Sunday, July 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 2Rising heat far more serious long-term threat than Covid-19

Rising heat far more serious long-term threat than Covid-19


As a doctor working in the Northern Territory for the last 16 years “it is impossible not to see accelerating heat as the greatest problem Territorians face,” says Dr Simon Quilty.

“In the long term it is far more serious than Covid-19.”

Dr Quilty (pictured, photo supplied) moved from Katherine, where he spent eight years, to Alice Springs at the end of 2019. He continues to treat patients here while also conducting research with colleagues at the Australian National University.

The results, to be published internationally later this year, will show clear evidence over recent decades that the NT’s death rates are going up in line with our rising temperatures.

“There is a lot of international interest in what is happening with climate change in the Northern Territory,” says Dr Quilty.

“We have the resources to keep data, and the heat impacts here are so extreme.

“People around the world are watching, because it will help them prepare.”

He sees this as an opportunity for the NT to get on the front foot, showing leadership not only in understanding the impacts on health, but in making the necessary adaptations and mitigating our carbon footprint.

This opportunity is severely compromised by actions such as fracking, which “can only be seen as contributing to climate change,” he says.

“We must do all that we can to keep carbon in the ground. When states decide to frack, that sends a very clear message, that we don’t care about the impacts.”

Dr Quilty’s focus on these issues was sparked by seeing patients coming to hospital with heat-related injuries in Katherine, a town that experiences incredibly hot weather.

There has been “a lack of medical voices” articulating the significant health impacts for Territorians but that is changing, he says: “Every colleague is as concerned as I am.”

In the lead-up to the 2020 NT election, this was evidenced when a coalition of health and social welfare organisations called on the NT government to “urgently address the health threats posed by rising temperatures and climate change in the Territory”, outlining policy recommendations, including a Heat-Health Action Plan. The signatories included AMSANT, the peak body for Aboriginal medical services, the Public Health Association, Jesuit Social Services, the Purple House, and NTCOSS.

An emerging issue, not actually mentioned in that pre-election call, is the effect of rising heat on the recruitment of health professionals. This is something Dr Quilty has been looking at with his colleagues at ANU.

As climate change makes the NT a much more challenging place to live in, “it is very much impacting on our capacity to recruit and retain nurses, doctors, and other health staff.”

And this just at the time when increased heat is “killing and injuring on a scale much bigger than has been recognised”.

We already know that Territorians are two to three times more likely to die on a hot day as on a cool day.

When they’re over 50, that jumps to six times more likely.

Dr Quilty’s research will show that these rates are only going one way – up.

People particularly susceptible are those with heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease, diabetes, hypertension as well as the elderly and the very young, with Indigenous people over-represented in all categories.

Suicide rates are also quite substantially higher in hotter weather, which likely points to heat impacting on mental health more broadly.

An important threshold is days over 40. When there’s a run of such days, hospitals see a spike in presentations: “There’s no reporting, but it’s definitely happening,” says Dr Quilty.

In 2019, his last year in the Katherine area, it experienced an extraordinary number of such days. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Tindal RAAF base, 15 kilometres from the town, recorded 54 days of 40 °C or above in 2019, easily exceeding the previous record of 20 set in 2013.

Further, Tindal had never observed more than 10 consecutive days of 40 °C before 2019, but had a consecutive run of 16 such days in November and 15 in December. Tindal also exceeded its previous highest temperature of 42.5 °C, recorded in 2006, a total of six times in 2019, peaking with a maximum temperature of 43.1 °C on 6 December 2019.

In 2020 Tindal again stood out, with the highest mean daily maximum temperature for the NT, 35.6 – 1.6 degrees above average.

A difficulty for doctors as they work, says Dr Quilty, is making an immediate correlation between heat and their patient’s condition because they see the patient in an air-conditioned environment. A solution to this, when it comes to understanding the big picture, is to use the readily available technological means to couple death data with large-scale environmental datasets so that impact assessments can be done.

Dr Quilty and colleagues are also calling for death certification to be modernised, with the certifying forms prompting doctors to record external factors, such as extreme heat, contributing to death.

Solid data will hopefully convince governments and communities to make the necessary investments in adaptive infrastructure to prepare for our hotter future. Better urban design, cooling our public places, is essential, but the highest priority must be given to investment in housing.

The NT’s rate of homelessness is the highest in Australia (12 times the national average, according to NT Shelter), and housing standards, particularly in remote communities, are poor.

These issues only “amplify the heath effects” of heat stress, says Dr Quilty.

Images: It was one of those summer days – hot, humid and the air thick with dust – when our poor urban design really made itself felt: at top, the baking, deliberately denuded area abutting the new suburb of Kilgariff; below, view from a window at the Alice Springs Hospital, where I happened to be visiting. It shows the broad unshaded expanse at the entrance – there are planting beds with gravel and rocks instead of plants.

Related reading:

2020 weather in perspective


  1. This all sounds plausible, but surely we need to remember that if we’re talking about a global problem then presumably there will be fewer deaths from extreme cold in the northern hemisphere, where there are actually more people. In fact, a study in The Lancet in 2015, reported that 17 times as many people were dying from extreme cold as extreme heat. Perhaps you could further research the issue and tell us in real numbers how many people in 2020 (around the world) died from extreme cold and how many from extreme heat, and how those numbers would be affected by further temperature increase.

    (We should also bear in mind that we very rarely experience extreme, sustained cold anywhere in the NT, so this renders the comparison between the number of people who die in extreme heat and the number who die “on a cool day” as fairly meaningless.)

    Given that virtually nothing we do in the NT will have any effect on global temperatures in any case, you are, however, correct to stress the need to mitigate the effect of extreme heat. The irony is that this is likely to increase our use of fossil fuels as we will need more electricity to ensure homes are air-conditioned, and although we can expect some of this to come from renewables, it will have to be backed up with a much more reliable power source if we are to avoid blackouts and people getting sick when their units stop functioning.

    The only alternative is the use of very large batteries, which are still wildly uneconomical in comparison with coal and gas and likely to remain so for decades. These would most likely push up the price of power considerably. In Britain there are reports of people who cannot afford to heat their houses as the price of power increases commensurately with the use of renewables; we do not want the same problem here in relation to cooling.

    Better-designed houses, buildings and urban spaces will help, but they will not be enough on their own. They will also cost a lot of money, and one day the money might run out.

  2. While of course climate change is global, the focus of the article is clearly on the Northern Territory and its people. The figures, cited by Dr Quilty, for death rates experienced on hot days relative to cool days are specific for the NT, where we do after all experience seasonal variations in temperature.

  3. The policies of the Northern Territory Government are neatly summed in the old proverb warning that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
    The NTG’s ambition of rescuing the Territory out of its hopeless economic abyss relies almost exclusively on the exploitation of natural gas reserves (much of it still unproven and speculative) underpinning a much hyped manufacturing base in the Top End.
    This is an old vision, first espoused by local visionaries soon after the discovery of gas reserves in Central Australia in the early-mid 1960s, and then again by the CLP in the late 1980s following completion of the gas pipeline from the Centre to Darwin.
    Setting aside the historic unreality of this regurgitated vision, the timing simply couldn’t be worse in light of the onset of human-induced climate change.
    If the economic viability of the Northern Territory can only be assured through natural resource exploitation that drastically increases our nation’s carbon footprint (and neither the NT or Federal governments are offering any real solutions to mitigate this impact), it’s really beyond time to call an end to the failed experiment of Northern Territory self-government.
    We need to devise another model of good government and administration of the inland and north which doesn’t so egregiously disregard our obligations to the rest of the world.
    As the NT Government of 30 years ago (then CLP) quite happily promoted as part of Greenhouse Effect awareness campaigns, we need to think globally, act locally.

  4. Alex,
    I’m not sure that any other government in Australia is doing much better.
    Certainly the current Federal Government isn’t.
    However, I can’t see “another model of good government and administration of the inland and north” separately from a change of the model of Government for the whole country.
    For decades I have been vigorously opposing statehood on the basis that the last thing we need is more states.
    We need to abolish them, and have a two tier system with a Federal Government, and regional Governments based on sensible geo-political boundaries.
    Central Australia, incorporating most of far North SA, and bits of WA and Qld would be an example.
    Unfortunately that would not solve the problem of the “gas lead recovery” beloved by our Fossil Fool Funded Pollies of both major parties.
    About all I’m up for these days is writing more comments and letters, and hoping that may help a little bit.
    And Simon, we know that climate change manifestation can include unseasonable and unprecedented cold in areas of the world that are not equipped to deal with it.
    “very large batteries, which are still wildly uneconomical in comparison with coal and gas and likely to remain so for decades”
    is just rubbish.
    Renewables with storage is already cheaper than new fossil fool power.

  5. The States and Territories have done themselves no favours in the argument for their abolition during the COVID crisis.
    Their willingness to push the edge of the envelope on federal jurisdiction over state borders at their individual whim under the Australian Constitution is stark evidence of this. They have shown themselves to be a bickering rabble.
    However, to abolish them in favour of smaller regional local governments, as Charlie Carter suggests, would surely be a case of from the frying pan to the fire.
    Local councils everywhere are already assuming pseudo-political powers way beyond their local council charter.
    They have become breeding grounds for all the nutters elected on a handful of votes, imposing their own social engineering agenda in their shires.
    Given formal legislative political powers under the Australian Constitution, rather than just a rates, roads and rubbish collection local admin charter, which they are already abusing enough as it is, the prospect of thousands of these social engineering dictators running around the countryside ruling our lives as politicians in tinpot mini electoratesis truly frightening

  6. So much to say about this! But first, Simon Kelly seems to be proposing that there are advantages to a warmer climate globally with less humans dying from cold? With respect, we need to get beyond our human-centric view which leads to ready technological solutions like putting in more aircon and better house design. Yes adaptation needs to be implemented now since heat is already baked into our future. But do we really want to live in a place where the plants and animals are sizzled to death? An empty desert of environmental wasteland? How will it feel to gaze at such vistas, knowing that outside it’s 50 degrees and just awful?
    I pray that Australia can respond intelligently soon. If anyone still needs convincing, read or watch David Attenborough’s recent effort to make a difference: A Life on This Planet. The scenarios from continued inaction on climate change and de-forestation are truly terrible. This is hardly the work of a radical. At least the Brits are listening to him. What is it with us?

  7. There was some work done with Dr Stephen Garnett and others from CDU in around 2008 (or so) who modelled what Alice Springs might look like as global temperatures warmed.
    The different scenarios were no change in our collective lifestyles, and then a couple of levels of reductions in the amount of carbon we pumped into the atmosphere.
    We haven’t changed our lifestyles in terms of the amount of carbon being released and guess what: Alice Springs was to be barely habitable by 2050 or so. (I am vague on the detail, but the trends were clear.)
    We all need to change our behaviours, and we desperately need politicians to lead and make sensible long term decisions.
    The NT’s Beetaloo Basin, a key element of the Aust Government’s gas-fired recovery, is disastrous for the world.
    The Global Carbon Project reports an increase in carbon emissions overall, despite a decrease in the burning of coal. Natural gas is the cause of these increased emissions. Australia is on the wrong side of the ledger.
    Without a substantial change in the way we do things, places such as central Australia will become unliveable for humans over summers.

  8. Ruth Apelt, I agree it’s hard to know where to start, but Kieran’s story is not a bad place. It is actually about the effect of extra heat on humans, and essentially not about plants!
    In any case I would like to see your evidence for the idea that we are about to see plants and animals “sizzled”.
    In another on-line publication, Central Australian botanist Peter Latz recently presented his evidence and observation that Central Australia’s plants are healthier than they have been “for thousands of years” due to increased carbon dioxide. Feel free to google it.
    Charlie Carter, I concede that your research on batteries is more up to date than mine, which was a couple of years old. The price of batteries has indeed decreased significantly, although it is arguable whether it is actually as cheap as you claim. It depends what you read!
    However, if we are to go with batteries to back up solar and wind power, we would require a massive increase in resources to make them, as well as replace them when they run out and batteries always do.
    A number of environmental studies (see Global Change Biology, Nature Communications) have warned that the amount of mining for batteries and renewables poses a likely bigger threat to environments than fossil fuel mining.
    Michael Moore’s Planet of The Humans explored this issue and also touched on the moral issues associated with mining for battery ingredients like cobalt with exploited labour in Africa. And your argument about cold is highly questionable (I won’t say “rubbish”), and in any case I was referring to places that are already accustomed to cold.
    So Ruth Apelt, what is it with us? I would ask the same thing of people who have closed their minds and eyes to what is actually happening in the world in preference to 30 years worth of highly exaggerated prophesies of doom that have yet to come to pass to any considerable degree.
    We do have to deal with climate change whatever is causing it, but the sky is not falling and the planet is not dying. And aren’t we having a beautiful summer?

  9. @ Simon Kelly: Your comments on the pros and cons of battery mining of elements for alternative energy sources resonates with a discussion I had recently with a fellow former Alician, Ian MacMillan.
    Ian was a chief exec of Green Plumbing and visited California numerous times early 2000s for energy conferences. Ian is a big fan of Elon Musk and electric vehicles and Arnie Schwartzenegger for progressive renewable energy policy.
    I must say that I am impressed with Ian’s informed view that electric cars are the way to go, and by his views on the development of smaller efficient batteries.
    Now your thoughts on the ethics of the vast mining of essential renewable materials are equally as impressive. In the huge open spaces of the NT, battery efficiency, size and long life capabilities will be more critical than in urban areas.
    I hope the inner city Greens who were so vehemently opposed to mining of virtually any materials in Bob Brown’s founding days will factor back in to their platform the ethical consideration of mining vast quantities of the materials required for their new Green Deal.
    Balance is required.

  10. We have to change the “Status Quo” and begin living in the actual environment in the NT, instead of trying to create an artificial one for ourselves . As most people have to work for a living we have to change our working hours (like daylight saving) to work at night when it’s cooler instead of in the hottest part of the day usually 10 am to 4 pm . If we can’t arrange that, close the NT between October and March, and work more Hours for the remainder of the year. If the animals have already figured this out, active at night – resting up by day , then isn’t it about time ( 2021 ) we followed suite . After all, we’re supposed to be smarter than they are !

  11. @John Bell
    A recent news release from Washington State University has reported a breakthrough in battery technology, replacing Lithium with Sodium. That is, a rare metal with its mining and political complications replaced with a cheap common one.
    Batteries are not only becoming cheaper, but the technology is diversifying exponentially.
    Recycling also has a huge role to play when we do it properly.
    I would also query your use of “vast” to characterise the mining of battery materials.
    Have a look at the open cut coal mines in the Hunter Valley (NSW) if you want to see “vast”.
    Let us not ignore the “vast” amount of materials that go into the mining/drilling for fossil fuel, and the pipelines, transport, and power stations.
    As for “vehemently opposed to mining of virtually any materials”: Come on John, this is a silly caricature.

  12. @ Charlie Carter: Charlie, I can assure you that when I first engaged with the Green movement in the 1960s in Melbourne, there was a hard core of Green believers who were against all mining.
    A few young ladies from CLC our sister college (Parade) even debated it against us.
    Later in the 1970s home on leave from the Alice I went to a number of gatherings at Melbourne Uni and went to a couple of marches where enthusiastic megaphone Greenies called for an end to all mining.
    I went along because they were friends of mine.
    One young lady at CLC became a lawyer I heard with an environmental group. And that was back in the 70s. Arguments raged I can assure you. Impractical but well intentioned and I understood where they were coming from.

  13. Charlie Carter: I hope we do see cheap, viable batteries that do not create more problems than they solve, but so far they only exist in media releases!
    Meanwhile all renewables fans should read this article by Laura Sonter from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Queensland University, published in Nature Communication.
    Her research indicates the vast majority of mining these days is not for fossil fuels but renewables. When you consider that renewables still constitute only about 17% of the energy mix, we are looking at a serious threat to biodiversity, as Sonter points out.
    Meanwhile, I wonder how the average coal mine compares in size with the proposed Barkly solar farm, which at 12,000 hectares will be nearly as big as the municipality of Alice Springs. And rest assured, some billionaire or other will be trying to build another even bigger one somewhere else.

  14. @ Simon Kelly. Reckon you are on the money about big business going to renewables. The billionaires are all profit driven, the world over.
    They sniff which way the political wind is blowing and go with the government renewable subsidies switching from fossil fuels to another profitable field. Not a lot of ethics or real concern for the environment. For profit. Deep down, so to speak.
    Democrat Congress members in the US are in the renewables profit-making scene like other savvy politicians. Nancy Pelosi’s hubby for example.
    Inevitably, my guess is that they will create similar cleanup messes in the battery element mining business that they left in fossil fuels. Just a guess. Time will tell.

  15. @ Simon Kelly. You said: “Her research indicates the vast majority of mining these days is not for fossil fuels but renewables.”
    What she actually said was: “We did not examine the changes in mineral demand specifically driven by renewable energy production. These dynamics are highly uncertain and dependent on many factors, most notably including the mix of technologies, infrastructure, and the strategies ultimately used to mitigate carbon emissions and delivery of future energy demands.
    “Instead, our method examines whether the minerals critical to produce these technologies and infrastructure were present or absent.”
    Most of these minerals are also used in other technologies, computing, electronics, communications etc.
    It is absolutely incorrect to infer that they are only for “renewable energy”.
    Also, as far as I can tell (it is a very dense and complex paper) she also includes minerals like copper, only a small proportion of which would be used for renewable technologies.
    In other words Simon, you have completely misrepresented the findings in the paper!
    [NOTE: G’Day Erwin, I have this feeling that the Simon Kelly writing letters is associated with the mining industry or lobby group.
    I can’t find anything in a quick look on the net.
    However, if he is, surely a disclosure would be appropriate.

  16. How did a report about living with heat prompt a discussion on mining?
    Anyway, I wonder how much research looked into the past for health affects?
    The 1940s through 60s show similar weather patterns in Katherine as the last few years.
    Though I imagine there would be less data on both local and remote population, and the impact on health over this time.

  17. Charlie Carter: Nice bit of selective quoting there. Of course, we all do that, but I suggest people read the whole article before taking your claims for granted. This is another verbatim quote from the article: “Most mining areas (82%) target materials needed for renewable energy production, and areas that overlap with Protected Areas and Remaining Wilderness contain a greater density of mines (our indicator of threat severity) compared to the overlapping mining areas that target other materials. Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production and, without strategic planning, these new threats to biodiversity may surpass those averted by climate change mitigation.”
    I expected that sooner or later in this discussion someone would resort to smear tactics, which is the most common tactic used by climate change alarmists. I will continue not to resort to insults, innuendos or ungrounded attacks. But your suggestion that I have anything to do with the mining industry and should be the subject of a witchhunt is contemptible. I have never worked in any area even remotely connected with mining, gas, coal or anything to do with power generation. I have no shares in any mining companies and have never had them. My only admission of bias is that I enjoy and acknowledge the benefits I and most other human beings have experienced from the exploitation of fossil fuels. But your apparent assumption that I am “against” renewables and “for” fossil fuels is typical of the simplistic manner in which these matters are discussed these days.

  18. Simon, your accusation of selective quoting does not stand up.
    The quotes are complete, and not out of context.
    My quote from the paper specifically and unambiguously contradicts your statement.
    Which lead me to ask the question of your motive.
    It was not intended as a smear, and I apologise if you see it that way.
    You have explained your motive.
    I am concerned with the presentation of accurate information, and am terrified of what climate change is doing, and will do, to our planet.
    The quote you cite contains a lot of qualifiers –
    “Most, overlap, threats, target, without strategic planning, may”.
    Not exactly a specific statement.
    And, as I pointed out, mining for almost any mineral will find material used for some form of renewable energy, as well as a host of other uses.

  19. Charlie Carter: Thank you for your apology, but I think you are wrong to assume that everyone who “cares for the planet” accepts that is being somehow destroyed by anthropogenic global warming.
    In relation to the paper, I should have said: “The vast majority of mining is not for fossil fuels, but for minerals that are used in making renewables and other commodities.”
    The author’s conclusion, that mining for renewables is a serious threat to biodiversity that will increase, remains.
    There is a headlong rush to renewables with little thought for the consequences it might have. It is being fuelled by big business, which is happy to snap up subsidies while assuming a “caring” guise, and also by ordinary people who are being misled by alarmist media.
    Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans demonstrates how disastrous this push has been in the case of the expansion of the biofuels industry in the USA.
    Most of the “scientific predictions” about climate change are also full of qualifiers: “might”, “may”, “could”. We have been hearing these “coulds” for 30 years now and according to the early ones we should now be living in a time when numerous Pacific islands have gone under, there are millions of climate refugees, snow in England is a rare event, average world temperatures have risen by a degree or three more than they have, and the Arctic has been ice-free in summer since somewhere between 2013 and 2018.
    All these baleful and in inaccurate predictions were based on models that were and remain hopeless at accurately predicting the climate’s sensitivity to increased CO2, which appears to be well at the lower end of the scale.
    We need to spare a thought for the unnecessary anxiety with which we have burdened our children, many of whom believe they are living in the end days and are afraid to have children. The planet everyone cares for so much has seen far greater changes in temperature and is now still in the middle of a “cold” period.
    Unless it collides with a very large asteroid, I have little doubt it will continue to support life for many more millennia.

  20. What effect does over population have on the world? What effect does the earth’s changing orbit around the sun have on us? 10000 years ago Finland and Estonia were covered with ice, or at least that is what the tour guides told us in 2011 when we were there.

  21. Simon says: “In relation to the paper, I should have said: ‘The vast majority of mining is not for fossil fuels, but for minerals that are used in making renewables and other commodities.'”
    No Simon.
    What it said was: “The global area influenced by mining will almost certainly grow in extent and density in future, and the increased demand for renewable energy technologies and infrastructure will likely be one contributing factor.”
    The rest of your post is a completely inaccurate climate science deniers rant.
    Not worth responding to.
    To sum up, you have deliberately falsified the findings of a report to promote your delusional agenda.
    End of story.

  22. I suggest anyone interested should read the actual report and make up their own minds, rather than taking my or Charlie’s word for it.
    There is a link in an earlier post. Same goes for my “rant”.
    If you are interested in investigating these matters with an open mind, try not to be intimidated by bullies on either side of the debate. These issues are too important. And that’s the end of the story for me too.


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