Australia: Choose your Future

In recent posts I’ve featured graphs of the average daily high temperature in Australia during summer. Here’s one of temperature throughout the entire year; black dots show each year’s average, while the red line with pink shading around it shows an estimate of the trend and its uncertainty range (just an estimate, mind you, but it’s based on math, not on “looks like”)

The trend line emphasizes two things Australians need to know:

  • 1: The trend is going up — overall, Australia is hotter than it used to be and getting hotter.
  • 2: Temperature doesn’t just follow the trend. In addition to its “overall” pattern it also fluctuates, incessantly.

    Those fluctuations mean that even when climate doesn’t change, temperature will. There will still be hot years and cold years, but in a stable climate those fluctuations are limited. They can go high enough to make a hot year, but before the 2000s they could not reach high enough to make a year as hot as Australia just had. That only happened because a strong fluctuation — natural variability, some would call it — combined with an increasing trend.

    And that’s one of the greatest dangers of climate change. Of course natural fluctuations can bring all kinds of trouble: heat waves, bushfire, flood, drought, storm — but when already-dangerous natural fluctuations combine with an increasing trend, that’s when disaster visits so often and wreaks such havoc that we wonder how we can cope.

    Like … in Australia right now.

    Some people want you to think it’s only due to “natural variability,” and that “global warming theory” simply can’t “explain” the temperatures in 2019. Like Roy Spencer, who, it seems to me, is both confused and deceived. My opinion: he was deceived into not just swallowing, but regurgitating the lies about arson being a reason the bushfire crisis is so severe. It’s not, that’s a despicable lie promoted by despicable people. Also my opinion: Roy Spencer is not one of those despicable people, and when it dawns on him how irresponsible it was to promote such a falsehood without bothering to find out the truth about it, he just might feel a pang of guilt. Just my opinion.

    But what I found really interesting is that he claims “Australian average temperatures in 2019 were well above what global warming theory can explain, illustrating the importance of natural year-to-year variability in weather patterns (e.g. drought and excessively high temperatures).” His basis for “can’t explain” is that Australia has been even hotter lately than computer models of global climate were forecasting.

    Let me paraphrase that for you: your lung cancer is even worse than the computer model forecast based on the cigarette/lung cancer theory, so it has nothing to do with your three-packs-a-day smoking habit. Yes, the analogy is “apt.” He supports his claim with this graph:

    It shows observed temperatures (in red) compared to the average high temperatures over Australia simulated by 41 computer models (in blue). Here’s my own version:

    I don’t know what 41 computer models Roy Spencer used, but I’ve done two versions, one for the “RCP2.6 emissions scenario,” the other for the “RCP8.5 emissions scenario.” Different models give different results, which is why what’s shown is the “multi-model mean,” the average of those that were used in the most recent IPCC assessment report.

    You may have noticed that the computer model simulations don’t show fluctuations like the real world does; they fluctuate a bit, but just barely compared to observations. Actual computer simulations do show such fluctuations, but when you average together scores of different model runs, the fluctuations mostly cancel each other out, leaving just a little bit of residual fluctuation on top of the average trend from the models. The result is that what this graph really compares is the trend-plus-fluctuations from observations to the trend from the computer models.

    “Global warming theory” doesn’t try to explain the fluctuations; they come and go with or without “global warming.” When Roy Spencer says “illustrating the importance of natural year-to-year variability” he’s trying to misdirect your attention away from the fact that it’s exactly the combination of year-to-year variability with relentless trend that makes disasters like Australia’s seem unbearable.

    Climate deniers exploit fluctuations all the time. One way, that they’re using now, is to blame a crisis on “natural variability.” Of course natural variability is involved, but it’s a lie to say that means climate change isn’t involved. The other way, which we’re sure to see soon, is when fluctuations go in the opposite direction to the trend. Australia will probably have a cooler year or two before very long — fluctuations will fluctuate — and climate deniers will seize upon the opportunity to shout that Australia is in a cooling pattern and the “global warming theory” is wrong. I’ll talk about the trend. I’ll talk about the future.

    The computer model simulations are imperfect, nobody claims otherwise, but they’re the best tool we’ve got to forecast what will happen, depending on what we do in the future. So far they’re doing a very good job projecting global temperature trends, but regional trends are far trickier and the models don’t do as well. They get the overall trend about right, but not with nearly as much precision as for the entire globe.

    We can see that in the graph of Australia’s high temperatures comparing observations (trend-plus-fluctuations) to model results (model average trend). The observed trend itself shows signs of rising faster than the models project, not just fluctuating above, although the details of Australia’s present trend are still emerging. Nonetheless, the overall trend — its direction and timing, and approximately its rate — are in agreement.

