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Australia on Fire: Record-Shattering Heat, Wildfires Engulf World’s Largest Exporter of Coal

Two new colors have been added to Australia’s weather maps to show temperatures exceeding 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the country’s fiercest heat wave in more than 80 years.

Firefighters douse burning logs near the south coast of Australia's New South Wales state on January 9, 2013.
Photo Credit: AFP


NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin our show in Australia, where hundreds of bush fires continue to rage amidst the country’s fiercest heat wave in more than 80 years. It’s so hot, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has taken the unprecedented step of adding two new colors—deep purple and pink—to its weather maps to show temperatures between 122 and 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured fire-ravaged Tasmania, where some 50,000 acres of forests and farmland were destroyed in fires.

PRIME MINISTER JULIA GILLARD: We live in a country that is hot and dry and where we sustain, you know, very destructive fires periodically, so there is always going to be risk. And, you know, whilst you would not put any one event down to climate change—weather doesn’t work like that—but we do know, over time, that as a result of climate change, we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions. So we live with this risk, and we need to have the best systems to manage it.

AMY GOODMAN: While Australia is suffering from record-shattering heat, here in the United States the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced 2012 was by far the hottest year on record for the continental 48 states, the average temperature 55.3 degrees, one degree above the previous record and 3.2 degrees more than the 20th-century average.

Well, for more, right now we’re going to Sydney, Australia, where we’re joined via Democracy Now! videostream by Anna Rose. She is the co-founder and chair of Australian Youth Climate Coalition, as well as the author of  Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic.

Anna Rose, welcome to  Democracy Now! What’s happening in your country, this record-shattering heat, it’s being described as a dome of heat, your country literally on fire. For people around the world who are not following this, just describe what’s happening in Australia.

ANNA ROSE: Well, right now in Australia, we’re having record-breaking heat waves. There are fires burning in almost every single Australian state and territory. People have been evacuated. Some people have lost their homes; they’ve lost everything. Our Bureau of Meteorology has come out and said that these are the kind of heat wave conditions that are absolutely unprecedented in our history in terms of the duration, the ferocity. And it’s expected to continue into the weekend and to get worse.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anna Rose, can you say something about how these fires follow on all that happened, in climate terms, in 2012 in Australia? There were extreme floods; much of Queensland was submerged. Can you talk a little about that?

ANNA ROSE: The last two years have been really rough in terms of extreme weather events in Australia. In Queensland, we had big floods that covered an area bigger than the size of France and Germany combined. We had entire towns that were really destroyed by this flooding. But we also—I come from a farming background, and we’re starting to see the impacts in agriculture all over the country. And when you talk to farmers, they’ll tell you that it rains less often, but when it does rain, it all comes down at once, because, essentially, what we’re doing to our climate system is we’re messing with the water cycle. And so, when we know that warmer air holds more water vapor, which means there’s less vapor in the soil, when it does come down, it all comes down at once.

It’s not just Australia. We’ve seen huge droughts in China, massive floods in Pakistan. Obviously there was Hurricane Sandy in the United States. All around the world—in Russia, the Kremlin, a couple years back, had to ban wheat and corn exports in 2011 because they were having such extreme heat waves that they couldn’t export it anymore. And then we saw the price of grain go up threefold around the world, which caused huge food insecurity.

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