The fingerprints of climate change can be traced across 2017, with extreme weather events witnessed around the world; from supercharged storms, hurricanes, floods and heatwaves through to bushfires. 2017 has seen it all.
As the year draws to a close, it remains on track to become the third hottest year on record and the hottest in a non-El Niño year. Despite the United States and Europe continuing their decade-long decline in greenhouse gas pollution, Australia has been missing in action. Australia’s pollution has been rising year on year since March 2015. This pollution is contributing to driving worsening extreme weather here and around the world.
2017 kicked off with yet another “angry summer” across Australia, characterised by intense heatwaves, hot days and bushfires in central and eastern Australia, while heavy rainfall and flooding hit the west of the nation. In just 90 days, more than 205 records were broken around the country. Temperatures soared beyond 40C during Sydney’s hottest January on record, with news outlets labelling the event as “the summer of sweat”. The extreme summer heat in New South Wales was at least 50 times more likely to occur due to climate change.
Australia is the land of droughts and flooding rains, but the extreme weather events we are now seeing are becoming more frequent and more forceful. The “angry summer” was just one example of this trend.
Australia’s pollution levels rose again throughout March as scientists confirmed the second mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in two years. . Weeks later, category-four Tropical Cyclone Debbie struck Queensland and northern NSW, sparking the evacuation of thousands as powerful storms brought heavy rainfall and mass flooding. At least five Australians died. The damage bill of the event reached about $2bn.
Fast-forward to June and Australia entered its warmest winter on record, resulting in more than 260 heat and low rainfall records being broken throughout the season. The University of Melbourne’s Andrew King then confirmed the event was made 60 times more likely owing to climate change.
By September, the US and the Caribbean were lashed by not one but three major hurricanes – Irma, Harvey and Maria – fuelled by exceptionally warm seas. Maria set the record for the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall, obliterating Puerto Rico. Officials still don’t know what the official death toll is. Harvey dropped 1.5 metres of rain on some Texas cities, smashing previous records, displacing thousands of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
This summer we are again bracing for “above normal” fire season in NSW, with the fire danger period commencing earlier than usual. As a result, the hot and dry conditions of a “weird winter” have led to a worrying outlook for the bushfire season across much of south-east Australia. Each year our fire services are preparing for more frequent and more dangerous bushfires.
The window of opportunity for Australia to act on climate change is rapidly closing. 2017 has been a year riddled with extreme weather events, worsened by climate change. The lion’s share of Australia’s climate pollution comes from energy production from the burning of coal, oil and gas. For decades it has been clear that a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is critical to protecting Australia from worsening extreme weather. What has changed in the last few years is that it is increasingly clear that new renewable energy is cheaper than new fossil fuels, and renewables with storage, like batteries, can power the nation 24/7.
During the last 12 months the energy debate has dominated the front pages; however, we still lack a national approach to energy that can effectively tackle pollution and take advantage of the dramatic reduction in the costs of renewable energy. What we know about the government’s latest energy proposal is that it will strangle renewable energy at exactly the time it needs to grow. Thankfully, state,territory and local governments, along with households and businesses, have been leading the way. More than 1.7 million Australians now have solar on their roof, while state governments have introduced targets in increase the supply of renewable energy.
As 2017 draws to a close the government is finalising its climate change strategy. Failing to tackle climate change is an active decision to accept worsening extreme weather events and the severe damage they will cause to communities and our way of life.
• Amanda McKenzie is the CEO of the Climate Council