Who's been our hottest PM?

Friday, Apr 1, 2016, 01:00 AM | Source: The Conversation

Mike Sandiford

Politics is full of irony and it seems our climate is happy to lend a helping hand.

Witness the Great Barrier Reef’s encore to Greg Hunt’s recent award as the world’s best environment minister. Not that Greg could do anything about the coral bleaching, it being a response to a global problem.

Down south, the climate is doing its darnedest to annoy the Tasmanian energy minister. Drought, a failure to support wind power developments and now the ongoing saga of the Basslink outage have combined to push wholesale electricity prices to some 800% above the mainland. Taswegians have now had to resort to diesel gensets to keep the lights on.

On the climate front, the latest global warming figures are extraordinary.

El Nino conditions are adding to the relentless warming trend that has persisted for more than half a century. Since October last year, and for the first time, monthly global temperatures have exceeded the 1951-1980 average by more than 1 degree Celsius, according to NASA’s latest figures. February 2016 was unbelievably hot at around 1.35 degrees above the average of just 50 years ago.

NASA GISTEMP global monthly temperature anomaly measured as the deviation from 1951-1980 averages in degrees Celsius. Triangles and circles mark exceptional months as described in figure below. data from NASA, image by Mike Sandiford

It seems more than a touch ironic that October last year was the first full month of Malcolm the second’s (aka Turnbull) ascension. Similarly, given the role his predecessor played in the ongoing “climate wars” saga, it’s noteworthy that Tony Abbott’s demise was accompanied by a 0.2 degree jump in the global temperature anomaly.

Such coincidences make me wonder, how have global temperature anomalies tracked our Australian election cycles in the past? To assess this, it is useful to remove the underlying upward trend in the temperature anomaly data, as shown in the figure below, because the trend naturally favours the “Johnny-come-lately’s”.

We start the analysis with the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972, since when Labor and the LNP coalition have held power for almost identical lengths of time (at 260 and 259 months, respectively).

As shown below, there is generally more heat in the system when LNP holds the reigns of power, though the difference is slight. The LNP averages 0.025 degrees above trend, while Labor averages 0.026 below trend. However the LNP definitely stands out in the exceptions, having exceeded 0.25 degrees above trend some 14 times compared to Labor’s 5 times.

Detrended GISTEMP monthly temperature anomalies. Months with exceptional above trend averages are highlighted by triangles (more than 0.25 degrees above trend), and by circles (more than 0.5 degrees above trend, as for February, 2016). Red shows periods Labor held the reigns of power in Australia, blue for periods when the LNP coalition was in power.

In terms of individual Prime Ministers, it really is a no contest. Malcolm the second is a country mile ahead of the others, currently averaging 0.36 degrees above trend.

Average detrended temperature anomalies for Australian Prime Minister since Gough Whitlam.

In these terms, Keating and Gillard stand out as our coolest Prime Ministers, with averages at 0.08 and 0.09 degrees below trend.

Perhaps there is something in this. One has to wonder about the political narrative inspired by the figure below showing the global temperature trends for each of the past 10 Prime Ministers.

GISTEMP anomaly trends by individual Australian Prime Minister since Gough Whitlam.

Gough Whitlam started literally on fire. But after a couple of exceptional months he faded rapidly. Malcolm number one (aka Fraser) was the reverse, only managing to stoke the fires above trend in the 80’s. He went out in a blaze of glory with five exceptional months in his last few years.

Somewhat surprisingly, Hawke was unable to achieve anything much in the way of hot air. Keating was dogged in the early years by the Pinatubo eruption, which kept the heat off for much of his reign.

Of all the recent Prime Ministers, Howard was the most consistent. He regularly scoring exceptionally hot months across his reign.

Suprisingly, none of the three that presided during height of the climate wars from 2007-2014 ever got really burnt. Rudd the first started out in negative territory but seemed to be building towards a head of steam before he was figuratively toasted. Gillard was well short on the hot air front and, try as he might, Abbott just couldn’t bring on much by the way of heat.

Malcolm the second (aka Turnbull) stands alone of having a 100% strike rate of exceptional heat. So far his reign has seen global temperatures out of control. And it’s not only that heat that is exceptional, but his trajectory has been nothing short of incendiary.

There’s no doubt about it. Malcolm the second has been our hottest prime minister by a country mile. The question is, can we take the heat?

The Conversation


Mike Sandiford receives funding from the Australian Research Council for research into the young geological evolution of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate.