Australia’s “Angry Summer” Driven By Climate Change

Australia’s independent Climate Council recently released a report titled “Angry Summer 2016/2017: Climate Change Super-Charging Extreme Weather.” The paper detailed key findings relating to Australia’s 2016/17 summer and the impact of intense heat waves across the majority of Australia’s east coast, contrasted with record summer rainfalls and flooding in the west of the country. The Council has identified Australia’s ‘business as usual’ approach to carbon emission production as incompatible with pledges made by the government to the international community to work towards decreasing global emission rates by 2030.

According to the Climate Council, an ‘Angry Summer’ is characterized by collective record-breaking intense and enduring heat-waves, life-threatening bushfire events, and extreme rain and flooding. In sum, it is a bipolar experience of “extreme weather events driven by climate change.” Australia’s most recent summer has been identified by the Council as the third “Angry Summer” since 2012/13.

Evidence supporting the report’s identification of the 2016/17 summer as being one of the most extreme is based on meteorological data published by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). The BOM’s Special Climate Statement 61, released in late February, detailed consistently high temperatures in both January and February and classified them “among the hottest months on record for southeast Australia.” While the BOM noted this year’s summer heat-waves were comparable in temperature with the historically extreme summer of 1939, the difference between contemporary summers is “the frequency of such intense large-scale heat waves [that have] increased across spring, summer and autumn, especially over the last twenty years.”

The 2016/17 summer was also significant as an extreme event due to the number of climate records broken. 2016/17 resulted in the hottest summer temperatures on record for east coast state capitals Brisbane and Sydney. It also recorded the hottest mean temperatures for the east coast state of New South Wales, and the second hottest recorded summer for the state of Queensland. In contrast, monsoon rains across Australia’s Northern Territory reached record levels in December, and higher than average rainfall in Western Australia was seen following record rains in Perth.

The impact of the this year’s summer is yet to be analytically costed, but will likely exceed the Climate Council’s quoted loss in economic productivity that was billed for the 2013/14 ‘Angry Summer.’ The Council lists areas directly affected by the extreme weather to include the health of populations and ecosystems, damage to biodiversity, infrastructure, and natural resources.

The most prominent cause cited by the Council as having contributed to Australia’s immediate and extreme climate experience is the sustained rise in carbon emissions. Rising emissions are, according to the Council, directly consequential of an unwillingness to pursue initiatives that are either directly supported or enabled by government policy. The Climate Council’s report claims Australia’s carbon emissions increased 0.8% during 2016, which contrasts a working trend in which other major industrial polluters successfully reduced their net emissions. The Climate Council has stated Australia’s increasing emissions raise serious questions regarding the government’s capacity to realistically achieve the “very weak emissions reduction targets of 26-28% by 2030.”

Australia’s participation in the UN Security Council’s Arria-formula meeting in 2015 to discuss climate change as a “Threat multiplier for global security” resolved to action a reduction in emissions.

The sentiment to work collaboratively to mitigate threats from climate change were clearly expressed by Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, whose statement acknowledged that “without intervention, the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation could erode development gains, undermine economic growth and compound human security challenges.” Yet, Australian policy and action appear to contravene the direction and sentiment pledged at the meeting.

To assist Australia’s resolve in achieving its commitment, the Climate Council recommends the government actively pursue policy initiatives that focus on clean, renewable energy options.

Importantly, without a firm willingness to alter the current course of emissions, Australia’s experience of extreme weather events, such as the series of ‘Angry Summers’ are likely to increase in frequency. The mid or even near-term effects of a failure to alter policy pathways relating to climate change are also likely to amplify Australia’s contribution to global climate change, the impacts of which will be disproportionately shouldered by communities and populations around the world.

Carolina Morison