It’s official, 2016 set another record for being the world’s hottest. Three international agencies have confirmed today that last year was the hottest on record.
NASA reported that 2016 was 0.99℃ hotter than the 20th-century average, while the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called it at 0.94℃. NOAA also calculated that global land temperatures were 1.43℃ higher. The UK Met Office, using its own data, also reported that 2016 is one of the two hottest years on record.
The figures vary slightly, depending on the baseline reference period used.
Heat records don’t linger for long any more. 2016 surpassed the 2015 record, which surpassed the 2014 record. Three record hot years in a row sets yet another record in the 137-year history of modern accurate and standardised meteorological observation.
Australia is already on average 8℃ hotter than the average global land temperature, so further warming means our heat risk is far greater than for other industrialised countries.
As Australia lurches from heatwave to heatwave, the message is clear: extreme heat is the new norm – so Australia needs to get “heat smart”.
Very warm monthly maximum temperatures used to occur around 2% of the time during the period 1951–1980. During 2001–2015, these happened more than 11% of the time.
This trajectory of increased temperature extremes raises questions of how much heat can humans tolerate and still go about their daily business of commuting, managing domestic chores, working and keeping fit.
We can’t just get used to the heat
Air-conditioning and acclimatisation are not the answer. Acclimatisation to heat has an upper limit, beyond which humans need to rest or risk overheating and potential death. And air-conditioning, if not powered by renewable electricity, increases greenhouse gas emissions, feeding into further climate changes.
We have two key tasks ahead. The first is to stop the warming by drastically reducing emissions – the 2015 Paris Agreement was a step along this path. Several studies have shown that Australia can achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and live within its recommended carbon budget, using technologies that exist today, while maintaining economic prosperity.
Our second task is to adapt to the trajectory of increasing frequency of dangerous heat events.
A heat-smart nation
We can prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses through public health mechanisms. Australia enjoys a strong international track record of world-leading public health prevention strategies, such as our campaign against smoking.
We can equally embrace the heat challenge, by adopting initiatives such as a National Climate, Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which has the support of Australia’s health sector. Its recommendations outline a pathway to becoming a heat-smart nation.
At a recent heat-health summit in Melbourne, experts declared Australia must adopt four key public health actions to reduce heatwave deaths.
These fundamental public health strategies are interlinked and operate at the government, health sector, industry and community levels.
Prevention includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing exposure. The Bureau of Meteorology provides superb heat warnings that allow us to prepare. Global organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provide reports that can underpin greater understanding.
The next challenge is for the populace broadly to act on that knowledge. This requires having options to protect ourselves and avoid hazardous heat exposures while commuting, working and at home.
The health sector must also prepare for demand surges. Tragic outcomes will become increasingly common when, for example, ambulance services cannot meet rising demand from a combination of population growth, urbanisation and forecast heat events.
The health sector will need the capacity to mobilise extra resources, and a workforce trained in identifying and managing heat illness. Such training remains limited.
Individuals and workplaces also need to prepare for heatwaves. In a heat-smart nation, we’ll need to reschedule tasks to avoid or limit exposure, including rest periods, and to ensure adequate hydration with cool fluids.
We’ll need to think about housing. Building houses without eaves or space for trees to provide shade forces residents to rely on air-conditioning. In such houses, power failures expose residents to unnecessary heat risks, and many air-con systems struggle when temperatures exceed 40℃.
We’ll need to think about our own health. Active transport, such as walking and cycling, both reduces emissions and improves fitness. Promoting active transport throughout summer requires the provision of shade, rest zones with seats, and watering stations along commuting routes. High cardio-respiratory fitness also boosts heat resilience: a win-win.
Ultimately, Australia has two options: ignore the risks of increasing heat extremes and suffer the consequences, or step up to the challenge and become a heat-smart nation.
This article was co-authored by Clare de Castella Mackay, ANU.
Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University; Kathryn Bowen, Senior Research Fellow, Australian National University, and Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University