Category Archives: 2013 Australian Heatwave

Political fires: climate debate shifting in Australia, not to Abbott’s liking

Historians have long appreciated the weather can have a profound impact on the course of events.

A spring drought on eve of the French Revolution pushed up food prices, and was the final spark that pushed a hungry populace to revolt. Two bitterly cold winters destroyed the imperial ambitions of both Napoleon and Hitler in Russia. In the thirteenth century a “divine wind” saved the Japanese from Mongol invasion.

The weather can be both capricious and unpredictable, especially when it wrecks havoc upon the ambitious plans of generals and politicians. The weather can rob would-be emperors of certain victories.

Given humanity has now loaded the dice for more extreme weather events by continuing to alter the planet’s atmosphere and climate, it is virtually certain increasing political disruption will follow extreme weather events with greater frequency.

This is the lesson both the Abbott government and Australian population are now learning.

The Abbott government was elected on the promise of dismantling the price on carbon introduced by the previous Labor government. Helped by a vicious anti-Labor and anti-science campaign by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, they cruised into office promising a government of grownups.

But then New South Wales burned, changing the political landscape.

Very quickly Abbott and News Corp lost control of the climate change narrative. Desperate to disavow any links between the extraordinary fires and climate change, Abbott and his Environment Minister Greg Hunt fumbled badly in trying to control the message. According to both these men the fires could not, would not and should not be linked to the science.

To their frustration the public refused to listen and made the obvious connections.

Abbott simply dismissed the connection, and came across as stubborn and intractable. Day-by-day, Abbott is looking increasingly uncertain and strangely timid in office. His infamous bovver boy and mischief-making style is proving ill-suited for the role of Prime Minister. When he can’t attack, he freezes like a deer in headlights.  

Greg Hunt became an international laughing-stock with his now infamous “I looked it up on Wikipedia” comments.

Thanks to the fires, everyone is talking about climate change.

We need to appreciate the profound shift taking place in the Australian climate debate, and how the NSW fires are contributing to this.

Bare in mind these fires follow the flooding and Tasmanian fires of late 2012 and early 2013. These fires follow the battering New York took during Hurricane Sandy. These fires follow Cyclone Yasi. These fires follow the holocaust that killed almost 200 Victorians during Black Saturday in 2009.

A pattern is emerging, and people are noticing the climate regime has shifted. This fact is intuitively understood and accepted by the public who are often the victims of such events. Watching your home burn, your town flooded or choking on the acrid smoke of the fires that have drifted into the heart of Sydney will put to rest most people’s lingering scepticism.

For this reason both Abbott and Hunt are furiously stating they accept the science. Abbott may think climate change is “crap”, but it is now unacceptable for the PM to state this belief in public.

Those fighting the sceptic movement can take heart that climate change denial in Australia is a spent political force, consigned to the margins and conspiracy theory enthusiasts. 

However the events of this week are also a harbinger of the shape fires and political disruption to come.

In discussing the politics of climate change in Australia we’ve focused almost solely on the policies (or lack thereof) of the major parties and the Greens.

We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting and critiquing the role of the media. We’ve also convinced ourselves the future of the carbon price is dependent on the makeup of the Senate and the voting behaviors of the micro-parties.

Partisans on both sides of the debate have assumed the debate was about careful messaging, well-considered opinion pieces in the major dailies and peppering the media with sound bites.

But no one has talked about the weather and it’s potential to disrupt and reshape Australian politics.

Generals and conquerors in the past have learnt through bitter defeat the climate can wipe out entire armies, fleets and political ambitions. We’ve forgotten these lessons from history.

However the fires of NSW has taught us history is back with a fiery vengeance.

History is roaring back into life in the shape of a firestorm, laying waste to vast tracts of the bush, rural communities and the ambitions of the Prime Minister.

Those who forget the impact of extreme weather events on politics are doomed to fall prey to its unpredictable nature.

Just ask the Prime Minister.

Blackest day: stunning NASA images of NSW fires

Images from NASA allow us to appreciate the scope of the devastating NSW fires:


This satellite image was taken on October 17 (last Thursday), now regarded as one NSW’s worst fire days.

The shape of infernos to come: the NSW super fires as precursor to future catastrophes


Smoke this morning near Camden NSW, image @scottedougherty via Instagram

If you want a glimpse of the future and a foretaste of what a climate change has in store for Australia, then look no further to the unfolding catastrophe in New South Wales.

The NSW government has taken the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency. It gives emergency services extended powers to manage the threat to life and property. For the next 30 days police and other emergency services will have the power to forcibly evacuate populations and shut down utilities in threatened areas.

However the worst of it is far from over.

By the middle of this week conditions threaten to create a “super fire”. Three large fires burning in the Blue Mountains are at risk of joining up, creating a monster fire. Hundreds of thousands residents on the outskirts of Western Sydney may be directly impacted or face mandatory evacuation.

