IN the days leading up to Victoria’s catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires, south-eastern Australia suffered a gruelling run of extreme-heat days.
At the height of the 2009 heatwave, Victoria’s morgue was receiving 50 bodies a day, three times the usual number, the state coroner told the Age.
Hospitals and funeral directors had to be called on to provide temporary storage for the excess dead. And that was before Black Saturday added another 173 to the toll.
Australia’s climate has always been one of extremes: it’s no accident one of our most iconic poems – Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country – speaks of “droughts and flooding rains”.
But that historic variability is set to get a whole lot worse due to the climate change fuelled by our carbon-laden atmosphere.
Warnings about the health impacts associated with a warming planet are hardly new, but they have certainly stepped up a notch in recent times.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently joined other medical associations around the world in declaring climate change a health emergency.
Climate change will cause increased transmission of vector-borne disease, higher mortality and morbidity from heat stress, injury and mortality from increasingly severe weather events and a higher incidence of mental illness, the AMA says.
In her 2018 history of the Australian climate, Sunburnt country, climate scientist Joёlle Gergis describes other less direct health threats we are likely to face.
More severe and longer droughts will devastate rural communities and threaten Australia’s food security, internal migration will take its toll on mental health, and more extreme heatwaves will reduce the ability to work or engage in leisure activities outdoors, she writes.
It’s estimated the number of days on which it’s rated too dangerous to work outside in Perth will increase from the current one day per year to 26 by 2070. The economic impact of that shift will be enormous.
Unmitigated climate change will irreversibly transform life in Australia, and not for the better, Dr Gergis argues.
“The destabilisation of our planet’s climate will set off a terrible chain reaction that will leave vast areas of the country inhospitable to modern Australian life. What if Melbourne is regularly ravaged by extreme bushfires like 2009’s Black Saturday? What if we risk contracting dengue fever in Sydney?”
Any political response to such threats has been stymied by conflict, cowardice and opportunism for a decade or more.
Who can forget our then Treasurer, now Prime Minister, proudly brandishing a lump of coal in the Federal Parliament during question time to show his support for the fossil fuels industry?
He had the nugget lacquered beforehand so he wouldn’t get his hands dirty … oh, the metaphorical resonance.
Last year’s MJA/Lancet report on health and climate change warned policy inaction in the area was putting Australian lives at risk.
“In a number of respects, Australia has gone backwards and now lags behind other high income countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom,” the report said, noting our ongoing reliance on a high carbon-intensive energy system and slow transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation.
The report noted some progress in heatwave response planning. Given the lack of action on anything else, we’re going to need it.
This year’s MJA/Lancet update will be published by both journals on Thursday 14 November at 10 am AEDT.
Dr Gergis says we have already lost a decade of investment in renewable energy technology as our government has “squabbled and back-flipped” over energy policy.
Australia, she says, is more vulnerable than any other developed nation to climate change due to our existing climate variability and our reliance on the agricultural sector.
The impacts on Australia over the rest of this century will likely be smaller than those in many low income countries, given predictions of widespread crop failures, dwindling supplies of fresh water, inundation of major world cities such as Mumbai and Shanghai, and millions of people forced to flee their homes.
Still, I write this in a Sydney blanketed with smoke from bushfires further up the New South Wales coast and I think: come on, people, let’s work this out.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.