Australian Climate: The Unlucky Country

In 1964, a book was published that caught the Australian public’s attention. It was called “The Lucky Country”. Ironically, while the book was a social critique of 1960s Australian society, the term The Lucky Country took a life of its own and came to represent the good life that Australia offered: a life founded on clement weather, bountiful natural resources and a peaceful civil society.

For the British, The Lucky Country allure was overpowering and tens of thousands made the long journey to a new life every year; indeed, today over 1 million Australian residents give their place of birth as the British Isles. Decades on, much of The Lucky Country elixir still seems in place: a high standard of living, relatively low unemployment and an economy still benefiting from a natural resources boom. So, for a family with young children stuck in austerity Britain, surely emigration to Australia if an appealing option, especially if the parent’s principal concern is to open up fresh opportunities for their children.

Unfortunately, my advice over whether to emigrate to Australia would have to be “no” for one single reason: climate. In sum, as the children of today grow into the adult workforce of tomorrow, the Australian climate could be a much more malevolent thing than it is now. Indeed, it could be so different as to transform Australian society if no concerted global effort is made to restrict carbon emissions.

Austalian Max Temperature copy

The current heatwave in Australia gives us all a sneak preview of things to come (click chart above for larger image, source here) both in its severity, extent and duration. In the words of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s Special Climate Statement on Extreme January Heat (here).

Australia set a new record for the highest national area-average temperature, recording 40.33 °C and surpassing the previous record set on 21 December 1972 (40.17 °C). To date (data up to the 8 January 2013) the national area-average for each of the first 8 days of 2013 have been in the top 20 hottest days on record, with 8 January the third hottest on record and the first time 7 consecutive days over 39 °C has ever been recorded for Australia.

Weather at any one particular time is the result of the trend in the underlying climate and a fluctuation around that trend. The reason why a variety of weather records continue to be made worldwide is because we have a rising temperature trend. The chart below clearly shows the rise in annual mean temperature in Australia (click for larger image, chart source here).

Australian Temperature Anomalies jpg

Fluctuations come and go, so it is not the current weather extremes in Australia that particularly concern me: it is the projected trend. Helpfully, the Australian government maintains a site that shows Australia’s future climate under three carbon emissions scenarios—low, medium and high (link here).

Given current CO2 emission trends and the fact the no global agreement has been reached to curb future emissions, the low-emission scenario looks unrealistic. Further, a prudent risk manager—a role that a parent thinking of emigrating to Australia assumes for his or her family by default— should always consider the high-risk outcome, in this case the high emission one, if it has a reasonable probability of coming about.

Now let’s say our potential emigrant has a 3-year old daughter. She will be around 20 in 2030, 40 in 2050 and 60 in 2070. How much will Australia have warmed by these years? The charts below show temperature anomalies (which in these cases are all increases) over average temperature for the 1980 to 1990 period (click for larger images).

2030

2030 copy

2050

2050

2070

2070 jpg

So by 2070, when our 3-year old is 60, we could easily see average temperatures 5 degrees Celsius higher than today in Australia. Back to the Bureau of Meteorology (here) to see what average summer maximum temperatures looked like for the 1961 to 1990 period:

Average Daily Maximum Temperatures jpg

Next, add 5 degrees Celsius of trend plus another 8 to 10 degrees Celsius of fluctuation (the kind of thing being experienced in Australia’s present heatwave) to get a good idea of the kind of heat our current 3 year old will get to experience by the time she is 60. (It actually gets worse, since levels of humidity will change too, but I will leave that for another post.)

And should our child live into her 80s? I will let you extrapolate.

Is such an inhospitable climate a certainty? No. Is it a major risk for the future? Yes. Smoking 60 cigarettes a day for decades or driving after drinking 8 pints of lager are not certain to produce negative outcomes. However, with the former you have a significant probability of developing cancer, and with the latter of becoming involved in a serious road accident. The Australian climate I outline above is just such a risk: a meaningful probability attached to a very negative outcome.

This is not alarmism, a word beloved by climate skeptics but almost never defined; I take it to mean the over-stressing of outcomes that have a negligible probability of coming about. A young Australian today has a significant probability of seeing his or her country’s climate move from being benign to hostile. This is not alarmism—it is just a simple statement of risk.

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