Extreme heat in Australia: more, longer, hotter

Heat waves are becoming hotter, lasting longer and occurring more often. That is the assessment of the latest Climate Council report, which looks at data from a range of peer-reviewed literature and authoritative assessments.

After last year’s “Angry Summer” of heat waves and bush fires, 2014 has started with more record-busting extreme heat, as well as more devastating bush fires in Victoria. In fact, hot days have doubled since the 1950s, according to data from the Bureau of Meteorology.

Despite this, Australia’s conservative elite, including News Corp columnist Miranda Devine and climate change denying prime minister Tony Abbott deny the link between climate change, extreme heat waves and bush fires.

Miranda Devine wrote in 2013 in The Daily Telegraph “Australia has never had a mild and easy climate” and then proceeded to list a number of hot days in Sydney in the 1800s. This, according to Devine, is proof that because there was extreme heat in the past, that the heat waves we experience now are normal.

Meanwhile, prime minister Tony Abbott denounced common sense and the growing body of scientific evidence that links climate change to bush fires. In an interview with the Washington Post in October last year, he used standard denialist lines to cast uncertainty and doubt: “Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We’ve had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we’ve recently experienced.”

Earlier this month, while on a “drought tour” in Broken Hill, the prime minister dismissed the link between climate change and droughts:

“If you look at the records of Australian agriculture going back 150 years, there have always been good times and bad times,” he said. “There have always been tough times and lush times and farmers ought to be able to deal with the sorts of things that are expected every few years.”

Like Devine, Abbott is dismissing climate change based on the nonsense notion that because there have been droughts in the past, the droughts now and in the future are normal.

Even plutocrat media-mogul Rupert Murdoch  wished away the link between extreme weather and climate change, in reference to the floods devastating the UK and the polar vortex in North America.

My fellow Guardian enviro-blogger dealt with these disingenuous non sequiturs in October last year:

This argument from history used by Abbott and Hunt is a version of one of the most popular of all talking points used by climate change sceptics and denialists – that “the climate has always changed” and so why should we think humans can cause the rapid changes being observed in recent decades.

A study published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist looked at 203 opinion articles written by 80 different US conservative columnists between 2007 and 2010 and found the argument that “the climate has changed before” was one of the most popular talking points.

As John Cook writes in The Conversation, this logical fallacy is the “equivalent to arguing that as humans died of cancer long before cigarettes were invented, it therefore follows that smoking does not cause cancer.”

The Climate Council’s report is worrying, not just because it points to the growing intensity of extreme weather fuelled by dangerous climate change, but because exposes the moral negligence of the Abbott government.

The social compact in Australia has the role of government to ensure the safety, prosperity and freedom of its people. Abbott and his ministers, like the Howard government before them, are seeking to unpick that compact.

Climate change and the threats it poses puts at risk our safety; extreme weather from floods, fires, and cyclones are direct threats to our safety, not to mention disasters when out of control bush fires set alight the Hazelwood coal mine near Morwell (called by mine operator GDF Suez “one of the most serious fires ever“, pdf link).

Prolonged droughts exacerbated by global warming, soil salinity, sea level rise, decline in biodiversity and fish-stocks, as well as the damage to our infrastructure caused by extreme weather threatens our collective prosperity.

Finally, our freedoms are undermined through the devastation of our natural heritage, including the purposeful destruction of marvels like the Great Barrier Reef, the outrageous hunting of endangered sharks, logging of habitats for threatened species like the Leadbeater’s Possum in Victoria or proposal to turn the forest habitat of the Large-eared Pied Bat in the Leard State Forest into an open cut coal mine, and ocean warming damaging ancient coral reefs.

The immorality of Abbott’s policy actions and denials is daily growing abhorrent. It is an abrogation of his role as custodian of Australia’s great social compact. Many decisions that Abbott is taking, such as the potential abandonment of the Renewable Energy Target, are in direct contradiction to statements he made during and in the lead up to the election last year. It could make a reasonable person think he was elected under false pretences, and at the very least demonstrates serious moral failures.

Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, more facts and greater scientific certainty simply won’t have any effect on changing the minds of deniers like Abbott or those in his cabinet. Providing evidence and facts is likely to further entrench the immoral denialist views of conservative elites like Abbott and Rupert Murdoch and their ideological allies like Miranda Devine.

This is called “motivated reasoning”, as David Robert Grimes explains:

A series of investigations published last year by Prof Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues – including one with the fantastic title, Nasa Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science – found that while subjects subscribing to conspiracist thought tended to reject all scientific propositions they encountered, those with strong traits of conservatism or pronounced free-market world views only tended to reject scientific findings with regulatory implications.

It should be no surprise that the voters and politicians opposed to climate change tend to be of a conservative bent, keen to support free-market ideology. This is part of a phenomenon known as motivated reasoning, where instead of evidence being evaluated critically, it is deliberately interpreted in such a way as to reaffirm a pre-existing belief, demanding impossibly stringent examination of unwelcome evidence while accepting uncritically even the flimsiest information that suits one’s needs.

Motivated reasoning doesn’t just infect views on climate change; the yearly fear-mongering by News Corp media about a wages-break out is another example.

We need the Climate Council and scientific organisations like the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology to continue to sound the alarm. It is up to everyday citizens to realise though that just presenting the facts and expecting powerful conservative elites to change their minds will not result in the changes we need.

Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Perkins for her assistance with the data on heatwaves. (Any errors are, of course, my own).

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