Australia's Abbott denies climate change link to bushfires as thousands told to evacuate

Prime Minister Abbott says UN climate chief 'talking through her hat'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 10:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 5:44pm

Prime Minister Tony Abbott denied on Wednesday that devastating bushfires in Australia were linked to climate change, saying the United Nations climate chief was “talking through her hat” on the issue.

Thousands of Australians were told to evacuate their homes on Wednesday as dry winds created the conditions for a firestorm in mountainous bushland outside Sydney, where firefighters have battled for days to bring dozens of wildfires under control.

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since last Thursday, when bushfires tore through scattered communities to Sydney’s south and west, razing entire streets. One man died after suffering a heart attack trying to protect his home.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said on Tuesday that while the latest fires raging west of Sydney could not yet be linked to global warming, there was “absolutely” a connection between wildfires and rising temperatures.

“The official in question is talking through her hat,” Abbott told radio station 3AW.

“Climate change is real, as I’ve often said, and we should take strong action against it.

“But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change - they’re just a function of life in Australia,” he said.

The vast country’s hot and dry weather makes it particularly prone to bushfires and they are a regular feature of summer.

These fires are certainly not a function of climate change - they’re just a function of life in Australia
Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott

But the current blazes have inflamed debate about whether there is a link to climate change and Figueres, executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), weighed in during an interview with CNN.

“The World Meteorological Organisation has not established a direct link between this wildfire and climate change - yet,” Figueres said.

“But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heatwaves in Asia, Europe, and Australia, that there these will continue, that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency.”

Abbott rejected the connection saying “fire is a part of the Australian experience”.

Figueres also criticised Abbott’s decision to repeal a carbon tax on emissions put in place by the previous government to combat climate change.

Abbott, who once described climate change science as “absolute crap”, campaigned hard against the so-called carbon tax for the September election and has made repealing it the first priority of his conservative government.

As firefighters tackled dire weather conditions on Wednesday, Abbott defended his decision to help locals with firefighting operations last weekend.

“I think the risks are well within the bounds of what is acceptable,” said the prime minister, who has been a volunteer firefighter for a decade.

“Even as a prime minister you’ve got to be a human being first.”

Wednesday’s fire conditions were shaping up to be the worst so far in the state’s bushfire crisis, Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

“If you don’t have a plan, let me give you one,” NSW Emergency Minister Michael Gallacher said. “Get into the car, drive down to the city metropolitan area and let the firefighters do what they can do to protect the community, should this turn for the worse.”

Temperatures in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney are expected to reach up to 30 degrees Celsius, while in Sydney itself they could hit 35 degrees Celsius. Hot, dry winds gusting up to 100kph are also expected, posing the greatest challenge to firefighters.

“This is the day where we’ve been receiving forecasts of the worst of weather for this week and that forecast is still staying with those predictions,” Fitzsimmons told reporters, warning of extreme fire conditions.

There are still 59 fires burning across the state on Wednesday, with 19 out of control, according to the latest update from the RFS.

Authorities ordered schools in the Blue Mountains to be closed, evacuated nursing homes and advised people living in the area to leave before conditions deteriorated.

The Blue Mountains, whose foothills extend down to western Sydney suburbs like Penrith, are populated with a mix of farmers, small business owners and white-collar commuters who make the trip into the city every day. Known for their spectacular escarpments, eucalyptus forests and scattered small communities, they are a popular tourist spot for Sydney-siders on weekends.

But the region’s often inaccessible terrain and highly combustible vegetation can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million (HK$697 million) were expected to grow and the NSW government has declared a state of emergency enabling it to order evacuations.

Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.

With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to bushfires. In 2009, the “Black Saturday” wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

Record hot and dry weather across the continent and an early start to the fire season have rekindled arguments on mankind’s impact on climate and what can be done to mitigate it.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters