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

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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. Wildfires are raging through Australia’s six states, including in Tasmania where some 50,000 acres of forests and farmland have been destroyed. We go to Sydney to speak with Anna Rose, co-founder and chair of Australian Youth Climate Coalition. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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 Austria, 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.

So, the key message from all of this, and what our weather agencies are telling us, is that this is the new normal. This isn’t just some freak extreme weather event. Actually, we’ve seen a trend over the last few decades of extreme weather events on the rise, getting worse and worse, as we pump more and more carbon pollution into the atmosphere and make climate change worse.

AMY GOODMAN: You were just in—you were just in Antarctica? Can you describe going from Australia to Antarctica and back?

ANNA ROSE: So I just got back to Australia yesterday from Antarctica, where I was talking to people there about the impacts of climate change. Now, western Antarctica, it’s still very cold, but it’s actually the most quickly warming land mass. So the Arctic is warming very quickly, but it’s an ocean. West Antarctica has warmed three times the global average. And that’s starting to have some impacts on penguin populations, on marine life, and also starting to see the impact of ocean acidification, because we can all see what’s happening on land and in the air, but the other big changes that are happening are in our oceans, particularly with the formation of calcium carbonate, which is a really important substance for little marine organisms, which feed fish, which then provide protein for much of the world. So, when it comes to climate change, sometimes you hear people talking about polar bears or rainforests, and those things are important, but really we’re starting to see the impacts, and we have for a while now, on human health, human infrastructure, on food security and on our day-to-day lives. That’s certainly what’s happening here in Australia. People are starting to see the impacts in a very practical and a very scary way in our everyday lives.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anna Rose, the U.N. climate summit just concluded last month in Doha, Qatar. Given what you’ve outlined of what we’ve seen of extreme weather events, can you give us your assessment of that conference and how that world body is dealing with this problem?

ANNA ROSE: Well, the United Nations climate conference will never aim higher than what the governments attending demand. And those governments will never aim higher than what their people demand. So, I won’t—I don’t believe we’ll have significant progress at the international level until we’re able to build an even stronger movement in Australia, in America and around the world. And that movement has certainly begun. There is an enormous climate justice movement all over the world. And particularly the youth part of that movement, which is what I’ve been working with for the last few years, has just grown exponentially as the scale of the crisis grows.

In Australia, we have now a carbon price, and we are investing $10 billion in renewable energy to start the shift away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy, like wind and solar. But we still have a lot of work to do, particularly on things like our coal exports from Queensland. I know in the United States you have similar issues with the power of vested interests in politics. So, the U.N. climate talks will continue, countries will continue to make incremental steps, but we won’t achieve the really genuine, significant, deep cuts in carbon pollution until we’re able to get to work to build an even stronger movement for climate justice in 2013.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. climate summit will be taking place in Poznan, Poland, a massive—a country massively reliant on coal. But Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. The Guardian writes, “Australians now burn, on average, slightly more carbon per capita than the citizens of the [United States], and more than twice as much as the people of the United Kingdom.” Anna Rose, talk about the state of the environmental movement. As you say, nothing will happen until the people push their so-called leaders. But has this massive catastrophic heat wave in Australia, bringing you to temperatures, well, in American language, more than 122 degrees Fahrenheit—how has it changed the movement?

ANNA ROSE: Some parts of the media are connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change. And certainly, as climate campaigners and people who try to help people understand what’s happening to our country and to our planet with climate change, we’ve been trying to encourage the movement to have those conversations to be able to connect the dots. But, of course, we have some other elements of the media who simply aren’t making the link at all, and that’s where we need to come and remind people that this is a tragedy, what we’re seeing here in Australia, and we need to be able to come together as a community not just to deal with the short-term impacts, but also to look ahead at what Australia is facing in terms of our extreme weather events, our food security, our health, our infrastructure, and what we can do to reduce our carbon pollution, because, as you say, Australia is the highest per-capita carbon polluter out of all of the OECD countries. And right now, the movement, the climate movement in Australia, is focusing a lot of its attention towards the coal exports issue, particularly in Queensland, where we have two mining billionaires who want to export huge amounts of coal through our Great Barrier Reef. And what we need to be doing instead is developing clean technology and exporting that to the rest of the world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anna Rose, very quickly, before we conclude, could you talk a little about your book, Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic, which documents your journey around the world trying to persuade the former Austrian finance minister of climate change science?

ANNA ROSE: I took our former finance minister on a four-week journey around the world. And when we started, he had said that climate change might be happening, but that humans were not responsible, and he was quite opposed to any kind of action on climate change. We traveled for four weeks. I took him to the United States and met some people there, in the U.K. We talked about human rights implications. By the end, I did get him to a point where he said, in his words, “Climate change is happening, and humans have probably caused part of it.” And I was also able to convince him, somewhat, of the need to switch to renewable energy, because we need to make this transition right away towards clean energy, towards wind and solar, because if we don’t, we are going to see more and more of these devastating extreme weather events that are hurting not just Australia, but people all around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Rose, we have just 30 seconds. How significant is the position of the United States on the issue of climate change?

ANNA ROSE: It’s incredibly significant. You can’t overestimate how important what America does is for countries like Australia and countries around the world. The rest of the world has started to act on climate change. Europe has been doing it for a long time. In New Zealand, Australia, we have carbon prices now. We certainly have a lot more work to do, but those big steps won’t happen until we get the United States to put a price on carbon, to significantly invest in renewable energy, and to start moving away from fossil fuels.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anna Rose, I want to thank you very much for being with us, co-founder and chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, author of Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic, speaking to us from an extremely hot country right now, the hottest in 80 years. We’re talking to her in Sydney, Australia, with record-shattering temperatures. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment.

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