Australia — The government has been accused of significantly watering down its official advice on extreme weather after removing mention of links between climate change and events such as bushfires and heatwaves.
A document on the Department of Environments website, aimed at informing the public on how climate change is influencing dangerous weather, has removed an explicit reference linking the two.
A previous version of the document opened with the statement: There is a growing and robust body of evidence that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
Australia has experienced an increasing number and intensity of heatwaves, bushfires, flooding and droughts in recent decades.
An amendment to the page removes these lines in favour of a general explanation of what extreme weather is.
The page goes on to acknowledge that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is changing and that some studies show a link to climate change, but stresses that it is difficult to isolate the role of climate change in any given event.
As Guardian Australia reported in October, the previous version of the departmental advice contradicted Tony Abbotts view that any link between bushfires and climate change was complete hogwash.
The prime minister, speaking in the wake of the widespread New South Wales bushfires last year, also said Christiana Figueres, the UNs climate chief, was talking out of her hat for linking rising temperatures to increased bushfires.
Amanda McKenzie, a former government official and now chief executive of the Climate Council, told Guardian Australia the amendment had led to softer language on the link between climate change and extreme weather.
Lives and communities are at risk from bushfires so its very important that communities and firefighting services are prepared for changes that we are already seeing, she said.
There is a common misconception that Australia has always had extreme weather so we should not be concerned now, but we are already seeing more forceful, extreme weather. Bushfires have increased in south-east Australia in the past 30 years, and weve just had our hottest 12 months on record.
The evidence is absolutely unequivocal on the link. We know bushfire conditions are getting worse. We have to take the government on its word that it takes climate change seriously but there have been inaccurate statements made around extreme weather and its critical the public is provided the right information on these matters.
Asked why the advice was changed, an environment department spokeswoman said: During the past few months, we have been finalising the transition of content from the former climate change website to environment.gov.au.
The Department of the Environments website is constantly updated. The change you identified was made by the department to ensure the website information remained consistent with the approach taken by the IPCC in its fifth assessment report.
The IPCC assessment, released in March, stated there was a medium to high confidence that extreme weather events are projected to increase in many locations in Australia.
Australia is at risk from increased damage to ecosystems and settlements, economic losses and risks to human life from wildfires in most of southern Australia, according to the IPCC report.
In addition, projected increases in heatwaves will increase heat-related deaths and hospitalisations, especially among the elderly, while coastal areas will be at risk from erosion, landslides and flooding, owing to weather pattern changes and sea level rises.
Kellie Caught, climate change campaigner at WWF, said: “The link between global warming and extreme weather events is clear. In fact, the IPCC fifth assessment report strengthened its assessment on the link between some extreme weather events and global warming.
“Its important that the Australian public are informed on the science of global warming and climate change from the leading experts such as the IPCC, especially given global warming poses a risk to society, our economy and environment.
The Greens leader, Christine Milne, said: Regardless of whether Tony Abbotts global warming denial is filtering top-down through the public service, the clear link between climate change and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is undeniable.
The link is the global scientific consensus. No amount of watering down of language or silencing the public service will change the urgency of strong and sustained action to reduce greenhouse pollution.