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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tony Abbott in denial on bushfire climate change link

In a radio interview with Neil Mitchell, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the Head of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, is "talking through her hat" for connecting the NSW bushfires with climate change and that "these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they are just a function of life in Australia."

It seems Mr Abbott is in denial on all the wildfire research done on the increase in fireweather and increase in frequency and intensity in bushfires both in Australia and globally.

Abbott articulated a list of major bushfire disasters in Australia as justification that climate change is not involved. Yet the science clearly shows the long term climate change trend for rising temperatures, with increasing frequency of heatwaves drying out forests and grasslands and driving reductions in humidity and soil moisture making extreme fireweather and bushfires more frequent and more intense.

Earlier this year just after the Tasmanian bushfires wiped out the town of Dunalley with people fleeing the inferno by boat, Prime Minister Julia Gillard linked the increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires generally to climate change conditions. At least she reads what climate scientists say on bushfires and climate change, unlike the present Prime Minister.

Related: Raging Bushfires surround Sydney with early start to Fire season | Mega bushfire feared as State of Emergency declared in NSW

Bushfires linked to climate change says UNFCCC Chief

Abbott was responding to Christiana Figueres, Chief executive of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who said the bushfires were clearly linked to climate change in a CNN interview on Monday.

"World Meteorological Organisation have not established the direct link between THIS wildfire and climate change, yet. What is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe, and Australia; that these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency," she told CNN.

Ms Figueres also highlighted that the Australian Government had not officially reduced it's international commitment on climate change. "So what they are struggling with now is, not what they are going to do but how are they going to get there." she said.

As Abbott has committed to reversing the carbon price instituted by the former Labor Government, she told CNN, "They are going to have to pay a very high political price and a very high financial price because the route that they are choosing to get to the same target that the previous government had could be much more expensive for them and for the population." said Ms Figueres.

"Because the fact is we are already... paying the price of carbon. We are paying the price with wildfires, paying the price with droughts, paying the price with so many other disturbances to the hydrological cycle. That is all the price that we are paying. So what we need to do is put a price on carbon, so we don't have to continue to pay the price of carbon." she said.

Science says Warming climate making bushfires worse

The ABC 7.30 Report detailed this debate in a report by Tracey Bowden on Monday night (21 October): Scientists say climate change link to bushfires demands action (Video and transcript)

Climate scientist Professor Andy Pittman said in his interview on this program, "We have had fires historically this early before, but I think the difference this time is that we've just gone through a winter that is unprecedentedly warm. It's not about the day or the day before the bushfire. It's about the three or four months of winter that were enormously warm in part due to global warming leading to an environment particularly conducive to fire."

Indeed, it has been the hottest September on record and the hottest 12 months on record for Australia. Many of the major fire disasters in the past have also been in El Nino years while we are presently in neutral El Nino conditions. The severity and intensity of these bushfires in October is one of the prominent signs. Wildfire scientists have been warning that one of the earliest impacts of climate change is extension of the fire season earlier into Spring and later into Autumn.

Climate researcher Roger Jones outlined in an article on The conversation website research done in Victoria, which would be generally applicable across south east Australia:

In research I did with colleagues earlier this year we looked at the Fire Danger Index calculated by the Bureau of Meteorology, and compared how it changed compared to temperature over time in Victoria.

South-east Australia saw a temperature change of about 0.8C when we compared temperatures before 1996 and after 1997. We know that it got drier after 1997 too.

We then compared this data to the Forest Fire Danger Index, to see if it showed the same pattern. We analysed fire data from nine stations in Victoria and did a non-linear analysis.

We found that fire danger in Victoria increased by over a third after 1996, compared to 1972-1996. The current level of fire danger is equivalent to the worst case projected for 2050, from an earlier analysis for the Climate Institute.

Dr Sarah Perkins, a research associate in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales had this to say on climate conditions and the NSW Bushfires via the Australian Science Media Centre:

“Many temperature records have been broken around the country, including the warmest 12 months ever, as well as September not only being the warmest September on record, but also having the highest positive mean anomaly for any month since observations began (+2.75C).

