Heatwaves threaten Australians’ health, and our politicians aren’t doing enough about it


Paul Beggs, Macquarie University; Helen Louise Berry, University of Sydney; Martina Linnenluecke, Macquarie University, and Ying Zhang, University of Sydney

Extreme heat affects the mental health of Australians to the same degree as unemployment, yet Australia’s policy action on climate change lags behind other high-income countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.

As Australia approaches another summer, we face the inevitability of deadly heatwaves. Our report published today in the Medical Journal of Australia concludes that policy inaction, particularly at the federal level, is putting Australian lives at risk.

The report, The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australian policy inaction threatens lives, builds on an earlier publication in The Lancet medical journal, which concluded climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.




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Australia is the first to prepare its own country-level report. Developed in partnership with the Lancet Countdown – which tracks the global connections between health and climate change – it adopts the structure and methods of the global assessment but with an Australian focus.

How Australians’ health suffers

Australians are already facing climate change-related exposures that come from increasing annual average temperatures, heatwaves and weather-related disasters. Australian deaths during the 2014 Adelaide heatwave and Melbourne’s 2016 thunderstorm asthma event are examples of the risk climate poses to our health.




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Our report was produced by a team of 19 experts from 13 universities and research institutes. We aimed to answer what we know about climate change and human health in Australia and how we are responding to this threat, if at all.

To do this, our team examined more than 40 indicators that enable us to track progress on the broad and complex climate change and human health issue. Health impact indicators included the health effects of temperature change and heatwaves, change in labour capacity, trends in climate-sensitive diseases, lethality of weather-related disasters and food insecurity and malnutrition.

We also developed an indicator for the impacts of climate change on mental health. This involved examining the association between mean annual maximum temperatures and suicide rates for all states and territories over the last ten years.

We found that, in most jurisdictions, the suicide rate increased with increasing maximum temperature. In Australia’s changing climate, we urgently need to seek ways to break the link between extreme temperature and suicide.

Across other indicators, we found workers’ compensation claims in Adelaide increased by 6.2% during heatwaves, mainly among outdoor male workers and tradespeople over 55 years.

And we found the length of heatwaves increased in 2016 and 2017 in Australia’s three largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Heatwave length varied from year to year, but between 2000 and 2017, the mean number of heatwave days increased by more than two days across the country.

Policy action we need

Australia’s slow transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation is problematic, and not only from a climate change perspective. Our report shows that pollutants from fossil fuel combustion cause thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. We argue even one premature death is one too many when there is so much that we can do to address this.

Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest countries with the resources and technical expertise to act on climate change and health. Yet Australia’s carbon intensity is the highest among the countries we included in our comparison – Germany, United States, China, India and Brazil.

A carbon-intensive energy system is one of the main drivers behind climate change. Australia was once a leader in the uptake of renewables but other nations have since streaked ahead and are reaping the benefits for their economies, energy security and health.

Despite some progress increasing renewable generation, it’s time we truly pull our weight in the global effort to prevent acceleration towards dangerous climate change.

Policy leaders must take steps to protect human health and lives. These include strong political and financial commitments to accelerate transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation. The government lacks detailed planning for a clean future with a secure energy supply.




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Our MJA-Lancet Countdown report will be updated annually. Now that Australia has begun systematically tracking the effects of climate change on health – and given its poor performance compared with comparable economies globally – further inaction would be reckless.The Conversation

Paul Beggs, Associate Professor and Environmental Health Scientist, Macquarie University; Helen Louise Berry, Professor of Climate Change and Mental Health, University of Sydney; Martina Linnenluecke, Professor of Environmental Finance; Director of the Centre for Corporate Sustainability and Environmental Finance, Macquarie University, and Ying Zhang, Associate Director, Teaching and Learning, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Another attack on the Bureau, but top politicians have stopped listening to climate change denial


Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University

Has the Australian climate change debate changed? You could be forgiven for thinking the answer is no.

Just this week The Australian has run a series of articles attacking the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather observations. Meanwhile, the federal and Queensland governments continue to promote Adani’s planned coal mine, despite considerable environmental and economic obstacles. And Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions are rising again.

So far, so familiar. But something has changed.

Those at the top of Australian politics are no longer debating the existence of climate change and its causes. Instead, four years after the Coalition was first elected, the big political issues are rising power prices and the electricity market. What’s happening?