Already the cost has been high. Hundreds of homes have been lost, while one resident died defending his home.

One cannot find fault with work fires services in NSW battling the fires consuming the Blue Mountains and other parts of the state. Hundreds of fire-fighters are coming from states such as Victoria to assist. The courage and dedication of fire fighters has rightly been praised. Without doubt their efforts have saved lives and prevented an even greater tragedy.

But let’s not pretend climate change is not a factor, for surely it is.

NSW is experiencing the “worst bushfire disaster in 45 years” and it’s far from over.

It is the month of October, early spring, far from what has been traditionally the height of Australia’s bushfire season. While it is worth noting fires are not uncommon in early spring, the scale and intensity of the fires we’re seeing is unprecedented.

In an interview with ABC Radio, Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley drew the connection:

“Some may say it’s part of climate change, it probably is, the fact we’re seeing a different climatic condition coming across to affect the south-eastern side of Australia, (is) really important for us to understand this summer…”

For much of this year experts have been discussing and warning us about fires such as these. Their reasoning is simple and straight forward, readily understood by anyone with the willingness and wit to accept the science.

The world is warming thanks to human activities. As a consequence we’re loading the dice in favour of more extreme weather events through increased greenhouse emissions. The physics and chemistry is indisputable.

Bushfires have been a regular feature of the Australian environment. However, a warming planet creates conditions where the genesis of infernos like that raging in NSW are more likely.

While some have sought to “normalise” the fires as simply one more example of Australia’s sometimes harsh environment, the situation is unprecedented.

To draw attention to these unprecedented extremes is not to “politicise” the NSW’s bushfire tragedy: it is merely drawing attention to the inevitable consequences of global warming.

As Australians it is imperative we understand and talk about the connection between climate change and the increasing frequency and ferocity of these fires.

Thus, attempts by conservative politicians and parts of the media to shut down anyone who makes the obvious connection politicises the issue.

It is also doubly insidious act of censorship and control.

Firstly, these attempts at censorship are not made to spare the feelings of the victims of the fires, but to distract the Australian public from making the obvious connection.

Secondly, for decades Murdoch’s media empire and conservatives have preached climate change is either non-existent or a trivial problem. But when the impacts of climate change hits hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians, as they are in NSW right now, it is simply not possible for the sceptics to back track on decades of denial and obstruction.

To accept the problem as real, and draw the connection between climate change and the NSW inferno would be an admission of their culpability. Thus their desperate, indeed shrill, demand that no-one talk about climate change even when the worst of it is upon our communities. Their only true concern is that of their own reputation and the preservation of their world view.

This spring and the summer that will soon be upon us are precursors to years of climate disruption.

From this point forward, indeed the next several centuries, will be a time of increasing struggle and attempts hold off total collapse. The challenges will slowly ratchet up, and for a time most will not appreciate their connections. But slowly, and perhaps far too late, the pattern will emerge to even the most oblivious.

Paul Gilding in his book The Great Disruption offers valuable insight into what the future may bring:

“The science on this is now clear and accepted by any rational observer. While an initial look at the public debate may suggest controversy, any serious examination of the peer-reviewed conclusions of leading science bodies shows the core direction we are heading is now clear. Things do not look good…”

Gilding notes we should expect an “economic and social hurricane”:

“The science says we have physically entered a period of grate change, a synchronized, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change and global political instability. It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived…”

Without doubt we are witnessing the first stirrings of this period of transition and disruption. Get ready for each summer to be a time of high anxiety, of emergency declarations and the acrid smell of smoke.

Already I fear the day when Melbourne will experience a tragedy that will surpass the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The source of my concern?

Projections point to a time, well before 2100, when Melbourne will experience a 50 degree day. It is almost impossible to imagine the impacts of such extremes. But the portents and signs are there for those willing to look and draw the necessary lessons.

Go, turn on your television and stare into the fire and at the charred remains of streets and homes.

The shape of future infernos is there, taking form in the Blue Mountains.

Australia’s record breaking heat continues: warmest 12 months on record

Sometimes a picture says it all:


From the BoM FaceBook page.

The entire continent is experiencing above-average-to-highest-on-record temperatures.

Summer looks grim.

