Senior government ministers have sought to distance themselves from conservative Liberal MP Craig Kelly who sparked controversy by telling UK television there was no link between climate change and Australia’s bushfire crisis.
Kelly, a longstanding critic of climate change action, was lambasted as a “denier” and “disgraceful” by the conservative British commentator Piers Morgan and the meteorologist Laura Tobin in a combative interview on ITV overnight.
He had earlier spoken to the BBC to claim that there was “no link” between climate change and Australia’s crippling drought, pegging blame for the bushfire crisis that has so far claimed 25 lives and destroyed almost 2,000 homes on a lack of hazard reduction.
Asked about Kelly’s remarks, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government’s view was that climate change was causing hotter, drier summers, while agreeing that fuel load was a contributing factor to the bushfires.
“Our view of climate change is that it’s real. We accept the science,” Frydenberg said.
Minister for the drought, David Littleproud, who has previously questioned whether climate change is being caused by human activity, also criticised Kelly’s remarks as a “sideshow”.
“He doesn’t represent the views of the government,” Littleproud said.
“I couldn’t give a rats what he said, it’s irrelevant, let’s just focus on those people that are out there that need our help.”
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said his reaction to Kelly’s comments was one of “despair”.
“Despair not just that Craig Kelly has those views and continues to advocate them, not just here in Australia, but globally, and be seen to be representing the Australian government’s position, but the knowledge that he’s one of the people who has held back action,” Albanese said.
“He’s one of the people who has stopped action on climate change domestically, which has led us to be in a position whereby we’re actually, as well, arguing for less action internationally, rather than more.”
“The tragedy is that he’s imposed those views along with a few others to ensure that Australia isn’t taking action.”
Labor’s shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King suggested Kelly had been put up for the interview by the government, saying it was “beyond embarrassing”.
“I did @BBCRadio4 against him Sunday. The producer said they had asked for a senior government rep and this is who @ScottMorrisonMP thought was the best person to represent his government,” King said on Twitter.
But a spokesman for the Coalition said “the suggestion was fanciful” that Kelly had been put forward to represent the views of the government, and Kelly told Guardian Australia he had not spoken to the prime minister’s office before agreeing to the interview request.
Kelly had told ITV that the cause of the fire crisis was high fuel loads and the drought, and there was no evidence that climate change was causing Australia’s climate to warm.
“This is a terrible disaster, this is one of our nation’s worst natural disasters, and in the past when we have these in our nation we all sat back and did what we could to fix it up, rather than people getting out there and scoring political points and that is what’s happening now,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
“To try to make out as some politicians have to hijack this debate, exploit this tragedy and push their ideological barrow, that somehow or another the Australian government could have done something by reducing its carbon emissions that would have reduced these bushfires is just complete nonsense,” Kelly said.
Morgan savaged Kelly for his remarks, saying he was taking a “nothing to see here, nothing to worry about” approach as “your entire country is eviscerated by fires”.
“You are facing now one of the greatest crises you have ever faced, and there is you Mr Kelly, with respect, a senior politician who still doesn’t think this has anything to do with a heating-up planet,” Morgan said.
Tobin accused Kelly of denying the science which showed that 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record.
“At the moment we want everyone to commit in the world to be one and a half degrees to lower our global temperature rise,” Tobin said. “You can’t even commit to two degrees.
“You have the second highest carbon emissions per person on Earth and you are burying your head in the sand. You aren’t a climate sceptic, you are a climate denier,” she said.
Cutting off the interview, Morgan said: “I’ve got to say: wake up. Wake up. Climate change and global warming are real and Australia right now is showing the entire world just how devastating it is.
“And for senior politicians in Australia to still pretend there’s no connection is absolutely disgraceful.”
Kelly also used the interview to defend Scott Morrison for taking a holiday to Hawaii during the bushfire crisis, saying the management of fires was primarily the states’ responsibility.
The remarks came after the conservative backbencher appeared on the BBC on Saturday, claiming that there was no link between climate change and Australia’s drought.
“There is no link, the facts that cause the fires are the drought and the drying of the environment,” Kelly said. “On this, climate scientists down here have been very clear and they have said there is no link between drought and climate change.”
“People here in Australia understand – if they look at the evidence and look at the signs – there is nothing that we can do here in Australia by sending billions more off to China to buy solar panels to replace our coal-fired electricity generators,” he said.
“That is not going to change the weather here in Australia one iota and is not going to stop one bushfire.”
Speaking on ABC’s Radio National on Tuesday morning, Kelly doubled down on the remarks, saying Morgan did “not want to hear the facts” and arguing that hazard reduction was more important than taking action on climate change.
He said people were exploiting the bushfire tragedy “for ideology”, and the cause of the fires was “the dryness of the atmosphere and the landscape”, while rejecting suggestions that the Coalition was home to a group of denialist MPs.
“There is no denialist cult,” Kelly said.
He also referred to Tobin as a “weather girl” who “had no idea what she was talking about”. “She says the Australia continent is drying out and that is just not true.”
Tobin responded to the criticism on Twitter on Tuesday morning, pointing to her degree in physics and meteorology, and her four years’ experience as an aviation forecaster at the Royal Air Force.
Yes I’m a Meteorologist— Laura Tobin (@Lauratobin1) January 6, 2020
-A degree in Physics & Meteorology
-4 yrs as an aviation forecaster at the RAF
-12 yrs as a broadcast meteorologist
-Attended a @WMO Climate course last year & upto date with all the science #NotAWeatherGirl #IKnowWhatImTalkingAbout#DoYou?#ClimateChange https://t.co/fvwTpzftTI
The remarks come as Morrison defends the government’s climate change policy, while stressing there is “no dispute” in Australia about the impact of global warming on Australia’s climate.
“I have seen a number of people suggest that somehow the government does not make this connection,” the prime minister said. “The government I lead has always made that connection and that has never been in dispute.”
Kelly, who established the Parliamentary Friends of Coal Exports for likeminded MPs, has been a longstanding internal critic of government attempts to reduce carbon emissions, and was a vocal critic of the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to introduce a national energy policy.
He has also argued against any government investment into renewable energy, calling for subsidies for households and businesses to be scrapped.
After Morrison became leader, Kelly was told to rein in media appearances, particularly on Sky News, where he had become a frequent guest of conservative commentators.
Kelly has twice had his preselection threatened but in 2016 Turnbull intervened to prevent a moderate challenging him for the seat of Hughes, and before the 2019 election Morrison also moved to ensure his incumbency was protected.