"NSW has not been exempt from these records, and with reduced rainfall during winter, conditions have been ripe for increased bushfire risk. Moreover, the increased rainfall from 2010-2011 and 20011-2012 summers, which were in the La Nina phases of the ENSO cycle, has seen an increase in the amount of available fuel, therefore increasing the bushfire risk even more. Hazard reduction burning could not occur at the scale that was necessary, as conditions were much warmer than average.

"There are numerous concerning issues here, from a fire and climate perspective. First of all, as pointed out, the spate of record-breaking temperatures increased the fire risk for the entire summer season in general. Secondly, the fire season has started much, much earlier than usual – bush fires, and higher risk of them, are generally seen in January, when high temperatures and dry conditions are more common from a climatological perspective. Thirdly, we are in a neutral phase of ENSO – generally high fire risk, at any point in the season, is associated with the El Nino phase. Such high risk and devastating events like those we are experiencing now are generally not as expected from a climatological perspective during neutral summers, such as this one. Fourthly, Australian studies have shown, and it has been reported by the recent IPCC AR5 report, that the frequency and intensity of extreme temperature events such as heat waves have increased, and will continue to increase further throughout the 21st century due to human-induced climate change. This is worrying because extreme high temperatures are one of the key ingredients of fire weather.”

This all points to our new Prime Minister being ignorant and unwilling to listen to what some of our best scientists are saying: climate change is causing the lengthening of the bushfire season, providing the underlying conditions for fires to burn more frequently and with greater intensity.

Even most of Tony Abbott's fellow fire service volunteers and employees are not afraid to speak their mind on climate change driving more natural disasters including bushfires. (What firefighters say about climate change.

Peter Marshall from the Victorian United Firefighters Union said in 2010:

"the real extremists in this country are the politicians and corporate interests who would do nothing in the face of potential apocalypse, or at least one of the worst ecological and economic disasters our species has ever seen.

It's an issue that doesn't just affect trees and bugs and animals, it affects working people, like the police here today and members of the police association, like the members of my union the United Firefighters Union and all workers in Victoria. It is an issue that is widely important and that crosses the normal political boundaries. It has universal appeal.

In fact our union was so concerned about the effects of climate change on our members that we put members money into commissioning a University of Sydney research paper on the effects climate change would have on bushfires and other natural disasters. It actually found that there was severe or significant impacts on the kind of fires our members fight everyday.

In places like Mildura the report found that extreme fire days could increase up to one third of the year, up to 90 days a year. Which of course is hugely concerning for the 2000 firefighters that have to deal with natural disasters.

Jim Casey, State secretary of the NSW Fire Brigades Employees' Union also warned in 2010 of increased bushfire risk from climate change, citing in particular the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires.

"The biggest change we are seeing in bush fire fighting is that we are starting to encounter fires - the Americans refer to them as megafires - a type of bushfire which essentially builds up it's own kind of weather pattern. It sucks in air, it becomes like a chain reaction. These are like the fires we saw in Victoria last year [2009] and like the firestorm that devastated Canberra in 2001. These fires are new territory. We don't know how to fight it, we don't know if they can be fought. They burn at such intensity that really there is not a great deal you can do. Between changing climate and mono-culture agriculture the fires we are seeing today are nothing like the fires Europeans encountered and which the traditional owners dealt with, and in some cases instigated, tens of thousands of years prior to that. This is new territory."

This is what our future holds. More fires of the size and intensity of the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires and the Blue Mountains blazes this year. In June the US Forest Service Chief warned of more extreme wild fires associated with climate change.

Not even carbon pricing can reverse the impact carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are already having on warming our climate and worsening fireweather, but through strong mitigation action such as the vigorous carbon pricing action which Ms Figueres supports, and more active climate adaptation, we can prevent much worse megafires that might develop in the future.

To keep our children and grandchildren safe.

Graham Readfearn has also written an excellent article on Tony Abbott's denial of bushfire and climate change research for Guardian Australia: Australian prime minister denies 25 years of research linking climate change to bushfires.


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