SYDNEY - Prime Minister Tony Abbott denied Wednesday that devastating bushfires in Australia were linked to climate change, accusing the United Nations climate chief of "talking through her hat" on the issue.
UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said Tuesday that while the latest fires raging west of Sydney could not yet be linked to global warming, there was "absolutely" a connection between wildfires and rising temperatures.
"The official in question is talking through her hat," Abbott told radio station 3AW.
"Climate change is real, as I've often said, and we should take strong action against it.
"But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change - they're just a function of life in Australia," he said.
The vast country's hot and dry weather makes it particularly prone to bushfires and they are a regular feature of summer.
But the current blazes, which have burnt out more than 200 homes and 120,000 hectares (296,500 acres), have inflamed debate about whether there is a link to climate change and Figueres, executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), weighed in during an interview with CNN.
"The World Meteorological Organisation has not established a direct link between this wildfire and climate change - yet," Figueres said.
"But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heatwaves in Asia, Europe, and Australia, that there these will continue, that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency."
Abbott rejected the connection saying "fire is a part of the Australian experience".
Figueres also criticised Abbott's decision to repeal a carbon tax on emissions put in place by the previous government to combat climate change.
Abbott, who once described climate change science as "absolute crap", campaigned hard against the so-called carbon tax for the September election and has made repealing it the first priority of his conservative government.
His comments provoked outrage from Greens leader Christine Milne, who said that insulting Figueres was "symptomatic of his climate denial and real losers are those who will suffer from extreme fires, floods".
"If Tony Abbott wants to denigrate leading scientists and leading figures on climate change then it says a great deal more about Tony Abbott than it does about them," she told reporters.
"PM Abbott has no regard for evidence based science and prefers ideology. What is future of science in Australia?" she added on her Twitter feed.
As firefighters tackled dire weather conditions, Abbott also defended his decision to help locals with firefighting operations last weekend.
"I think the risks are well within the bounds of what is acceptable," said Abbott, who has been a volunteer firefighter for a decade.
"Even as a prime minister you've got to be a human being first."