The 2013 climate change wake-up call
Is an extreme heatwave enough for people to start taking the science of climate change seriously in Australia? Dr Paul Willis hopes so.
By Paul Willis
Bureau map for January 8 shows area of deep purple over Australia. Shades of deep purple and magenta have been added to the forecast map for temperatures up to 54 degrees Celsius (BoM)
The hot weather that has besieged the nation since the beginning of the year and the associated bushfire threat has, I hope, been something of a cathartic experience for Australia. Finally an event that can be linked to climate change has been of such magnitude and impact that many people are now sitting up and taking notice.
Even so, we have been slow off the mark to discuss the linkage between extreme weather events and climate change and those discussions were still limited in extent. I’m hoping that the extreme heatwave is a ‘shot across the bow’ notice that we need to take climate change seriously — but already the climate denial camp are viewing these extreme events as business as usual.
The USA had a similar experience last year with Superstorm Sandy: a nasty, unprecedented weather event of horrendous impact that was also in line with the predictions made by climate science over the last couple of decades. Most of the US and indeed most of the world were shocked at the pictures of widespread devastation delivered by a single, freakish storm. Sandy came off the back of an even more devastating drought across much of the USA during the preceding northern summer that has also been linked to climate change.
Finally many Americans started to ask if these were the hallmarks of climate change. The country which has been the most inactive of nations with respect to recognising climate change and implementing measures to mitigate against its worst effects started to sit up and take notice. Climate change suddenly became very real and very serious. And to just drive the message home a little more clearly, last week it was announced that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental USA.
But perhaps the greatest influence on the American climate epiphany was not caused by the weather, nor did it even originate within their borders.
Economics counts more than science
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, insurance underwriting giant Munich Re issued a report just before Superstorm Sandy hit their eastern seaboard. After analysing weather data from 1980 to 2011 they identified that the overall burden of losses from weather catastrophes was US$ 1,060 billion (in 2011 values). Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest single event ever recorded in the US with US$ 62.2 billion insured losses and overall losses of US$125 billion (in original values). The report went on:
“… Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America” and “Anthropogenic climate change is believed to contribute to this trend”.
When an organisation like Munich Re issues a report like that, people, business and politicians sit up and take notice. The bottom line is that, due to the identified increased risk of damage and loss due to more severe weather events in North America, they are going to charge more for their insurance underwriting services. They have made a link between climate change and the wallets of America. And it’s when a dollar cost can be placed on something as esoteric as climate change science that people begin to take notice — we live in societies governed by economists, not scientists.
This message was reinforced this year when noted American economist Joe Stiglitz came out with nine ways that climate change is already hurting the US economy and some of these effects are huge. Stiglitz argues that climate change is likely to cost the US economy $3.8 billion per year by 2020, $6.5 billion per year by 2040 and $12.9 billion by 2080.
One would hope that most Americans awoke to 2013 with some very sobering prospects for their continued indifference and intransigence to climate change. And that’s right when Australia was delivered its climate clout: a savage reminder that what the climatologists have been saying for the last 20 years or more is real and has potentially devastating local consequences.
Heatwave coverage a slow burn
The New Year heralded the beginning of a widespread and intense heatwave across Australia. With this heatwave came a catastrophic risk of bushfires which went on to burn out large areas of several states. This infographic from activist group GetUp! neatly summarises the heatwave and bushfires as they stood on 10 January and places them in the context of climate change.
Let’s be clear here: attributing specific weather events to a general cause such as climate change is a tricky proposition. It’s akin to asking which individual cigarette is going to cause the lung cancer that kills the smoker. But, just as smoking has now been shown conclusively to cause cancer, there will also be an increasing occurrence of extreme weather events as predicted by climate change. While this or any specific event cannot be predicted by climate change models, the facts that they occur and their nature, is exactly what climate change models have been predicting.
While news bulletins and front pages across the nation were filled with stories covering the heatwave and bushfires, the Australian media was slow off the mark to explore the link between these events and climate change. After more than a week of record temperatures and scorching bushfires, there were no articles that suggested climate change had a part to play in the catastrophe.
