Australian climate change ‘sceptics’ mislead the public about bushfires

A loan Australian rural firefighter observes the damage caused by bushfires in Queensland, Australia (iStock)

A senior Australian politician, Craig Kelly, has demonstrated over the past week how climate change ‘sceptics’ try to mislead people about the factors driving the growing risks from bushfires.

Mr Kelly, who sits in the House of Representatives as the Member of Parliament for Hughes in New South Wales, denied a link between climate change and the bushfire crisis that has gripped many areas of Australia, particularly along the eastern edge of the country. He is a member of the ruling Liberal Party, and retained his seat in last year’s election. Mr Kelly sat on the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy before the election.

On 4 January, Mr Kelly was interviewed on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 alongside Catherine King, who sits in the House of Representatives as the Labor Party Member of Parliament for Ballarat in Victoria.

Mr Kelly was quizzed about his views during the last half-hour of the programme by one of the presenters, Nick Robinson.

Craig Kelly: “When it comes to the fires down here, the three things that cause fires we know are drying of the environment, the winds, and also some type of, you know, spark that sets the fires off. Now, we have a long record of rainfall here and there is simply no trend in our rainfall record down here in south-east Australia whatsoever. Yes, we’re going through a terrible, terrible drought at the moment. A lot of people are feeling it very tough with that drought, but if you look at the evidence and you look at the records, there is no trend in 100 years and that’s what our climate scientists tell us.”

Nick Robinson: “So just to be clear, Mr Kelly, I want to be clear about what you are saying. You are saying there is no link between these fires, in your view, and global climate change?”

Craig Kelly: “Well, first there is no link, the factors that cause the fires are the drought and the drying of the environment and on this our climate scientists down here have been very clear and they have said there is no link between drought and climate change.”

When invited to comment on Mr Kelly’s claims, Ms King said: “It is absolutely clear that we are facing drier, hotter summers that are leading to the sort of conditions that we’ve seen with these fires. And I think we are kidding ourselves if we don’t say it, that are climate has changed and that climate change is playing a part in what we are seeing across the nation.”

On Monday 6 January, Mr Kelly appeared live on Good Morning Britain on ITV, and was challenged strongly about his views by the presenters, Susannah Reid and Piers Morgan, and by the programme’s resident meteorologist, Laura Tobin.

However, Mr Kelly again denied any link between the bushfires and climate change: “What cause is the main thing of the fire is the build-up of the fuel on the ground and the drought. And if you look at our science, if you look at the long-term rainfall records in Australia, there is simply no trend. As CO2 has increased, there has been no trend.”

After his interview, Mr Kelly described Ms Tobin as an “ignorant pommy weather girl” on Facebook. He later deleted his post and apologised. Ms Tobin pointed out on Twitter that she was well qualified to challenge Mr Kelly’s false claims about climate change and bushfires.

The truth is that Mr Kelly was wrong and misrepresented the evidence collected by scientists about the link between climate change and the bushfires.

The factors that drive bushfires

As Geoscience Australia points out on its website, several key factors determine whether a bushfire starts and how quickly it spreads:

  • fuel load;
  • fuel moisture;
  • wind speed;
  • ambient temperature;
  • relative humidity;
  • slope angle; and
  • ignition source.

A major review was commissioned by the Inspector-General Emergency Management in Queensland after major bushfires in the state over the past few years. The report by Dr Neil Burrows on ‘Lessons and insights from significant bushfires in Australia and overseas’ was published in May 2019. It explicitly identified climate change as the main driver of increasing wildfire activity:

“The recent global trend of increasing wildfire activity and associated damage to human communities and the environment, and of escalating wildfire suppression costs, is well documented. The primary driver of this is global climate variability (climate change) attributed to increasing levels of atmospheric ‘greenhouse gasses’ [sic] resulting primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. In many bioregions of the world, this has resulted in a warmer, dryer climate conducive to the start and spread of bushfires. The specific effects of climate change on the bushfire environment are regionally variable.”

It also pointed out the importance of accumulations of dry vegetation as fuel for wildfires:

“The other important driver of the increase in global wildfire activity and increased frequency of catastrophic fires is accumulations of flammable vegetation (fuel). In most fire-prone regions of the world, fuel levels have increased as a consequence of anthropogenic behaviours including fire suppression policies, inadequate levels of prescribed burning, the cessation of traditional burning practices and changing land use such as the abandonment of marginal agricultural land, the cessation of grazing by domestic stock in natural vegetation systems, and public land purpose changes such as well resourced production forests becoming poorly resourced national parks.”

