The heatwave that engulfed southeastern Australia at the end of last week has seen heat records continue to tumble like Jenga blocks.
On Saturday February 11, as New South Wales suffered through the heatwave’s peak, temperatures soared to 47℃ in Richmond, 50km northwest of Sydney, while 87 fires raged across the state amid catastrophic fire conditions.
On that day, most of NSW experienced temperatures at least 12℃ above normal for this time of year. In White Cliffs, the overnight minimum was 34.2℃, a new record for the state’s highest observed minimum temperature.
On Friday, the average maximum temperature right across NSW hit 42.4℃, beating the previous February record of 42.0℃. The new record stood for all of 24 hours before it was smashed again on Saturday, as the whole state averaged 44.0℃ at its peak. At this time, NSW was the hottest place on Earth.
A degree or two here or there might not sound like much, but to put it in cricketing parlance, those temperature records are the equivalent of a modern test batsman retiring with an average of over 100 – the feat of outdoing Don Bradman’s fabled 99.94 would undoubtedly be front-page news.
And still the records continue to fall. Mungindi, on the border of NSW and Queensland, broke the Australian record of 50 days in a row above 35℃, set just four years ago at Bourke Airport, with the new record now at 52 days.
Meanwhile, two days after that sweltering Saturday we woke to find the fires ignited during the heatwave still cutting a swathe of destruction, with the small town of Uarbry, east of Dunedoo, all but burned to the ground.
This is all the more noteworthy when we consider that the El Niño of 2015-16 is long gone and the conditions that ordinarily influence our weather are firmly in neutral. This means we should expect average, not sweltering, temperatures.
Since Christmas, much of eastern Australia has been in a flux of extreme temperatures. This increased frequency of heatwaves shows a strong trend in observations, which is set to continue as the human influence on the climate deepens.
It is all part of a rapid warming trend that over the past decade has seen new heat records in Australia outnumber new cold records by 12 to 1.
Let’s be clear, this is not natural. Climate scientists have long been saying that we would feel the impacts of human-caused climate change in heat records first, before noticing the upward swing in average temperatures (although that is happening too). This heatwave is simply the latest example.
What’s more, in just a few decades’ time, summer conditions like these will be felt across the whole country regularly.
Attributing the heat
The useful thing scientifically about heatwaves is that we can estimate the role that climate change plays in these individual events. This is a relatively new field known as “event attribution”, which has grown and improved significantly over the past decade.
We compared the likelihood of such a heatwave in model simulations that factor in human greenhouse gas emissions, compared with simulations in which there is no such human influence. Since 2017 has only just begun, we used model runs representing 2014, which was similarly an El Niño-neutral year, while also experiencing similar levels of human influence on the climate.
Based on this analysis, we found that heatwaves at least as hot as this one are now twice as likely to occur. In the current climate, a heatwave of this severity and extent occurs, on average, once every 120 years, so is still quite rare. However, without human-induced climate change, this heatwave would only occur once every 240 years.
In other words, the waiting time for the recent east Australian heatwave has halved. As climate change worsens in the coming decades, the waiting time will reduce even further.
Our results show very clearly the influence of climate change on this heatwave event. They tell us that what we saw last weekend is a taste of what our future will bring, unless humans can rapidly and deeply cut our greenhouse emissions.
Our increasingly fragile electricity networks will struggle to cope, as the threat of rolling blackouts across NSW showed. It is worth noting that the large number of rooftop solar panels in NSW may have helped to avert such a crisis this time around.
Our hospital emergency departments also feel the added stress of heat waves. When an estimated 374 people died from the heatwave that preceded the Black Saturday bushfires the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine resorted to storing bodies in hospitals, universities and funeral parlours. The Victorian heatwave of January 2014 saw 167 more deaths than expected, along with significant increases in emergency department presentations and ambulance callouts.
Infrastructure breaks down during heatwaves, as we saw in 2009 when railway lines buckled under the extreme conditions, stranding thousands of commuters. It can also strain Australia’s beloved sporting events, as the 2014 Australian Open showed.
These impacts have led state governments and other bodies to investigate heatwave management strategies, while our colleagues at the Bureau of Meteorology have developed a heatwave forecast service for Australia.
These are likely to be just the beginning of strategies needed to combat heatwaves, with conditions currently regarded as extreme set to be the “new normal” by the 2030s. With the ramifications of extreme weather clear to everyone who experienced this heatwave, there is no better time to talk about how we can ready ourselves.
We urgently need to discuss the health and economic impacts of heatwaves, and how we are going to cope with more of them in the future.
We would like to acknowledge Robert Smalley, Andrew Watkins and Karl Braganza of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology for providing observations included in this article. This article was amended on February 16, 2017, to include updated weather observations.
Australia ranks equal 15th overall in a new World Bank scorecard on sustainable energy. We are tied with five other countries in the tail-end group of wealthy OECD countries – behind Canada and the United States and just one place ahead of China.
Called the Regulatory Indicators for Sustainable Energy (RISE), the initiative provides benchmarks to evaluate clean energy progress, and insights and policy guidance for Australia and other countries.
RISE rates country performance in three areas – renewable energy, energy efficiency, and access to modern energy (excluding advanced countries), using 27 indicators and 80 sub-indicators. These include things like legal frameworks, building codes, and government incentives and policies. The results of the individual indicators are turned into an overall score.
The majority of wealthy countries score well in the scorecard. But when you drill down into the individual areas, the story becomes more complex. The report notes that “about half the countries with more appropriate policy environments for sustainable energy are emerging economies,” for example.
The report relies on data up to 2015. So it does not account for recent developments such as the Paris climate conference, the Australian National Energy Productivity Plan, the widespread failure to enforce building energy regulations, and the end of Australia’s major industrial Energy Efficiency Opportunities program under the Abbott government.
Furthermore, Australian electricity demand growth has recently re-emerged after five years of decline.
But the World Bank plans to publish updated indicators every two years, so over time the indicators should become a valuable means of tracking and influencing the evolution of global clean energy policy.
Australia’s ranking masks some good, bad and ugly subtleties. For example, Australia joins Chile and Argentina as the only OECD high-income countries without some form of carbon pricing mechanism. Even the United States, whose EPA uses a “social cost of carbon” in regulatory action, and has pricing schemes in some states, meets the RISE criteria.
Australia also ranks lower than the United States for renewable energy policy, at 24th. This is due to scoring poorly in incentives and regulatory support, carbon pricing, and mechanisms supporting network connection and appropriate pricing. But we are saved somewhat by having a legal framework for renewables, and strong management of counter-party risk. It’s not clear how recent political uncertainty, and the resulting temporary collapse of investment in large renewable energy projects, may affect the score.
I have argued in the past that Australia is missing out on billions of dollars in savings through its lack of ambition on energy efficiency. Yet we rate equal 13th on this criterion, compared with 24th on renewable energy. It seems that many other countries are forgoing even more money than us.
In energy efficiency, we score highly for incentives from electricity rate structures, building energy codes and financing mechanisms for energy efficiency. Our public sector policies and appliance minimum energy standards also score well. Our weakest areas are lack of carbon pricing and monitoring, and information for electricity consumers. National energy efficiency planning, incentives for large consumers and energy labelling all do a bit better. Of course, these ratings are relative to a low global energy efficiency benchmark.
The rest of the world
Much of the report focuses on developing countries. There is a wide spread of activity here, with some countries almost without policies, and others like Vietnam and Kazakhstan doing well, ranking equal 23rd. China ranks just behind Australia’s cluster at 21st.
RISE shows that policies driving access to modern energy seem to be achieving results. The report suggests that 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity, down from an estimated 1.4 billion a few years ago. A significant contributor to this seems to be the declining cost of solar panels and other renewable energy sources, and greater emphasis on micro-grids in rural areas.
