Australia's 2014 summer breaks 156 heat records with climate change

Reading the climate Council latest report on the Angry Summer 2013/2014 (PDF) I was struck by the extent and rapidity of the changes in temperature we are seeing now.

Related: Urbanization amplifies global warming temperatures for Sydney

The angry summer we have just experienced comes on top of 2013 being the hottest year on record for Australia, with temperatures off the charts setting new temperature records. A risk attribution study found that 2013 record temperatures could be clearly attributed to climate change with 2013 temperatures not found in 13,000 model years of simulations under a natural only scenario.

One of the clearest impacts of climate change is on temperatures and we are already seeing that here in Australia. As one of the most urbanised countries in the world rising temperatures are amplifying the urban heat island effect in our cities.

Some of the key records broken this summer in Australia according to the Climate Council include:

  • Sydney had it's driest summer in 27 years
  • Canberra experienced 20 days of maximum temperatures exceeding 35°C
  • Melbourne set a new record for hottest 24 hour period with an average temperature of 35.5°C
  • Adelaide during the summer was the hottest city of earth setting a record of 11 days with maximum temperatures exceeding 42°C or more.
  • Perth had it's second hottest summer on record.

Heatwave and hotspells a major cause of death

Extreme temperatures result in more deaths than any other extreme weather event in Australia and are a public health threat. Yes, even more than bushfires. Although most of these deaths are associated with older people over the age of 65, Nicholls et al (2007) concluded that most of these deaths were avoidable. Short term advancement of mortality was only a small proportion compared to additional mortality caused by heatwave temperatures.

While the number of extreme heat records has been almost three times greater than the number of cold records for daytime temperatures, it is almost five times greater for nighttime temperatures. When temperatures fail to drop sufficiently at night (less than 23C), the human body does not have a chance to recover with enough sleep and thermoregulation, placing physical stress which produces a greater mortality rate at night during heatwaves. The Urban Heat Island effect keeps temperatures high during the night in urban areas.

Estimated deaths from natural disasters in Australia, 1890–2013
Natural Disaster No of events with fatalities No of deaths
Heatwave 29 2887
Cyclone 37 935
Bushfire / urban fire 75 843
Flood 66 453
Hail, Severe Storm, Tornado 69 124
Earthquake 1 13
Source: Australian Emergency Management Institute 2013

Because of the enormous inertia in the climate system it will take us decades just to stabilise temperatures. We need to do this for our children and grandchildren. As the Climate Council state the issue:

Limiting the increase in extreme weather activity requires urgent and deep reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. The decisions we make this decade will largely determine the severity of climate change and its influence on extreme events for our grandchildren. This is the critical decade for action on climate change.

The Federal Government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott continues to hinder Australia's climate mitigation action, while the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology latest State of the Climate report gives a clear signal of climate trends, and the Climate Change Authority report recommends Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent as Australia's fair share and comparable with action currently being taken internationally.

But action also needs to be taken by business and local and state governments.

Apple and Virgin advocate business climate action

Apple Chief Executive officer Tim Cook at the 2014 AGM told climate deniers to invest elsewhere if they don't like Apple's enhanced commitment to curbing its environmental impact with it's pledge to supply 100% of its power from renewable sources.

This prompted Virgin CEO Richard Branson to come out in support of Tom Cook and say Businesses Should Stand Up to Climate Change Deniers.

Victorian Government needs to step up climate action

The Victorian State Government with it's regulation of electricity supply, planning and land management is very important for climate action. Here in Victoria brown coal fuels about 90 per cent of electricity production, but it comes at great cost and risk to public health as shown by the Morwell coal mine fire. We also have a state government lead by Premier Denis Napthine that has pandered to a small anti-wind pressure group in restricting wind farm development across most of the state. Logging of native forests is also continuing at an economic loss, despite these forests being enormous carbon sinks and harbouring great biodiversity including the state's two faunal emblems: the Helmeted Honeyeater and Leadbeater's Possum.

We need to make clear to all political parties in the lead up to the State election scheduled for 29 November 2014 that climate action is necessary and vital at the state level in Victoria.

Heatwaves in particular threaten electricity and public transport infrastructure disrupting work and threatening cascading impacts. The Victorian Premier Denis Napthine warned that 100,000 premises may lose power during extreme heatwave. But it was all those residential solar PV systems and the wind farms that reduced and pushed back the electricity peak that prevented this from actually ocurring. Yet the Premier has presided over policies preventing more wind farm developments through restrictive planning regulations, and uptake of more solar systems through a reduction in the Feed in tariff (FIT). And we have the state government presently keen on ramping up production of bown coal while Morwell suffers.

The Labor Opposition in Victoria must also commit to taking climate mitigation action and reducing coal fired power and greenhouse gas emissions, expanding renewables, and stop the destruction of our native forests our natural carbon sinks and refuges for biodiversity.

Local Government also needs to be pro-active in climate adaptation strategies and minimising carbon emissions such as in promoting vegetation cover as in Melbourne's Urban Forest, and greater planning and response for heatwave emergencies as articulated recently in a Moreland Council decision.