But it also highlighted the growth in developments in areas prone to bushfires, leading to more people being placed at risk:

“Another factor contributing to the global increase in wildfire disasters is population increase and expansion of settlements into the rural-urban interface. Too often urban development at the interface, and semirural subdivisions, are poorly planned and take insufficient account of the bushfire risk.”

While Mr Kelly identified fuel reduction as the only way to reduce the risk of bushfires, Dr Burrows warned that “landscape prescribed burning is not a ‘panacea’, but it is the cornerstone to managing the bushfire threat”. It recommended: “It is neither feasible nor desirable to eliminate fuels (live and dead vegetation), but it is critical that fuels in landscapes, at the urban fringe, and in ‘backyards’ (adjacent to structures), are reduced on all land tenures”. It also noted: “A reliance on suppression alone, including the deployment of aircraft, will likely fail under severe weather and heavy fuel conditions, especially when there are multiple synchronous outbreaks.”

The link between bushfires and climate change

The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology is explicitly clear on its website about the link between climate change and bushfires:

“Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world, including through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns and fuel conditions. There have been significant changes observed in recent decades towards more dangerous bushfire weather conditions for various regions of Australia.

 “In particular, observed changes in southern and eastern Australia include more extreme conditions during summer, as well as an earlier start to the bushfire season with dangerous weather conditions occurring significantly earlier in spring than they used to. These trends towards more dangerous bushfire conditions are at least partly attributable to human-caused climate change, including through increased temperatures. Northern Australia, which sees significant fire activity during the dry season, has experienced increases in monsoonal rainfall that have increased fuel growth in recent decades, as a key factor influencing fire danger in that region.”

The Bureau of Meteorology and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation published its latest ‘State of the Climate’ report in December 2018. Among its key conclusions were: “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.” It also noted in relation to the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI): “The annual 90th percentile of daily FFDI (i.e., the most extreme 10 per cent of fire weather days) has increased in recent decades across many regions of Australia, especially in southern and eastern Australia.”

The ‘State of the Climate’ report also exposes Mr Kelly’s trickery about the scientific evidence. Although the full record of rainfall averaged across the whole of Australia shows no apparent trend, there is evidence of regional shifts that are linked to climate change. The report stated:

 “The drying in recent decades across southern Australia is the most sustained large-scale change in rainfall since national records began in 1900.

 “The drying trend has been most evident in the southwestern and southeastern corners of the country. The drying trend is particularly strong between May to July over southwest Western Australia, with rainfall since 1970 around 20 per cent less than the average from 1900 to 1969. Since 1999, this reduction has increased to around 26 per cent. For the southeast of the continent, April to October rainfall for the period 1999 to 2018 has decreased by around 11 per cent when compared to the 1900 to 1998 period. This period encompasses the Millennium Drought, which saw low annual rainfall totals across the region from 1997 to 2010.

 “This decrease, at an agriculturally and hydrologically important time of the year, is linked with a trend towards higher mean sea level pressure in the region and a shift in large-scale weather patterns—more highs and fewer lows. This increase in mean sea level pressure across southern latitudes is a known response to global warming.”

Hence, this directly contradicts Mr Kelly’s false assertion that Australian climate scientists have not linked an increase in drought conditions with climate change in the parts of the country most affected by the current bushfires.

The Bureau of Meteorology sounded the alarm in September 2019 about dangerous fire weather conditions developing in areas of northeast New South Wales and southeast Queensland. It pointed out: “Trends towards a lengthened fire season have already been discerned in some areas of the country, with the fire season typically starting earlier in the year in southern Queensland, inland and southern New South Wales, and Victoria.”

The Bureau of Meteorology warned again in December 2019 that the risk of bushfires had reached dangerous levels in the country’s spring as a result of an extended period of drought. It stated: “The dangerous fire weather conditions during spring 2019 are consistent with the increasingly severe fire weather seen in many areas of the country, owing to increasing temperatures and reduced cool season rainfall. This trend is largest in southern and eastern Australia, including areas that were affected by the elevated fire weather conditions in spring 2019.”

