Meltdown, fires as climate emergency hits Australia: Urgent action required

By Katherine Bradstreet

Melbourne, February 7, 2009 -- The heatwave across south-eastern Australia in recent weeks has given a hint of what we can expect as global temperatures continue to rise: black-outs, fatalities and transport chaos as privatised infrastructure fails. 

Many are in mourning as bushfires have devastated rural Victoria, with the death toll passing triple figures and more than 750 homes destroyed. The country town of Marysville has been erased from the map. Several other towns have all but been destroyed.

Even before the bushfire catastrophe, South Australia and Victoria had seen a sharp increase in deaths as a result of the heatwave, with Adelaide’s central morgue quite literally overflowing — the “excess” cadavers were stored temporarily in a refrigerated freight container.

Thousands of homes were left without electricity as demand soared, overwhelming the existing grid. Melbourne’s rail system collapsed into chaos as temperatures reached over 40°C.

University of Adelaide climate scientist Barry Brook put this tragedy into perspective on his blog on February 3. He pointed out that more people are thought to have died due to heat stress in the last week than died in the infamous Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, which killed 75.

This was before the bushfires that raged out of control in rural Victoria over the weekend of February 7-8, now the worst ever in the state's history.

Climate change

What do such once unusual and extreme weather events tell us about global warming? Climate scientists, activists and media sources like Green Left Weekly, among others, continue repeating that key climate tipping points are being crossed right now.

It’s not something we will only have to think about in the future. Urgent action is required immediately, because runaway climate change threatens life itself.

So can we say that climate change is at least partly responsible for those deaths? And do the politicians and corporate interests who are resisting sustainable change also bear some responsibility?

What we can say with certainty is that the temperatures reached are exceedingly unlikely based on past meterological data. Previous records tumbled across the south and south-east of the country.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology released a report, Special Climate Statement 17, on February 4, which documented what it described as an “exceptional heatwave”.

Tasmania experienced seven of the eight highest temperatures on record; Adelaide reached 45.7C°, the third highest on record and had it’s highest overnight minimum temperature of 33.9°C; Melbourne peaked at 45.1°C, with the maximum temperature staying above 40°C and minimums staying above 30°C for three consecutive days — the first time this has happened since records were kept.

Extreme weather events have occurred in the past. It simply isn’t possible to attribute any one unusual event to climate change. But at the same time, the scientific evidence for global warming is conclusive, and the predictions of its impacts include a far greater number of intense heatwaves.

Brook argues that the likelihood that climate change is responsible for Adelaide’s heatwave is very high. He pointed out that 10 months ago Adelaide suffered another unprecedented heatwave — 15 days in a row with the maximum temperature exceeding 35°C.

He calculated the chances of Adelaide having two such extreme weather events so close together. The odds are that it should occur just once every 1.2 million years.

Along with the heat-stress related deaths, the heatwave threw some of Australia’s most inefficient, privatised infrastructure into disarray.

Transport meltdown

In Melbourne, the private rail operator Connex was already blaming the heat for train cancellations on January 18, despite the temperature clocking in at a moderate 25°C.

Between January 28 and January 30, more than 1000 trains were canceled; including at one stage, all services on eight metropolitan lines. On January 30 alone, 740 trains — a third of those scheduled — did not run, leaving thousands of commuters stranded for up to an hour and a half on scorching hot platforms.

Dr Paul Mees, a transport planning lecturer at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), told the 7.30 Report TV progam on January 29 that “privatisation is the culprit. We’re becoming the international benchmark for failed privatisation of urban public transport systems.”

Currently, Melbourne is the only capital city which has fully privatised it’s metropolitan rail system. The Victorian state government still maintains the network infrastructure. Transport minister Lynne Kosky told the Victorian state parliament on February 5, that the government spends $80 million a year on rail maintenance and that this would increase to $120 million by the end of 2009.

But this public spending is dwarfed by the annual government subsidy of $345 million per year made out to Connex directly — more than half of the $589 million revenue Connex took in 2007.

A 2006 report by urban planning academics titled Putting the public interest back into public transport, Victoria’s privatised public transport system cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if it had remained state-owned.

So not only is it outrageous that people have to put up with regular delays and cancellations, but Melbourne’s privatised transport is costing taxpayers more!

While the government has pointed the finger at the “once-in-a-century” heatwave as the sole cause of the problem, Connex executive chairperson Jonathan Metcalfe tried to shift the blame to train drivers in the Rail, Train and Bus Union. In January, he accused drivers of causing up to 80% of train cancellations by refusing to drive trains with no air-conditioning, broken locks and other “minor” faults.

But his attempted buck-passing has not stemmed growing public anger at his company.