Read more: No, the Bureau of Meteorology is not fiddling its weather data.


A few years ago, rejection of climate science was part of the Australian political mainstream. In 2013, the then prime minister Tony Abbott repeated a common but flawed climate change denial argument:

Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We’ve had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we’ve recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic [sic] global warming.

Abbott’s statement dodges a key issue. While fires and floods have always occurred, climate change can still alter their frequency and severity. In 2013, government politicians and advisers, such as Dennis Jensen and Maurice Newman, weren’t shy about rejecting climate science either.

The atmosphere is different in 2017, and I’m not just talking about CO₂ levels. Tony Abbott is no longer prime minister, Dennis Jensen lost preselection and his seat, and Maurice Newman is no longer the prime minister’s business advisor.

Which Australian politician most vocally rejects climate science now? It isn’t the prime minister or members of the Coalition, but One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. In Australia, open rejection of human-induced climate change has moved to the political fringe.

Roberts has declared climate change to be a “fraud” and a “scam”, and talked about climate records being “manipulated by NASA”. He is very much a conspiracy theorist on climate, as he is on other topics including banks, John F. Kennedy, and citizenship. His approach to evidence is frequently at odds with mainstream thought.

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This conspiratorial approach to climate change is turning up elsewhere too. I was startled by the author list of the Institute of Public Affairs’ new climate change book. Tony Heller (better known in climate circles by the pseudonym Steven Goddard) doesn’t just believe climate change is a “fraud” and a “scam”, but has also promoted conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school massacre. This is a country mile from sober science and policy analysis.

So where is the Australian political mainstream? It’s not denying recent climate change and its causes, but instead is now debating the policy responses. This is exemplified by political arguments about the electricity market, power prices, and the Finkel Review.


Read more: What I learned from debating science with trolls


While this is progress, it’s not without serious problems. The debate may have rightly moved on to policy rather than science, but arguments for “clean coal” power are at odds with coal’s high CO₂ emissions and the failure thus far of carbon capture. Even power companies show little interest in new coal-fired power plants to replace those that have closed.

The closure of the Hazelwood power station was politically controversial.
Jeremy Buckingham/flickr

History repeating?

Have those who rejected global warming and its causes changed their tune? In general, no. They still imagine that scientists are up to no good. The Australian’s latest attacks on the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) illustrate this, especially as they are markedly similar to accusations made in the same newspaper three years ago.

This week, the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd wrote that the BoM was “caught tampering” with temperature logs, on the basis of measurements of cold temperatures on two July nights at Goulburn and Thredbo. For these nights, discrepant temperatures were in public BoM databases due to automated weather stations that stopped reporting data. The data points were flagged for BoM staff to verify, but in the meantime an amateur meteorologist contacted Lloyd and the Institute of Public Affairs’ Jennifer Marohasy.

In 2014, Lloyd cast doubt on the BoM’s climate record by attacking the process of “homogenisation,” with a particular emphasis on data from weather stations in Rutherglen, Amberley and Bourke. Homogenisation is used to produce a continuous temperature record from measurements that may suffer from artificial discontinuities, such as in the case of weather stations that have been upgraded or moved from, say, a post office to an airport.

The Tuggeranong Automatic Weather Station.
Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons

Lloyd’s articles from this week and 2014 are beat-ups, for similar reasons. The BoM’s ACORN-SAT long-term temperature record is compiled using daily measurements from 112 weather stations. Even Lloyd acknowledges that those 112 stations don’t include Goulburn and Thredbo. While Rutherglen, Amberley and Bourke do contribute to ACORN-SAT, homogenisation of their data (and that of other weather stations) does little to change the warming trend measured across Australia. Australia has warmed over the past century, and The Australian’s campaigns won’t change that.

In 2014, the government responded to The Australian’s campaign by commissioning the Technical Advisory Forum, which has since reviewed ACORN-SAT and found it to be a “well-maintained dataset”. Prime Minister Abbott also considered a taskforce to investigate BoM, but was dissuaded by the then environment minister Greg Hunt.

The ConversationHow will Malcolm Turnbull’s government respond to The Australian’s retread of basically the same campaign? Perhaps that will be the acid test for whether the climate debate really has changed.

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.