Summertime Blues

David Cook — 19 November 2020
This month David reflects on his changing experience of summer, and what this may mean going into the future.

“Well I’m a gonna raise a fuss, I’m gonna raise a holler

About sweatin’ all summer while I try an’ earn a dollar

Everytime I try to move, to ease the prickly heat

My wife says, no dice, son, the rash has got you beat

Sometimes I wonder what I’m gonna do

‘Cause there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues”

With apologies to Eddie Cochran, in my backyard the weeds are multiplying, and I’m losing control. If only the advent of another summer was a joke. I can recall the years when it was good times and happy days as the world around us warmed to another joyous summer. Lazing on a beach, enjoying the outside world under a warming sun, and going camping. Now it seems that the passing of spring brings unease about potential bushfires, and anywhere you go without air conditioning is a purgatory of sweat and discomfort.

Then again, maybe I’m just getting old, and the world I remember was much the same and the blurring years have washed away the unpleasant memories.

But anecdotal evidence and the more solid and unemotional factual data suggest that summers are becoming notably hotter.

According to the Australia Institute think tank, Australian summers are now 50 per cent longer than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Nationally, the sort of temperatures considered examples of summertime experience in the ‘50s and ‘60s — or hotter — are now experienced on a national average of 31 more days each year, while winter had been shortened by 23 days. In places such as Port Macquarie, on the NSW mid-North Coast, which might have been considered a mid-range locality with the moderating benefit of sea breezes and the nearby coast, summertime temperatures have been extended by as much as seven weeks.

These are all symptoms of climate change. Since 1850 global average temperatures have risen 1.5 degrees. That, in itself, seems a trifling amount. When I’m out doing something in the yard and come inside for a drink, because I’m hot, I might glance at the weather gauge and note that its 35 degrees, or 36.5 degrees, and not really notice that either figures feels about right or wrong. I couldn’t pick the difference.

But a global increase in 1.5 degrees is a significant figure. That means 1.5 degrees over the entire globe, a vast area, and to achieve that requires an immense amount of energy. If I recall my high school science teacher’s constant refrain that “energy is neither created nor destroyed, it merely changes form”, that means that all that energy is then diverted into other channels, meaning increased temperatures of oceans and the atmosphere, in turn meaning large scale melting of ice caps and glaciers, the expansion of water and increased sea levels and, potentially, coastal flooding. It means increases in the strength of winds, rises in the rate of water evaporation, causing drier landscapes in many areas while at the same time greatly increasing the moisture content of the air and increased levels of rainfall in other areas, accompanied by more intense storms from enhanced air movements from the energy inputs. It’s a series of feedback loops that feed off each other, and virtually all of them causing harm to our societies.

I recall participating in a post-graduate university discussion group in biology around 1990. One student raised some issue around migrations of animals, and a senior lecturer who was sitting in responded, and moved on to discussion of the likely movements, on a large scale, of humans if changes in habitability of certain continents or zones became worse. I thought at the time he was being alarmist, but the recent mass movements of people from Africa into Europe, and smaller scale movements of people out of south-east Asian nations over the past two or three decades unsettlingly brings these comments to mind.

But even if such scenarios are fended off by the sort of political and social policies we have seen in so many of the recipient countries, we can’t simply impose policing and immigration actions on climate. I read today of a recent study by Deloitte Access Economics that says Australia will lose over $3 trillion over the next 50 years, and up to 880,000 jobs will go, half of them in Queensland, if climate change is not addressed.

It’s now unlikely that any child born after 1990 in this country will ever see a year where the summer temperature is at or below the average summer temperature of 1960–1990. It is argued by some that temperatures in now scarcely populated central Australia will become so hot that huge areas will become completely uninhabited as nobody will be able to function in them for most of the year. Such levels arrive with peak temperatures around 50 degrees, when heat stress on internal organs causes them to commence shutting down and the body’s ability to shed heat through evaporation of sweat can no longer keep up with the demand. And that isn’t that far off. I can recall a time when the notion of having to deal with daytime maximums of 45 degrees in Sydney was considered laughably distant. Now it’s an inevitability in any summer.

Australia has, over the past 200 years, and even before Europeans arrived, been the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and it’s becoming worse. Over the past 50 years average rainfall in the south-west of the nation has declined by 20 per cent, and in the more heavily inhabited south-east by 11 per cent over the last 30 years.

I don’t want this to seem like some doomsday prescription, but it underlines the importance of dealing with climate change urgently. Over the past nine months we have been focussed on dealing with the threat of COVID-19, something Australia has done better than almost any other nation on Earth. We did so by our political leaders listening to the scientists and following their guidance, even when the politics seemed a much more natural and easier path to follow.

If we are to find a path to solving the climate crisis, which potentially will be much worse than this pandemic, then we need to start listening to the scientists, at a societal and political level, and doing it now. 


Regulars Column Beneath the Surface Summer Climate change