More thread: let’s talk climate politics down under

Sorry guys, but personal matters keep me from blogging. so more thread for discussion. Let’s talk about the state of politics in Australia. Some food for thought:

Clive Hamilton has a great essay on The Conversation on why Australia’s politicians have turned their backs on the climate change issue:

The truth is the Australian public does not know what it wants its government to do on climate change. A large majority wants it to do something, but the government seems to lose support whenever it does anything. The only notable exception (and perhaps because many people don’t know it exists) is the Renewable Energy Target, first introduced by the Howard Government as a sop to public anxiety. For any political leader unwilling to exercise leadership on the issue, trying to respond to climate change leaves them uncertain which way to turn

Which is all the more interesting as Australia has experienced it’s hottest 12 month period:

It’s official, the past 12 months have been the hottest in Australia for more than a hundred years. Temperatures averaged across Australia between September 2012 and August 2013 were hotter than any year since good records began in 1910. The previous record was held by the 12-month period from February 2005 to January 2006.

While Tony Abbott has stated he will abandon emissions targets:

Amid its bitter campaign against the carbon price the Coalition has  maintained one significant foundation – ”we may hate the method, but we will  achieve the same outcome”.

That outcome is at least a 5 per cent cut to emissions by decade’s end on  2000 levels, and more ambitious reductions if the world takes actions to curb  climate change. These targets have enjoyed bipartisan support for about five  years.

But in his National Press Club address on Monday, Tony Abbott has cast doubt  on his commitment to these goals. And he has lifted the lid on one of the  fundamental risks of his ”direct action” alternative to an emissions trading  scheme.

Abbott told the audience the Coalition would not increase its spending on  cutting carbon dioxide under direct action, even if its efforts were going to  fall short of what is needed to meet the 2020 target.

”The bottom line is we will spend as much as we have budgeted, no more and  no less. We will get as much environmental improvement, as much emissions  reduction as we can for the spending that we’ve budgeted,” he said.

Such is the state of politics down under.

I’ll be honest, not having to take an active part in the debate the moment is a blessing.

Note: remember to keep the debate friendly, I’ll be watching comments closely.

Global warming is winning: new evidence of Australia’s shifting climate

Australia’s climate is shifting to a new state

Via The Age, recent evidence of climate change’s impact on Southern Australia:

Southern Australia is in the midst of a climate tug-of-war that’s giving Melbourne weather previously experienced in NSW Riverina towns such as Deniliquin, according to new CSIRO research.

Warming global temperatures tend to push westerly winds south while El Nino weather patterns tend to push them north.

The atmospheric tussle of the past 50 years is becoming one-sided as global warming wins out, as inland dry zones shift about 250 kilometres south, said Wenju Cai, a principal research scientist and climate modeller at the CSIRO.

I’ll post a link to the report once I’ve tracked it down.

However, at this point it is Global Warming 3 – Humanity 0.

More angry, more often: March heatwave signals a new normal

From The Conversation, more on Australia’s record breaking “Angry” summer: enjoy! 

By Sophie Lewis, University of Melbourne and Sarah Perkins

Daylight hours are dwindling and our first month of autumn is ending. But in many places, March felt a lot like summer. Get used to it: looking ahead, all indications are that future summers could be just like this one, or more extreme.

Southeast Australia welcomed autumn with a persistent heat wave. For the first 12 days of autumn, temperatures were 6.9 degrees above normal across Tasmania and 6.8 degrees above normal in Victoria.

Melbourne’s March record-breaking weather included nine days of temperatures of 32 degrees or above and its hottest overnight March temperature in 110 years of record keeping. Adelaide experienced ten such hot days.

The unusually warm autumn weather was part of a much larger and much longer warm spell. The last six months have been characterised by sequences of heat waves and record temperatures across the entire Australian region.

Summer was the hottest on record across all of Australia. In January, Australia had its hottest month on record. The hottest day ever recorded for the entire continent occurred on January 7.

The surrounding oceans, from the Great Australian Bight through Bass Strait, also broke previous extreme temperature records. These waters exhibited the hottest sea surface temperatures on record in February.

Our exceptionally hot summer cannot be discussed simply as a catalogue of interesting record-breaking events. This summer was not normal. And we can’t talk about the exceptionally hot summer and early autumn without talking about climate change.

Australian average temperatures have increased faster than the global average increase (0.8°C) and are now 0.9 degrees warmer than a century ago.

It may not sound like much, but research shows that changes in average temperatures (even less than 1°C) can lead to huge changes in the frequency and severity of extreme climate events.

This is exactly what Australia just experienced with this sequence of heat waves, extending from November 2012 to March 2013.

Our recent research in the internationally peer-reviewed Journal of Climate shows that there has been a significant increase in the number of heat wave days for most of the country from 1951-2008. The paper describes heat waves as a period of three or more days where temperatures are excessively hot – in the top five to 10% of temperatures recorded.

This trend is greatest in eastern Australia, where both the number of heat waves and their duration has increased.

Recently, we extended the time period of the analyses to include the period from 1911 to 2011. Not surprisingly, our initial results suggest that heat waves are now occurring earlier than 100 years ago. In some places, the first heat wave of the season is occurring almost a month earlier.

