September 16, 2013

September heat – we can expect more of this

In all my life I cannot remember a time when bushfire season has started so early. Only two weeks into September and on Tuesday fires raged across New South Wales. With a lack of rain, high winds, and temperatures rising to over 30 degrees (in September!), over 40 fires are made the way across the state, threatening homes particularly in Western Sydney. Sitting in Brisbane, temperatures have risen above 30 degrees over the past few days.

It’s not like we should be surprised though. This year Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne all recorded Winters near or above their hottest on record. The 12 months leading up to the end of August were the warmest 12 months on This follows what the Climate Commission called Australia’s ‘Angry Summer’, with records smashed across the country over summer.

All year records have been broken. And it all points to one conclusion; the impacts of global warming are here and now. It is global warming that is bringing the bushfire season to September and it is global warming that is breaking temperature records across the country. And we now have the science to back us up on making this claim.

For example, in a paper released last year, NASA scientist James Hansen provided evidence that showed that we could directly link extreme weather events that are happening today with global warming. Hansen studied the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010 and the droughts in the United States in 2011, and showed through temperature models that these events would have very unlikely to have occurred if it weren’t for the warming trend.

As Hansen said: 

“We now know that the chances these extreme weather events would have  happened naturally – without climate change – is negligible.”

Recent research out of Australia came to similar conclusions. Researchers from the University of Melbourne earlier this year presented a paper that showed that it was extremely likely that humans played a role in last years ‘Angry Summer’.

The research showed that global warming increased chances of Australia experiencing record hot summers such as last year’s by more than five times. The study showed that it was possible to say with more that 90 per cent confidence that humans played a role in last year’s extremes. Sophie Lewis from the University of Melbourne, explained it bluntly:

“Our research has shown that due to greenhouse gas emissions, these types  of extreme summers will become even more frequent and more severe in the  future.”

And so whilst we can’t directly pin point the bush fires to global warming, we can now say one thing for sure; extremes like these are increasingly likely to be due to human induced warming and we can expect more of it in the future, but only worse.

And that provides us with a very stark choice. Because Australia is not only the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitter in the world, but we are also one of the world’s largest coal exporters. And our coal could be the difference between a safe climate and one no one wants to see.

Research from a couple of years ago showed that to stop the world from exceeding 2 degrees of global warming – the limit agreed by pretty much every world Government – we can only emit 565 Gigatons more of greenhouse gas emissions. The known carbon reserves in Australia make up a stunning 30% of that number. The Galilee Basin in Queensland, where coal companies want to construct nine new coal mines – five of which would be larger than any that are already in operation in the country – would make up 6% of that number in itself. And that is just one proposed area – that doesn’t include the massive plans for expansion in New South Wales, other parts of Queensland and Western Australia, as well as the proposed coal seam gas expansion all across the country.

Our fossil fuel industry is fueling bush fires like those that were sparked this week. They are fueling extremes like our hottest winter on record and our angry summer.

And I don’t say this to politicise these tragedies. I am not here to make gains on people’s suffering. We must do whatever we can to help the people in need in these tough times. But part of that has to be a process of asking how we can stop these disasters in the future. We already do this, whether it is through debates over back burning or through processes like the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission.

The time has come to include our role in global warming in these debates. It is time to recognise the role our fossil fuel industry is playing in the extreme weather events we’re experiencing. If we don’t we must face a future much more like this. And that is a future I am so keen on seeing.

Simon blogs at