cooler weather and diminished winds have lowered the overall threat, with a total perimeter of around 600 square miles, the fires could smolder on for weeks or even months.

“Never before have we seen the extent of damage and destruction and wide-scale fire activity at this time of the year,” Shane Fitzsimmons, the commissioner of New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told CNN on Wednesday.

While exceptionally hot and dry conditions combined with abundant fuel led to an early start to this year’s bushfire season, the fuel for the controversy over climate’s role came from newly elected PM and Liberal National Coalition leader Tony Abbott.

On Wednesday, Abbott said on an Australian radio program that Australia had “suffered terrible fires throughout its history,” and that “fire is part of the Australian experience … it has been since humans were on this continent.”

He did not deny the existence of climate change, but said these fires are certainly not a function of it.

Abbott was responding to U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres’s remarks to CNN that there is absolutely a link between climate change and the wildfires.

“The World Meteorological Organization has not established a direct link between this wildfire and climate change — yet,” Figueres told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday. “But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe, and Australia; that there these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency.”

Abbott further stoked the fire when he said that Figueres was “talking through her hat” in regards to climate change’s role in the fires.

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.

According to The Guardian, leaks of the second section of the fifth IPCC report to be released next year warn that Australia’s very high and extreme fire danger days will increase by up to 30% by 2020, and up to 100% by 2050.

Gore compared Abbott’s insistence that bushfires aren’t linked to climate change to the tobacco industry claiming smoke doesn’t cause lung cancer.

“For 40 years the tobacco companies were able to persuade pliant politicians within their grip to tell the public what they wanted them to tell them, and for 40 years the tragedy continued,” the Nobel laureate said, drawing a parallel from the situation in Australia to that in the U.S. “The energy companies, coal companies and oil companies particularly, have prevented the Congress of the United States from doing anything meaningful so far, to stop the climate crisis.”

Gore went further to say that the Abbott government’s Direct Action strategy to mitigate climate change was not workable. He said the meaningful way to address the crisis is to put a price on carbon, or in Australia’s case, keep a price on carbon.

Abbott was elected last month after vowing to scrap Australia’s carbon emissions tax, and has since said that he would dissolve both the lower house and the Senate if his plan to remove it is blocked.