Environment Minister Greg Hunt has hosed down suggestions of a link between climate change and increased bushfire intensity, saying he had ''looked up what Wikipedia'' and it was clear that bushfires in Australia were frequent events that had occurred during hotter months since before European settlement.
His comments come as scientists, environment groups and politicians have raised concerns, in the wake of massive bushfires in NSW, that the increasing extreme weather events are linked to climate change.
The head of the UN's climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres, and former US vice-president and climate change activist Al Gore have this week both weighed into the debate, criticising the Abbott government over its moves to scrap the carbon price. They also said the evidence was clear that extreme weather would be more frequent as the planet warmed.
Mr Hunt and Ms Figueres spoke by telephone overnight after Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday rejected Ms Figueres' assessment that a clear link existed between bushfires and climate change, saying she was ''talking through her hat''.
On Monday, Ms Figueres had told CNN that the Coalition government would pay a high political and financial price for its decision to scrap carbon pricing.
She noted that the World Meteorological Organisation had not yet established a direct link between the NSW fires and climate change.
''But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heatwaves in Asia, Europe, and Australia; that these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency,'' Ms Figueres said.
Despite Mr Abbott's comments and her conversation with Mr Hunt, Ms Figueres stood by her assessment, pointing in a statement to a UN scientific panel's finding that decisive action was needed to avert more frequent and extreme weather events in coming decades.
''Climate change is known to alter the likelihood of increased wildfire sizes and frequencies,'' she said in the statement, issued after she spoke with Mr Hunt.
Combined with more stress on trees ''this suggests an increasing likelihood of more prevalent fire disturbances, as has recently been observed'', she said, quoting a 2007 report by the UN panel.
Mr Hunt on Thursday said that during their conversation, Ms Figureres indicated ''very clearly and strongly'' that there wasn't evidence the fires ravaging parts of NSW were caused by climate change.
''She felt that that had been misrepresented,'' Mr Hunt told BBC radio.
Mr Hunt said he ''looked up what Wikipedia'' said about bushfires and it was clear they were frequent events that had occurred during hotter months in Australia since before European settlement.
An unknown person on Thursday updated the Minister’s Wikipedia page to note that he "was quoted as saying he uses Wikipedia for important policy research". Wikipedia later posted a message saying that editing of Mr Hunt's page had been disabled for new or unregistered users due to vandalism.
Addressing Ms Figueres' intitial comments on Wednesday, Mr Abbott said ''fire is a part of the Australian experience''.
''Climate change is real and we should take strong action against it,'' he continued. ''But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change - they're just a function of life in Australia,'' he told Fairfax Radio.
'I'm merely quoting your PM'
Mr Hunt became angry during his appearance on the BBC World Service after the interviewer pressed him on whether the Coalition accepted the science around climate change - referring to reports that Mr Abbott referred to the science as ''absolute crap'' in 2009.
''In Parliament our Prime Minister has expressed clear support for the science,'' Mr Hunt replied, before the interview pressed him again.
''So [Mr Abbott] no longer thinks its 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, I'm merely quoting your Prime Minister,'' the interviewer protested.
The Environment Minister replied that she was taking a private conversation out of context. He later added that the Coalition had taken ''science off the table'' when it came to climate change.
''We're not debating it,'' he said.
Since reports of Mr Abbott's use of the term ''crap'', Mr Abbott has said that it was not his considered position on the subject.
While Mr Hunt was emphatic that the Coalition accepted there was a need for action on climate change, he was less definite when asked if he accepted that there was a potential ''causal'' relationship between rising temperatures and bushfires.
''By definition, bushfires happen in hot weather,'' he said.
''I think we've all got to be very careful, in talking with the senior people at the Bureau of Meteorology, for example, they always emphasise, never trying to link any particular event to climate change.''
Asked about Mr Hunt's BBC interview, the chief executive of The Climate Institute, John Connor, said the Environment Minister was stating the obvious when saying that "Wikipedia showed that there [were] fires in Australia".
"That's something that we do know," Mr Connor told Fairfax Media.
"But what we also do know is the data is clear, the forest fire danger index has been increasing... and particularly in spring and autumn, which means that the fire weather season has been extending.
"And all of the projections for climate change and for global warming, is that they will increase and increase exponentially."
Mr Connor criticised Tony Abbott for saying the UN's head of climate change negotiations was "talking through her hat" by linking climate change to bushfires.
"I think with the greatest respect the Prime Minister's caught a bit straddling the carbon barbed-wire fence here in Australia," Mr Connor said.
"On one hand, it should be acknowledged, [Abbott is] accepting that climate change is real, but on the other hand not looking at the risks and not looking at the projections of the fire danger."I don't think the Prime Minister can have it both ways."
Gore pleads for action
Speaking on 7.30 on Wednesday night, Mr Gore said the Abbott government shouldn't bend to the will of ''special interests'' groups, which dismiss climate science evidence.
''It reminds me of politicians here in the United States 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,'' Mr Gore said.
''For 40 years tobacco companies were able to persuade compliant politicians within their grip to tell the public what they wanted them to tell them.''
While Mr Gore, a Nobel Prize-winning climate change activist, did accept bushfires were natural occurrences, he said they would be much worse in a world with high temperatures, dried out soil and vegetation.
''Wildfires become more pervasive and dangerous,'' he said.
He also criticised the Abbott government's decision to scrap the carbon tax and replace it with the ''direct action'' carbon abatement policy.
''The meaningful way to solve this crisis is to put a price on carbon. And in Australia's case to keep a price on carbon. The price needs to be at a level that's effective,'' he said.
Mr Hunt said that he accepted the science of climate change and need for action, but the Bureau of Meteorology had warned against making any direct link between global warming and natural disasters.
In April the government's own Climate Commission, using research from CSIRO and BoM, warned climate change was already increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather.
The commission, abolished by the Abbott government last month, said there was a high risk these extreme events would worsen in coming decades and Australia was particularly susceptible.
The latest major report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also warned that allowing global temperatures to rise above two degrees risked more extreme weather events.
smh.com.au, with Jonathan Swan, AAP and Reuters