As Australia Burns, Attitudes are Changing. But is it Too Late?

Raging wildfires are forcing many to rethink their stance on climate change. But there's little time left to reduce emissions

January 11, 2013 | Source: The Guardian | by Tim Flannery

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This summer, life in Australia resembles a compulsory and very unpleasant game of Russian roulette. A pool of hot air more than 1,000 miles wide has formed across the inland. It covers much of the continent, and has proved astonishingly persistent. Periodically, low pressure systems spill the heat towards the coast, where most Australians live. At Christmas it was Perth. Then the heat struck Adelaide, followed by Tasmania, Victoria, and southern New South Wales and Canberra. Over this weekend, it’s southern Queensland and northern New South Wales that look set to face the gun. And with every heatwave, the incidences of bushfires and heat-related deaths and injuries spike.

Australians are used to hot summers. We normally love them. But the conditions prevailing now are something new. Temperature records are being broken everywhere. At Leonora, in the Western Australian interior, it reached 49C this week – the national high – and just one record temperature among many. The nation’s overall temperature record was set on 7 January. Then the following day that record was exceeded, by half a degree Celsius.

The breaking of so many temperature records indicates that Australia’s climate is shifting. This is supported by analysis of the long-term trend. Over the past 40 years we’ve seen a decline in the number of very cold days, and the occurrence of many more very hot days. All of this was predicted by climate scientists decades ago, and is consistent with the increasing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.

The new conditions have seen the Bureau of Meteorology add two new color categories to Australia’s weather prediction maps. Temperatures of 48-50C used to be the highest, and where such extremes were anticipated, the weather map was marked black. Over the last week, purple patches have begun to appear on some maps. They mark temperatures above 50C. Pink, which is yet to be deployed, will denote temperatures above 52C.