Cause vs Contribution

It seems our politics are incapable of the kind of accuracy that is required to talk about important scientific issues.

In among the toing and froing around whether or not discussing climate change and bushfires is ‘politicising’ the issue lies a crucial linguistic loggerhead.


Adam Bandt’s tweet, which probably kicked this off, said “Tony Abbott’s plan means more bushfires for Australia & more pics like this of Sydney”, with an accompanying image of fire damage.

That is quite a clear statement. We know fires happen in Australia – always have. And Bandt’s tweet indicates that unless climate change is dealt with, we can expect more of these things.

The response of our Prime Minister? “These fires are not a function of climate change they’re just a function of life in Australia”.

Then, in an interview with BBC radio, Greg Hunt said UNFCCC general secretary Christina Figueres “indicated clearly and strongly that there was not scientific evidence that these fires were caused by climate change.”

In fact Ms Figueres actually said “there is absolutely a connection between wildfires and rising temperatures”.

Rising temperatures means more days of extreme bushfire weather. More bushfire weather means more bushfires.

Hunt went on to say that Bandt had tried to “blame the newly elected government for fires such as this,” which, like much of this, is the kind of victimisation that defensive groups assume when they don’t want to deal with an issue. Claims of politicisation are a great way of suppressing debate, and the government are wilfully obscuring the difference between ‘causing’ fires and ‘contributing to’ fire risk. Unfortunately, the former is a much snappier line.

Bandt said if the government continued to rip apart laws to protect the climate, it would be contributing to the increased likelihood of more and worse fires in future.

And here we come to a crucial problem in the discussion around climate change. The difference between “causes” and “increases the risk of”.

The government is attempting to shift the conversation on this topic. Bandt was not accusing the government of causing fires.  Nor was he saying that climate change was causing fires.

The issue with bushfires and climate change is not a straight up “bushfires start because climate change” argument. That’s 10 year-old stuff. But, sadly, the nature of our political discourse seems to have been reduced to that.

Bushfires (he types, shuddering that it still requires pointing out) are not caused by climate change. Climate change leads to more days with the kind of conditions that will contribute to bushfires happening. There will be more hot days. More dry days. Those days may be hotter and drier than in the past. Hot, dry days mean drier fuel on the ground and in the trees. When the fires start as (and our government is correct here) they always have in Australia, the conditions for them to rage uncontrollably are more likely.

That took about a hundred words. Compare it to “bushfires always happen in Australia. It’s not climate change. Oh, and we accept the science.”

Except they don’t accept the science. Greg Hunt scrapped the Climate Commission, and now consults Wikipedia for bushfire data (interestingly, Greg would have seen a marked increase in bushfires in recent decades). Tony Abbott is in the paper this morning saying the link between climate change and bushfires is ‘hogwash’. This is, on all objective measures, an anti-science government.


The Forest Fire Danger Index is on the rise. It is a long-standing measure of the conditions that contribute to bushfire danger on any given day. It combines dryness (a combination of rainfall and evaporation), with wind speed, temperature and humidity and spits out a number.



Fire Danger Index


100 +


75 – 100


50 – 75


25 – 50


12 – 25


0 – 12

Prior to the Black Saturday fires, the catastrophic zone didn’t exist. Since 1997-98 (the major El Nino), the FFDI has averaged about 30 per cent higher than the twenty years prior.

Professor Roger Jones pointed out this week that Tony Abbott himself, in referring to Australia’s history of fires, rattled off a list of historical bushfires, and the dates he mentioned were: the 1850s, 1939, 1968, 1983, 1994, 2003, 2009 and now. Ignoring, for a moment that none of those other fires were in October, take a look at the gaps between those events.

80 years, 29 years, 14 years, 11 years, nine years, six years, and four years. Mr Abbott may have thought he was talking about Australia’s proclivity for catching alight, but in fact he was reinforcing the point that these fires are getting much, much more frequent.

Until we can start clearly pointing to the difference between causality and risk, there will be difficulties. There need not be predictions of apocalypse, but that clear connection, and the reality that it is about risk level, not causation, is crucial. Perhaps here’s a start:

Bushfires have always happened in Australia.

Climate change is making them worse.

Let’s take it from there.


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