SYDNEY (Reuters) - Devastating bushfires that blanketed Australia's largest city with hazardous smoke this week have heightened public anger and raised political pressure on the government to do more to battle climate change.
While cooler weather eased fires and haze around Sydney on Wednesday, the previous day's thick shroud of smoke triggered protests and prompted one conservative lawmaker to break with his party by directly tying recent weather to carbon emissions.
"We are in the middle of the worst drought in living memory, this is the second hottest year on record," New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean, from the centre-right Liberal-National coalition, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio.
"Yesterday smoke was causing some of the worst air pollution in Sydney that we've ever seen - this is climate change."
People had choked in Sydney on Tuesday as more than 100 fires raged across the east coast, turning the daytime sky orange, obscuring visibility and disrupting public transport services as air quality plunged.
(GRAPHIC: Mega fire surrounding Sydney spurred by winds: https://graphics.reuters.com/AUSTRALIA-BUSHFIRES/0100B4Q42EX/sydney-fires.jpg)
On Wednesday, temperatures dropped by more than 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), and winds eased, improving the air quality, although it still held at levels considered hazardous.
Amid mounting public anger, Australia's Liberal-National government defended its policies in tackling climate change and downplayed its links to the unprecedented early arrival and severity of the fires.
"Certainly, climate change is a factor, there is no question, but also it is important to note that most of these fires have been caused by 'Little Lucifers'," Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told ABC, referring to arsonists.
Australia's fires have killed at least four people since November, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 400 homes.
While police are investigating what triggered some fires, firefighters and scientists have said the bulk of the blazes have been caused by soaring temperatures and three years of drought that left bushland tinder-box dry.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said his government is committed to fighting climate change, insisting that Australia will meet a pledge to cut emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. But critics accuse the government of merely paying lip service to climate concerns.
As many Sydneysiders finished work, several thousand protesters, many wearing masks, marched through the main business district to demand stronger action.
Many carried signs, with a group of four pregnant woman holding up a banner that read, "Stop burning our babies' future."
"They (the government) are to blame for our largest city being poisoned and rather than taking meaningful action, they are fast tracking new coal mines," said Chloe Rafferty, an organiser for the Uni Students for Climate Change group holding the march.
Australia is one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita because of its reliance on coal-fired power plants.
In June, it approved a new coal mine in Queensland state by India’s Adani Enterprises that is expected to produce 8 million to 10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Sam Holmes and Clarence Fernandez)
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