The report highlights the importance of strategies that integrate renewables and efficiency. But it doesn’t mention an obvious example. The viability of rural renewable energy solutions is being greatly assisted by the declining cost and large efficiency improvement in technologies such as LED lighting, mobile phones and tablet computers. The overall outcome is much improved access to services, social and economic development with much smaller and cheaper renewable energy and storage systems.
RISE finds that clean energy policy is progressing across most countries. However, energy efficiency policy is well behind renewable energy. “This is another missed opportunity”, say the report’s authors, “given that energy efficiency measures are among the most cost-effective means of reducing a country’s carbon footprint.” They also note that energy efficiency policy tends to be fairly superficial.
Australia’s ranking on renewable energy policy is mediocre, while our better energy efficiency ranking is relative to global under-performance. The Finkel Review and Climate Policy Review offer opportunities to integrate renewables and energy efficiency into energy market frameworks. The under-resourced National Energy Productivity Plan could be cranked up to deliver billions of dollars more in energy savings, while reducing pressure on electricity supply infrastructure and making it easier to achieve ambitious energy targets. And RISE seems to suggest we need a price on carbon.
The question is, in a world where action on clean energy is accelerating in response to climate change and as a driver of economic and social development, will Australia move up or slip down the rankings in the next report?
Finding the optimum environment and avoiding uninhabitable conditions has been a challenge faced by species throughout the history of life on Earth. But as the climate changes, many plants and animals are likely to find their favoured home much less hospitable.
In the short term, animals can react by seeking shelter, whereas plants can avoid drying out by closing the small pores on their leaves. Over longer periods, however, these behavioural responses are often not enough. Species may need to migrate to more suitable habitats to escape harsh environments.
During glacial times, for instance, large swathes of Earth’s surface became inhospitable to many plants and animals as ice sheets expanded. This resulted in populations migrating away from or dying off in parts of their ranges. To persist through these times of harsh climatic conditions and avoid extinction, many populations would migrate to areas where the local conditions remained more accommodating.
These areas have been termed “refugia” and their presence has been essential to the persistence of many species, and could be again. But the rapid rate of global temperature increases, combined with recent human activity, may make this much harder.
Finding the refugia
Evidence for the presence of historic climate refugia can often be found within a species’ genome. The size of populations expanding from a refugium will generally be smaller than the parent population within them. Thus, the expanding populations will generally lose genetic diversity, through processes such as genetic drift and inbreeding. By sequencing the genomes of multiple individuals within different populations of a species, we can identify where the hotbeds of genetic diversity lie, thus pinpointing potential past refugia.
My colleagues and I recently investigated population genetic diversity in the narrow-leaf hopbush, a native Australian plant that got its common name from its use in beer-making by early European Australians. The hopbush has a range of habitats, from woodlands to rocky outcrops on mountain ranges, and has a wide distribution across southern and central Australia. It is a very hardy species with a strong tolerance for drought.
We found that populations in the Flinders Ranges have more genetic diversity than those to the east of the ranges, suggesting that these populations are the remnants of an historic refugium. Mountain ranges can provide ideal refuge, with species only needing to migrate short distances up or down the slope to remain within their optimal climatic conditions.
In Australia, the peak of the last ice age led to dryer conditions, particularly in the centre. As a result, many plant and animal species gradually migrated across the landscape to southern refugial regions that remained more moist. Within the south-central region, an area known as the Adelaide Geosyncline has been recognised as an important historic refugium for several animal and plant species. This area encompasses two significant mountain ranges: the Mount Lofty and Flinders ranges.
Refugia of the future
In times of increased temperatures (in contrast to the lower temperatures experienced during the ice age) retreats to refugia at higher elevations or towards the poles can provide respite from unfavourably hot and dry conditions. We are already seeing these shifts in species distributions.
