As dozens of wildfires rage across two major Australian states at an unusually early point in the season, the federal appointee responsible for dealing with the disasters has expressed uncertainty over whether climate change is related to human activity.
“I don’t know if climate change is man-made,” David Littleproud, the Australian minister for water resources, drought, rural finance, natural disaster and emergency management told the Guardian. The minister emphasized that regardless of the cause, he would make sure the country had the tools needed to “adapt to a changing climate.”
His comments followed earlier remarks that it was “irrelevant” whether there was a link between the wildfires and man-made climate change, provoking outrage from opponents and climate activists.
While Littleproud’s stance was backed by other conservative National Party allies, opposition lawmakers like Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Green Party, said it was “endangering Australians.”
National Party members, in turn, accused Di Natale of politicizing the natural disasters.
The devastating effects of the fires, however, are not in dispute.
Erupting at an unusually early time of the year, wildfires have decimated Australia’s eastern coast, blazing through Queensland and New South Wales, destroying homes and farmland and prompting the evacuation of hundreds of people. One of the largest fires in Queensland is affecting 78 square miles, an area slightly larger than Washington.
Wildfire season is typically worst in September and October, with fires sticking closer to the coastline. But in August, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that “the 2019/20 fire season has the potential to be an active season across Australia, following on from a very warm and dry start to the year.”
The country has been grappling with drought this year. Southern Australia experienced its driest summer and fall on record. And unusually high temperatures throughout the country “add to the impact of reduced rainfall, and increase evaporation, further drying the landscape and vegetation,” according to the bureau. The arid conditions make wildfires more likely to ignite and spread, experts say.
Experts attribute rising temperatures in Australia and around the world to human industry and man-made emissions since the mid-20th century.
“The human fingerprint on Australian temperatures has been clearly detected since 1950,” wrote Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis. “This means that all natural variability is now being modified by human influences on the climate system, leading to changes in observed climate variability and extremes.”
Gergis, who serves on the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that the early and extreme wildfires “are a sign of things to come.” She lamented how the blazes are destroying the country’s rainforests, where lush and unique plant species have flourished since the Jurassic era.
“The potential loss of these areas is something I never thought I would witness in my lifetime,” Gergis wrote.
Climate change and how to respond to it has been a divisive issue in Australian politics for the last decade. In 2011, the Labor government enacted a controversial carbon tax and pushed for more clean energy technologies. Emissions dropped and the country enjoyed economic prosperity, but the tax was expensive and unpopular — partly contributing to the Labor party being voted out of power in 2013. The then-newly elected conservative Liberals repealed the tax in 2014.
Since then, conservative anti-environmental policies have prevailed. The Liberal-led coalition won May national elections, keeping Prime Minister Scott Morrison in power. Morrison once brought a lump of coal onto the floor of Parliament to praise its attributes.
As Australia continues to experience extreme climate in the form of drought, fires and the dying Great Barrier Reef, the government has emphasized the importance of reacting to a changing climate, but has stopped short of linking these new wildfires to climate change. It has instead turned to more industry-focused messaging.
Australian Environment Minister Matt Canavan said he advocated “sensible responses to climate change that included support for the high-quality coal and gas that we produce in this country.”