Australia’s Politics of Global Warming

SYDNEY — Huge clumps of strange, pink-stringed jellyfish drifted into the protected bay near my home in Sydney last year. Thousands swarmed under the surface, stinging indiscriminately. I swam through them in a full-body wet suit for several long months with my swimming group, wondering if warmer currents had changed the habitat patterns. Scientists are now talking about a peculiar “jellification” of the sea, prompted by climate change. We smeared ointments on our faces and packed antihistamines and creams for the red welts on our exposed skin.

Last month, smoke hung over the water as we swam, and charred leaves fell onto the beach. Another bout of fires in western Sydney burned more than 300,000 acres of land near the city’s fringes. October is relatively early for major fires. What was going on?

As usual, some of it was due to boys with matches. An 11-year-old was charged for one fire in October and a 14-year-old for another. An army munitions training exercise started another blaze. One Christian group argued it was a sign of what would happen if gay marriage laws were passed.

But the most provocative question is, as it has certainly been this week in the Philippines in the aftermath Typhoon Haiyan: Is global warming to blame?

Australians have long associated summer with the acrid smell of smoke and images of singed koalas. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott said defensively, bush fires are “just a function of life in Australia.” But we have just had the hottest year on record. The real question is: How does global warming affect the probability and severity of fires?

Most scientists agree that higher temperatures are more likely to create drier soil, increase the length of the fire season, and create more dangerous fire conditions. So why are we so reluctant to accept this? And why are we regularly asked to trust poll-driven politicians more than data-driven scientists?

When the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, said that there was clear evidence that heat waves in Asia, Europe and Australia were on the rise, and that fires are an example of the “doom and gloom” the world may be facing,” our prime minister said Ms. Figueres was “talking through her hat.” When Al Gore weighed in to suggest there was a link, Mr. Abbott called it “absolute hogwash.”

Professor Lesley Hughes of the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney is co-authoring a report on bush fires and climate change for the Climate Council, a nonprofit organization designed to educate Australians on such matters, to be released this month. She said an exhaustive study of the research had found that “Australia is a fire-prone country and it will get more fire prone as the climate changes.”

The research, she says, finds the overwhelmingly important factor is the temperature: “Hot dry weather greatly increases the risk of the fire becoming severe and uncontrollable once it is started.” The findings on what fuels these fires vary widely because they depend on complex predictions of rainfall: Some areas will have fewer fires since declining rainfall could mean less vegetation growth over the years, and thus less fuel availability.

This week, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization released data showing that over the past year Australia has had the biggest average temperature rise in the world.

Credit Mitch Blunt
Credit Mitch Blunt

But just last week former Prime Minister John Howard of Australia likened climate science to a “substitute religion.” Even if politicians say they accept the science, they simultaneously portray it as unsought advice of little significance, like marital counsel from a bachelor uncle or nutritional advice from a corpulent cousin.

Mr. Abbott previously dismissed climate science as nonsense and has said that climate change is not affecting bush fires, but he now says, “Climate change is real, as I’ve often said, and we should take strong action against it.”

However, he is taking action that is likely to make the situation worse. He has introduced a bill to repeal carbon pricing established July 1, 2012, making Australia the first country to wind back a carbon tax and plans to eliminate hundreds of jobs at our premier science institution, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. He has already abolished the Climate Commission (now relaunched as the privately funded Climate Council), established to educate the public on climate change and the position of science minister in his cabinet.

Mr. Abbott will replace carbon pricing with payments to companies that reduce emissions, under a plan that many economists have strongly criticized. The aim is to cut emissions by 5 percent by 2020, compared with 2000 levels, and to work with other countries on solutions. But the environment minister did not attend the current Warsaw Climate Change Conference because, he said, he is too busy abolishing the carbon tax.

The delegate from the typhoon-devastated Philippines, Naderev M. Sano, this week wiped away tears when arguing that we need to stop the climate “madness.” He received a standing ovation. Also this week the W.M.O. warned that tropical cyclones would become more intense due to higher sea levels.

Yet back in Australia, the cabinet warned that if the science becomes “more unclear” then it would “wind back” any efforts to combat or prepare for climate change. Yes, more unclear, not more clear, as most scientists have found.

A major contributor to a so-called lack of clarity has been a sustained and confusing campaign by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers to cast doubt on the science.

Last week in a speech in London, Mr. Howard said science was for scientists, and public policy was for politicians who had to weigh economics too. He then acknowledged that he had supported an emissions trading scheme in 2007, when a majority of Australians wanted action on climate change — because it was politically smart, not because he believed the science. Mr. Howard praised Mr. Abbott for using a vociferous opposition to the carbon tax to catapult himself to the leadership of his party — then the nation — when public concern about global warming was waning.

However, polls have shown that this year — our hottest — the number of Australians who view global warming as a “serious and pressing problem” has risen for the first time since 2006.

The problem is, politicians have to weigh politics too, for short-term ends. They need to win elections. Scientists don’t. Unfortunately, we are as accustomed to shortsightedness and political cynicism as we are to the smell of ash on a hot summer’s day. The jellyfish, though, are a painful new development.