In the 1920s, trains left Flinders Street Station, one of Melbourne’s main stations, more frequently than they do today. Public transport use in Melbourne has increased by 70% in last 10 years, but there has been only a 9% increase in services and hardly any new trains running in peak hours. In fact, between 2002 and 2005, Melbourne’s excess trains were sold off for scrap despite increasing demand for public transport.

It is not just the public train system that is unable to cope with extreme heat; during the heatwave hundreds of thousands of homes in Victoria and South Australia experienced blackouts as the electricity grid failed in numerous places and supply was shut off for up to an hour to cope with the demand.

Five hundred thousand homes in western Melbourne and regional Victoria were left without power following an explosion at an electrical substation. The power-failures may also have contributed to the significant increase in heat-related deaths. On February 3, the Victorian state coroner announced that there had been almost two and a half times more deaths in the last week of January than the same time last year.

Jane Castle from the Total Environment Centre and one of the authors of the Rule Change Package, a proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions and electricity costs, has said the current energy system is hurting consumers and the environment Australia-wide.

“Regulators plan to approve a $17 billion spending spree in NSW alone by networks bent on expanding the grid. To pay for this, Energy Australia’s customers in Sydney and Newcastle are facing increases in network prices of over 70%”, she said.

Stopping climate change

This raises the question of whether privately owned energy and transport infrastructure is compatible with the need to transform our economy along sustainable lines. Can energy and transport be organised for profit and be sustainable?

Should the companies who profit most from the status quo be allowed to dictate the pace of environmental change, as they do today?

Increasingly, climate activists will need to confront these issues. Such is the urgency required to deal with the climate emergency, that direct government intervention and investment will be necessary to make the transition possible.

If essential services remain in private hands, then profit, rather than the needs of people and planet, will continue to determine what decisions get made.

The huge amount of money that privitisation costs taxpayers would be better put towards expanding and improving public transport, and to start a rapid transition to renewable energy sources.

Even if emissions were slashed tomorrow, the science indicates that there will still be a high likelihood of temperature rises and significant changes to existing weather patterns.

If the existing systems can’t even cope with the conditions we are seeing now, then it can be assumed they will fail even more disastrously in the future — unless we can organise and pressure the government to act.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #782, February 11, 2009. It has been updated with latest news on the bushfires.]

Scientists warned us this was going to happen

*If seeing is believing, then
it's time to accept climate change, writes Freya Mathews.…
IT IS only a couple of years since scientists first told us we could expect
a new order of fires in south-eastern Australia, fires of such ferocity they
would engulf the towns in their path.

And here they are. The fires of Saturday were not "once in 1000 years" or
even "once in 100 years" events, as our political leaders keep repeating.
They were the face of climate change.

They were the result of the new conditions that climate change has caused:
higher temperatures, giving us hotter days, combined with lower rainfall,
giving us a drier landscape. Let's stop using the word "drought", with its
implication that dry weather is the exception. The desiccation of the
landscape here is the new reality. It is now our climate.

People are comparing last Saturday to Ash Wednesday and Black Friday. But
this misses the point. We should be comparing these fires to the vast and
devastating fires of 2002-03, which swept through 2 million hectares of
forest in the south-east and raged uncontrollably for weeks. They have been
quickly forgotten because, being mainly in parks, they did not involve a
large loss of human life or property. But it is to this fire regime, the new
fire regime of climate change, rather than to the regimes of 1983 or 1939,
that the present fires belong.

Saturday's events showed us the terrifying face of climate change. The heat
was devastating, even without the fire.

Wildlife carers reported many incidents of heat stress and death among
native animals. This means that out in the bush, unreported, vast numbers of
animals were suffering. We can all see the trees and other plants dying in
our gardens and parks. Our local fauna and flora have not adapted to these
extremes. With wildfire, heat death becomes a holocaust, for people, for
animals and for plants.

The Government is wondering how to stimulate the economy. It is planning to
give away much of the surplus from boom times in handouts. It has made the
usual token allocations to climate change mitigation, allocations that will
in no way deflect the coming holocaust.

The Prime Minister weeps on television at the tragedy of Saturday's events.
He looks around uncomprehendingly, unable to find meaning. But there is
meaning. This is climate change. This is what the scientists told us would
happen. All the climatic events of the past 10 years have led inexorably to
this. And this is just the beginning of something that will truly, if
unaddressed, overwhelm us.

As the events of Saturday showed, the consequences of climate change will
make the financial crisis look like a garden party.

Yet there is a synchronicity here that must not be missed. The extraordinary
economic measures for which the financial crisis is calling provide a
perfect opportunity to fund the energy revolution for which the crisis of
climate change is calling. If the Government does not seize it, then the
terrifying world into which we were plunged on Saturday will become the
world we will have to inhabit.

* Freya Mathews is honorary research fellow at the philosophy department of
La Trobe University. *