NEWS of record-breaking temperatures, storms, droughts and flooding rains are becoming so common now, it could be said that this is the new normal. This past summer was no exception, with NSW experiencing its warmest and Queensland its second warmest summer on record.

In addition, many parts of Australia had exceptionally high rainfall, such as parts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory which experienced record rainfall. On the other hand, Gippsland in Victoria, areas of eastern Queensland and north-eastern NSW had rainfall levels in the lowest 10% of observations.

In 2016, Australia’s fourth warmest year on record, the average temperature was 0.87oC higher than the 1961–1990 average. That this warming is due to increased CO2 and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is clear, and this, together with global inaction to reverse the trend, makes it almost certain that temperatures will continue to increase for some time to come.

What does this mean for our health?

Heat stress can kill: either directly via heat stroke or by precipitating cardiovascular and other diseases. The most vulnerable are the elderly, the very young, those with chronic diseases and people working outdoors. Most large hospitals have a heat wave emergency plan in order to deal with the increased numbers of patients attending emergency departments.

The heat doesn’t just kill people. Wildlife and pets are vulnerable too and, particularly wildlife, have no place of reprieve.

The heat also impacts on human systems through which there are consequent health and social impacts. Transport and electricity infrastructures are stressed and may fail and, importantly, our food systems may too be affected.

It is not just the heat that can threaten our food. In the UK at the moment, broccoli and iceberg lettuce are being rationed and the prices of many other fruits and vegetables are inflated, due to crop failures in Spain following unprecedented storms. The millennium drought in Australia pushed the price of fruit and vegetables higher, decreasing consumption in a population already not consuming enough. Mental health stress from loss of income for farmers affected by drought and heat is a real phenomenon, and growing climate variability will increase these impacts.

Doctors manage risk with their patients every day, such as in deciding whether or not to investigate a patient’s symptoms or which treatment regimen to use in a patient with multiple morbidities.

What would happen if we applied a risk management approach to the current and predicted impacts on humanity of ongoing increases of CO2 in our atmosphere? Would we be taking a business as usual approach?

Scientific evidence suggests that we would not. The evidence is clear. We need to make drastic cuts to our CO2 emissions in order to avoid dangerous climate change – which is thought to be increases in global average temperatures of more than 2oC. We also need to adapt to rising temperatures that are inevitable because of the CO2 levels already in our atmosphere. This adaptation will require increased investment in almost all of our human systems, including health services and public health infrastructure. We will need to strengthen our surveillance systems, improve early warning systems, change urban design to minimise heat retention, and make our infrastructure more resilient to climate extremes.

At this time, Australia is not doing any of those things.

Australia’s CO2 emissions are rising and our government is actively supporting Australia’s fossil fuel industry, including a new massive coal mine. Opposition to fossil fuel extraction and combustion is not ideological; it is a rational response to scientific evidence. Any policy, funding or activity that supports and promotes fossil fuel industries harms humanity and risks our health and wellbeing.

This dissonance between the evidence and action has many parallels in public health and medicine, but there are no other areas where evidence is not heeded that will have the same catastrophic consequences for humanity and other living things.

It behoves those of us who do accept the evidence to actively advocate for meaningful climate action in Australia and globally, and to critically assess what actions are being taken by our governments and decision makers in the name of responding to climate change.

In both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation, we need to act now; we don’t have a moment to lose.

Associate Professor Linda Selvey is a teaching and research academic in the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health.


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Climate change has, and will continue to have an impact on human health
  • Strongly agree (71%, 41 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (14%, 8 Votes)
  • Disagree (7%, 4 Votes)
  • Neutral (5%, 3 Votes)
  • Agree (3%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 58

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11 thoughts on “Record heat a grim reminder of what’s to come

