Australian bushfires fan global warming debate

  • 27 October 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Ruined house in Winmalee

Australia has been battling unseasonably bad bushfires for weeks. The flames have destroyed hundreds of homes - and have also intensified a political debate about whether there is a link with global warming.

Australia's Blue Mountains get their name from the eucalyptus trees that coat their slopes.

On a warm day the sun heats up the oils in the trees' vibrant green leaves. As those oils evaporate into the atmosphere it gives the range a shimmering blue hue.

For much of this week though the Blue Mountains were more a shade of grey, cloaked in smoke, the air acrid and woody. And of course there is no smoke without fire.

These have been the most devastating bushfires New South Wales has seen in decades

Tens of thousands of hectares have been burned. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed - and they are still burning.

In the small community of Winmalee, an hour's drive from Sydney, I looked on as Chris Muller stood, head in hands, in front of what was left of her house.

And what was left was pretty much nothing. A once-beautiful property looking out over the bush reduced to little more than rubble, twisted metal and ash. Many of the houses on the suburban street had suffered the same fate.

Chris's daughter, picking through the debris, tried to cheer up her mother. "Look mum," she shouted, holding up a few metal spoons and an old blue coffee pot.

"I guess we are all still here, that is the main thing," Chris said, before heading off to start again from scratch.

A local sports club was transformed into a disaster welfare centre offering food and advice to those who had lost their homes.

Families could be seen poring over long to-do lists. The question was surely, where to begin?

Of course, Australians are used to the threat from bushfires. And there have been much more deadly ones than these.

More than 170 people were killed in 2009 in the "Black Saturday" fires in the state of Victoria. But this year the fires have come unusually early after unseasonably hot weather.

It is still only spring here. The full heat of summer is months away. And according to Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, they follow the country's hottest year on record.

It has given these fires a political edge. Environmentalists have referred to Australia as the Petri dish of climate change, a place where the global warming "experiment" is actuality being tested out in reality.

Media captionA drone captured the scene in the fire-hit city of Lithgow

Australia's new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has sometimes seemed reluctant to accept that view.

Mr Abbott, a volunteer firefighter himself who gave up his day job to man the hoses on occasion this week, once described the science behind human-induced climate change as "absolute crap".

He's since refined that opinion and now accepts global warming is happening.

But this week he was quick to dismiss comments from a senior United Nations official who had linked the fires to the changing climate.

"She's talking through her hat," Mr Abbott said, saying that fire had always been part of the Australian experience. He listed a whole host of major fires across the country stretching back more than a century.

His comments drew the ire of environmentalists. The former US vice president and climate change campaigner, Al Gore, said denying the link between this week's fires and global warming was like claiming smoking didn't cause lung cancer.

People like Gore, a Nobel laureate, are already dismayed that since coming to power last month, Mr Abbott has pledged to dismantle Australia's carbon tax.

The tax introduced last year by the Labor government makes the country's biggest polluters pay for the amount of greenhouse gases they produce.

Image caption PM Tony Abbott visits Winmalee fire station

Instead the prime minister favours what he calls "direct action", giving businesses financial incentives to adopt green technology if they choose to.

Within days of taking office he shut down the country's Climate Commission, set up to compile scientific research into the issue.

All this has put the prime minister at odds with environmentalists.

It is a divisive issue in Australia, but up in the Blue Mountains most people I spoke to this week tended to side with Mr Abbott.

This year's fires were "all part of the cycle," Col McDonnell told me as he prepared to defend his farmhouse while thick white smoke billowed from the hillside behind him.

He said fires like this had been going on throughout the ages and that it was just part of living in the bush.

If the fire season continues as it has started, the heat of the argument over the causes is also likely to intensify.

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