Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett has moved to water down his claim that sea levels could rise by 6m as a result of the melting of Antarctic ice. Mr Garrett has also been forced to qualify his suggestion that ice across the whole of the Antarctic continent is melting.
He made the claims while being interviewed by the ABC's Lateline program on April 6 about the reported break-up of parts of the Wilkins ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Weekend Australian reported that while some ice-shelf melting is under way on the peninsula and in other parts of west Antarctica that may be related to global warming, ice shelves in east Antarctica remain intact.
East Antarctica is four times the size of west Antarctica.
At the same time, the area of sea ice around the continent is expanding, with sea ice growth in east Antarctica and the Ross Sea more than compensating for losses in west Antarctica. Contrary to public perceptions, parts of Antarctica have been cooling.
The suggestion that warming in the Antarctic could lead to sea level rises of 6m was made in An Inconvenient Truth, the film made by former US vice-president Al Gore.
Mr Garrett embraced the prediction of possible 6m rises put to him when he was asked on Lateline whether he agreed with the "scary" scenario outlined by a Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research report, although the upper limit in a worst-case scenario suggested in the report was 1.2m.
He said he had not seen the SCAR report, but added: "Those kinds of projections and scenarios are consistent with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought forward over the last couple of years."
The upper limit of sea-level rises predicted by the IPCC by 2100 is 59cm, with a probable rise of between 28 and 43cm.
Mr Garrett claimed that ice was melting across the Antarctic continent. "I don't think there's any doubt that global warming is contributing to what we've seen both on the Wilkins ice shelf and more generally in Antarctica."
Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt said Mr Garrett had been alarmist. "There is a need to take practical action to tackle global warming, but using alarmist and patently wrong information to back his case will do nothing to instil confidence in his arguments," hesaid.
"If Mr Garrett is going to get it so wrong on sea-level rises, how can people have confidence in comments he makes on glacier melts?"
James Cook University geophysicist Bob Carter said Mr Garrett's claims were typical of the political misinformation surrounding the global warming debate. "Like Al Gore and the other dark greens that they seek to mollify, politicians completely fail to comprehend that we live on a dynamic planet Earth," Professor Carter said.
In response to questions from The Australian, Mr Garrett said he had received advice suggesting the impacts of global warming in east Antarctica were "less pronounced" than in west Antarctica. "However, it remains critically important that we continue to work collaboratively with our international partners on the important scientific endeavours under way across the Antarctic."
Mr Garrett said through a spokesman that the suggestion of 6m sea level rises had been made by Lateline and not by him; he was commenting only that those "kinds" of predictions were consistent with IPCC forecasts.