Climate and fire experts have slammed prime minister Scott Morrison’s claims that hazard reduction burns carry equal importance to that of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saying it shows Morrison still does not understand the link between bushfires and climate change.
In an interview with former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin, Morrison told Sky News that he was keen to avoid a focus on his government’s climate change targets, and instead sought to focus on the ongoing debate about hazard reduction burns.
“Hazard reduction is as important as emissions reduction and many would argue, I think, even more so because it has even more direct practical impact on the safety of a person going into a bushfire season,” Morrison said in an interview with Peta Credlin on Sky News.
“There’s been plenty of chat about emissions reduction, and that’s fine. Hazard reduction, though, is the thing that is going to take a more practical effect on how safe people are in future fire seasons.”
Following a summer that has been dominated by an unprecedented bushfire season in Australia, the Morrison government has refused to commit to doing more to reduce Australia’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
Instead, the government has effectively flagged that it will shift its focus towards responding to the effects of climate change, including adaptation and resilience measures, opting to acts on the symptoms, rather than the cause, of global warming.
The suggestion from Morrison that bushfire hazard reduction carried equal importance to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was rejected by the Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie, who said it was just another attempt of distraction.
“Mr Morrison needs to listen to the experts. Focusing on hazard reduction rather than emissions is another diversion so the Coalition can drag its heels on what’s really needed: effective climate policy,” McKenzie said.
Morrison’s latest comments come as one of Australia’s pioneers of climate change science has issued a new warning to the Morrison government must do more to implement a credible response to climate change and the recent bushfire crisis.
“For decades, climate scientists have been warning Australian governments about the escalating threat of catastrophic bushfire conditions because of climate change,” Dr Tom Beer, former leader of climate variability and change research program at the CSIRO said.
Dr Beer published some of Australia’s first scientific research into the links between bushfires and climate change during his three-decade career at the CSIRO, including a landmark 1988 paper, titled “Australian bushfire danger under changing climatic regimes“, which demonstrated how climate change impacts could lead to changes in the intensity of bushfire seasons.
“I am horrified that what my study found has now occurred and the fact this means it is only going to get worse,” Dr Beer said.
Since the initial research was completed in the late 1980’s scientists have observed a trend of increasing frequency and ferocity of bushfires in Australia, and this has already required the response and preparation for fires to adapt to the changing conditions.
“When we did our work in 1987 the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 were the worst we had seen. Since then, we have experienced the Black Saturday fires; had to create a new catastrophic fire danger rating; and in the past few months, we’ve seen 10 million hectares of Australia burn,” Dr Beer added.
“Time has made our warnings a terrible reality. Without urgent action to deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions it is only going to get worse.”
Dr Beer, along with fire science expert professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania and climate scientist professor Will Steffen, of the Australian National University issued a joint statement that did not seek to issue blame for the fires but pleaded with the government to take greater action.
“This summer, it’s enormously distressing to see so much of Australia burn in unprecedented fires,” the trio said in the joint statement.
“We do not seek recriminations, but rather, today we seek to state clearly that the time has passed where we can ignore these warnings, or continue to deny Australia’s role in this global problem.”
“Clearly, bushfire conditions are now more dangerous, and the risk will continue to escalate. The risk to people and property has increased significantly and will continue to do so. The length of the bushfire season has increased substantially, making it harder to prepare for dangerous conditions. The costs of fighting fires have also increased substantially, as have the costs of their impacts.”
Morrison refused to meet with leading fire fighting experts in the lead up to the current summer, with former Fire & Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins saying that Morrison must account for climate change in any future response to bushfires.
“Hotter temperatures and drier conditions, driven by climate change, are the root cause of these fires. It is a dangerous distraction to suggest otherwise,” Mullins said.
“We need to be clear. Hazard reduction is an important tool but it’s not enough to protect us from catastrophic bushfires driven by extreme weather. We need to take action on the root cause, worsening climate change.”
The Climate Council has released a new publication, detailing how climate change is making it more difficult to safely undertake hazard reduction burns, as the window to do so has narrowed as bushfire seasons become longer and conditions make containing fires more difficult.