As bushfires ravage eastern Australia, governments say they don't want to talk about climate change – but scientists say the link is clear

Fires, and political discourse, rage. (Photo by Jennifer Polixenni Brankin, Getty Images)
  • New South Wales and Queensland are facing ferocious bushfires, while politicians try to avoid talking about the contribution of climate change.
  • Despite that, the New South Wales government spent part of Tuesday recommending that coal mine approvals be exempt from climate change considerations.
  • While climate change doesn’t cause bushfires directly, it does exacerbate their frequency and severity, according to scientists.

As bushfires burn across the eastern seaboard, Coalition-controlled governments are nothing if not consistent.

The message from the government, both federally and in the state of New South Wales, is one and the same: you can’t talk about climate change while fires burn.

“I’m focused on the needs of the people in this room today, as is the [New South Wales] Premier,” Mr Morrison told media this week.

“If you talk to people who are traumatised, you need to address their concerns first and foremost. We have time on our hands to talk about those other issues,” Gladys Berejiklian said.

The sentiment only runs so far. Less than 24 hours after Berejiklian’s comments, New South Wales Parliament was moving to amend rules directly related to it – specifically removing a commitment to consider climate change when evaluating the approval of coal mines.

“This will prevent consent authorities from imposing conditions seeking to control, for example, downstream greenhouse gas emissions or other climate change impacts occurring outside Australia,” NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes told Parliament.

It’s an contradiction which drew the ire of climate activists, who gathered on Macquarie Street on Tuesday.

“Today, NSW suffers through its first catastrophic fire danger rating. Today, we’re told it’s not the time to talk about climate. Today, this government is about to push through legislation to ban climate change as a consideration in determining new coal mines,” one tweeted from outside Parliament.

With climate change a global phenomenon, it’s unclear how its impacts could be considered exclusive to outside Australia’s borders. Rising global temperatures, for example, directly affect Australia. While climate change does not cause bushfires directly, it does greatly increase the risk and severity of fires, according to USYD professor of hazards and disaster risks sciences Dale Dominey-Howes.

“Bushfires are not directly attributable to climate change, our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires,” Dominey-Howes wrote in The Conversation just two months ago.

“Climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and intense bushfires,” he said, noting the heightened risk factors.

Then there’s the country’s very own Bureau of Meteorology (BoM).

“Australia’s climate has warmed just over 1 °C since 1910 leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events,” the BoM said in its 2018 climate report. “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.”

The BoM notes in the same report a changing climate has seen an 11% decline in April-October rainfall since the 1990s in the southeast of the country, where bushfires are currently blazing. With that part of the country also in the midst of a severe drought, fire conditions have been classified as ‘catastrophic’ and compared to those that preceded the Black Saturday disaster of 2009.

That is unlikely to spur any action from the country’s politicians, however.

The Prime Minister has copped flack for going with “thoughts and prayers” over concrete action.

Meanwhile, Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese, for now, appears content choosing to kick the can down the road as well.

“There is a need once we get through this period to really have a look at what the science is telling us and what the experts are telling us, which is that we have had a very prolonged drought that’s been more intense than previous droughts and that this bushfire season,” Albanese told the ABC.

The message became far more disjointed the further you get down the ladder of power.

Liberal Senator Gerard Rennick accused the BoM of tampering with its own measurement tools as part of the climate ‘agenda’.

For the record, the BoM has published comprehensive justification for the change it made, which you can read here if you feel so inclined.

A flustered Rennick above creating a false equivalence between adapting meteorology tools and cooking financial records is a far more amusing use of your time, I assure you.

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