First scientist to link bushfires to climate change 30 years ago says he’s ‘horrified’ to see his findings come true

64-year-old orchardist Stephenie Bailey (R) reacting as she describes the impact bushfires have had on her farm in Batlow, NSW. Source: Getty

Australian scientist Tom Beer authored the world’s first research into climate change’s effect on bushfires in the 1980s. More than 30 years later, he’s urging the government to listen to the experts.

The Australian scientist who pioneered the world’s first scientific report investigating the link between climate change and worsening bushfires has once again called on the government to act on the advice of experts, explaining he’s “horrified” to see his findings come true.

In 1987, then-CSIRO scientist Tom Beer authored a world-first report titled ‘Australian bushfire danger under changing climatic regimes’ that predicted greenhouse gases would change rainfall patterns, leading to hotter, drier weather and more severe bushfire conditions.

In a joint statement released on Wednesday, Dr Beer, alongside Professor David Bowman and Professor Will Steffen, said it was “enormously distressing” to see much of Australia on fire this summer.

Fire fighting crews battle a bushfire encroaching on properties near Lake Tabourie on the New South Wales South Coast.
Fire fighting crews battle a bushfire encroaching on properties near Lake Tabourie on the New South Wales South Coast.

“When we did our work in 1987 the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 were the worst we had seen. Since then, we have experienced the Black Saturday fires; had to create a new catastrophic fire danger rating; and in the past few months, we’ve seen 10 million hectares of Australia burn,” Dr Beer said.

“Time has made our warnings a terrible reality. Without urgent action to deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is only going to get worse.”

Dr Beer worked at the CSIRO, Australia’s top scientific organisation, for 30 years, during which time he focused his work on climate and environmental change.

Australia’s fire seasons are now running longer and hotter than previous decades, with more than 10 million hectares of land already scorched with more than half of this year’s season left to go.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government is committed to reducing emissions and protecting the environment from more catastrophic fires.

“Let me be clear to the Australian people, our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today. At the same time, it will seek to make sure the viability of people’s jobs and livelihoods, all around the country,” he said. 

“What we will do is make sure our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move towards either extreme, and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment.”

The joint statement calls on the government to develop an urgent plan to prepare health and emergency services for “escalating fire danger” and quickly phase out the use of coal, oil and gas. 

“We expect the severity of bushfire conditions in Australia to continue to escalate, with rapid action to deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions required to stabilise the climate around 2040 or 2050,” the statement read. 

Professor Steffen, who works at the Australian National University, told SBS News they released the statement in response to the misinformation being spread in the wake of the recent deadly fires.

“I think it’s important to clear the air on these issues,” he said. “It's really important that the scientific community does its job and our job is to inform people, to warn people, to talk about the risks that lie ahead with climate change.”

Reflecting on Dr Beer’s research, Professor Steffen said they were a “pretty astute set of predictions, they were spot on”.

“This past year has been the hottest driest on record in Australia, and the consequence of that is extreme bushfire conditions. Now we're paying the price for that,” he said.

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