Australia fires: PM rejects ‘reckless’ calls to limit coal industry

A burnt-out property in Woodside, New South WalesImage copyright

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The fires razed scores of homes across two states on the weekend

Australian PM Scott Morrison says he will not make “reckless” cuts to the nation’s coal industry, despite criticism of his response to climate change and a deadly bushfire crisis.

Australia is being ravaged by bushfires which have killed nine people and razed hundreds of homes since September.

As the crisis escalated last week, Mr Morrison faced a backlash for deciding to take a family holiday to Hawaii.

On Monday, he reiterated he would not adjust his policies through “panic”.

The nation has steadfastly backed coal-fired power for its economic value, despite the recommendations of a major report on climate change. The coal industry employs some 38,000 people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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“What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching targets which are being sought,” Mr Morrison told local broadcaster Nine.

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Protesters in New South Wales called for action on climate change, during a visit by Premier Gladys Berejiklian

Many Australians have accused his government of inaction on global warming, with criticism growing as a heatwave broke records across the country and worsened the fires.

The town of Balmoral, south-west of Sydney, was largely destroyed and scores of homes were razed amid catastrophic conditions on the weekend.

What did Mr Morrison say?

Mr Morrison said tackling climate changes was “as important now” as it was earlier this year, before the fire emergency.

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Mr Morrison has conducted a media blitz since returning from holiday

He said his nation was on track to meet its emissions reduction commitments – an assertion previously disputed by the UN.

“I don’t accept the suggestion that Australia is not carrying its weight,” he said on Sunday.

He has also apologised for being on holiday in Hawaii as the crisis unfolded.

Why is he being criticised?

Australia is committed to reducing its emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

It has sought to achieve this in part by using credits accrued for beating targets under the previous international climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. It is the only country in the world openly doing this.

Media captionThe BBC’s Shaimaa Khalil says “the devastation is absolute” in Balmoral

But critics say the Kyoto targets were not rigorous enough, and the country must now make much deeper cuts.

While carbon emissions within Australia are relatively low, its fossil fuel exports account for an estimated 7% of world emissions.

Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused Mr Morrison of stubbornness.

“People are scared of what is going on around them,” he said, quoted by AFP. “And if Mr Morrison thinks that there’s nothing to see here, it’s because he can’t see through the smoke and haze that’s been created by these bushfires.”

What’s the latest with the fires?

Firefighters are struggling to contain bushfires burning across several states amid dry and hot conditions.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there was “not much left” of the small town of Balmoral. With a population of about 400 and 150 houses, it was hit twice in a matter of days.

Media captionRussell Scholes’s home in New South Wales was destroyed by bushfires

Residents are currently not allowed to return, and an unknown number of homes have been destroyed.

No fatalities were reported but several firefighters were reportedly injured. More than 800 homes have been destroyed in NSW since the fire season began.

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Elsewhere, at least 86 houses were destroyed in the Adelaide Hills area of South Australia, where a 69-year-old man was found dead at his property on Saturday.

Wine industry spokesman Jared Stringer said up to one-third of the region’s vineyards were in the “burnout zone”.

Officials said they were hoping to exploit cooler conditions over the coming days to try to contain the fires.

However, temperatures in Adelaide and the Victorian capital Melbourne are forecast to reach 39C next weekend.

What is driving the fires?

A combination of record temperatures, low humidity and strong winds have worsened the struggle to deal with the bushfires.

Scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate would contribute to Australia’s fires becoming more frequent and intense.

“We’re in a period of unbelievable drought and some areas haven’t seen rain for more than 12 months,” NSW Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd told the BBC. “These fires are likely to continue to spread well past Christmas.”

Media captionAustralia fire evacuees in Mittagong used a car park as a shelter

Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters: “We will not get on top of these fires until we get some decent rain – we have said that for weeks and months.”

Rain is forecast in some fire-struck parts of NSW on Tuesday and Wednesday but another period of dangerously hot weather is expected next week.

Weather officials say no major rainfall is expected in the next two months.

  • A visual guide to the bushfires and extreme heat

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