Protesters block new coal mine as extreme heat plagues Australia

• January 14, 2014
extreme heat

Bushfires in Sydney in October 2013. Creative Commons: Jenna Louisep, 2013

Heat and fire is part of the Australian experience, but not in the frequency and extremes that the nation is currently experiencing. 2013 was the hottest year on record, throughout which the nation saw severe heatwaves, destructive fires and an earlier and extended fire season.

South Australia and Victoria are bracing for extreme heatwave and bushfire conditions again this week, as the heatwave that recently hit Perth moves across the country. A related bushfire in Mundaring in Perth Hills on Sunday claimed more than 50 homes and one life.

The extreme weather of 2013 and the current heatwave plaguing the nation show that as average global temperatures rise, Australia will suffer increasingly dire impacts from the heat on health, infrastructure, the environment and its economy. The dice is being loaded for more extreme and frequent heat, and experience is further fortifying the research.

Research Associate for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Dr. Sarah Perkins, said:

While we do expect to see heat waves over Australia at this time of year, the context in which they are currently occurring is concerning. Australia’s average temperature has warmed by 1°C due to human induced climate change, which is enough to increase the risk of the number and severity of extreme temperature events. While the current heatwave is just a single event, it is yet other link in the chain of a climatological shift towards more extreme temperature events, more often.

Despite the threat posed by climate change and the need to leave over two-thirds of fossil fuels unburned to prevent catastrophic climate change, Australian industry continues to pursue vast quantities of coal.

Coal company Whitehaven Coal is moving to build the largest new coal mine in Australia, the Maules Creek Coal Mine in New South Wales.

The mine is in Leard State Forest, on the traditional lands of the Gomeroi people and in a critically endangered Box-Gum Woodland ecosystem that is home to 34 endangered species.

On January 13th, about 30 activists of the Leard Forest Alliance blockaded activity at the Maules Creek mine site, preventing industry vehicles from entering the Leard State Forest. The vehicles were about to begin clearing the forest for a road and railway that would service the mine.

The following day, 10 more activists arrived to support the blockade. Authorities have closed the State Forest to the public and the protesters face charges if they do not leave the site.

The protesters were working to not only protect the value and health of the land for the local community and ecosystems, but to prevent the immense coal project from accelerating dangerous climate change.

Climate change is already increasing the length of fire seasons. The risk of very high and extreme fire danger is expected to rise by 30% by 2020, and 100% by 2050 if strong action to reduce carbon emissions is not taken globally.

As temperatures and fire risks rise, so do the threats to human health. The young and the elderly are particularly at risk during heatwaves, as seen during the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires where 374 people are estimated to have died from the heat alone – more than double the official death toll of 173 for the fires themselves.

Rising temperatures are also damaging Australia’s flora and fauna as climate change collapses ecosystems, as well as creating new stresses on infrastructure and the economy.

The science tells us that extreme heat is turning Australia into an even drier tinderbox, and cutting fossil fuel emissions is critical to slowing the climate conditions contributing to the region’s extreme weather.

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About the Author

Emily is a graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology. While in school, she spent her time leading environmental and social justice campaigns. She recently worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a grassroots organizer for a moratorium on natural gas fracking in Maryland.

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