Science and politics at odds in Australia
Tony Abbott, the man likely to be the next prime minister, sees political opportunity in climate scepticism. photograph: getty
Bush fire smoke rises near the town of Seaton last month in South Australia. Tony Abbott, the man likely to be the next prime minister, sees political opportunity in climate scepticism. photograph: getty
Political heat and global warming clash in Australia’s climate change debate
On the afternoon of Friday, February 1st, if you were standing at Sydney’s Circular Quay or beside the Opera House, you could not see across the water to north Sydney.
The harbour was covered in a soup of fog, thunder and lightning had frightened the kookaburras, currawongs and cockatoos into silence, and a wild storm was brewing.
Yet this followed a January that saw Sydney’s hottest day ever recorded – 45.8 degrees. It was also the hottest month on record in Australia.
The mean January temperature was 29.68 degrees nationwide, but Queensland’s mean was 30.75, and the Northern Territory saw 31.93. In Birdsville, a Queensland outback town, the mercury topped 40 degrees every day in January.
The month also saw lives lost, houses destroyed and destruction on a massive scale from both flooding (in Queensland and New South Wales) and bush fires (in Tasmania and Victoria).
Australia’s bureau of meteorology had to add two new colours to its weather forecasting chart to extend its previous temperature range that was capped at 50 degrees.
Christmas Day in Australia is reliably bathed in sweltering heat, but this was not the case in 2012. It was cold, dull and grey in Sydney; the wettest Christmas Day in 70 years. In the afternoon there was a storm, which caused the harbour ferry I was on to block all access to the deck – something I’d never previously experienced.
Even in a country where you become accustomed to the spectacular sight and acrid smell of controlled burning in winter to help prevent bush fires in spring and summer, where when it rains its does so in biblical plague fashion, this was still crazy weather.
Prof Tim Flannery, chief commissioner of Australia’s climate commission, is very concerned with what he calls “spin” in some areas of the media leading people to believe the warming trend is over, and to become suspicious of meteorological reports.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper was forced to apologise to Flannery for suggesting his public comments on climate change frightened elderly owners to sell coastal properties to climate change proponents.
He says the extremes of floods and bush fires are linked. “In 2011, sea-surface temperatures to the northwest of Australia reached record highs. Increased water evaporation contributed to the wettest year on record in Australia. The vegetation of the inland flourished,” Flannery wrote last month.
“But then the region experienced its longest period ever without rain, drying the vegetation. Now, the record heatwave is allowing fires to flourish. It’s a chain of climatic extremes that can have deadly consequences.”
A climate commission report by some of Australia’s most eminent climate scientists has linked climate change to the extreme heat Australia is currently experiencing.
The report concluded that: “The length, extent and severity of this heatwave are unprecedented in the measurement record. Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bush fires, climate change has increased the risk of more intense heatwaves and extreme hot days, as well as exacerbated bush fire conditions. Scientists have concluded that climate change is making extreme hot days, heatwaves and bush fire weather worse.”
And yet the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Tony Abbott – a man odds-on to become prime minister in September – has previously dismissed proposals to tackle climate change as “absolute crap” and gave what he called a “pledge in blood” to repeal Australia’s carbon tax.
But if Abbott sees political opportunity in climate scepticism, prime minister Julia Gillard, whose Labor government introduced the carbon tax last July, recently echoed US president Barack Obama’s call for action on climate change. “You can’t ever put down one weather event and say this is climate change, but you can accept [what] the scientists are telling us. They are telling us very clearly climate change means more extreme weather events,” she said.
Gillard added that Obama’s statement “reinforces climate change is real, and pretending it is not or pretending that there are slipshod solutions to it is not good enough”.
Australia’s political climate has been heating up since the September 14th federal election date was announced almost eight months in advance. With the government and opposition having widely disparate views on the matter, climate change is sure to be a factor in the campaign.
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