Then on 8 January, The Conversation introduced climate change into the debate, and the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) provided expert comments to the media that explored climate change as a causal factor for the twin disasters. An AusSMC rapid reaction early that day included these comments from Dr Markus Donat, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre, at the University of New South Wales:
“In recent studies we have analysed how extreme temperatures have changed globally. For most regions, including Australia, we found that extremely high temperatures have become more frequent and more intense, while extremely low temperatures are occurring less frequently than they did in the middle of the 20th century.
“Counting the number of very warm days (in this specific case defined as the warmest 5 per cent during the 1951-1980 period) we found that during the most recent 3 decades 1981-2010 the frequency of days in this warmest category has increased by 40 per cent globally.”
It’s a contextual statement not so much directly linking the current events to climate change but providing the wider framework within which the heatwave and the fires could be interpreted. It was reused in the media 77 times over the following couple of days.
Later the same day in another release from the AusSMC, Liz Hanna, a convenor at the Climate Change Adaptation Research Network – Human Health, at the Australian National University, provided these more impassioned comments:
“Those of us who spend our days trawling — and contributing to — the scientific literature on climate change are becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of human civilisation. We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public. The unparalleled setting of new heat extremes is forcing the continual upwards trending of warming predictions for the future, and the timescale is contracting. This trepidation on the part of scientists and researchers, and in some cases flagrant resistance by stakeholders in the fossil fuel industry, to allow the real story to be fully revealed and comprehended by the public at large, has allowed the stalling of action to save the planet, and ourselves.
“To speak of heat alone, heat already kills more Australians than the road toll. If it is not already double, it soon will be.” …
“People who cannot access cooled environments are also at risk. The response of turning on air conditioners only exacerbates the problem of global warming. The only correct response is to slow down, and ultimately reverse, the warming.”
(I’ve reproduced Donat’s quote in full but edited the quote from Hanna as it was provided by the AusSMC).
Hanna’s comments received wider publication than Donat’s with over 202 publications using parts of her commentary. But, of those 202 publications, 182 were reprints of an article by Ben Cubby at Fairfax leaving just a handful of others that discussed the climate-heatwave-bushfire link. Thus, despite there being good and forceful comments from respectable researchers made readily available to the Australian media, the take up was rather poor and some media organisations ignored the issue completely.
The story was picked up overseas by the BBC as well as bloggers, and George Monbiot at The Guardian in the UK drew particular attention to how the heatwave was confronting evidence against climate change denial in Australia specifically naming Tony Abbot, Andrew Bolt, Ian Plimer and The Australian.
Force of denial
Almost as soon as the discussion got started in Australia, the forces of denial and ignorance sprang back into life. On 9 January acting Opposition Leader, Warren Truss, was quoted thus:
“Indeed I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal-fired power stations for decades.”
This is, indeed, only his guess with no numbers or data to back it up. This off-the-cuff statement of belief was comprehensively pulled apart by Philip Gibbons, senior lecturer at the Australian National University, in The Conversation. Gibbons showed, in fact, that the amount of carbon released by the current bushfires is around 2 per cent of the annual emissions from Australia’s coal-fired power stations. To equal those annual power station emissions would require incinerating a forest the size of Tasmania.
Other media outlets maintained the business as usual climate denial. In The Weekend Australian on 12 January, the environment editor, Graham Lloyd, wrote a rather confused piece taking some details that have been changed in climate outlook predictions to cast doubt on the credibility of climate science.
It included a statement that, “The jury is out on the cause of the round of heatwaves hitting Australia”, with no clear idea who that ‘jury’ is. Ever fussing in the cracks trying to obfuscate a clear picture of what is actually going on, once again our national paper gets it hopelessly wrong on this issue. And this was after The Australian published this piece on 3 January covering predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology for an increase in both the frequency and intensity of future heatwaves. A rather confused agenda.
Let us hope that future discussions around climate change and what to do about it will be free of invented factoids and misinformation. It’s time to take the science seriously. We are witnessing the consequences of ignoring that science and pretending that climate change isn’t occurring. It’s a heavy price we are paying and that debt is only going to increase if we don’t wise up.
About the author:
Dr Paul Willis is the director of RiAus, Australia’s unique national science hub, which showcases the importance of science in everyday life. The well-known palaeontologist and broadcaster previously worked for ABC TV’s Catalyst program. This article was first published on the RiAus website.