Australia wildfires turn up heat on Abbott climate policies

Firefighters and regional politicians are calling on the prime minister to tackle climate change after a year of heatwaves

Bushfire smoke over Sydney (Pic: Flickr/Maarten Danial)

Bushfire smoke over Sydney (Pic: Flickr/Maarten Danial)

By Ed King

Record temperatures and some of the worst wildfires in decades have thrust the Australian government’s climate policies back into the spotlight.

The country experienced its third warmest year on record in 2014, with temperatures 0.91C above average, according to data released by the Bureau of Meteorology on Wednesday.

For Southern Australia, the annual mean temperature was the second-highest on record.

More immediately, the country’s fire service is battling against a wide front of wildfires, common during the Australian summer but increasingly severe according to experts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on global warming, said in a study last year it had high confidence that “fire weather” would increase in the country as a result of climate change.

“We are seeing an increase in the most populated areas of Australia. That’s really of concern, the fires that can encroach on the edge of cities,” Will Steffen, an adjunct professor at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment & Society told Bloomberg Businessweek.

With smoke from fires raging over 12,500 hectares in South Australia, ministers from some of the country’s federal states appear ready to challenge the belief of prime minister Tony Abbott that climate change is not a serious issue.

Victoria’s environment minister Lisa Neville told the Guardian newspaper Abbott had “walked away” from his responsibility to act on climate change.

“I’m looking to have urgent conversations with New South Wales and South Australia on the role they can play with us,” she said. “We’ll look at whether there’s a shared view on emissions reduction and also national advocacy so we can put climate change back into public debate.

“Each state has a responsibility to push the federal government in this area. National action will have the most impact on climate change, so we need a unified voice to get the federal government, first of all, to acknowledge climate change.”

Last month, Australia was named the worst performing developed country on climate change issues, in an index produced by the Germanwatch think-tank and campaign group Climate Action Network Europe.

Only Saudi Arabia performed worse than the Liberal government in Canberra, which has scrapped a number of climate policies, including a carbon tax, since taking office in 2013.

The Abbott government has an international target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 5% on 2000 levels by 2020, a goal it said it could increase in the event of a global climate agreement.

But green groups say the target should be much higher, considering the country has the highest per capita emissions of any developed country.

Analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a group of independent scientists, suggests emissions could be 26% higher than 1990 levels by 2020.

In contrast the EU is on course for a 20% drop by 2020.

Australia 2014 mean temperatures compared to long term average (Source: Bureau of Meteorology)

Australia 2014 mean temperatures compared to long term average
(Source: Bureau of Meteorology)

US president Barack Obama angered the Canberra government last year after a speech ahead of the G20 summit in Brisbane, when he called on it to take a lead in the fight against climate change.

“Here in Australia, it means longer droughts, more wildfires,” he said.  “The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened.

“Worldwide, this past summer was the hottest on record. No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part.”

Those views were backed by UK prime minister David Cameron, who told UK MPs in December London was trying to encourage Abbott to take a more progressive stance on the international stage.

“My sense is they don’t want to be the back marker,” he said. “Australia is clearly affected by climate change.”

Green fund

Abbott’s decision to give $165 million to the UN-backed Green Fund at the recent round of UN climate talks in Lima was seen as a sign the government may be changing its tune.

But it remains unclear what – if any – other steps Canberra is willing to take to green its image, or if it cares what other countries think about its policies.

This week the government attracted stiff criticism from the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, after Australia cut its aid budget to the tiny Pacific country, which is acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels.

“We appreciate all the assistance we can get from our partners, but not in this kind of way when we get jerked around and it doesn’t result in a well-thought-out, well-run, well-operated, well-executed plan,” Tony de Brum told the Guardian.

“Australia should take a leadership role and be part of the Pacific. When it comes to climate change they should advocate for their neighbours and not behave as if there is nothing around Australia except its coal and its bottom line, and ballot boxes.”

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