Tennis heat just the beginning

The Australian Open is currently subjecting tennis players and spectators to extreme heat, a striking reminder of human-caused global warming.

Tennis players are no strangers to Melbourne heat. During the 2007 Open, Maria Sharapova described conditions as “inhuman”. The 2009 Open broke heat records with an average daily temperature of 34.7°C. Several players including Novak Djokovic had to withdraw due to the heat. This was during a heatwave with 12 consecutive days over 28°C, five over 30°C and three over 43°C. Beyond the tennis court, there were 374 heat deaths that summer, and the tragic bushfires of Black Saturday claimed 173 more lives.

Last summer (and indeed last year) was Australia’s hottest on record, with Melbourne suffering a record-breaking heatwave in March. And as we enter 2014, temperatures are soaring around Australia. A new report from the Climate Council, Australian Heatwaves: Hotter, Longer, Earlier and More Often, reveals heat records are now happening three times more often than cold ones. Since 1971, the duration and frequency of heatwaves has increased and the hottest days have become hotter. The future will only get warmer.

There is overwhelming evidence (convincing 97% of climate experts) that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning warm the Earth. The effects are more evident than ever. The atmosphere continues to warm (despite misleading claims of a “pause” based on cherry-picked data). Ocean heating, sea level rise, and ice melt have accelerated, in the latter case faster than predicted. At <1°C of global warming above preindustrial levels, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives including worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires.

Those who spread confusion about climate like to emphasize that no single event can be definitively linked to climate change – but they are merely stating the obvious in an attempt to obfuscate the more important point. It’s true we can’t say whether global warming caused a single hot day, just as we can’t say tobacco smoking caused a single case of lung cancer, but in both cases we know it dramatically worsens the odds. There is an established causal link between global warming and increases in many types of extreme weather.

It’s not rocket science. An increase in average temperature increases extreme hot weather. The increase of energy in the climate system also causes the water cycle to intensify: more water evaporating from the ground; more water being held in the air; more water falling as rain. The combination of hotter temperatures and drier soils leads to more frequent and worse bushfires. All the extreme weather we experience today is occurring in the context of a climate system warmer than it was 50 years ago.

Other oft-heard platitudes are that extreme weather has always occurred naturally, and that we still sometimes have days that are colder than average – but again these things prove little. Fires happen naturally, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be lit by arsonists. And cold days don’t contradict a warming trend, just as an athlete taking steroids will improve their average strength and break more records but still have moments of weakness.

Under the world’s current climate policies we’re headed for >4°C warming by 2100, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. Civilization has flourished over the past 10,000 years because a stable climate sustained us (global temperature varied <1°C). 4°C warming would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt. Comfort at the tennis would be the least of our problems.

Imagine a summer 4°C hotter. A mild 20°C day becomes 24°C – no problem, right? But Melbourne’s record high temperature of 46°C (on Black Saturday) becomes a lethal 50°C. The record-breaking heat of last summer would become the new normal by 2030 and be considered an unusually cold summer by 2080.

In the recently published Four Degrees of Global Warming, Australia’s foremost climate scientists describe the impacts of such a change. Melbourne’s climate would become like inland southern NSW with up to 35% less rainfall. Northern Australia would shift to a climate non-existent on Earth. Heat deaths would increase, and the healthcare system is likely to collapse. There would be mass extinction of species; coral reefs would be long dead. Hotter and drier weather would dramatically reduce crop yields. Resource constraints could lead to wars. And if you think a few thousand refugee arrivals are an issue, wait until sea level rise and desertification force unprecedented migrations of millions of people.

And it wouldn’t stop in 2100. CO2 may already be too high to avoid tipping points that could send climate change spiralling out of control. By 2300 global temperature could rise up to 12°C, making about half of the Earth’s inhabited land area simply too hot for humans to survive outdoors. Thus global warming isn’t just another issue; it’s an urgent threat to humanity.

Science tells us that to meet even the unsafe target of staying below 2°C, humanity must leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground. To actually reduce atmospheric CO2, we’d need to rapidly cut global emissions to near-zero. Preserving a hospitable climate depends on decisions made now: we urgently need to phase out fossil fuels. Thus fossil fuel has become a rogue industry whose interests conflict with those of humanity: its very business model threatens our future.

Yet the Abbott government recently approved several large new fossil fuel mining projects, in particular Adani’s T0 coal export terminal at the appropriately named Abbot Point which will become the world’s biggest coal port. Abbot Point will open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would export enough coal to produce 700 million tonnes of CO2 per year, almost twice Australia’s domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries. The press release had the gall to claim the Government will protect the Great Barrier Reef through dredging restrictions – never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering humans. The approval process conveniently ignores climate change because emissions from burning the coal will occur overseas, but denying responsibility for those emissions is like believing we won’t be harmed by cigarettes we sell to a chain-smoker in our own lounge-room.

Prime Minister Abbott says, “Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics.” Apparently Abbott would rather we watch the tennis than notice he and his fossil fuel mates are setting us up for a future where outdoor sport cannot be a part of Melbourne’s summer.

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