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rising oceans

On Friday January 18th a 31 year old man died of a heart attack in Penrith. He was walking around in the third day of a 40 degree heatwave. He had a mental health condition and he was poor.

Around him, in the sparsely vegetated suburbs of Western Sydney, another 2 million people suffered. It may have been from the heat, or perhaps from the $200 to $1000 cost of running aircon that would add to their next power bill. Even if they had gone to the beach, club, library, movies or mall they would have had to head home at some point. With half the days in January over the 35 degree mark it's been a summer to endure, not enjoy.

Three weeks later in Townsville two men died in the floods. They were probably poor and probably looting, but whatever their story, weather caused by climate change was a factor in their deaths. Hundreds fled their homes as the waters rose. Australia will see more floods, more heatwaves and more stretches of days over 40 as time progresses. 

In outback NSW rivers have dried up and there is talk of abandoning towns completely. Aboriginal people, long left out of water conversation reform, have never seen such bad conditions. 

Even cooler, Tasmania has bushfires. Income derived from tourism is going down as visitor bookings are cancelled out of fear.

Australia is a big country, but when it comes to rising temperatures there's nowhere left to go. Those on low incomes are less able to move anyway. They are generally less able to insulate themselves from climate change's impacts. They are underinsured, especially renters. Rents have increased in cyclone prone areas - up to 350% in places like Port Headland. When flooded, burned or simply evicted out of their homes they find it harder to bounce back.

Charities - except those lobbying for climate change policies - have little to offer except 'bottom of the cliff' solutions. Bill relief, referral to health services, food and clothing in emergencies: they are necessary on the local level but useless when it comes to fixing the climate. 

As Australia continues to get hotter (and wetter in the north) many more thousands will have their lives severely disrupted. Those most vulnerable are the elderly, the sick, the poor, pregnant women and infants. Wherever they live in poorer suburbs they are subject to heat island effects. A lack of trees allows concrete and bitumen to heat up and raise ambient temperature a few degrees more, especially into the night. Conditions become unbearable or unaffordable (if aircon is even an option).

Bandaid and longer term solutions to this daunting problem set include:

  • Educating renters about the need for insurance
  • Lobbying for realistic climate change policies, including use of renewables and cessation of fossil fuel mining
  • Providing incentives to retrofit rental properties with things like insulation and solar panels
  • Planting trees for shade
  • Recommending fans and evaporative coolers rather than aircon - they cost 2-7 cents per hour rather than 50c to $1 for aircon
  • Providing incentives for larger households - one or two in a big house is not efficient, perhaps it's time to stop stigmatising boomerang kids

Most of all though, the public and the policy makers need to start joining the dots between economic activity, climate change and living conditions. Astute winemakers have already moved operations to Tasmania. Insurers are bumping up premiums where cyclones threaten.

We will soon be facing summers of extended stretches over 40. Thousands of fish, horses, chickens and bats have died in SA because of the heat. We don't how the mortality rate for humans has been affected yet, but according to a Monash University study of funeral notices, more than 200 people died as a result of the 2009 SA heat wave. Governments and charities need to be truly conservative (safe) and plan for the worst.


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