By Kate Goldstone
For generations, people from all over the world have made their way to Australia on holiday to enjoy its wonderful warm, sunny weather and extraordinary natural environments. Plenty of families moved there permanently, seduced by the climate. Now New South Wales, the country’s most heavily populated state, is officially experiencing total drought, and Australia’s legendary hot dry weather is fast becoming more or a problem than a pleasure (1).
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as “rainfall over a three-month period being in the lowest decile of what has been recorded for that region in the past ” (2). The current very dry winter down under is intensifying the ‘worst drought in living memory’ in some areas of eastern Australia, with New South Wales, the provider of a quarter of the country’s agriculture, now 100% in drought. 23% of New South Wales is in a state of ‘intense drought’ and the rest is either in drought or drought-affected. And in the news’ grim wake there’s a growing litany of horror in the form of failing crops, dying livestock, and severe water shortages.
Some farmers are being forced to pay as much as a hundred dollars for a truck of hay to keep their beasts alive. Some are selling off their animals in despair. Others are digging in to wait for the rain… if it ever comes. In the Australian countryside farming suicide rates have always been higher than average. Now they’re around 40% higher than urban suicide rates, according to the national mental health charity Sane Australia (3).
The blame lies at the feet of climate change
Of course Australia’s weather is naturally varied year-on-year, and is affected by multiple complicated factors. Like much of the world’s weather it’s a chaotic system, and hard to predict. But all the same, a growing number of scientists are laying the blame at the feet of climate change. The Australian government itself admits the risk of severe drought could be more likely thanks to human-created global warming. As the Prime Minister PM Turnbull acknowledged, he doesn’t know many people in New South Wales who don’t think the climate is getting drier and rainfall becoming more volatile.
Government relief payments do nothing to fix the underlying issue
The Australian government is already paying out annual relief of as much as A$16,000 to affected farmers. The Prime Minister has just promised extra payments of up to A$12,000, in a move that has been criticised for being too little, too late. In a nation where drought isn’t a stranger at the best of times, it’s clear those in power are worried. But like most governments, they’re not doing anywhere near enough on the people’s behalf to mitigate climate change. Emergency relief doesn’t contribute to the fight against global warming, it merely papers over the cracks.
Australia is at more risk of runaway climate change than most
Worse still, The Guardian (4) reports that climate change could affect Australia more than any other continent. A science agency and Bureau of Meteorology report says they expect temperatures to rise as much as 5.1C in Australia by the year 2090. Scientists have long predicted that a 4C rise would be catastrophic, and that makes a hike of more than 5C downright terrifying. Unless action is taken to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions right now, officials say there’s a ‘very high confidence’ that temperatures will continue to rise steeply across Australia throughout the 21st century. Let things slide any further and the Australian government’s lack of real action could see the worst case 5C scenario become a reality.
How high temperatures affect humans
High temperatures affect more than agriculture, of course. If you’ve ever suffered through an exceptionally hot summer’s day you’ll know how nasty and uncomfortable it can be. The human body has an internal temperature of around 37C, and it dislikes being any hotter. Prolonged exposure to heat and humidity can easily kill you. If it doesn’t you’ll suffer muscle cramps because you’re dried out, short of vital electrolytes, and salt-deprived. If you’re not used to high temperatures you can suffer heat edema, where your hands and ankles swell up like balloons when your poor blood vessels dilate in an effort to radiate heat away. If you see little prickly red spots on your skin, it’s a heat rash caused by blocked sweat pores. If you stop sweating altogether, it’s time to worry – you’re on the road to potentially fatal heat stroke. When you heat up to more than 40C and lose consciousness, you’re in real trouble.
Extreme heat also results in dizziness, nausea, fainting, hallucinations, and something called heat syncope, where you get a temporary drop in the blood flow to your brain because you’ve lost so much fluid. Vomiting, diarrhoea and palpitations also reveal your body is not at all happy. No wonder, in summer 2003, an estimated 70,000 people died in the great European heatwave, which saw temperatures soaring to record levels for weeks on end.
All this happens to humans… and to our fellow creatures, who also suffer and die when temperatures exceed the usual maximum. Australia’s precious Great Barrier Reef, for example, is dying fast, being bleached to death thanks to rising sea temperatures. And once it goes, that’s that – it’s gone. Half a million years of growth, and we destroy it within a few decades. It’s shameful.
No continent is an island
The thing is, no continent is an island. Climate change is global. No one country is protected from it, no one country can make it go away. If Australia doesn’t act fast enough on climate change, the USA will ultimately suffer. If the USA doesn’t act fast enough Europe will suffer. If the EU doesn’t act now, China will suffer. And so on. We’re all interconnected, as are our economies. When one part of a global economy nosedives, so does the rest.
Australia might just be facing a perfect storm. When you blend dire predictions with government inaction and a climate that might already be changing off the scale, the future doesn’t look rosy.
It’s time to force the world’s governments to act on our behalves, to try to secure a decent future for our children. Will you go to jail for the cause, the greatest challenge mankind has had to face since we made our way out of Africa? Can you support the cause in any other way? If so, we’d love to hear from you.
Together we can make great things happen.