Australia’s catastrophic bush fires have been widely blamed on human-caused climate change, but evidence is mounting that the devastation has more to do with environmentalist policies than fossil fuel emissions.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has taken the brunt of popular anger for the wildfires, which have consumed about 15.6 million acres, but the devastation follows years of eco-driven government policies discouraging prescribed burns, tree-thinning and firebreak-building in the name of forest and habitat preservation, some climate scholars say.
Combine that with population growth and prolonged drought after years of high foliage growth driven by above-average rainfall, and you have a recipe for disaster, said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“Once the drought hit, all this new vegetation means there are new and bigger fires. And the reason there are more and bigger fires is that they have basically stopped prescribed burns,” said Mr. Ebell.
He called Australia’s policy “a stunning example of criminal human mismanagement.”
The bush fires have been compared to a spate of deadly California wildfires sparked by power lines in forests choked with dead and tinder-dry trees after years of drought and hands-off timber policies.
“Both California and Australia have made it very hard to do the prescribed burning that is necessary to prevent catastrophic fires,” said CEI senior fellow Patrick Michaels, who served as Virginia state climatologist for 27 years.
He and Mr. Ebell cited data indicating that prescribed burn activity has plummeted over the past 50 years while the area charred by bush fires has trended upward.
“They will be subject to horrific fires every year until the understory is cleaned up, with or without global warming,” Mr. Michaels said. “The brush dries out enough every year to burn because of the average climate, not climate change.”
That is hardly the message conveyed by climate activists and celebrities confronted with horrific images of raging infernos that have claimed at least 28 lives, destroyed more than 2,600 homes and scorched more than 25.7 million acres. The area affected since the fires began in earnest is larger than Indiana.
At the Golden Globe awards presentation in Los Angeles this month, climate change and the bush fires were the causes du jour. Jennifer Aniston read a statement by Russell Crowe, the Australian actor who stayed behind to protect his home.
“Make no mistake: The tragedy unfolding in Australia is climate-change based,” she said. “We need to act based on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy, and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future.”
Alarming headlines include “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide,” atop a Jan. 3 op-ed in The New York Times by novelist Richard Flanagan, and in The [U.K.] Guardian, “Australia fires are harbinger of planet’s future, say scientists.”
Mr. Morrison took significant political flak for vacationing in Hawaii as the crisis built, but he offered a strong defense of his government’s policies. He told Australia’s ABC Radio that he would continue to meet the nation’s emissions reduction pledges but would oppose anything that would “wipe out” the economic base that depends on natural resources.
“I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do,” he said. “I’m not going to put a carbon tax on people, I’m not going to increase their electricity prices and their costs of living, and I’m not going to wipe out resource industries.”
Australians received a respite in recent days from thunderstorms that brought rain and hail to New South Wales and Victoria, helping firefighters contain the blazes. Among the victims are also millions of wild animals, including as many as 25,000 koalas reportedly on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island.
But the danger has not entirely passed. Richard Thornton, a researcher with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Center, told the BBC on Monday, “We haven’t yet reached the peak fire season in parts of southern Australia. History shows us that February is extremely dangerous.”
Bad weather, policy, people
H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow for environmental policy at the free market Heartland Institute, said the bush fires could be chalked up to three factors: bad weather, bad policy and bad people.
The last year has been described as Australia’s hottest and driest on record, but it wasn’t enough of an outlier “to make a difference between fire and no fire,” said Mr. Burnett, adding that about 40 low temperature records have also been set Down Under.
The “bad people” refers to those charged with arson. The New South Wales police reported Jan. 6 that 183 people had been charged with fire-related offenses, including 24 for deliberately setting fires, 53 for failing to comply with the fire ban and 47 for discarding cigarettes or matches.
As for policy, Australia “started following the same policies as the western United States and setting aside land, locking it up, not allowing thinning in part for species habitat,” he said.
“You can thin the forests and maybe have fewer koalas, but that’s far better than having overgrown forests, that when they burn during a drought wipe out the whole forest and the entire population of koalas that depend on it,” Mr. Burnett said.
The climate change debates that have marked recent environmental disasters in the U.S. are also playing out in Australia.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party has blamed media outlets owned by conservative magnate Rupert Murdoch for spreading “misinformation” to mask the link between climate change and the fires.
“Even as the fires rage, Murdoch’s News Corp. newspapers and television networks have been busy arguing that arsonists or a lack of controlled burning are the real causes of the fires,” Mr. Turnbull said in an op-ed last week. “This has been refuted point-blank by the chief of the fire service in New South Wales, but the misinformation campaign continues in both mainstream and social media.”
Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said big “polluting corporations are responsible for this crisis but are evading responsibility.”
“Record-breaking drought and heat are making bushfire conditions evermore catastrophic. This is climate damage,” she said in a statement. “And the biggest cause of climate damage is burning coal.”
Not having any of it was Australian climate skeptic Joanne Nova, whose JoNova blog includes posts arguing that the 178-year record shows that drought has not increased and that Australians have lowered their per capita greenhouse gas emissions by 40% since 1990.
“This carbon reduction comes at a price: We stole land off our farmers without compensation, locked up native regrowth and created million-hectare fire hazards all over the country, and we pay the highest electricity rates in the world,” she said in a post late last week.
Climate scientists are hardly on the same page.
Penn State professor Michael E. Mann said in a Jan. 10 op-ed for The Guardian that “the brown skies I observed in the Blue Mountains [of Australia] this week are the product of human-caused climate change.”
Then there’s Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who noted that global wildfire activity is on the decline. NASA recently reported a 25% drop in the area burned by wildfires since 2003. Mr. Spencer attributed outbreaks to the increased chance of human ignition, given that the Australian population has grown fivefold in the past 100 years.
“A related reason is the increasing pressure by the public to reduce prescribed burns, clearing of dead vegetation, and cutting of fire breaks, which the public believes to have short-term benefits to beauty and wildlife preservation, but results in long-term consequences that are just the opposite and much worse,” Mr. Spencer said on his Global Warming blog.
He said blaming the bush fires on human-caused climate change is “mostly alarmist nonsense, with virtually no basis in fact.”
Mr. Ebell concurred. “Taking advantage of the bush fires in Australia is really strong evidence that the global warming crowd has no scruples at all,” he said. “It’s clear this isn’t global warming. This is gross mismanagement of resources.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.