We’re less than two weeks into 2013 and four of Australia’s ten hottest days in history have happened this year. On Monday, Australia’s average high temperature reached a scorching 40.33°C – our hottest day on record.
Unreported in Australia, The Bureau of Meteorology said:
“There’s little doubt that this is a very, very extreme heatwave event,” said David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.
“If you look at its extent, its duration, its intensity, it is arguably the most significant in Australia’s history.”
On the 4th and 5th of January, a devastating heat wave caused bush fires to spread out of control across Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula, destroying over 100 homes and 20,000 hectares of bush. Hobart experienced on the 4th its hottest day since records began in 1882, reaching 41.8°C. While no one died in these fires, thousands of people have had their lives turned upside-down, including my aunt, who lost her home in Dunalley.
Climate deniers have used the complexity of global warming to cast doubt and delay action.
On 15 March 2011, the alternative prime minister, Tony Abbott, said: “Whether carbon dioxide is quite the environmental villain that some people make it out to be is not yet proven.” A day earlier, he said “I don’t think we can say that the science is settled here.” In 2009, Tony Abbott declared: “I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change. [...] I mean, I just think that the science is highly contentious, to say the least.” During the last election, he made a disgusting “blood pledge” to repeal the carbon price.
While I was in the USA last year, I experienced the Massachusetts leg of “superstorm” Hurricane Sandy. At the time, Bloomberg’s Business Week released its magazine headlined “It’s global warming, stupid” and the Scientific American magazine published an article that summed up the damaging effects of global warming on our weather:
These changes contribute to all sorts of extreme weather. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, James Hansen at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York blamed climate change for excessive drought, based on six decades of measurements, not computer models: “Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”
We are experiencing climate change at an increasingly rapid pace. Ice-caps are melting faster than we thought. Permafrost is disappearing in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Siberia. Our oceans are rising and acidifying, and our coral reefs bleaching. Our arboreal forests are dying. And extreme weather events are occurring with deadly regularity — from heatwaves and fires in Russia, droughts across the USA, and of course, the massive floods and fires in Australia.
A study from 2006 by the CSIRO highlighted the relationship between climate change and bush fires, pointing out that by 2020 the number of days that Australia experiences with very high or extreme fire danger warnings will increase by between 4-25%. University of Tasmania professor David Bowman warned in January 2012 of the risks to Tasmania from catastrophic bush fires:
Severe bushfires happen only after a specific sequence of weather patterns. First, wet, warm conditions must create abundant plant growth. A dry spell must then convert the plant growth to combustible fuel. Finally, hot, dry, windy conditions are required to spread a fire once it’s ignited by either lightning or people.
While inevitably the media concentrates on arson as the cause of bush fires, in fact most bushfires are started by lightning strikes. Lightning strikes increase in frequency due to the hot weather caused by climate change. Combined that with the dry bush, effectively turned into kindling due to extreme, global warming exacerbated heatwaves. Drier surface-temperatures are tied to “wetter” upper atmospheres — so climate change will create a vicious cycle.
The Liberal Party of Australia is bought and owned by the climate denialist lobby — a global network of right-wing think tanks including the Heartland Institute from the USA and the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) in Australia, that are funded by the fossil fuel industry.
These dangerous, extremist groups work to block action on climate change from a global level to local ones. They fund public relations attacks against scientists, promote fraudsters like Christopher Monkton, and draft legislation that deregulates and subsidises big oil and blocks renewable energy and sustainability initiatives. In Australia, the carbon lobby is a major donor to the Liberal Party (link to excel file).
We already know that climate change will cause massive economic losses if left unchecked. The insurance industry is very worried about it. Respected (and conservative) economists like Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut have also become strong proponents of climate action.
The effects of climate change on human society and human lives is almost impossible to calculate. Global warming will severely impact on our ecology, animals, crops, bio diversity and other systems required for our civilisation:
an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources, including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas; and resource wars.
Unfortunately, the Andrew Charlton brigade of policy pundits who believe that “technology will save us” — whether its geo-engineering or building more dangerous nuclear power stations — utterly fail to recognise the speed and pace of global warming, and the real, biophysical barriers we face.
Even those politicians who accept that climate change is real refuse to acknowledge in public the real threat it faces. What’s more, they fail time and time again to show leadership. Witness the constant failures at United Nations negotiations like Doha, Copenhagen, Bali, Rio, etc. The policy proposals put forward by the likes of Stern and Garnaut are so mild as to represent the meekest step towards progress.
The primary barrier to climate action are the fossil fuel companies — the world’s most profitable corporations. Reducing and stopping carbon emissions rise basically entails their leaving billions of dollars worth of oil, coal and gas in the ground, thus destroying their future value. Given this, it is hardly surprising that they are funding the largest global campaign of misinformation in history.
To limit the costs of climate-related disasters, both politicians and the public need to accept how much they’re helping to cause them.
The next Australian election won’t, unfortunately, be decided by climate change. Despite the devastating fires, the floods, the depletion of our resources, destruction of our forests and reefs.
Climate change is simply the greatest risk to Australia’s and humanity’s future. It is not a threat happening in the distant future. We’re seeing the effects now. While I’m writing this, the fires in Tasmania are still raging. If our leaders continue to take baby steps, and the Liberal Party and their fossil fuel backers continue to peddle dangerous, life-threatening climate denialism, then Australia faces more summers of catastrophic bushfires, destructive floods, droughts, spread of disease and deadly heatwaves.
What would it take for Australian and global politics to recognise this threat and catch up to reality? What could be done to tackle the obscene power that fossil fuel companies exert on our society and legislatures?