Leading climate scientist Professor Andy Pitman has hit back at Tony Abbott for misrepresenting him to argue against the link between climate change and the ongoing bushfire crisis in The Australian.

“From the start [of the bushfire crisis], the role of climate change has been front and centre of public discussion, even though shortly before these fires really got going one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, Andy Pitman, said that it was impossible to attribute the present drought largely to climate change and that the incidence of drought hadn’t increased over the past century,” Abbott wrote in an opinion piece, published in The Australian on Thursday.

Pitman, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes director at UNSW, who has contributed to Nobel Peace Prize-winning research work, said he was “confused as to how Mr Abbott quotes me on drought in a sentence about bushfires, when in fact for 15 years I have been warning that the risk of fires is increasing as a consequence of climate change, and have published papers on that”.

“If he can’t tell the difference between bushfires and drought, I can’t help him.”

Abbott was referencing a statement Pitman made during a lecture at the University of Sydney last year about Australia’s ongoing drought.

“As far as the climate scientists know there is no link between climate change and drought … there is no reason a priori why climate change should make the landscape more arid,” Pitman said in the lecture.

The statement has since become fodder for climate denialists such as Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones to rebuke links made between natural disasters and climate change.

Pitman has gone to lengths to clarify his statement, telling Media Watch last year that he should have said “there is no direct link between climate change and drought”, but that there is an indirect link.

“But you would have to be a moron to think there is no link between climate change and drought,” he told Crikey.

“There is no ambiguity or wriggle room that the bushfires are linked with climate change … And I don’t think that there is a bushfire expert that won’t make that link. The strength of the link can be argued, but the existence of the link is not disputable.”

Pitman explained the science behind this link to Crikey: high carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in some places, leads to “greening”, meaning more vegetation — like leaves, branches and even trees — growing above the soil. When you are hit with a drought, the vegetation become stressed and drops to the ground or dries out, becoming fuel for fires. So when a fire breaks out, the dead vegetation feeds bigger, more powerful flames that are harder to fight.

“Science is about accuracy and appropriate conclusions being reached from the data, and not about cherry picking parts of science to suit your argument. I respect that is how it works in politics … but that mustn’t translate into science, because science has to provide all sides of the argument and reach an appropriate conclusion,” Pitman said.

“It’s frustrating that years and years of research can be dismissed by a politician. The reputation of The Australian is being trashed by publishing utter rubbish.”

Peter Fray

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