Misinforming the public about the science linking man-made climate change to Australia’s horror bushfires will put more people at risk, a leading climate scientist has warned.
It follows revelations the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) briefed Environment Minister Greg Hunt on the growing body of evidence showing higher temperatures were consistent with a “pattern of global warning” three weeks before he gave a BBC interview last year, citing Wikipedia as the source of the information.
He also used the interview to back Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claims that fire was simply “part of the Australian experience”. It was an attempt to downplay significant comments made by UN head of climate change negotiations Christiana Figueres linking climate change to the devastating NSW bushfires in the summer of 2012-2013.
Despite the BOM briefings, Mr Hunt appeared on BBC’s Newshour in October last year and cited Wikipedia to back Mr Abbott’s statements. He claimed senior officials at BoM often warned the government against linking specific weather events to climate change.
Mr Hunt told the program he had “looked up what Wikipedia says” and found “bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year… that’s the Australian experience.”
But Fairfax media obtained confidential BOM briefing papers under Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, showing Mr Hunt had been briefed by the director Rob Vertessy three weeks prior to the interview, where he was told the record high temperatures were “unprecedented” since 1910.
While “it is not possible to attribute any single weather event to global warming”… “recent extremes are consistent with the general pattern of warming,” Fairfax media reports him saying.
“A number of more recent studies are drawing probabilistic links between more extreme seasonal heat records and climate change, including the Australian summer of 2012-13," Mr Vertessy said according to Fairfax media.
Despite this briefing, Mr Hunt told the BBC: “We all have to be very careful… in talking to senior people at the Bureau of Meteorology, they always emphasize never trying to link any particular event to climate change.”
He said the Abbott government was not politicising the science and had “taken it off the table”.
“We accept absolutely the fact of climate change… We accept the need for action.
“No one should be politicising the science. We have taken science off the table. We accept it. We’re not debating it. We have 2,000 firefighters in the field, we’ve lost 200 homes… There’s been one tragedy. How do we take care of people who are in the field and those whose homes are at risk?”
Victoria University’s Dr Roger Jones was on the same BBC program, listening to Mr Hunt’s interview, and raised immediate concerns.
Directly following Mr Hunt’s interview, Dr Jones told the program: “… It’s coming back to that point which was the point of the science a few years ago where you could say you can’t set any one extreme event and call it being effected by climate change… what has happened over the past decade or so is we’ve become more confident about what the data is telling us… we’re getting a better idea of how extremes are changing.”
He told the program the Forest Fire Index in Victoria had risen by a third since 1998.
“If we look back at history and we say we’ve always had those fires, and we think of dealing with them the way we always have, we’re understating the risk we already face,” he told the program.
Dr Jones told New Matilda Dr Hunt had done the interview “to downplay the role of climate change by introducing a lot of dates of other fires to muddy the waters”.
“…Tony Abbott had a list looking at decreasing dates of fires and the time intervals between them… Hunt punctuated that with a whole bunch of other dates and when I came to do the interview and was asked ‘what did you think of Minister Hunt’s comments on fires occurring in the past’, I went back to the dates and read out the intervals, and then I went into some of my research that says the Forest Fire Index in Victoria has gone up by a third since 1998 and that the severity of fires was definitely heightened because of the role of climate change,” Dr Jones told New Matilda.
“We knew there was a climate change explanation in there… (Dr Hunt) would have pretty much had the same briefing, maybe not the one we had but he chose not to use that.”
Dr Jones says misrepresenting the science puts Australians at greater risk.
“There’s a serious side to this about the science, because the emergency services sector are pretty much convinced that a lot of the events they are dealing with, and especially fires, are behaving differently to the way they used to and they’re changing their management and their practices as a result of that.
“And so when you have a government running around and saying this, if people are believing that and aren’t responding to the changing risk, the government is providing misinformation that is putting people at risk.”
The Fairfax media revelations come following the release of a Climate Council report last week focused on the ACT, the site of devastating bushfires in 2003. The Climate Council is an independent body set up last year after the Abbott government abolished the Climate Commission.
It found extreme fire weather had increased over the last 30 years in southeast Australia and that climate change is “making days hotter, heat waves longer and more frequent, with increasing drought conditions” in the southeast.
The report said fire severity across southern Australian “has been persistently higher than the long-term average”.
It also pressed the urgency of acting now to “reduce the risk of even more extreme events”, calling on Australia to “cut greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply to join global efforts to stablise the world’s climate.”
One of the authors of the report – the council’s Will Steffen told Fairfax media last year the debate was “frustrating”.
“We’d like to see a debate in this country that gets beyond these futile arguments about the science, which has been settled for decades in the scientific literature, and get on with the real debate about what really is the best way forward in dealing with the problem….
“… For us it’s very clear cut, we are seeing an influence of climate change on bushfire conditions, particularly bushfire risk.”