Political point scoring as the fires burn

On Saturday night the Heat beat the Scorchers. It was only Big Bash Cricket, but it seemed a fitting finale to a week in which the bushfires had not only dominated the news, but - directly and indirectly - the debate that flowed from it.

And of course, the politicians got in on it. The previous week Tony Abbott, firefighter extraordinaire, had paraded across the front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph in a pristine protective outfit, preparing to go on standby. The Housing Minister Brendan O'Connor branded it a stunt, but later withdrew and Abbott was in fact filmed going into action on the South Coast.

Someone who described himself as "the firefighter on duty" tweeted that Abbott's spotless uniform was clearly untouched by action and someone else claimed that while it was nice to see him back, it was in fact the first time he had fronted for an actual fire (as opposed to a branch meeting) in 13 years; but Abbott fans were entranced by yet further proof of his macho.

The best Julia Gillard could do in response was to go feminine and compassionate, which she had already done with some success on the Tasman peninsula and now repeated in the Warrumbungles. Her detractors dismissed her appearance as a cynical ploy to prop up votes and a second-rate attempt to emulate Premier Anna Bligh's bravura but ultimately unsuccessful performance after the Queensland floods.

But the reality was that she, like Abbott, was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. Prime Ministers are expected to attend the sites of disasters, both natural and man-made: if they don't, they are accused of being hard-hearted and uncaring.

And Gillard's appearance did give her a chance to draw attention to one very salient fact: while the cost of the fires has been appalling in terms of losses to property, farm stock and wildlife, to date there has been only one confirmed human death. And this is not a result of divine providence or any other form of sheer blind luck but of diligent, even brilliant preparation, effective and heroic efforts from the firefighters and a sensible and disciplined response from their supporters and, importantly the general public. It was a tremendous effort all round, and just as well: because there's going to be plenty more where that came from.

The fires and the heat wave that provoked them have inevitably reopened the debate, if it can be dignified with the title, on global warming and climate change, and it has brought out the sceptics and the deniers in plague proportions. Undoubtedly the silliest has been the Liberal member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, who dismissed any suggestion that a new and dangerous trend was emerging. Why, it was just a hot spell, he scoffed. There had been plenty like it before; back in 1790 Watkin Tench, the celebrated First Fleet diarist, noted that the heat was intolerable: and so it undoubtedly was, to a Pom. So this proved that there was no global warming, QED.

Others noted that Dorothea MacKellar had written of droughts and flooding rains in a sunburnt country so what did we expect? An international researcher revealed that it was also bloody cold in parts of Europe at the moment: no global warming there. The cautious rejoinder from the senior principal research scientist of the Bureau of Meteorology, Scott Power, that while it was unwise to attribute any single instance to climate change, it was quite clear that the world, including Australia, was warming and that as a result extreme events such as those of the last week would become more common and more severe, was relegated to a footnote.

But the most sustained attack on the science came, as usual, from The Australian and it was led by, of all people, its environment editor, Graham Lloyd. On Tuesday Lloyd gave us a breathless front page "exclusive" headed: 'Sea rise not linked to warming'. It quoted a paper from the Journal of Climate co-authored by John Church, described as Australia's pre-eminent sea level scientist, and claimed it said that sea level rises were not accelerating.

(Lloyd's report also had a pointer to a story sneering at the ABC for running a report that sea level rise was already having an effect on coastal properties because the ultimate source was a real estate agent. This from the paper that applauds the use of practical, hands-on research and gives reams of space to totally unqualified deniers like Gibbering Lord Monckton and his deranged ilk. But we digress.)

When he saw Lloyd's report Church gave a press conference to say he had been verballed and that in fact the paper said precisely the opposite: of course sea level rise was accelerating and the cause was anthropogenic. Undeterred Lloyd wrote another piece calling it a "war of words" and headed: 'Scientists split on the question of sea level rise'. In fact, as the chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, pointed out, they're not; there is certainly argument over just how quickly the rate is accelerating, but the basic fact is indisputable.

Lloyd, in a desperate spirit of overkill, also ran a turgid feature claiming there was a 'Rising Tide of Discord'. But on Thursday The Australian felt constrained to publish a belated correction to Lloyd's original story, even if the editor did his best to bury it by printing it in an unobtrusive spot on page 2. Lloyd, as insouciant as ever, wrote another tedious piece of self-justification on Saturday headed: 'Rising uncertainty about sea level increases'. Well, there is in his mind, at least.

But he was effortlessly upstaged by a retired political scientist called Don Aitkin, who has joined The Australian's jihad against the ABC. Truth and balance, thundered Aitkin, are important values and they ought to prevail. And at the ABC, he did not think that this was the case. His evidence? "To me, the ABC seems committed to the view that anthropogenic global warming (AGW, now transmuted into 'climate change') is a real and present threat to humanity."

Well, yes, and also to the view that the world is round and revolves around the sun. But oh, dear, the science is far from settled about any of this. No doubt he and Graham Lloyd could write a joint feature on the subject.

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