Recent studies from other parts of the world have shown that many, if not most, of the recent record-breaking heat waves and extremely warm summers would have been unlikely to occur without human influence on climate change.

Although we can never say categorically whether an individual climate event, such as a heat wave, would have occurred without human-related greenhouse gas emissions, it is possible to assess how global warming has changed the likelihood of extreme events occurring.

Working with other climate scientists we investigated the probability of extreme summer heat occurring across Australia using a suite of climate model simulations representing current climate conditions. We then used a parallel suite of control experiments, in which greenhouse gases from human activities were entirely absent.

Previous studies using similar methods have found strong human contributions to the severity of extreme summer temperatures. James Hansen and other NASA scientists found a 10-fold increase in areas experiencing extremely hot summers due to global warming. Similarly, climate scientist Gareth Jones and his colleagues at the UK Met Office Hadley Centre found a dominant human influence on rapidly increasing hot summers in the Northern Hemisphere.

When we ran our hot, angry summer through a large group of the latest generation of climate models it became clear that there was likely to have been a substantial human influence on our recent extreme summer heat. Our early results indicate that anthropogenic climate change more than tripled the risk of Australia’s extremely hot summer occurring.

As for the future, it is now virtually certain that the frequency and severity of hot days will increase. Extremely hot seasons will worsen, with the biggest impacts of climate change being felt by Australians in summer. Spring weather will come earlier, and autumn later.

Additional global warming over the next 50 years, under a business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions scenario, is expected to see global average temperatures increase by at least 1°C. Such a change means that our recent summer on steroids will become the norm and far worse summers will occur with greater frequency.

We already know what is causing the changes we see now. Clearly, it is time to stop talking about record-breaking heat as isolated incidents and recognise them in the context of climate change.

It’s time to start preparing for more angry summers, more frequently.

Sophie Lewis receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Sarah Perkins is a research associate at the UNSW node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Melbourne’s exceptional heatwave and climate change: this ain’t the weather your grandparents knew

St.Kilda Beach in the 1930s: when life was simpler, and the planet cooler

St.Kilda Beach in the 1930s: when life was simpler, and the planet cooler*

Melbourne is famous for its extremes of weather. As the old Crowded House song so beautifully put it, to live in Melbourne is to experience Four Seasons in One Day

We’re accustomed to blistering summers and bone-chilling winters. Less familiar are blistering Autumns.

For those who didn’t know, Melbourne is in the midst of a record-breaking heat-wave that has seen the temperature stay above 30 degrees Celsius for eight days now.

Nor is there any relief in sight; according to the Bureau of Meteorology we can expect at least two more days and nights of extreme heat.

This will surpass the previous record of seven days set in February 1961.

The remarkable fact is that we’re officially in Autumn.

According to the Country Fire Authority (CFA), by Wednesday the entire state will be exposed to some risk of bush or grass fires. Areas marked blue denote areas of high fire danger, those coded yellow pertain to areas of very high fire danger:

CFA update

CFA update for Wednesday 13/3/2013

Without doubt we’re entering a new climate regime:

Future warming of the climate due to greenhouse gas emissions will very likely lead to further increases in the frequency of unusually hot days and nights and continued declines in unusually cold days and nights.

These changes will result in weather events which are increasingly beyond our prior experiences.

The climate denial crowd will try to tell you “It’s just weather!”

Or they’ll claim it was just as hot fifty, seventy or one hundred years ago. 

There may have been some hot days – but this heatwave ain’t nothing our grandparents, or our great-grand parents ever experienced.

The world has warmed during the last 150 years: the present heat wave is a harbinger of future extremes.

Welcome to the Anthropocene.


*Source: Museum of Victoria

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Australia’s record breaking heatwave: summer of 2012-2013 hottest on record

According to the Karl Braganza and Blair Trewin of BOM and we have just experienced the hottest summer on Record:

This summer hasn’t just felt hot. It’s been hot. In fact, the summer of 2012-13 is now the hottest on record. Average temperatures beat the record set in the summer of 1997-98, and daytime maximum temperatures knocked over the 1982-83 record. January 2013 has been the hottest month since records began in 1910.

Nor is it just Australia, as reported in The Age. What we are seeing is the effects of a warming planet:

Australia was not alone in feeling the heat over the past three months, with large regions of southern Africa and South America registering well-above normal temperatures. Land areas had their hottest January and February months.

‘‘There’s a pretty good chance it will turn out to be the hottest summer on record for the southern hemisphere as a whole,’’ Dr Trewin said.

Tony Mohr, climate change program manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the warming planet is making “Australia’s already extreme weather more extreme and more unsafe”.

“If this doesn’t wake up our politicians to the need for concrete action to prevent this ongoing acceleration in global warming, I’m not sure what will.”

Image of the day: Cyclone Rusty hitting WA

Source: NASA

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