MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Australia's government is sticking firmly to a position that there is no direct link between climate change and the country's devastating bush fires, despite public anger, the anguish of victims and warnings from scientists.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his emissions reduction minister, Mr Angus Taylor, say Australia does not need to cut carbon emissions more aggressively to limit global warming, even after a three-year drought and unprecedented bush fires.
Instead they say Australia, which contributes 1.3 per cent of the world's carbon emissions but is the second-largest emitter per capita behind the United States, should be rewarded for beating its emissions reduction targets for 2020.
"When it comes to reducing global emissions, Australia must and is doing its bit, but bush fires are a time when communities must unite, not divide," Mr Taylor said in e-mailed comments to Reuters on Tuesday (Jan 7), while he was busy at bush fire relief centres in his constituency in New South Wales state.
Stepping up efforts to cut emissions would harm the economy, the government argues, especially if it hurt Australia's exports of coal and gas. The country last year overtook Qatar as the world's top exporter of liquefied natural gas.
"In most countries it isn't acceptable to pursue emission-reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth," Mr Taylor wrote in The Australian newspaper on Dec 31.
"That's why we won't adopt (opposition) Labor's uncosted, reckless, economy-destroying targets that will always result in a tax on energy, whether it is called that or not."
Mr Taylor did not detail exactly how cutting emissions would raise the cost of living.
Australians have complained that due to a lack of energy policy, power prices have risen substantially in recent years, placing a heavy burden on household incomes, even as energy producers are gradually shifting to cheaper renewables.
Mr Taylor's came in response to criticism Australia faced at the United Nations climate summit in Madrid for blocking ambitious action to cut carbon emissions.
Environmental groups say Australia will meet its emissions targets only by including old carbon credits the government wants to count from the 1992 Kyoto Protocol.
Scientists say climate change is a key factor in the destructive wildfires.
"One of the key drivers of fire intensity, fire spread rates and fire area is temperature. And in Australia we've just experienced record high temperatures," said Mr Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University.
The burning forests are a double whammy for the environment, as they add to carbon emissions while also removing carbon sinks which will take decades to grow back, said Mr David Holmes, director of the Monash University Climate Change Communication Research Hub.
Australia's bush fires since September have emitted about 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equal to two-thirds the country's annual emissions from man-made sources, estimated Dr Pep Canadell, director of the Global Carbon Project, based on data from Nasa satellites.
To others, from opposition Labor to film star Russell Crowe, who skipped the Golden Globes awards to fight bush fires in Australia, to US Senator Bernie Sanders, the link is clear between climate change and Australia's fires which have killed 25 people, destroyed thousands of homes and razed more than eight million hectares of land since September.
"I say to those who are delaying action on climate change: Look at the blood-red sky and unbreathable air in Australia because of raging forest fires," Mr Sanders said on social media last week.
Amid an outbreak of fires in several states in November, Labor leader Anthony Albanese urged Mr Morrison to beef up resources to prepare for, fight and prevent disasters.
"The fire season is starting earlier and finishing later, and emergency leaders agree that extreme weather events in Australia will only increase in severity and frequency, due to climate change," Mr Albanese wrote in the Nov 22 letter, which he posted on social media.