There's No Way To Avoid Saying It: Climate Change Will Kill


Death is probably the most alarming thing of all, and here at New Matilda we want you to be alarmed about climate change, so we’ve gone through a report released by the Climate Council this morning to cherry pick out all the facts relating to mortality.

That’s not to say the Climate Council — formerly the Climate Commission until it was scrapped by the Abbott government — has cherry picked its facts. The report is a wide-ranging update on the climate science which synthesises the most recent research; you can have a read here.

Basically, it’s not good. And yes, climate change is coming for you. And the forest critters.

1) People Who Can’t Take The Heat

Climate change is also coming — in the form of ferocious heatwaves — to kill your old folks.

In June more than 2,000 Indians were smote by a killer heatwave as temperatures across the subcontinent sweltered at 45 degrees. Expect more of that.

Climate scientists are notoriously reserved about making bold, sweeping claims, but here’s what the Climate Council report does say:

“Extreme heat has caused more deaths than any other natural hazard across Australia over the past 100 years…

“Since 2001 the number of extreme heat records has outnumbered extreme cool records by almost 3 to 1 for daytime maximum temperatures and almost 5 to 1 for night-time minimum temperatures.

“Very warm months have increased five-fold in the past 15 years.”

Last month was, on average, the hottest the world has ever posted. 2014 was the hottest year the world has ever recorded. It was the 38th year in a row that the global average temperature was hotter than the 20th century average.

That record is expected to be supplanted in 2015.

According to the Climate Council, “Deaths from heatwaves are projected to double over the next 40 years in Australian cities”. And here’s how that might look:

“A severe heatwave in Melbourne in late January-early February 2009, during which maximum temperatures rose to the mid-40s for three consecutive days and night-time temperatures remained unusually high, led to an estimated 374 more deaths than would normally be expected at that time of year.”

Image: Thom Mitchell.

2) Animal Wipeout

It’s just under 100 days till world leaders meet in Paris to negotiate a global agreement to start to bring down emissions and deal with the already locked in affects of climate change. 198 governments around the world have agreed that an increase in temperatures of more than 2 degrees is ‘dangerous’, and the goal is to prevent that from happening.

Australia has already warmed around 1 degree, but even if we keep within that 2 degree guardrail, there are a lot of helpless animals that won’t be around to applaud us.

“Of most concern,” the report said, “climate change is likely to greatly increase the rate of species extinction, both in Australia and globally”.

“The most comprehensive study to date has estimated that a global average warming of 2°C (compared to pre-industrial levels) could risk the loss of about 5 per cent of the world’s species.

“If global temperatures reach 3°C above pre-industrial levels, 8.5 per cent of species are estimated to be at risk.

“Under a ‘business as usual’ (high emissions) scenario, leading to global warming of 4°C, a staggering 16 per cent (1 in 6) of species could be lost .”

Some examples of how this might look:

“Since 1994, more than 100,000 flying foxes are estimated to have died in heatwaves along the east coast of Australia. On 12 January 2002, for example, over 3,500 flying foxes were killed in 9 colonies along the NSW coast when temperatures exceeded 42°C…”

The Climate Council does not necessarily attribute those deaths — or, for example, the deaths 200 endangered Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos in a Western Australia heatwave in 2010 — to climate change. But the point is it’s getting way hotter in many places (rainier in some, though) and there’s likely to be more heatwaves if only you’re starting from a hotter average.

In the cold, high areas of the nation, which make up just 0.15 per cent of Australian land surface, climate change also threatens sensitive ecosystems through threats such as changing bushfire patterns.
The report notes, “The Australian Alps have been warming by about 0.2°C per decade over the past 35 years (Hennessy et al. 2003), and snow cover has declined by about a third since the 1950s (Nicholls 2005).

“Many endemic alpine species, already considered rare and threatened, face an uncertain future…”

In July this year — which you’ll remember was the hottest month on record — more than a quarter of a million Sockeye Salmon overheated and died in the Colombia River.

3) Tough On The Farm

This is pretty grim, and I don’t mean to trivialise depression. But the alarming suicide rates in farming communities are also logically likely to be forced up by climate change.

“The prospect of longer, hotter and drier droughts in the future has significant implications for mental health, especially in rural areas,” the report notes.

“Droughts are associated with increased incidence of suicide in rural populations, especially amongst male farmers.

“A study in New South Wales found that during drought the relative risk of suicide can increase by up to 15 per cent for rural males aged 30-49 as the severity of drought increases.”

Farmers are around twice as likely to die by suicide.

These pressures on farming communities will be exacerbated by the fact that agricultural yields are projected to take a beating. Between 2002 and 2003 a severe drought stripped the agriculture industry of 28.5 per cent of gross added value, or around a 1 per cent fall in Australia’s Gross Domestic Product, which the report said is around half of the decline which followed the global financial crisis, and extreme droughts like these are projected to increase across much of Australia.

“From 2020,” the report said, “the predicted increase in drought frequency is estimated to cost $7.3 billion annually, reducing GDP by 1 per cent per annum (Carroll et al. 2007)”.


There’s a lot of information nicely laid out in the full report. For example, it also flags the possible southward spread of dengue fever so that it will affect between 5 and 8 million Australians by the end of the century, rather than the 430,000 it does today…

You can read the full report here. It really doesn’t obsess over death like us, but the point is that this is serious.

The first ‘conference of parties’, or official UN climate talks, were held in 1995. The 21st will be held this year, in late November and early December, in Paris. It’s critical the conference achieves its goal of negotiating a global deal that will see emissions trend downwards.

Since the first conference, in 1995, emissions have only increased. As the report said, “This is the critical decade for action and Australia must join the rest of the world in making deep and rapid cuts to our emissions if we are to protect our way of life into the future.”

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.