However, 2019 was an exceptional year across the whole of Australia with both the highest national average annual temperature and the lowest annual rainfall on record. While this was consistent with the effects of climate change, it was no doubt also due to natural climate variability. Australia’s climate is heavily influenced by the Indian Ocean Dipole, which results from sustained changes in the difference between sea surface temperatures of the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean. A positive phase of the Dipole occurs when there are lower-than-average sea surface temperatures in the east and warmer-than-average temperatures in the west. This generally leads to less moisture than usual in the atmosphere to the northwest of Australia, changing the path of weather systems coming from Australia’s west. It often results in less rainfall and higher than normal temperatures over parts of Australia during winter and spring.

Dr Andrew Watkins, the head of long-range forecasts at the Bureau of Meteorology, drew attention to conditions in the Indian Ocean when launching the Severe Weather Season Outlook in October 2019. He said:

“The Bureau outlook shows we’re likely to see more warmer and drier than average conditions for the coming months. This is due largely to a record strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole, that leads to drier air than usual over northwest Australia that supplies much of Australia’s rainfall.

 “The increased odds of warmer than average days, coupled with a very dry landscape and a likely late start to the northern wet season, give a clear indication that we’re likely to see more heatwaves than normal.

 “It also adds to the potential bushfire risk, particularly when you consider how dry many parts of southern and eastern Australia are at the moment.”

Although there has been a reduction in high-risk conditions over the past few days, the bushfire crisis is likely to continue for at least the rest of this month. The most recent medium-range outlook issued by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology indicates that rainfall levels are likely to be average at best in the east of the country during January, with wetter conditions expected in the south and west. It noted that the Indian Ocean Dipole has now weakened from positive to neutral, and average rainfall levels are likely to prevail over the country between February and April. However, it also warned that day and night-time temperatures will stay above average, and “several months of above average rainfall would be needed to see a recovery from current long-term rainfall deficiencies”.

Misinformation from climate change ‘sceptics’

All of the official sources of information from Australia’s Liberal Government have made abundantly clear that there is a link between bushfires and climate change, so why did Mr Kelly, a Liberal Party MP, falsely claim the opposite? He appears to have been regurgitating a talking point that had been circulating among climate change deniers in some parts of the Australian media.

On 25 November 2019, The Australian newspaper, which has a track record of promoting climate change denial, published an article by Chris Kenny under the headline ‘Bushfires blind alarmists in media to climate reality’. Mr Kenny’s article stated: “Tinder-dry conditions on the eastern seaboard this year are attributable to drought but as I have reported before, according to the head of the UNSW Centre for Climate Extremes, Professor Andy Pitman, there is insufficient evidence to directly link the drought to climate change. Much media ignores the history of worse conditions and fires, and the lack of long-term rainfall trends, and runs hard on climate causal links.”

Similar claims about the views of Dr Pitman, who is Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales, have been made by a number of Australian climate change ‘sceptics’ since a presentation in June 2019. However, Dr Pitman stressed soon afterwards that he “misspoke” and that his views have been misrepresented. The Centre subsequently published a briefing note in September 2019 on ‘Does global warming cause droughts, drying or increased aridity?’ to provide clarification. Under the heading ‘So, does global warming cause a drying landscape, and increasing risk of or intensity of drought?’, it states:

“If you ask this question directly (do warmer temperatures directly increase evaporation and thereby cause droughts or intensify droughts), the answer is no.

 “If you ask this question in the broader sense (does global warming cause droughts, or intensify droughts) the answer is both yes and no because it depends where you are on the planet.

 “If global warming causes local declines in rainfall there is the potential that this will cause or intensify drought. So, first and foremost, drought is a question of rainfall and global warming is changing the intensity of rainfall and rainfall patterns such that some regions are getting wetter while some regions are getting drier. In Australia, rainfall has declined in the southwest, parts of southern Australia over the last century and in eastern Australian over the last 30 years.”

It is obvious that Dr Pitman’s views have been misrepresented by Mr Kelly and other climate change ‘sceptics’ in Australia, and they have ignored the clear and explicit findings that climate change is increasing the risks of bushfires. The spread of misinformation about the causes of the bushfires, which have already resulted in more than 20 human deaths, at least A$700 million in insured losses and untold destruction of wildlife is a threat to the lives and livelihoods of many Australians.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.