  1. Dr Jag Gill says:

    I agree that climate change is an undeniable fact of life. After all, we have had four ice ages even before we had industrialisation. So how do we go from all the hooha raised by people who have a vested interest in the matter, and may wholly depend on their livelihood to keep the matter at a hysterical level! And I notice that the issue has changed from “global warming” to ‘climate change”. Is it because the latter is true, and the former suspect??
    The hysteria in Australia is even worse, as whatever the true reason of global warming is, we produce only about 1% of the world’s fossil oil burning emissions! It should be clear to all that economic development comes with health benefits, and a poorer Australia will come with increasing health problems!! The believers need to live for a while in the poorer countries to understand this.
    Unfortunately, the view taken by believers that deniers have a poorer mental capacity is arrogant and stupid!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have carefully studied all the information on this matter.There has been no significant warming for 20 years.Anyone who has studied geology knows that we have 500000 years of ice ages lasting 100000 years with warmer interglacial periods lasting about 30000 years.We are in an interglacial period now since the last ice age ended 20000 years ago.
    In this interglacial period there has been a MINOAN,ROMAN and MEDIEVAL warming followed by the little ice age from 1350 to 1850.All these warm periods were warmer than the current warming that started at the end of the little ice age in 1850.
    Carbon dioxide is plant food essential for life and more of it in the atmosphere is a good thing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Even the IPCC does not try to claim that extreme weather events are linked to global warming.
    Pleasing to see that there are a range of views on this, especially given that the climate data and predictions derive from a range of MODELS, which are at risk of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). And they really can’t accurately predict the weather next week, so why do you think they’ll be better doing the climate in a century?
    In contrast to climate science, medical science is fortunate in having placebo controlled trials rather than modelling to allow prediction of outcome, so any equivalence between the disciplines in limited to the word ‘science’ in the name.
    Separate out the Naomi Klein-esque anti-capitalist politics and then restart the debate on the science.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Experts can longer be trusted

  5. Anonymous says:

    The debate is not binary. It is not a case of either/or. Some degree of anthropomorphic alteration in climate parameters is evident. Is it really seriously important, is it irreversible, does it warrant a “Chicken Little” style response, claiming that the sky is indeed falling? It is worth noting the dramatic slowing of climate impact that following the phasing out CFCs in the recent past. There are many research departments who enjoy funding that would be envied by clinical researchers trying to solve real, not potential, problems. We will, in all likelihood look back on the extent of hysteria with incredulity one day.

  6. Time for action says:

    Try the IPCC report.
    The evidence for human induced climate change is clear.
    Denying it is like cigarette companies trying to muddy the water of harm from cigarette smoking.
    They did manage to confuse the public for decades.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Frightening to see we have climate change deniers in the medical profession. Which part of climate science don’t they understand and are there parts of medical science they don’t understand either?

  8. Malcolm Brown says:

    Even the most superficial reading of the climate literature by anyone with a reasonable knowledge of statistics shows straight away that the uncertainty in all parameters is overwhelming. Judith Curry has spelt it out to the US Congress quite clearly. We wasted billions on desalination plants on the basis of scare stories from Tim Flannery and the others. Cold snaps kill more people than heat waves. There’s been no change in the global cyclone intensity index kept by the University of Hawaii for more than 30 years. Patterns of droughts have not changed at all. The increased CO2 is causing massive greening of the planet with increased crop yields. The benefits of this extra CO2 far outweigh any costs.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I am continually reading we are generating CO2and the evidence is clear that the temperature is rising because
    of rising CO2. I have read quite a lot of the climate science literature and the evidence is NOT clear.
    Could someone point me to this clear evidence?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Come now – the only fact that is substantiated is that CO2 is rising. We are in a slightly warming period – most agree – but this is not unprecedented. Please define record breaking temperatures. It has been hot I agree, but how many records have actually tumbled?
    Why don’t you mention that Perth actually did have a record: the coldest February recorded since records began.

    You do meteorology, our profession and science generally a huge disservice with your shrill regurgitation of pop propaganda.

  11. Rosemary Swift says:

    I think we passed the tipping point about 10 years ago ,when we could make an impact on climate change.

    Now, all we have to look forward to is more of it = hotter summers, weirding weather( the name for extraordinary weather patterns that we have rarely seen before)

    I think all government agencies= hospitals ,GPs, news bulletins etc should put out a plan for dealing with hot weather for the community, at regular intervals so people are warned.

    Unless of course you want to reduce the number of people in dependent age groups !!

    Also they should have had the electricity supply switched to solar / hydro /Wind /and batteries ,years ago , so it does not
    break down in the middle of a heatwave.

    This is a disgrace.

    Running Australia’s like running a kindergarten compared to other countries.For goodness sake fix the power supply, with instead of arguing in Parliament , and denying climate change.
    Everyone should do science at school so they have a basic grasp of the principles.

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