Science, Tech & Environment

Australia's wildfires and climate change

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Smoke from Australian wildfires (Image: jety, Creative Commons)

Australia's terrible wildfires and Europe's big snows might be evidence that when it comes to climate change, the future is now. "The World" talks with climate scientist and journalist Heidi Cullen of Climate Central, a non-profit science and media organization.

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The world has been gripped during the past few days by images of whole communities turned to ashes in Australia. More than a dozen fires have brought devastation to southeastern parts of the country. Police say some of them were started deliberately, but much of the country has been a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Meanwhile, in Europe the problem has been unusual cold. More wintry weather is set to batter Britain this week. Just last week, London saw more snow than it has in years. Extreme weather is not unusual but climate scientists say it's likely to become the new normal in many parts of the world. Heidi Cullen is a senior scientist and journalist for the nonprofit group Climate Central. She says the conditions in Australia were ripe for wildfires.

Cullen: "Basically, there's been this high-pressure system parked over Australia, so we're seeing a drought coupled with intense heat that has just gone on for a really long time. And what's amazing about Australia actually is you’ve got the southeast on fire, essentially, and then you've got flooding in the northeast as a result of these two cyclones that hit. So what we're seeing is several different extreme weather events going on at the same time in one place. And that is just hitting the country really, really hard."

One Australian senator told Reuters, 'over the last few days, we Australians have looked our own future in the face.' Cullen says that statement is apt: "I think a statement like that is a really great way to capture where the science is taking us, in the sense that I think for the time that the scientists have spent working on the issue of climate change and global warming, two things have become very clear: one is that global warming is real. The second is that it's caused by us. And I'd say over the past five to ten years, what scientists have really been focused on is showing how bad it is and what the future will look like. And when it comes to a place like Australia, we're beginning to see that there's places around the globe that are what you could call 'hot spots,' places that are incredibly vulnerable to climate change and that need to be prepared for these kinds of things to happen more and more frequently in the future. I mean, you said it yourself. I mean, extreme weather events happen all the time – Mother Nature isn't always very nice to us. But what happens with climate change and global warming is the timing gets shifted and so we see these things happening more and more often. And that's the stuff that's really hard to deal with, when you get hit over and over and over again.

"For a lot of folks when they see a cold winter or, you know, a storm outbreak like they're seeing right now in the UK, they use it as a way to say, 'Look. This is proof that global warming isn't real.' Well, in fact we expect extreme events to happen more frequently. And you know, it's funny because the saying with climate was always, 'Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get.' And now, when you think about global warming, there's an addendum to that saying, and that is 'Climate is what you affect and weather is what gets you.' And what scientists are now trying to do is they're trying to figure out what the human fingerprint is in an extreme weather event. So what they're really trying to do is like an autopsy on an extreme weather event. And I'd say the best example we have right now is the European heat wave. And so when people talk about the future, whether it be Australia or Europe or the United Kingdom, what they're saying is that these extreme events will happen with more frequency. And when scientists performed the equivalent of an autopsy on the European heat wave, they basically said 'when you look out into the future, like 2040, that 2003 heat wave is going to be happening every other year. And by the end of the century, by 2100, that summer of 2003 is actually going to be a relatively cold summer.'

"What's its really saying is that things are happening more quickly, you know? And scientists by nature are very conservative. And like I said, for the past 100 years, literally, they have been working on the problem of proving that global warming is real and proving that it’s caused by human activity. And with these next generations of climate models, we’re able to drill down and we’re able to look at local resolution now, essentially. We’re looking at parts of the world and trying to identify what the future will look like, because much of the global warming problem is having the ability to see ahead of time what’s going to happen and then prepare for it. And I think the message from the scientific community is just to say that the adaptation strategies have to start now, in the sense that we can say with a fair degree of certainty that the timing of these extreme events is going to grow more and more frequent."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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