Last week, a series of major wildfires raged across the New South Wales region of Australia, destroying homes and marking an unusually early start to the country’s summer bush fire season. Controversy began when the conversation in the media turned to a discussion of climate change and the impact of rising temperatures in recent decades.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the speed and ferocity of the fires had “nothing to do with climate change” in response to comments to the contrary from the United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres. Grey Hunt, environment minister in Australia, reportedly consulted Wikipedia to support his views that climate change and the recent bush fires are unrelated.
Abbott has denied climate change in the past. His recent election included a pledge to repeal Australia’s carbon tax. Additionally, in September, Abbott’s government shut down the Climate Commission, a government institution that focused on providing an accurate, apolitical public source of information about climate change in Australia.
The impacts of ignoring the climate are severe, not just severe for the environment, but also for those individuals in a region. Ecologist, and member of the dismantled Climate Commission, Lesley Hughes explained that “to deny the influence of climate change on extreme fire weather, and not take appropriate action to prepare for these changed conditions, places people and property at unnecessarily high risk.”
Although scientists have not directly linked the increased bush fires to climate change, research clearly suggests that the record high temperatures can make the fires more destructive and frequent. Last summer was the hottest on record for the country, and this year, the warm temperatures and high winds have created ideal conditions for even larger fires. Scientific research taking place over several years and studies suggests that Australia will feel the impact of global warming more severely than other areas of the planet.
The current debate in Australia raises some important questions about the issues of public knowledge of science and the impact dissuasive public voices can have in the debate. The rigour and accuracy of scientific research should be evaluated by experts in that field, hence the current peer-reviewed system for journal publication. Skepticism of accepted scientific theories becomes problematic when promoted by politicians with widespread influence but little knowledge of science itself. Contentious issues like climate change often focus the discussion on highlighting political differences rather than on the applicable scientific information.