Fire danger zones are spreading across the east coast as extreme heat closes schools and threatens Australians young and old, with the nation “at the precipice”.
A spring heatwave has large parts of NSW and eastern Victoria sweltering under maximum temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above the September average.
Extreme heat is forecast to drive north into Queensland, bringing fire danger to southern parts of the state and into the vast outback Channel Country on Thursday and Friday.
Authorities have declared an extreme fire danger for the Greater Hunter and Greater Sydney regions on Wednesday, with temperatures in the mid-30s and gusty winds expected.
A catastrophic fire danger warning is also current for the far south coast of NSW as residents fear a recurrence of the state’s worst black summer of bushfires in 2019-20.
The unseasonably hot and dry conditions are being felt across southern Australia, with temperatures peaking at 8-16C above average across much of South Australia, NSW and Victoria.
The Bureau of Meteorology on Tuesday officially declared an El Nino weather event, which brings hot, dry weather and increases the risk of heat exhaustion and bushfires.
Extreme heat is one of the most direct and measurable shocks from climate change and one of the deadliest, according to the independent Climate Council.
A report released by the council on Wednesday found existing government targets leave Australia “barrelling towards catastrophe”.
Already, more Australians have died as a result of extreme heat than any other natural hazard, they said.
“Right now, we stand at the precipice. Once we cross those tipping points, we cannot return,” co-author Lesley Hughes said.
Meanwhile, emissions from transport and heavy industry continue to rise, putting Australia on track for even more harmful levels of global warming, the climate council modelling shows.
Up to 250,000 Australian properties are at risk of coastal inundation under a rise of well over 2C by the end of the century.
Marine ecosystems would collapse and irreversible change in rainfall patterns globally would destroy food production.
“So it really doesn’t get much more urgent than this – we’ve got to aim higher and go faster,” Prof Hughes said.
Under 3C of global warming, there would be deadlier heatwaves and worsening fire conditions, according to the report, Mission Zero: How today’s climate choices will reshape Australia.
The number of extreme fire days would double and in Queensland heatwaves would occur as often as seven times a year and last on average 16 days.
Capital cities would experience a spike in extremely hot days, with Darwin forecast to have 265 days a year above 35C.
But much deeper emissions cuts than planned for this decade could give the Great Barrier Reef a fighting chance, keep farmers on the land, and lower the risk of deadly floods, fires and droughts.
“It’s game on, not game over, for climate action,” Climate Council research director Simon Bradshaw said.
The report reiterates that Australia should cut emissions by three-quarters by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2035, not 2050.
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