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Will Australia's heat wave convince skeptics?

Melanie Hall
February 22, 2017

Sydney's sweltering recent record high of 47 degrees Celsius has brought the reality of climate change into sharp focus for many Australians. Skepticism in the country is waning - quickly enough?

Australien Hitzewelle in Sydney
Image: Reuters/J. Reed

Thousands of bats fell dead out of the trees as Sydney's parched suburbs reached their hottest temperature on record earlier this month: 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit) saw parts of the city receiving the dubious honor of being the hottest place on the planet that day.

That would be considered an unusually hot day, even in the Sahara Desert.

The city's human residents fled to beaches, shops sold out of fans and power cuts hit more than 40,000 homes in southern Australia after the electricity grid struggled to cope with air conditioning demand. A total of 87 fires raged across the state of New South Wales at the heat wave's peak in February.

For Australia, these heat waves are likely to only get worse. Although it is the developed country already most feeling the effects of climate change, heatwaves that are longer, hotter and more frequent are yet to come, according to a 2016 report from the Climate Council.

Professor David Karoly from the University of Melbourne told DW that in the best case scenario, if global greenhouse gas emissions are effectively curbed, Australia would be on course to experience heat waves five times as frequently by the end of this century compared with the latter part of the 20th century.

Sydney's citizens flocked to the beaches to cool down. Photo credit: picture alliance/düpa/J. Carrett
Sydney's citizens flocked to its beaches to cool down - those living farther inland didn't have that luxuryImage: picture alliance/düpa/J. Carrett

But if emissions remain high - which Professor Karoly pointed out as the current track in Australia and the rest of the world - then heat waves would increase in frequency by a factor of 10 by the end of this century in the country. Average heat wave temperatures would rise 3 degrees Celsius to an unbearable 50 degrees Celsius in some places, including Sydney.

For Professor Karoly, a member of the Climate Change Authority that advises the Australian government on climate change policies, global warming isn't some far-off scenario.

"It’s very clear: It's not just expected to worsen in the future, it's happening now," he told DW.

Skepticism down - but far from out

In a country revealed as having the highest rates of climate skepticism in the world - at the end of the list of 14 industrialized countries in a study published in 2015, showing nearly one in five Australians didn't believe climate change was happening - the blistering heat is bringing the realities of climate change to the fore. And with this, a seeming shift in attitudes.

Infographic: Global greenhouse gas emissions and emissions gaps

Around 60 percent of Australians believe climate change is real and caused by human activity, a 6 percent rise since December 2016, according to a poll carried out byEssential Researchand published this week.

The proportion of those believing we may just be witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth's climate fell slightly, by 2 percent to a total of 25 percent over the same period.

An earlier, separate survey for the Climate Institute published in September 2016 put the proportion of Australians saying climate change is happening at 77 percent, up from 70 percent in 2015.

Adrian Enright, policy manager on climate change for WWF Australia, told DW he believes that Australians witnessing whatvthe devastating effects of higher temperatures are is helping turn the tide.

Following a series of smashed heat records, he told DW it's "not surprising that in a recent poll, we saw a jump in people associating global warming with human activities."

"The impacts of the recent heatwave, including off-the-scale bushfire risk warnings, have illustrated to Australians the sorts of risks we are being exposed to if we fail to curb carbon pollution," said Enright.

Sports fans tried to keep cool while watching tennis at the Sydney Olympic Park in January this year. Photo credit:  picture alliance/dpa/Actionplus.
Sports fans tried to keep cool while watching tennis at the Sydney Olympic Park in January this yearImage: picture alliance/dpa/Actionplus

"Climate change skepticism is overall declining, as both the scientific evidence and our first-hand experience of heatwaves and extreme weather events increases."

The devastating coral bleaching suffered by the Great Barrier Reef that reached its peak in 2016 "brought the reality of climate change home for many Australians," added Enright.

Lobbying fueling climate denial flame

But although climate change skepticism may be seeing a decline, Professor Karoly thinks it remains worryingly prevalent - thanks in no small part to a powerful fossil fuel lobby.

"In Australia 40 years ago, there was consensus on climate change," he told DW. "The conservative Australian government of the late 1980s and 1990s was committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

But he said that as soon as there seemed to be serious government plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce growth in fossil fuels, the coal industry and a number of media outlets effectively downplayed signs of climate change.

Stocking up on water to keep dehydration at bay during the deadly heat. Photo credit: AP.
Stocking up on water to keep dehydration at bay during the deadly heatImage: AP

Professor Karoly told DW that although heat waves have "had some impact on the population wanting strong action on climate change," this is "being combated by well-funded and well-organized campaigns that have led to a continuing apparent policy debate around what action on climate change is needed."

Australia's poor climate credentials

The current government, headed by the conservative Liberal Party and the rural-based National Party, revoked Australia's carbon trading scheme two years ago, Karoly pointed out.

"Since then, emissions have grown for two years, [although they had] fallen during the previous five years," he said.

Australia is the least-active country among the G20 when it comes to climate protection, according to a report by Climate Transparency in 2016, receiving the worst possible rating of "very poor" for its performance on overall climate policy. And Australians are feeling the repercussions.

Simon Bullock, senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth, told DW: "Ordinary Australians' health, agriculture and nature are all at increasing risk from drought, heat, flood and fires.

"Sadly, people are now seeing and experiencing climate change in their own lives. No amount of media misinformation from climate deniers can alter that."