Australia's Extreme Heat

Mar 8, 2020
Originally published on March 9, 2020 3:54 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Australia just ended its second-hottest summer on record. The heat was extreme, feeding months of devastating wildfires. Those fires drew international attention, the heat less so. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, extreme heat is a deadlier threat.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Australians, by and large, are pretty direct people. So it figures, walking into Mary Conyard's house, west of Sydney, she would get right to the point.

Hello.

MARY CONYARD: How are you?

ROTT: Good. How are you?

CONYARD: Hot. Humid.

ROTT: Yeah. It's cooking here.

It's about 38 degrees Celsius outside, 100 Fahrenheit, which is relatively cool compared to what it's been.

CONYARD: If I keep this front door closed, at least it keeps some of the heat out.

ROTT: Some - not much. Three fans are humming in Conyard's living room. The lights are off to save money on electricity. And Mary Conyard's bangs cling to her forehead like she just got out of the shower.

CONYARD: I've just vacuumed because I knew you were coming, and this is what happens to me.

ROTT: Conyard lives in community housing, a rental unit for lower income people that's located in Greater West Sydney, a fast-growing part of the country's largest city that a few months ago held another distinction - the hottest place on earth, about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or, as Conyard puts it...

CONYARD: It was stinking hot.

ROTT: And when it's stinking hot or just, you know, hot hot, like it is on this day, Conyard, like many people in West Sydney, has a really hard time. Running the air conditioner all day is not an option. It's too expensive. So is moving.

CONYARD: It's a struggle. It's really a struggle. You want to do things, but the heat just zaps it out of you.

LUCINDA COATES: Heat waves, as well as being a silent killer, it's a social killer.

ROTT: Lucinda Coates is a scientist with Risk Frontiers, a private research center that focuses on natural hazards like bushfires, cyclones and flooding. About 20 years ago, Coates had the grim task of cataloging how many people each of those natural disasters had historically killed in Australia.

COATES: And that's when we first started thinking, hang on a minute, heat waves. They seem to have killed, you know, more people than all the other natural hazards combined.

ROTT: Yes, all other hazards combined, with elderly people and the poor most at risk. Coates says it's too soon to know how many people may have died during this past summer's extreme heat, but history might provide a somber clue. In 1939 and 2009, Australia had devastating bushfires, Black Friday and Black Saturday as they're now called. Both were preceded by heat waves, and those heat waves alone, Coates says, are each believed to have killed more than 400 people. The deadliest fire - 173.

COATES: Yeah, so twice as many as succumbed to the bushfires.

ROTT: But the heat waves didn't get nearly the same attention. It was all fire - photos of crying families and singed teddy bears.

COATES: And you can see why they're newsworthy. Bushfire is a terrifying thing, but heat waves, how can you take a picture of a heat wave? I've got a PowerPoint presentation where there's a young chap just holding a water bottle up and drinking out of the water bottle. That's my picture of a heat wave. So it's really hard to communicate the immediate danger.

ROTT: And there's a fast, growing need to communicate that danger. A recent climate report by the Australian government found the country has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius just in the last century. Extreme heat events are increasing in frequency, as is the risk of extreme fire and extreme flooding, all of which has happened in Australia in just the last few months. Sebastian Pfautsch is a research fellow at Western Sydney University who's focusing on climate change and urban heat.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: Everything is extreme. It's exactly like how scientists for 30 years predict climate change to actually pan out. And it's not 2030 or 2040 or 2050 anymore, it's 2020. We have it. It's happening.

ROTT: Pfautsch says there are ways you can build for heat. For example, houses could be painted certain colors to reflect light. Green or living roofs could provide insulation. Houses could be built smaller, with more room for trees and green space. Australia is updating its national construction code in 2022, and extreme heat is being considered in the changes. But new codes would primarily be aimed at new buildings, and the people most affected by heat tend to be folks like Mary Conyard, living in older buildings that were designed long before bouts of extreme heat were much of a thought.

CONYARD: Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the roof I have over my head and being able to pay for it and do that. But I think sometimes it's poor design.

ROTT: Wentworth public housing, the nonprofit that leases Conyard's home, knows this is an issue. Divisional manager Heather Chaffey says she hears it from clients all the time.

HEATHER CHAFFEY: For us as a housing provider, you know, tricky housing market, it's distressing, to be honest.

ROTT: Wentworth often doesn't own the homes they rent, Chaffey says, so it makes it hard to make modifications. Instead, they focused on warning tenants when extreme heat is coming. But she knows that's not enough. Heat, she says, is a global social justice issue.

CHAFFEY: It's the poorest people that are going to suffer the most.

ROTT: So, she says, there needs to be a larger societal discussion about how we prepare for extreme heat because as this summer just showed, it's already here. Nathan Rott, NPR News, West Sydney, Australia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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