WHEN do heat waves stop being weather, and start being climate change?
That seems a legitimate question to ask in the light of the blistering heat wave – brought to an end by a spectacular electrical storm on Tuesday evening – that the Hunter has experienced in recent days.
Despite an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that the greenhouse effect has us on an accelerating destiny with climate disaster, substantial numbers of Australians are either unconcerned or somehow at ease with the increasingly bleak picture being painted by those whose job it is to understand the situation.
Such a disconnection is perhaps not that surprising: here, in the Hunter region, we gain a substantial amount of our wealth from coal mining. If we accept that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major contributor to rising carbon dioxide levels, then many of us must go about our daily roles knowing that our industry is having a measurable and negative effect on the planet.
That is not an easy concept to rationalise, so that even if we do, deep down, accept that the scientists are right, we still have to live with ourselves, so it is easier to discount concerns about the future, and concentrate on the everyday business of living in the here and now.
Even so, the intensity of the weekend’s heatwave is worth pausing over.
As unlikely as it may seem, the Bureau of Meteorology confirmed that Penrith was the hottest place on earth on Sunday when its temperature peaked at 47.3 degrees in the afternoon. Plenty of places in the Hunter also pushed through the 40-degree mark. That’s 110 degrees for those older readers who still picture hot weather in fahrenheit rather than celsius.
But it’s the broader picture of those day-to-day occurrences that build to turn temperature into climate, and the early analysis of global 2017 weather data describes last year as the second-hottest on record, and the hottest on record for a year without the short-term warming influence of an El Nino.
With carbon dioxide levels continuing to rise, one Australian National University study reported in October last year by Fairfax Media said Sydney could expect 50-degree days within a couple of decades, even within the two-degree warming limit agreed to in the 2015 Paris accord. Sadly, that’s just 2.7 degrees above Penrith on Sunday.