Australia fires a climate wake-up call: experts

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Weekend bushfires in Australia that killed 173 people are a climate change wake-up call for the public and politicians and a window to the future, experts said on Tuesday.

An Australian Federal policeman stands guard near the town of Kinglake, 46km (29 miles) north of Melbourne, February 10, 2009. Weary firefighters and rescuers pulled the remains of dozens of people from charred buildings Monday as the toll from Australia's deadliest bushfires rose to 171, police said. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

With the death toll still growing from the nation’s deadliest fires, some analysts say the sheer scale of the tragedy might prompt industry to back-off calls to weaken the government’s emissions targets or delay a carbon-trading scheme set for 2010.

“What the bushfires might do is suck the oxygen out of the debate. I think public awareness has been focused now on climate change again. We knew what the scientists had predicted and we’ve actually seen it in action,” said Matthew Clarke of Deakin University in Melbourne.

“It may be very difficult for those who want weaker carbon reduction scheme targets or those who want to see it delayed to put those arguments into the public sphere. The atmosphere might be more hostile to those arguments,” said Clarke, associate professor at the School of International and Political Studies.

The fires tore through communities on the outskirts of Melbourne, fueled by heatwave conditions and strong winds. Melbourne’s temperature on Saturday hit 46.4 degrees Celsius (115.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a record for the city.

The Australian government released a policy document, or White Paper, in December outlining its plans for carbon trading as part of its strategy to fight climate change.

Under the scheme, the government set a target to cut carbon emissions by 5 percent in 2020 from 2000 levels and 15 percent if there is global agreement at the end of this year on a broader pact to fight climate change.

But the Greens, citing the fires and severe flooding in northern Australia, are calling for tougher targets.

The Greens and two independents hold the balance of power in the Senate and the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is expected to face a tough time getting the emissions trading legislation passed by the Upper House later this year.


Industry and particularly big coal-fired power generation firms, say the trading scheme will be too costly. The liquefied natural gas industry, which earns billion of dollars in exports, has said the scheme could force them to move offshore.

“Climate Change is a big agenda that should be considered in its own space and it would be irresponsible to find cover for a climate change argument in the bushfires,” Heather Ridout, Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, told Reuters in a statement.

Some analysts say the fires were predictable and that climate scientists have been warning for years about Australia’s vulnerability to rising temperatures and declining rainfall across much of the nation’s south.

“I would compare this current bushfire event to one of the ghosts in Dickens’ Christmas Carol that visits Scrooge and showed him what his future would be like if he didn’t change his ways,” said professor Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide.

“The government should be taking an international leadership role. They are not listening to the ghost whispering in their ear saying this is your future,” said Brook, who called for an emissions cut target of 40 percent by 2020 if there is a global climate agreement.

“The real danger in the White Paper is not the 5 percent target, it’s the 15 percent target. So that’s what the Greens should be advocating, changing the international negotiating target and make it as hard as possible.”

But there was also a risk to investors if the government kept changing the targets because of financial or climate shocks.

“The fundamental flaw with the policy of the White Paper is that it’s a political compromise, not a clear plan. And a political compromise will be blown in the wind, depending on what shock comes along,” said leading climate change policy analyst Warwick McKibbin.

“It’s very important to have a clear, transparent plan that builds constituencies and clarity about the future so that when something comes along, the policy doesn’t fall over,” said McKibbin, executive director of the Center for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis in Canberra.

Editing by Bill Tarrant