Newspaper reports, the heatwave and climate change

Australia is in the middle of a heat wave.

Recently the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to its interactive weather map: deep purple for 50-52°C and pink for 52-54°C.  Some of the Bureau’s recent modelling suggested that temperatures of over 50° could be reached in the coming days, (although this now seems unlikely) so they created the new colours.

weather chart

There is very strong evidence that climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events. According to an IPCC report “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”:

It is very likely that the length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas. Based on the A1B and A2 emissions scenarios, a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions.

I’ve thus been waiting for discussion in the media about the relationship between climate change and the current heatwave. While we can’t say that this heatwave is the result of climate change, it is pretty safe to say that, because of climate change, we can expect to see more of these types of events.

The other day I saw an article in The Conversation, discussing how the Australian media has failed to link the heatwave to climate change. It found that out of 800 articles (in the database Factiva) discussing the heat wave (between 3 and 7 January) less than 10 discussed “climate change”, “greenhouse gas”, carbon or “global warming”.

I decided have a look myself by using a different database, “Newsbank,” which covers 405 local, regional and national Australian newspapers. Between January 4 and 10, there were 688 articles which included the words “heatwave” or “heat wave,” of which 31 (4.5%) also included the words “climate change” or “global warming.”

Of these 31 articles, eights were letters to the editor. Four of them were having a go at “global warming doomsayers” or “climate-change scaremongers”. For example, G Davison wrote (in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney)

Here we go again, we’ve a few hot days and out come the global warming doomsayers, preaching their Kyoto Protocol mantra.

Last year we had a cool and wet summer, thanks to La Nina and now El Nino has arrived and we can expect the next six or so years to be dry and hot.

These weather patterns have existed in Australia since records have been kept. The only problem now is that we can’t use our airconditioners when we have heatwaves, because of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s carbon tax.

Bring on the next election so that we can all once more feel comfortable in summer days.

I find such simplistic comment bewildering.

The other four letters sought to highlight links between the heatwave and climate change. For example, “Warming Up” wrote in The Courier (Ballarat)

Perhaps this heat wave could serve as a timely reminder of our future with Climate Change on our doorstep. The reality is, people will have their air cons on full blast using fossil fuels, which is the main contributor to a warming planet. Think about it as you swelter!

One article just mentioned climate in passing when referring the reader to another article. Another, a column in the Daily Telegraph by Tim Blair mention the heatwave in passing while having a go at high profile people concerned about climate change (e.g., Al Gore, Cate Blanchett) who still fly. In a list of “carbon elite – ‘highly paid, highly mobile people’ who seemingly aren’t constrained by any carbon considerations” he included:

MILLIONAIRE bandanna-wearing Christmas book author and history simplifier Peter FitzSimons, who tweeted the other day: “Will the politics of carbon tax/climate change alter with this extraordinary, sustained heatwave hitting the southern states?” It’s called summer, Peter, and the carbon tax won’t make any difference. (Full article here)

That means there were just 21 articles which discussed the connection between the heatwave and climate change.

The Sunday Age, The Sun Herald and the Sunday Canberra Times all carried an article by Peter Hannon which reported findings by the Australian Council of Social Service’s Climate Change and the Community Sector – Risks and Adaptations project, that many community organisations are unlikely to be able to cope with the demand created by extreme weather effects (e.g., bushfires), thereby leaving vulnerable people at risk. While not directly linking the heatwave with climate change, Hannam, quoting the ACOSS chief executive, suggests that:

While the international focus on the effects of climate change is often on the threat to poorer nations of more intense storms and harsher droughts, “inequities in developed countries” are usually overlooked, Ms Goldie said. (Full article here)

Peter Hannam wrote in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald about the new record high temperatures. He made a connection to climate change by quoting David Jones, the head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology, who did not expect to break inland area temperatures records by the recent margins.

In terms of climate change trends, the rising mean temperatures provide a clearer “fingerprint”, not to mention the rate and scale of the new records being set, Dr Jones said. “At least in the past we used to break records by small margins most of the time,” he said. “This tendency to break records by large margins is really something that’s emerging quite quickly globally,” he added, noting that the US revealed overnight that it had posted its hottest year on record for the lower 48 states, beating the previous record by about 0.6 degrees. (Full article here)

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the Prime Minister’s visit to Tasmania on Tuesday and her comments about climate change.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard underscored the dangers facing Australia this summer from climate change as she saw Tasmanian bushfire ruins, and warned people to expect more….

Ms Gillard said extreme bushfires were part of life in a hot and dry country.

“And while you would not put any one event down to climate change… we do know that over time as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events,” she said. (Full article here)

I find it a relief that Gillard is willing to make these type of statements.

Gillard’s comments received some more coverage in a few more papers after the Acting Opposition Leader, Warren Truss, responded.

Acting Opposition Leader Warren Truss says it is “too simplistic” to link the current heatwave and fires to climate change.

In Brisbane on Wednesday, Mr Truss acknowledged the record heatwave, but said Australia’s climate was changeable, with hot times and cold times.

“The reality is, it’s being utterly simplistic to suggest that we have these fires because of climate change,” he said. (Read one of the reports)

An opinion piece in the Northern Daily Leader in Tamworth discussed Truss’ comments in some detail.

Warren Truss knows a lot about farming, is a seasoned politician, but he is no expert on climate change….

“Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times,” he went on, adding: “Indeed I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal-fired power stations for decades”.

Mr Truss’s unscientific viewpoint was no doubt in response to comments made by the prime minister the day before. Julia Gillard warned there would be more extreme weather because of climate change, a view supported by scientists and their research around the world. (It’s worth reading the full article.)

I can’t believe that Truss makes such ridiculous statement.

Some of the reports didn’t actually make a direct connection between the current heat wave and climate change, but there was a clear inference. For example, after discussing the record-breaking temperatures, AAP News quoted Markus Donat, from the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales who stated that:

“In recent studies we have analysed how extreme temperatures have changed globally,” he said. “For most regions, including Australia, we found that extremely high temperatures have become more frequent and more intense.”

An article by Ben Cubby in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, set the current heatwave in the context of previous climate change research and reports.

The impacts of the rising heat on farming, food, water and human health have been studied closely for years, and the trends being played out now mirror those laid out years ago in projections by the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and the Garnaut climate change review….

According to a peer-reviewed study by the Australian-based Global Carbon Project, global average temperatures are on a trajectory to rise a further four to six degrees by the end of this century, with that rise felt most strongly over land areas. It would be enough to tip Tuesday’s over-40 temperatures over much of mainland Australia very close to 50 degrees in some parts.

“Those of us who spend our days trawling – and contributing to – the scientific literature on climate change are becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of human civilisation,” said Liz Hanna, convener of the human health division at the Australian National University’s Climate Change Adaptation Network. (Full article here)

Some articles took a more sensational approach. The Courier in Ballarat linked the current heatwave to one in France which killed 14000 people and commented on the change in house design that meant we needed more air conditioning.

Either by design or carelessness, houses demand air conditioning. This in turn puts enormous pressure on the power supply until unprecedented demands cause power overloads.

The result is, we are without the now essential air conditioning and less conditioned to tolerate it. (Full article here)

In a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece, Chris Hammer suggested that rising temperature due to climate change is likely to lead to more natural disasters which could lead to more deaths.

This is why Australians should be deeply concerned about climate change – hotter summers mean this kind of death [from cyclones, bushfires, heatwaves and floods] is likely to come visiting more often.

Having started the piece by describing the European Grim Reaper as being “dressed in a heavy winter cloak”, he finishes by suggesting:

The threat will come on those exceptional days [leading to bushfires, cyclones etc], those days that once came every decade or two, those days that now threaten to visit us every few years. The European image of death is outdated; it’s being replaced by a cruel new Australian version. (Full article here)

In two articles in The Australian newspaper, “balance” was provided by giving equal voice to both sides of the “argument” about climate change. Adam Shand quoted the assistant director of climate information services and a retired meteorologist.

Assistant director of climate information services Neil Plummer said the heatwave had broken national records.

“This is consistent with the trend of an increase in extreme heat events associated with climate change,” he said.

Retired meteorologist William Kininmonth, a noted climate change sceptic, questioned the link between the heatwave and climate change. Australia had faced severe heat many times in the past arising from a set of factors unrelated to global warming, he said. (Full article here)

Plummer is representing the viewpoint of the vast majority of scientists, while Kininmonth is in a real minority (at least in scientific circles), but both are given equal weight.

In a long article on “The Great Heatwave Of 2013“ Graham Lloyd, also gives equal weight to both sides of the story. (I’ve touched on the notion of balance before.) For example:

Despite the Climate Commission’s warnings it will not be possible for several decades to say with certainty that there is a climate change signal in recent heatwaves, including this year’s hot spell.

In a report on extreme weather last year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined the difficulty in establishing whether climate change is driving more intense weather. (Full article here)

The Australian has a history of minimising climate change and the need for action. (More details.) While appearing to be balanced reporting, it really undermines climate science because it gives disproportionate space and emphasis to the very minority scientific view held by the sceptics.

In discussing the record-breaking temperatures Felicity Caldwell,in The Courier Mail, only mentioned research which appears to undermine the evidence for global warming was to minimise the impact.

While we sweltered yesterday, the UK’s national weather service said global warming had stalled since 1998, and in the next few years Earth’s temperature would not rise as rapidly as feared.

The Met Office said the slowdown in temperature rises after a steep increase in the 1990s could be explained by natural variability, changes in solar activity and the movements of the oceans.

I wish there was more reporting like Clare Peddie in the Adelaide Advertiser. She gave a great discussion about the relationship between climate change and extreme weather without being sensational. Unfortunately it isn’t available online but she closes with the following:

The last time the world’s average monthly temperatures were falling was in February 1985, when Back to the Future was in cinemas.

Since then, there has been 333 consecutive months of rising average temperatures globally, ecological economist Professor Jeremy Williams of Griffith University said.

“The chances of that happening randomly is one in 100,000,” he said.

“If you’re 27 or younger, rising monthly temperatures is all you’ve ever known. If it is 42 degrees in Hobart, there is something seriously wrong.”

He added: “Climate change is here now.”

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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