OSLO (Reuters) - Australia's prime minister accused the U.N.'s climate change chief on Wednesday of "talking through her hat" when she drew a link between wildfires raging in his country and global warming.
Firefighters were battling about 60 fires burning across New South Wales state, with strong winds fanning blazes in the Blue Mountains, a major commuter area of small towns west of Sydney.
Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N.'s Bonn-based Climate Change Secretariat, told CNN earlier this week that there was "absolutely" a link between climate change and wildfires.
She hinted at a possibility of linking the Australian fires to global warming, saying: "The World Meteorological Organization has not established a direct link between this wildfire and climate change yet."
Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected any suggestion that the blazes in Australia were the product of rising carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, a major Australian export.
"I think the official in question is talking through her hat," Abbott told Fairfax radio on Wednesday.
"Climate change is real and we should take strong action against it," he said. "But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change. They are just a function of life in Australia."
Figueres later dug in her heels, pointing in a statement to a U.N. 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 by phone with Australian Environment Minister Greg 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 U.N. panel.
The dispute highlights how almost all climate experts say man-made global warming is under way but it is usually impossible to link it to individual extremes such as floods, heatwaves, droughts or the wildfires raging around Sydney.
Wildfires, many of them devastating, have happened naturally throughout history. Global warming may, however, be loading the dice in favor of more extremes.
Figueres welcomed Hunt's assurances that Australia was on target with its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, even though the government wants to ditch a cap and trade market.
The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month raised the probability that global warming is mainly man-made to 95 percent from 90 percent in 2007. It will issue a new report about the impacts of climate change in March 2014.
A draft summary for policymakers, obtained by Reuters, predicts "increased damages to ecosystems and settlements, economic losses, and risks to human life from wildfires in most of southern Australia and parts of New Zealand, driven by drying trends and rising temperatures."
The report will face extra scrutiny after the IPCC made an error in its previous 2007 report, the main guide for government action in shifting from fossil fuels, by exaggerating the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers.
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer