Australian PM Scott Morrison dismisses calls to curb coal as blazes set to blight Christmas celebrations

Australia's PM Scott Morrison, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (left) speaks to the media during a visit to the Wollondilly Emergency Control Centre in Sydney, on Dec 22, 2019. PHOTO: AP

SYDNEY (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Under-fire Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday (Dec 23) rejected calls for "reckless" and "job-destroying" cuts to the country's vast coal industry in the face of a deadly climate change-fuelled bush fire crisis.

His comments came as the devastating wildfires, which at the weekend destroyed close to 200 homes and claimed another life, showed no sign of abating and are poised to blight Christmas celebrations.

"I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries," Mr Morrison told the Seven Network, in one of several morning interviews rejecting calls for further action.

"What we won't do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching targets which are being sought," he told Channel 9, responding to calls for more climate-friendly policies.

His conservative government has fiercely defended the lucrative coal industry in Australia, which produces a third of global coal exports and provides jobs in key swing electoral districts.

Mr Morrison's media blitz came as he sought to limit the political fallout from a much-criticised Hawaiian holiday - taken as bush fires destroyed an area the size of Belgium and unleashed toxic smoke into Australia's major cities.

Returning home at the weekend, Morrison apologised for causing "anxiety" with his unannounced trip, but continued to downplay any link between climate change and the crisis, and dismissed calls to take more steps to curb emissions.

Mr Morrison has insisted Australia will meet its 2030 emissions targets, although that will largely be done by counting past credits rather than through new reductions.

Australia committed at the 2015 UN climate summit to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. However, environmental activists say those targets are not nearly enough to help the world keep global warming to safe levels, and that far deeper cuts are needed.

"I'm going to maintain the course of responsible management, responsibly addressing the changes of climate change and responsibly ensuring that we can grow our economy in what is a very tough climate at the moment," he told the Seven Network.

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While Australia's national carbon emissions are low compared with major polluters, its fossil fuel exports - mostly coal - account for an estimated 7 per cent of the world's carbon emissions.

Opposition leader, Labor's Anthony Albanese pilloried Morrison's "stubbornness" in refusing "to change course." "Clearly, this is not business-as-usual. But Mr Morrison is not listening," Albanese said.

"People are scared of what is going on around them. And if Mr Morrison thinks that there's nothing to see here, it's because he can't see through the smoke and haze that's been created by these bushfires," he added.

Fire conditions eased markedly on Monday, but the authorities said in the last few days that almost 200 homes have been damaged by fires in South Australia and New South Wales.

New South Wales, the most populous state, remains at the forefront of the disaster, with almost 800 houses lost since the fire season began unusually early in the midst of winter.

Authorities said on Monday that little was left of the small town of Balmoral, south west of Sydney, where 67-year-old artist Steve Harrison told public broadcaster ABC he had been forced to weather the fire from a make-shift kiln.

"I ran to my ute but my garden was already on fire, the driveway was on fire, the road was on fire so I couldn't evacuate," he said. "The day before I had actually built myself a small kiln down the back - a coffin-sized kiln - just big enough for me to crawl inside."

"I was in there for half an hour while the firestorm went over. It was huge, just glowing orange-red everywhere. Just scary. I was terrified," he added.

The crisis has spread to South Australia state, where an estimated 86 homes were destroyed at the weekend. The hills surrounding Adelaide, famous for their wine and cuisine, were the epicentre of the South Australian fires at the weekend, which have caused blackouts to thousands of homes that look likely to stretch into Christmas Day. The death of a man in the state brought the national toll to nine.

The temperatures are forecast to approach 40 deg C in cities such as Adelaide and Canberra by the weekend.

The states of Queensland, Victoria and Western Australian have also been hit this fire season, stretching the resources of fire services, which are mainly staffed by unpaid volunteers.

Bush fires are endemic in Australia, but scientists say several weather phenomena have come together to make this spring-summer bush fire season among the worst on record.

Record-low rainfall, record-high temperatures and high winds have made the situation more combustible, and according to scientists, are influenced by climate change.

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