In 3 days time, next Monday, the temperature forecast by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is an unprecedented 52C. This is not just an academic record: the bush-fires, 130 raging across New South Wales alone and at least 40 burning out of control, are not only physically terrifying but also ruinously destructive, with 20,000 hectares of land cremated in Tasmania alsone at the weekend.
Nor can they be dismissed as a one-off phenomenon at one extreme end of the normal viariability of the climate. Scientists are already demonstrating how destabilisation of the climate is increasing both the ferocity and frequency of extreme events.
They have shown that the 2003 heatwave in Europe, which led to over 40,000 premature deaths, was twice as likely to happen because of climate change. Even more significantly, the catastrophic Russian heatwave of 2010 which killed 50,000 people and destroyed crops worth £10bn was made three times as likely to happen because of intensifying climate change.
Again these are not exceptional. The latest science is showing that mega-heatwaves are 5-10 times more likely to occur over the next 40 years than in the past, and arfe predicted to happen at least once a decade. Other research reports that there is a 90% likelihood that heatwaves will increase both in length and severity.
James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate change scientists, has shown that the frequency of mega-hot events like the disastrous US and Russian droughts has risen by a factor of around 50 since the decades before 1980. In the 1970s excessively hot summers burnt 0.1-0.2% of the planet’s surface; now it scorches some 10%.
At the same time it is forecast that it is two-thirds more likely that hurricanes and typhoon winds will become more powerful, that the intensity of storms will rise, and that estuarial and coastal cities – at least 40 across the world – will be threatened by extreme high tides and rising sea levels.
With an increase of just 0.8% in average global temperatures last century, we already have a 30% loss of summer sea ice, and Greenland and Antarctica have shed 4 trillion tonnes of ice into oceans over the last 20 years. So what will the world be like when the temperature rises, not just by the scientists’ 2% ‘safe’ limit which will now certainly be exceeded, but by the 4-6% now predicted by the scientists?
What gives a piquant irony to this gathering catastrophe is that the two countries – the US and Australia – which have most stubbornly resisted global action to curtail climate change and most noisily promoted climate sceptics are now the two countries suffering some of the most extreme consequences – uncontrollable fires in Australia and the Hurricane Sandy super-storm in the US.
The clash between the new global oil-shale frenzy and oil’s climate armageddon is already intense, but will become intolerable if pre-2008 global growth rates were ever to resume.