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Australia Feels the Heat of Climate Change

By David Henry
January 08, 2013 12:33 PM EST

Just a few months after U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney airbrushed climate change off the public agenda in the presidential campaign, Australia is providing a sober reminder that political inertia can be felt a world away.

More than 100 wildfires are raging across the driest inhabited continent, and the country registered a national average temperature of 40.33 degrees Celsius (104.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the hottest day in more than a century. But while naysayers continue to question the difference between weather and climate, scientists in Australia are now displaying signs of "debate fatigue" as policy makers fail to deliver on the goal of restricting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

"Those of us who spend our days trawling -- and contributing to -- the scientific literature on climate change are becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of human civilization," said Liz Hanna, an environmental-health scientist and epidemiologist at the Australian National University, to the Sydney Morning Herald. "We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public."

Her words are ominous but fall short of the grim forecast of Frank Fenner, the deceased virologist and founder of the Centre for Resources and Environment Studies at the same university. Fenner, who played a leading role in eradicating smallpox, said in a newspaper interview in 2010 that global warming had already gone too far for our species and that humans would become extinct, possibly within 100 years.

Other scientists are less pessimistic, but still contend that policy makers don't have time to waste.

"Our oceans are hotter, the tropics are hotter, so any attempt to disentangle climate change from what we see in terms of weather doesn't make much sense," David Jones of Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

The world has always had hurricanes like Sandy and heat waves like the one now taking place in Australia, but when scientists get tired of blowing the whistle on the increased regularity of extreme weather events, it will be too late, even for the skeptics.

(David Henry is a Frankfurt-based editor for Bloomberg View.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

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