LESLEY HUGHES. Angry summers are the new normal. Our climate is on steroids.

Mar 13, 2017

The occurrence of the extreme summer experienced in NSW, for example, was at least 50 times more likely than would have been the case without climate change.  

Pity the good citizens of Moree, in north west NSW, who have just sweltered through 54 consecutive days over 35oC! This and over 200 other climate records that have contributed to yet another “angry summer” have been summarised in the latest report from the Climate Council.

My colleagues Will Steffen, Andrew Stock, David Alexander and Martin Rice present this past summer’s roundup of broken records in Angry Summer 2016/17: Climate Change Supercharging Extreme Weather. In central and eastern Australia, the summer was marked by extreme heat and bushfires, while heavy rain and flooding brought misery to the west. Here’s just a handful of the examples showing our climate on steroids: NSW experienced its hottest summer, with temperatures a staggering 2.57oC above average; Brisbane and Sydney had their hottest summer, with Canberra having its hottest ever daytime temperatures; at the peak of the February heatwave, over 100 bushfires raged across NSW simultaneously; Perth experienced its highest summer rainfall on record; Adelaide had its hottest Christmas Day for 70 years, at 41.3oC. The list of extremes goes on and on….if this was the Olympics, there would be gold medals all around.

Extreme weather events such as those catalogued for the 90 days of last summer, often provoke the question “Is this climate change?” While an understandable enquiry, it’s actually the wrong question. The atmosphere is considerably warmer and wetter now than it was 50 years ago. This means that all weather is now affected, to some extent, by human-induced climate change. But having said that, the increasing sophistication of climate science is now allowing scientists to put numbers on the probability that a particular event would have occurred, with or without anthropogenic disruption to the climate system. The occurrence of the extreme summer experienced in NSW, for example, was at least 50 times more likely than would have been the case without climate change.

The costs of such climate disruption are enormous – for our environment, our economy, and the social fabric of our communities. Unprecedented ocean warming over the past year has led to the longest and most extreme global coral bleaching event on record. Our most precious natural icon, the Great Barrier Reef, was not spared with two thirds of the corals in the (formerly) most pristine northern regions now dead. The travails of the reef are not yet over, with another bleaching event now underway. Consecutive bleaching events greatly reduce the chances of reef recovery, putting at risk the 70,000 Australian jobs and $7 billion of annual income the Reef supports.

While a stark visual illustration of the environmental cost of climate change, the Reef is certainly not the only natural asset at risk. The recently released State of the Environment Report 2016 stated the problem directly: “Evidence shows that the impacts of climate change [on the environment] are increasing, and some of these impacts may be irreversible”. The report further noted that climate change was a “pervasive pressure on all aspects of Australian environment…[and] is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems”.

Angry weather also puts critical infrastructure at risk. Power outages during peak times in South Australia, during the severe February heatwave affected 40,000 homes, pointing to the vulnerability of the electricity grid to extreme heat. New South Wales narrowly avoided widespread outages several days later.  Economic losses due to the NSW bushfires are still being counted – by the 20 February more than 1200 insurance claims had been received with an estimated bill of nearly $30 million. These raw dollar figures are likely to be gross underestimates of the total damage from extreme heat and bushfires – they do not, for example, take into account uninsured losses, loss of livelihoods, or health impacts. The costs to human health from last summer are still being estimated. But we know that heatwaves during the 2013/14 Angry Summer cost approximately $8 billion through absenteeism and reduction in work productivity alone.

Australia’s Angry Summer took place in the context of extraordinarily rapid global change. 2016 was the world’s hottest year on record, breaking the previous record of 2015, which in turn exceeded the 2014 record. Climate change is driving global warming at a rate 170 times faster than the baseline rate over the past 7,000 years.

There is some good news. Carbon emissions flat-lined last year in China and declined in the United States and in many other nations. But Australia is comprehensively bucking this trend with net emissions still rising, increasing by 0.8% in 2016. Most worryingly, the independent international science watchdog, Climate Action Tracker, estimates that Australia is on track to increase emissions by 27% on 2005 by 2030, noting that “Australia stands out as having the largest relative gap between current policy projections for 2030 and the INDC [Paris] target”.

In the face of the manifest failure of the Direct Action policy to reduce emissions, the government’s response lurches from blaming renewable energy for power blackouts in South Australia to promoting the oxymoronic “clean coal” as a solution. These actions are completely out of step with the Australian public. Recent polling by Guardian Essential indicates that more than 70% of people believe the Federal Government is not doing enough to ensure affordable, reliable and clean energy.

The past summer is not the only thing getting angry.

Lesley Hughes is a Professor of Biology at Macquarie University and a Councillor with the publicly funded Climate Council of Australia.

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