SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt has played down links between the country's bushfire disaster and climate change after he "looked up what Wikipedia said".
His comments came as United States environmental activist Al Gore likened Prime Minister Tony Abbott's insistence that wildfires had nothing to do with changing climate patterns to the tobacco industry claiming smoking does not cause lung cancer.
Both Mr Hunt and Mr Gore weighed in on the issue after United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres's assertion this week that there was "absolutely" a connection between wildfires and rising temperatures.
Australia has been battling massive bushfires that started in unseasonably hot and dry weather west of Sydney a week ago, inflaming the debate.
In a testy interview with BBC radio late Wednesday, Mr Hunt defended Mr Abbott's argument that fires had long been part of Australian life and were not linked to climate change.
"I looked up what Wikipedia said, for example, just to see what the rest of the world thought," he said.
"And it opens up with the fact that bushfires in Australia are frequently-occurring events during the hotter months of the year, large areas of land are ravaged every year by bushfires, and that's the Australian experience."
Mr Abbott, a long-time climate change sceptic, this week accused Figueres of "talking through her hat", but former US vice president and Nobel laureate Gore said climate change clearly brought about more extreme weather.
"Bushfires can occur naturally, and do, but the science shows clearly that when the temperature goes up, and when the vegetation and soils dry out, then wildfires become more pervasive and more dangerous," he told ABC television late Wednesday.
"That's not me saying it, that's what the scientific community says."
In the BBC interview, Mr Hunt took issue with the presenter quizzing him on Mr Abbott's past description of climate change as "absolute crap".
"In Parliament our Prime Minister has expressed clear support for the science," he said, before the presenter asked: "So (Abbott) no longer thinks it's absolute crap?" "Look, with great respect you can swear on international radio, you can invite me from Australia to do this, you can be profoundly rude, I'm happy to answer, but I'm not going to be sworn at," Mr Hunt responded.
Mr Gore said Mr Abbott's stance that climate change had nothing to do with the fires was similar to politicians in the US who received support from tobacco companies, and then publicly argued the companies' cause.
"It reminds me of politicians here who got a lot of support from the tobacco companies and who argued to the public that there was absolutely no connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer," he said from the United States.
"For 40 years the tobacco companies were able to persuade pliant politicians within their grip to tell the public what they wanted them to tell them, and for 40 years the tragedy continued."
He urged the Abbott government - which plans to abandon an industrial pollution tax in favour of a "direct action" scheme to plant trees and set up an emissions reduction incentive fund for business - not to bend to the will of "special interest" groups, which dismiss climate science evidence.
"The energy companies, coal companies particularly, have prevented the Congress of the US from doing anything meaningful so far about the climate crisis," he said.