Heatwave: Australia's New Weather Demands A New Politics
I wonder what Tony Abbott will say about the record heatwave now ravaging his country. The Australian opposition leader has repeatedly questioned the science and impacts of climate change. He has insisted that "the science is highly contentious, to say the least" and asked – demonstrating what looks like a wilful ignorance – "If man-made CO2 was quite the villain that many of these people say it is, why hasn't there just been a steady increase starting in 1750, and moving in a linear way up the graph?" He has argued against Australian participation in serious attempts to cut emissions.
Climate change denial is almost a national pastime in Australia. People such as 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.
Events have not been kind to the likes of Abbott, Bolt and Plimer. The current heatwave – so severe that the Bureau of Meteorology has been forced to add a new colour to its temperature maps – is just the latest event in a decade of extraordinary weather: weather of the kind that scientists have long warned is a likely consequence of man-made global warming.
As James Hansen and 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. Extreme summer heat, which afflicted between 0.1% and 0.2% of the world 40 years ago, now affects 10%. They warned that "an important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3σ) warmer than the climatology of the 1951–1980 base period". An extremely hot outlier is a good description of what is roasting Australia at the moment.
So far Abbott has commented, as far as I can tell, only on the fires: "Our thoughts are with the people and the communities across the country who are impacted by the bushfires," he says. Quite right too, but it's time his thoughts also extended to the question of why this is happening and how Australian politicians should respond. He says he's currently on standby with his local fire brigade, but as his opposition to effective action on climate change is likely to contribute to even more extreme events in the future, this looks like the most cynical kind of stunt politics.
To ask him 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.
This, I think, is too much for Abbott to take on: as a result he has nothing to offer a nation for which this terrible weather is a warning of much worse to come. Australia's new weather demands a new politics; a politics capable of responding to an existential threat.