By staff reporters

11 January 2013 — Australia’s climate deniers kept up their predictable call that the  heatwave and bushfires through much of Australia are merely a hot summer. Just as they blamed Queensland devastating floods two years ago random weather.

But scientists disagree. It’s just the start of climate change, they say.

In the UK, The Guardian newspaper’s George Monbiot said it would be almost impossible to turn around climate denying ideology – it’s not simply that it suits powerful interests, but there’s also something more deeply embedded, he says: “the powerful narratives that have shaped Australians’ view of themselves”.

Climate change “clashes with a story of great cultural power: of a land of opportunity, in which progress is limited only by the rate at which natural resources can be extracted,” Monbiot said.

Acting Opposition leader Warren Truss was quick to land the first punch: “The reality is, it’s being utterly simplistic to suggest that we have these fires because of climate change. It’s too simplistic to link one hot spell to climate change.”

Maybe it’s too simplistic to say it’s just the weather, Mr Truss.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology had some simple if not totally comfortable stats: By January 8 this year, Australia had experienced six days in a row of average temperatures above 39 degrees. The previous long run was four days in 1973.

In this week’s The Conversation, Bureau Climate Monitoring and Prediction Services head David Jones said a long dry spell in inland Australia, fewer cold fronts and the delayed onset of the monsoon in the country’s north had helped create today’s conditions but “the other thing at play here is climate change,”.

“We know that inland Australia is a degree and a half hotter than it was 50 to 100 years ago. Every single day we have this background warming trend which effectively means the whole climate system operates on a higher base,” Dr Jones said.

“If you look at maximum temperatures, we are now finding that the rate at which we get record high temperatures is three times faster than the rate at which we get record low temperature.”

In other words, he said, “for every record cold day we see, we get three record hot days.”

“The climate system is really strongly weighted over Australia now towards record heat… that’s quite a profound shift.”

Dr Jones said Australia was experiencing record hot nights five times more frequently than record cold nights.

The heatwave had even seen the Bureau adding new colours, purple and pink, to its Interactive Weather and Wave Forecast Maps to show temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius.

On June 7, the Bureau released a statement saying that for the last four months of 2012 “the average Australian maximum temperature was the highest on record with a national anomaly of +1.61 degrees Celsius, slightly ahead of the previous record of 1.60 degrees Celsius set in 2002”. National records go back to 1910.

It’s global warming, stupid

Also in The Conversation, Dr Jason Sharples, an expert in bushfire risk modelling from the University of NSW’s School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences, said while this week’s increased bushfire risk were due to a combination of extreme heat, winds and low humidity conditions were also “certainly consistent with trends you would expect under global warming”.

Dr Sharples said his research showed that very big bushfires could behave quite unexpectedly, for example by spreading across the wind rather than with the wind.

“There’s still a lack of recognition that when you get these big fires, they can be different beasts and the old methods don’t apply.”

But while scientists are seeing the link between heat and climate change, Australia’s media seems loathe to go there.

The Conversation reports that, from January 3 to January 7, there had been more than 800 articles covering the heatwave with less than 10 discussing “climate change”, “greenhouse gas”, carbon or “global warming”.

“Death caused by extreme heat is usually of interest to the media. For example 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria during the same week that there were 173 deaths in the 2009 Black Saturday fires,” The Conversation reports.

“For the future, a PWC report shows extreme heat in Melbourne could, without mitigation by 2050, kill more than 1000 people in a heat event. Climate change is likely to increase both extreme heat events and bushfire danger.

“Numbers and threats like these seem to be losing salience with the Australian public, or at least our media.

“Climate change and sustainability practitioners need to address these issues. This is where more of the same, more figures, statistics, research and evidence might be necessary but are not going to be sufficient.

“The call is to highlight what we care about. This might be the impact on the elderly, care for our gardens, our pets, as well as our awe of nature around us or adrenalin sports in it. We need to do so recognising that this is a narrow tailored approach for individuals and communities.”

Mobiot says it’s part of our psyche

George Monbiot, writing on the Guardian’s website, 8th January this year said, in part: “Climate change denial is almost a national pastime in Australia. People like Andrew Bolt and Ian Plimer have made a career out of it. The Australian – owned by Rupert Murdoch – takes such extreme anti-science positions that it sometimes makes the Sunday Telegraph look like the voice of reason.

“Perhaps this is unsurprising. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal – the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. It’s also a profligate consumer. Australians now burn, on average, slightly more carbon per capita than the citizens of the United States, and more than twice as much as the people of the United Kingdom. Taking meaningful action on climate change would require a serious reassessment of the way life is lived there.”

James Hansen and his colleagues showed in a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the occurrence of extremely hot events has risen by a factor of around 50 by comparison to the decades before 1980, Monbiot said.

“The extreme summer heat which afflicted between 0.1 and 0.2 per cent of the world 40 years ago now affects 10 per cent. “

But to ask Abbott and others to change their view of the problem “could be to demand the impossible. It requires that they confront some of the most powerful interests in Australia: from Rupert Murdoch to Gina Rinehart. It requires that they confront some of the powerful narratives that have shaped Australians’ view of themselves, just as we in the United Kingdom must challenge our own founding myths.

“In Australia’s case, climate change clashes with a story of great cultural power: of a land of opportunity, in which progress is limited only by the rate at which natural resources can be extracted; in which this accelerating extraction leads to the inexorable improvement of the lives of its people. What is happening in Australia today looks like anything but improvement.” Read the whole story…

Mr Truss was also wrong on his claims that the bushfires generate more CO2 than coal.

Coal-fired power stations in Australia emit around 200 million tonnes of CO2 per year, The Conversation reported on Friday. “This does not include emissions from our coal exports.

“Around 30 tonnes of CO2 per forested hectare were emitted by the Black Saturday Fires in 2009.

“Bushfires this year have so far burned around 130,000ha of forest, so have emitted nearly 4 million tonnes of CO2.

“So, the bushfires this year have emitted an amount of CO2 equivalent to 2 per cent of Australia’s annual emissions from coal-fired power.”

“However, the carbon emitted from bushfires is not permanent. Eucalypt forest regenerates after fire, and will quickly begin to sequester from the atmosphere the carbon that has been lost from the current bushfires.”