But migrating up a mountain can lead to a literal dead end, as species ultimately reach the top and have nowhere else to go. This is the case for the American Pika, a cold-adapted relative of rabbits that lives in mountainous regions in North America. It has disappeared from more than one-third of its previously known range as conditions have become too warm in many of the alpine regions it once inhabited.
Further, the almost unprecedented rate of global temperature increase means that species need to migrate at rapid rates. Couple this with the destructive effects of agriculture and urbanisation, leading to the fragmentation and disconnection of natural habitats, and migration to suitable refugia may no longer be possible for many species.
While evidence for the combined effects of habitat fragmentation and climate change is currently scarce, and the full effects are yet to be realised, the predictions are dire. For example, modelling the twin impact of climate change and habitat fragmentation on drought sensitive butterflies in Britain led to predictions of widespread population extinctions by 2050.
Within the Adelaide Geosyncline, the focal area of our study, the landscape has been left massively fragmented since European settlement, with estimates of only 10% of native woodlands remaining in some areas. The small pockets of remaining native vegetation are therefore left quite disconnected. Migration and gene flow between these pockets will be limited, reducing the survival chances of species like the hopbush.
So while refugia have saved species in the past, and poleward and up-slope shifts may provide temporary refuge for some, if global temperatures continue to rise, more and more species will be pushed beyond their limits.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.” With these words Australia’s Treasurer Scott Morrison taunted the Opposition, attempting to ridicule its commitment to renewable energy.
He handed the lump of Hunter Valley coal to a delighted Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and it was then passed, to much hilarity, along the front bench and over to the back benches. Handling a lump of coal leaves hands black, but this lump had been turned into clean coal with a coat of lacquer.
The exuberant deployment of a lump of coal to mock those who want to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels came soon after Prime Minister Turnbull’s shock announcement that Australia ought to be building a new generation of coal-fired power plants, subsidized by the government if need be. Even the coal-fired electricity generators have distanced themselves from Turnbull, declaring that it just won’t happen.
More to the point, the audacious celebration of the wonders of coal occurred in the middle of one of the most severe heatwaves eastern Australia has ever experienced.
Temperature records have been smashed, fire danger levels have been set at ‘catastrophic’, and everyone who has opened themselves to the scientific warnings struggles to ward off a terrible feeling of foreboding.
The coal taunting incident in Parliament seems to reveal a new dimension to the climate debate in Australia, one that goes beyond denialism and political culture. It’s almost as if, like King Lear raging at the storm, Turnbull, Morrison and Joyce are defying nature to do its worst, almost willing it to happen because mankind will prevail.
We forget that, for some people, there are desires more urgent and goals more grand than that of protecting others, and their own families, from plunging into dark and dangerous times. The glory and self-satisfaction of defeating one’s enemy, for instance.
Drama in human affairs
One cannot help noticing that this display of bravado by the nation’s leaders is especially vigorous from alpha males, men who act as if the future is a horror movie in which the anticipated terrors are to be relished but also withstood, except that they forget that this one has no end. We will all be trapped in the cinema as the never-ending movie becomes ever-more terrifying.
I have written more about the sociology, psychology and power politics of climate change than most. Yet now these kinds of explanations seem too weak, given what’s at stake and the wilful refusal to face it. It is almost as if there are forces at work in the climate change drama above the everyday ones.
The denial industry often reminds us that carbon is the source of life, and perhaps that thought lay behind Morrison’s swaggering parliamentary performance with his lump of coal. Yet carbon now in its fossilized form reminds us of our mortality. Is that so hard to grasp?
Perhaps he and his kind do grasp it; but they are not horrified by it as others are, because it only means hastening the fate that awaits us all anyway. He does profess to be some kind of Christian.
The braying asses of the Murdoch press will scoff at this kind of reflection; but we must remind ourselves that they are humans too, with the same inner fears, hidden doubts, and desperate needs that others have, even if they lie more deeply buried. Every mythological narrative must have characters like them.
If the climate drama needs to be thought in ‘mythic’ terms, those who value life might respond in ways guided by that way of thinking.