Book Review: Sunburnt Country by Joëlle Gergis

Our July Environmental Book Club reading was Sunburnt Country; the History and Future of Climate Change in Australia by Joëlle Gergis. In this history of Australia’s climate and the meteorology that recorded and analysed that climate, Gergis brings understanding to climate fluctuation through natural forces and demonstrates how human action is intensifying climate variability and exposing us to new climate extremes.

Through a detailed exploration of colonial archives, the official observation data collected since 1900 is extended to the start of colonial occupation in 1788. She and her team of researchers then stretch this record by another 1,000 years through a detailed and careful analysis of the paleoclimate record left in tree rings, ice cores, lake sediments, and corals.

Our history of floods, droughts, fires and heatwaves is nothing new. It is predominately driven by the complex atmospheric and ocean cycles known as El Niño and La Niña with a tussle between warm tropical influences from the north and cool temperate systems from the south. Our history of whitefellas ignoring these extremes is also nothing new. In one example of this, Gergis describes how time and again European settlers lost both lives and livestock by ignoring that the Hawkesbury River regularly floods.

Newcomers to Australia were and continue to be overly tempted by the floodplain’s rich potential. The increasing extremes of climate that we are facing are also likely to deliver unnecessary loss of life as we ignore the warning of extreme events. Longer droughts will make new food production methods necessary and increased bushfire, intense summer heat and rising sea levels will challenge notions of safe areas to live.

As well as being a well-crafted story of Australia’s climate and a warning of what is to come, Sunburnt Country is also a story of that strange human phenomenon of ‘shooting the messenger’. That humans are influencing the climate is a confronting concept and Gergis and her team of researchers found themselves at the receiving end of intense personal attack by climate change sceptics. Fortunately for us, scientists such as Gergis have maintained their dedication and not retreated from researching and communicating how humans are altering planetary conditions.

NPA Environmental Book Club

All meetings held at 6pm – 8pm | NPA office: Suite 1.07, 55 Miller St, Pyrmont
The NPA environmental book club is a place to discuss and gain a deeper understanding of the natural environment. Each six weeks our friendly gathering considers a book with an environmental theme and shares ideas.

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