    Perhaps you’re wondering why I showed two different multi-model means. They’re for two different “emissions scenarios,” two different pictures of what we might do in the future. RCP2.6 is a low-emissions scenario in which we de-carbonize our economy and stabilize CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) rapidly. RCP8.5 is “business as usual,” meaning we keep burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow.

    The two scenarios are nearly identical in the graph above, because the two scenarios are nearly identical until very recently, they mainly differ in the decades to come. As a result, the model forecasts diverge widely in the decades to come:

    The forecast in blue is what Australia might get if we get to zero-emissions soon enough. Temperatures will still be hotter than they were before, but maybe not much worse than they are already.

    The forecast in red is what Australia might get if we keep doing what we’re doing. This is the Scott Morrison lump-of-coal future. Australians know how bad it is already. If the mean temperature rises that much more, how bad will it be when rising trend conspires with of those big fluctuations?

    Australia: choose your future.

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  • 40 responses to “Australia: Choose your Future

    1. It’s hard to figure out how/why the denialists can continue to win elections, but I haven’t detected a trend change in that regard. There is a lot of noise in that particular field of study.

      Further, in the science field, I don’t understand how any reasonably astute scientist can continue to get global warming wrong at this late date, but apparently Roy Spencer, JC, RP and a few others are still out there churning it out. History will not be kind to these folks.

      • I seriously doubt they’ll face any concequences. They will just use misdirection, like they are doing now, blaming the Greens (who have never been In power and who are the only Australian political party serious about emissions mitigation), or made up stories like the misdirection example mentioned by Tamino about it all being the fault of pyromaniacs. It has an ounce of truth (some 1% of the hectares burnt are estimated to be attributable to arsonists) and then extrapolated.

        This can only be changed by voters, it’s taken us decades to get into this mess and until we voters change the narrative by voting Green, nothing substantive will happen.

    2. Keith McClary

      This inspired me to check up the Wikipedia page:
      “List of scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus on global warming”
      But it’s been deleted:
      This page was put there by denialists, but I guess it was becoming embarrassing since the prominent names are increasingly retired, emeritus, dead or exposed as paid FF shills.

    3. I posted the following comment on Roy Spencer’s site but I’ll also post it here in case he doesn’t make it public:

      “Area burned” across the whole of Australia is a very poor measure to use when looking at the historical changes in bushfire regimes. It’s a vast continent and you need to consider how fire regimes have changed in different regions and in different kinds of habitats. For example, much of the area that burned in 1974-75 was grassland rather than woodland. In the current fire season more woodland is burning and, significantly, areas of rainforest are burning that have never burned previously. Not only that, but the plants in rainforest have no adaptations to surviving fire indicating that there’s no historical precedent for that habitat burning. What’s happening in New South Wales at the moment is beyond what has happened previously as even the government is acknowledging:

      • But does Spencer believe in evolutionary adaptations, either? Certainly Cristy has some doubts.

        So, it’s possible your comment may be doubly “offensive”.

    4. Maybe Australians would choose wisely if NewsCorp didn’t own almost all the media

    5. Good work. I notice that for the last 50 years or so the models have been steadily growing more and more wrong with respect to Australian temperatures. Obviously some changes will soon need to be made, and those changes, to be acceptable, would have to pass the test of hindsight. Wouldn’t similar changes have an influence on all global models, or is there something special about Australia?.

    6. daveandrews723

      What percentage of the world’s CO2 emissions does Australia’s amount to? 1%, 2%??? So, nothing Australia does, positive or negative, with emissions will have any measurable impact on global CO2 levels or the future climate of the earth. Stop with the hand wringing and have a beer.

      [Response: Denial stage 1: it’s not happening. Stage 2: it’s happening, but not because of us. Stage 3: it’s happening because of us, but it won’t be bad maybe it’ll even be good. Stage 4: it’s real, it’s us, and it’s bad, but there’s nothing we can do about it.]

      • This is a very common reply, and it makes me very angry. It is the same as the old kindergarten excuse “the others did it too” (or “also didn t do anything”). It is a shame, that this stupid excuse is not attacked hard every time it is used.

        It is obvious, that if 5 countries who only have 2% part in the problem each will make a massive difference, if they act. It is even stronger on the topic of climate change, because small (but rich) countries can transform technology be generating demand that will help other countries to adopt faster and cheaper wit a short delay in time.

        • Agreed. For every region that only contributes 2% to the problem, there are 49 other regions that also only contribute 2% to the problem. Everyone, everywhere, can isolate themselves into some portion of the globe that is only 2% of the problem. Divide it more finely? We’re only 1% of the problem. Even finer still? We’re only 0.1% of the problem. To the extreme “I’m just one person so it doesn’t matter what I do”.

          There is no better example of the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

      • If Australia had a government that calls on the rest of the world to have stronger emissions reductions rather than rejoices when they don’t, that criticises China and India and others for building new coal power plant rather than encourages them to build more and buy more coal, that did it’s 1.3% (for 0.3 of world population) with real commitment rather seek ways to do less than it’s share, that gave full support to the industries that will reduce emissions rather than full support to growing the industries that increase them…

        Put together all the nations in the world that make less than 2% of emissions and that is 40% of the total; most of those nations – including Germany, with it’s heavy industry – have entered into international agreements in good faith. Australia has not.

        It may well be true that stronger climate policies by Australia in the recent past would make little difference to current conditions but lack of stronger policies into the future makes the prospect of 3 or 5 degrees – or more if the climate science deniers in charge in Australia grow the fossil fuel industry the way this governments wants – utterly terrifying.

        I don’t think the Morrison government’s ducking and dodging around the climate issue can be explained any other way than that they are climate science deniers through and through; their claims they are fully on board with climate science and emissions reductions are inconsistent – antithetical – with their actions. Their single most committed response to the climate problem has been opening new coal mines and gas fields.

        I suspect recent admissions of climate change being serious are almost certainly in the form of ironically insincere kowtows to the imaginary ecofascist censors of the global climate cult; even their lies are framed as being the fault of climate activists and environmentalists!

      • I doubt that PM Morrison would tell conservative, climate science denying voters to not bother – that each being less than 1.3% (the most commonly cited figure for domestic emissions, fossil fuel exports not counted) means their vote wouldn’t make any difference.

        We (Australia) need to be at least 1.3% of the solution – and have policies that seek to reduce the fossil fuel export part of the problem (a lot more than 1.3%). The current government seeks to grow our fossil fuel exports.

      • I contribute well under 0.1% of Australia’s total income tax, so my little bit makes no difference whatsoever. So I’ve decided to stop paying my pitifully small amount, and have a beer instead.

      • @DaveAndrews723,

        What matters is cumulative emissions, not instantaneous. In terms of direct emissions, Australia has only contributed 1.1% of cumulative emissions. However, in terms of exported products, notably fossil fuels, But in terms of the products it exports to others, Australia is the world’s largest emitter:

      • Actually, this post is factually false. The effect of AUS emissions are measurable. Tamino may object here because of noise issues, but I will staunchly stay with my statement. They might be small in comparison, but they are there. And the per-capita-emissions of course, which alone matter IMHO, are pretty gigantic.
        So why be bothered by an obviously false statement?

    7. daveandrews723

      Alarmism stage 1-4: Australia has contributed maybe 1 or 2 molecules per million to the increase in global CO2 levels since the beginning of the industrial age, but let’s disrupt the entire nation’s economic structure. Even though it will have no effect on the future of the climate, and it will cost billions and billions of dollars that could be spent productively, we will all feel so virtuous with this entirely symbolic gesture.

      [Response: You have failed to learn the lesson of Australia’s wildfires: We are going to pay. One way or another, we are going to pay. Will it be now, or later?

      Now is expensive as hell. Later is hell.]

      • I’m Australian daveandrews, stop being ‘alarmist’ over the economic impacts of reducing our emissions. Garnaut’s report from about 2010 outlined the method and cost. Was cheaper than what we’re doing now.

        Already the cost of this disaster is likely to top 100 billion Aus Dollars…

        Australia could be the battery of the world, powering southeast Asia with solar farms… Think bigger mate.

      • @DaveAndrews723,

        … but let’s disrupt the entire nation’s economic structure. Even though it will have no effect on the future of the climate …

        You are choosing to disrupt Australia’s economic structure either way. However, by choosing to mitigate emissions, aggressively moving to a resilient zero Carbon energy system, and championing that approach on the world stage, Australia has the opportunity to be a leader move the world towards doing that globally.

        The alternative is to maintain the “We can’t do anything because no one else will join us” attitude, and, sooner than later, see your economy collapse because of things which will eventually spin out of control and beyond the budgets of its states and the country, and ultimately the collapse of real estate values, and, finally, the fossil fuel industries which are, apparently, Australia’s “economic structure” because few will be left to buy and work them, and people will emigrate from what will have become a hellhole.

        Internationally, what will happen to financiers and investors is that outgoing BoE Governor Mark Carney’s nightmare will come true: The markets, thusfar ignoring climate risks, will some day come to realize their exposure, and price that risk in, causing a dramatic collapse and repricing of companies valuations which are exposed significantly either to fossil fuels or extended supply chains.

        So in any case, Australia will pay.

      • What we all learned in kindergarten still applies: our mess is our responsibility, no matter how big or small. If Australia’s mess is really so tiny, it shouldn’t be that hard to clean, either.

    8. They bang on about the models exaggerating the expected warming, until they decide to compain about the models underestimating. Utterly immoral.

      Anyway, this article in today’s The Guardian is an excellent explanation of what is going on with Australia’s climate.

      Explainer: what are the underlying causes of Australia’s shocking bushfire season?

