Fires, floods pressure Australia government on climate

CANBERRA Mon Feb 9, 2009 3:35pm GMT

The remains of a shed destroyed by bushfires are seen in the town of Heathcote Junction, 55 km (34 miles) north of Melbourne, February 8, 2009. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

The remains of a shed destroyed by bushfires are seen in the town of Heathcote Junction, 55 km (34 miles) north of Melbourne, February 8, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mick Tsikas

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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's deadliest wildfires increased pressure on the national government to take firm action on climate change on Monday as scientists said global warming likely contributed to conditions that fueled the disaster.

At least 130 people were killed in wildfires, set off by a record heatwave in southern Victoria state over the past week days, while large areas of Queensland state remain flooded by tropical downpours.

Scientists said Australia needed to prepare for more extreme weather events due to global warming, while the Greens and environmentalists said the fires and floods proved the government needed to toughen its targets to curb Greenhouse emissions.

"It's very clear, both globally and in Australia, there has been a warming trend since about 1950," leading Australian climate scientist Kevin Hennessy told Reuters.

"In a nutshell we can say the heatwaves and the fires we've seen in Victoria recently maybe partly due to climate change through the contribution of increased temperature.

"Going forward, we anticipate there will be continued increases in greenhouse gases and that locks in a certain amount of warming, and in the case of southern Australia further drying, and this will increase the fire weather risk."

Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change because of its hot, dry climate, with the nation's south in prolonged drought and temperatures tipped to rise by 3 degrees Celsius by 2050 across the tropical north and desert interiors.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has set a target to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent by 2020, and will only cut further, to about 15 percent, if there is widespread international agreement on tougher action.

But Green groups want Australia, which creates about 1.5 percent of global emissions, to cut emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 as an example to the developing world, particularly India and China, about the need to take firm action.

Greens climate spokeswoman Christine Milne said all Australians had been deeply touched by the fire tragedy and the increased risk of fires from global warming.

STARING AT THE FUTURE

"As the community comes together to heal, we also will need to grapple with the fact that climate change is with us and is dramatically increasing Australia's bushfire risk," Senator Milne said in a statement to Reuters.

"Over the last few days, we Australians have looked our own future in the face."

Rudd, elected to power in late 2007, promised voters to take firm action on climate change. He has also promised to introduce carbon trading from July 2010 to help curb greenhouse gas emissions, with the laws to hit parliament in May.

Brian Fisher, a leading climate policy analyst and economist, said it was crucial for Australia to try to influence the world's top emitters to rein in greenhouse gas pollution.

"The key issue is what we can persuade others to do in concert with Australia. That determines what will happen to the world's climate," said Fisher, an author for the UN Climate Panel's Second, Third and Fourth Assessment Reports.

Bushfires and tropical floods are a normal part of Australian life, and can be crucial to help natural ecology. More than 250 people have died from bushfires in the past 40 years, making fires the most dangerous natural hazards in Australia.

But after years of drought, and with record high temperatures in Victoria over the weekend, fueled by hot north winds blowing down from Australia's arid center, the conditions were set for a major disaster.

"I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday. The fire weather was unprecedented," said Sydney University bushfire analyst Professor Mark Adams.

"We do not have all the evidence yet to fully explain this day in terms of climate change. However, all the science to date shows that we can expect more extreme weather in the years to come -- that includes hotter days and drier landscapes across southern Australia."

(Additional reporting by David Fogarty; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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