In Australia, Record Weather Fuels Climate Policy Process

Burned. Intense bushfires in January 2013 left this extensive scar (brown) near the town of Dunalley on the Australian island of Tasmania.


In January, Australia had it all: drought, fires, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, floods, and record-breaking heat. "It's been the most challenging month in the 27 years I've been a climatologist," says Neil Plummer, assistant director of the Climate Information Service at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

Now, politicians will see how the astounding weather is affecting the political climate. Science, business, and other groups are weighing in on an Australian Senate effort to assess the country's readiness for extreme weather. "We want to see a more structured and strategic response to national disasters," says a spokesperson for Senator Christine Milne, the Australian Greens Party leader who pushed for the study, known as an inquiry.

There's little question the inquiry is getting more attention after last month's disasters. Several cities reached historic highs for heat, and January's average mean temperature (29.68°C) surpassed records set more than 80 years ago, in January 1932. Meanwhile, Queensland farmers estimate they've lost crops and livestock worth AUS$100 million to floods. And Queensland Premier Campbell Newman estimates economic losses from cyclone Oswald and associated tornadoes at AUS$2.4 billion. "Sadly, I think that figure will rise," he told reporters last week.

Extreme weather is nothing new in Australia, Plummer says, but the severity and spatial extent of the January heat wave were unprecedented. And "projections suggest these trends will continue," he adds.

That is why in November 2012, Milne pushed for the inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, which has received 125 submissions to date.

Scientific groups are well represented. Among those making comments are Australia's Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and the Australian Academy of Science (AAS).

Overall, their message is consistent. Researchers emphasize that they are observing an increased frequency of extreme heat, increased heat-wave duration across parts of the country—especially the northern half—and longer fire seasons in the southeast.

As to the impact of climate change on these trends, the AAS submission is blunt. "There is strong evidence that changing occurrences of extreme events are related to climate change, and that such changes will continue with further climate change," the group writes. "This is almost certain for temperature-related extremes and likely for rainfall-related extremes."

That does not mean that scientists can say with certainty if an individual weather event is or is not due to climate change, notes Karl Braganza, manager of the BOM Climate Monitoring Section. (He and Plummer contributed to the BOM submission.)

"What we need to do is pick those extreme weather events apart and see which elements might be influenced by climate change and which elements had natural variation and climate change pushing in the same direction," Braganza says, predicting that will be the focus of research over the next decade.

Many commenters agree that Australia is not prepared to cope. Steps must be taken to mitigate the impact of extreme weather, writes the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA), which represents the country's general insurance industry. Its submission notes that "19 of the 20 largest" and most expensive" catastrophe events over the last 40 years were the result of extreme weather."

To avoid costly problems in the future, ICA and other groups recommend a variety of policy improvements, including changing land use regulations in fire- and flood-prone areas, strengthening building codes, and improving weather warning and modelling services.

"Importantly, whilst the community cannot control extreme weather hazard, it can exert significant power over its exposure and vulnerability through appropriate regulation and development practice," says the ICA submission, adding that primary efforts should be focused on mitigating measures aimed at reducing the "brittleness" of the built environment.

Some of those changes may already be underway in Queensland. With hundreds of businesses and homes destroyed by flooding for the second time in 2 years, the state government is considering enabling property owners to abandon some flood-prone areas, and is also calling for the construction of new levees and other protective infrastructure.

In the meantime, the inquiry panel is required to report its findings and recommendations to the full Senate on 20 March. It will then be up to the federal government, which faces a 14 September 2013 election, to respond to the report.

*Clarification 10:55 a.m., 7 February: This item has been revised to clarify that Neil Plummer is a climatologist.