      • With the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annual Mode both shifting to less-precipitation states, AUS is in for some more nasty surprises.

    9. Yeah nah…climate change is a hoax cos it’s warmed too much!

    10. Well I’m only 0.000004 of a percent of the population of this country so the idea that my taxes could make any significant difference is ‘just not credible’. Reckon the Australian Tax Office would buy it? Yeah nah. Warning actual calculator not used…details pfff.

    11. Here is a term I have come to agree with. “Toxic Centrist”. This means people who contort themselves into unimaginable positions while trying to appear as reasonable people simply trying to find a compromise position between what every reasonable person knows to be true and what the denialists claim.

    12. When you think, that AUS had a working carbon price back then… Hard to swallow!
      But this is clearly an example of groupthink. AFAIK the average Australian was until recently in an unbelievable way not taking human induced climate change for a real thing. And because all the people he/she knew (and the “Australian”) constantly reinforced it, it was quasi-immune to science.
      Let’s face it: we are also in a belief system, but our belief system is better than their belief system! Sounds hilarious. But my trust in the truth of science is actually an informed probability guess: the climate change science does fit well with my knowledge as physicist, though I myself did not do any measurement of my own, and I consider it extremely improbable (but not 100,0 % sure!!!), that there is a gigantic scientist fraud conspiracy.
      There is the basis of why it is so difficult to convince a science denier. We basically have to say: Our probability is better than your probability.
      And if our discussion partner has no science background, he/she doesn’t have the “gut feeling” what is a probable scientific result and what not. So IMO with such people, it is better to ask good questions than to make statements (Socratic method).

      • People like Tamino bolster my belief that global warming is real. But the main thing that sustains me is the totally rubbish arguments from the other side. If they had a good point, they would stick to it. But they don’t. One minute they are all over cosmic rays, the next its undersea volcanoes, and then its on to those cheating climate scientists, the urban heat island, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the cooling since 200x, etc etc etc.
        There is a saying that if there is only one medicine for a disease, it probably works, but where there are multiple competing medicines for an ailment, probably none of them work. So it is with the arguments of climate denialists. They have many, and none of them work.

        • That is very true. The willingness to switch among incompatible explanations betrays a bedrock unwillingness to consider the truth. Or seek it.

    13. Also, we need the price on carbon and (if you happen to be in the EU) a 4% decrease rate for the ETS emissions (instead of 2.2%) and the integration of fuels into the ETS. Just to spread the word.

    14. Inconvenient Fact Check for Dave Andrews: that 1%-2% does not include CO2 emissions from the burning of all the coal that Australia exports.

      1%-2% my ass.

    15. An interesting article, linked to by a commenter at Roy Spencer’s blog:

      Some say we’ve seen Australia’s bushfires worse than this, but they’re ignoring a few facts

      The article especially underlines the FDDI records, and we see how much it matters to have this index so complex instead of looking at temperatures only.

      I made a graph showing the day-by-day plots of the average of all GHCN daily stations available in New South Wales, Capital District and Victoria – for the years 1939, 2009 and 2019 (1974 was way below):

      Who would, when looking at such a graph, consider 2019 being worse than 2009 or 1939?

      Warming is a bit more than temperatures becoming higher.

    16. Potholer has an excellent video on the Australian bushfires including causes and debunking political noise. He makes a few interesting points related to material here recently. I hadn’t realized that the Australian temp time series doesn’t start warming much (it seems) until 1950 – and there is a decrease in rainfall for the SE region (incl NSW) for that period. There seems to be a correlation….

      But the video covers a lot more than that, and is, as usual, impeccably referenced. 36 minutes long:

      (Tinyurl to avoid embedding, per policy here)

    17. Just hit the street … Tozer, Risbey, et al, “Assessing the Representation of Australian Regional Climate Extremes and Their Associated Atmospheric Circulation in Climate Models”, (AMETSOC) Journal of Climate, February 2020:


      We assess the representation of multiday temperature and rainfall extremes in southeast Australia in three coupled general circulation models (GCMs) of varying resolution. We evaluate the statistics of the modeled extremes in terms of their frequency, duration, and magnitude compared to observations, and the model representation of the mid-tropospheric circulation (synoptic and large scale) associated with the extremes. We find that the models capture the statistics of observed heatwaves reasonably well, though some models are “too wet” to adequately capture the observed duration of dry spells but not always wet enough to capture the magnitude of extreme wet events. Despite the inability of the models to simulate all extreme event statistics, the process evaluation indicates that the onset and decay of the observed synoptic structures are well simulated in the models, including for wet and dry extremes. We also show that the large-scale wave train structures associated with the observed extremes are reasonably well simulated by the models although their broader onset and decay is not always captured in the models. The results presented here provide some context for, and confidence in, the use of the coupled GCMs in climate prediction and projection studies for regional extremes.