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Fiddling while Australia burns?

Opinion Piece

Australia's devastating fires are far from over as the country enters its usual peak fire season already ablaze, sparking heated debate about the impacts of climate change and the government's minimalist commitment to tackling it.

Ten million hectares have burned so far, half of that in New South Wales. At least 25 people and an estimated 1 billion animals have died since September; almost 2000 homes have been destroyed.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his conservative Liberal-National coalition have taken a pasting for both their response to the fires and their policies on climate change.

As the bushfires took hold in November, deputy PM Michael McCormack blamed “inner-city raving lunatics” for linking them to climate policy and Australia's coal industry (its second biggest export, and used to generate almost two-thirds of the country's electricity).

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has argued that because Australia only produces 1.3 percent of global emissions, it “can't single-handedly have a meaningful impact”.

The coalition abolished the former Labor government's carbon tax, replacing it with a public fund worth $A3.5 billion — partly to pay polluters to cut emissions.

Australia then joined developing countries Brazil, India and China in derailing efforts to establish robust rules for an international carbon credit market at the recent climate conference in Madrid.

Four days ago Morrison felt he had to set the record straight, saying “there is no dispute in this country about the issue of climate change”.

On Tuesday Liberal MP Craig Kelly was eviscerated as a “denier” and “disgraceful” by conservative British commentator Piers Morgan in a combative interview on ITV, after he had earlier told BBC there was “no link” between climate change and Australia's crippling drought, and blamed a lack of hazard reduction on the scale of the fires.

A drought that started in eastern Australia three years ago has left lots of dry fuel; longer and hotter summers (not “Greens red tape”) have limited the window for hazard reduction burns to be done safely.

On December 17 Australia had its hottest day on record, an average 40.9C maximum across the whole country. The next day that record was broken by a whole degree, a searing 41.9C average; Nullabor, SA, set the record for the hottest December day, 49.9C.

Australia's weather agency said today that it saw no sign of cooler weather or significant rainfall in the next few months.