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Australia's "catastrophic" fire risk is the new climate reality

Code red: Catastrophic fire risk (more information from the Country Fire Authority website)

This week, my homeland of Australia is on fire. There are bushfires burning in five out of six states and residents are being warned of ‘catastrophic’ fire risk which is the new higher danger level that has been created for the nasty fires that are becoming more common in Australia. The perfect storm conditions of really dry, above 40oC and windy are becoming almost standard for January in Australia and the heat waves really pack a punch.

The Bureau of Meteorology had to create a new colour for their temperature maps this week, when forecasts were predicted to exceed 50oC on a chart that didn’t go above 50oC. Most Vancouverites probably don’t often know what 40oC or 50oC temperatures feel like (I love you Vancouver, but 25oC is NOT a heat wave) so it can be difficult to conceptualise, but I can tell you it’s not fun.

Extreme heat in 70% of the country, with a new colour for 50oC (Bureau of Meteorology)

I did my final university exam in January of 2009 during what was (at the time) the worst heat wave Melbourne had ever been through. In 46oC heat I tried to remember everything I could about biochemistry before getting home to a cooler, shuttered house to not move for the rest of the day. That’s the hottest temperature I’ve ever experienced, and you can barely function in that kind of heat.

Walking out the front door feels like walking into an oven. Walking down the street had me pouring with sweat and utterly failing to look composed in the heat. It’s too hot to walk on concrete, it’s too hot to walk on the sand at the beach, it’s too hot to sit on a metal chair outside a café, and it’s even too hot for the transit system as train lines begin to buckle in the heat.

However, for me, the most horrifying thing about my homeland increasingly going up in flames each January is that this is the extreme weather that’s manifesting from a 0.8oC increase in global average temperatures.

Less than one degree of global warming and the extreme weather is already off the charts. I don’t even want to imagine what my home might look like once we get to 2oC of global warming.

But it’s a reality I and all of my fellow Australians in my generation are going to have to face. We will live this reality. Global average temperatures are increasing at a rate of 0.15oC per decade right now, so if the world continues to procrastinate on serious emissions reductions as we are currently doing, we will reach 2oC somewhere around 2050.

In the year 2050, when many of the ageing Baby Boomers who are currently in positions of power preventing action on climate change are gone, I’ll be 65 years old. I’ll still be in my working life and (hopefully) planning for retirement. But if the summer catastrophes of Australia continue and ramp up to 2oC of global warming, how much of my country will be left to retire in?

Fire warnings in NSW January 9 2013 (NSW Fire Service)

How many towns will have burned to the ground too many times to be rebuilt again? How many will have been abandoned as farms become too dry and drought-stricken to be viable in the super-extreme summer heat?

This is the reality of climate change; this is the new normal.

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