Perhaps the biggest news in south-eastern Australia in the four days commencing 14th January, 2014 was the extreme heat. In Melbourne, for the first time ever recorded, we experienced four consecutive days above 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 Fahrenheit), ranging from 41.7C to 43.9C (107F to 111F). [1]

News bulletins were full of: fires raging across the states of South Australia and Victoria; increased incidents of cardiac failure and other heat-induced trauma; public transport failures; power blackouts; and players suffering at the Australian Open tennis championships, including Canadian Frank Dancevic  who famously fainted after hallucinating and seeing the cartoon character Snoopy. [2]

Those few days brought back memories of January and February, 2009 and the “Black Saturday” bushfires that killed 173 people. [3] In the final week of January that year, Melbourne experienced three consecutive days above 43C, the highest being 45.1C.  On 7th February (Black Saturday), we experienced a record maximum of 46.4C (115.5F). [4] [Note 1]

In his book “Requiem for a Species”, Clive Hamilton described some effects on wildlife: “Brush-tailed possums fell dead from the trees. Flying foxes, unable to cool their bodies, dropped from the sky”. [5]

In the week commencing Australia Day, 26 January, 2009, there were 374 more deaths than normal in the state of Victoria. In its report on the health impacts of the excessive heat, the Department of Human Services (DHS) stated [4]:

“There was a clear increase in all cause mortality that followed the onset of the heatwave with a rapid decline as temperatures fell. Over the week of 26 January to 1 February 2009, total deaths were 980 and the expected deaths for the week was 606. This represents 374 excess deaths . . .  representing a 62% increase in deaths for this week.” [Note 2]

Similarly, from 13 to 23 January, 2014 (a period that included another heatwave), The Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (which does not deal with all deaths in the state) recorded 139 deaths above the normal level. [6]

Why the sense of surprise at extreme temperatures?

Climate scientists have been warning of the dangers for decades. Some world leaders have also spoken frankly. The problem is that  those world leaders and others have failed to address the problem in a meaningful way.

Here’s a small sample of statements from some of the prominent speakers on this issue.

1965: US President Lyndon Johnson [7]:


This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

1988: NASA Scientist Dr James Hansen testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, paraphrased in the New York Times [8]:


. . . it was 99 percent certain that the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.

1989: British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher speaking to the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in four years (choosing to focus solely on the environment) [9]:


Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance. I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.

We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere. The annual increase is three billion tonnes, and half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution still remains in the atmosphere. At the same time as this is happening, we are seeing the destruction on a vast scale of tropical forests which are uniquely able to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

As mentioned in previous posts, the range of extreme temperatures has increased in recent times. Records between 2003 and 2008 reflected a 10-fold increase in extreme summer temperatures (hot and cold) globally relative to the base period of 1951-1980. Extreme temperatures are considered to be more than three standard deviations from the historical mean. The following chart from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies demonstrates the changing patterns for the period 2000-2010, with a general move toward higher temperatures.

Figure 1: Shifting distribution trends of summer temperature anomalies


The following chart from the Australian National Academy of Sciences and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) shows a growing trend of record hot days, and a fall in the number of record cold days.

Figure 2: Changes in number of Australian record hot and cold day maxima


It is interesting to consider how vulnerable our health is to the effects of excessive heat.

Forensic pathologist David Ranson has said: “It’s unclear what toll the current heatwave will take on human life but we know that when the temperature exceeds 32.2C [90F] for three or more consecutive days (considered a heatwave), the rate of heat-related illness and unexpected death rises.” [10] [Note 3]

Who is most vulnerable?

Dr Ranson has stated, “The elderly and the very young, in particular, are unable to react adequately to high ambient temperatures. Individuals who are very obese, very malnourished or have poor physical fitness are also more physically vulnerable to extreme heat. A range of medications and illicit drugs may also reduce the body’s capacity to react to heat or increase the stress effects of heat, placing a person at increased risk of heat-related illness and death.”

The European heatwave of 2003 resulted in tens of thousands more deaths than normal. Estimates vary, but a 2006 report in the International Journal of Epidemiology indicated a figure of between 22,000 and 45,000, with average temperatures 3.5C above normal. [11]

Dr Liam Phelan of Newcastle University has indicated a figure of 35,000. [12]

The 2009 DHS report referred to earlier indicated that “excess all-cause mortality across twelve countries has recently been revised up from 50,000 to 70, 000”, citing sources from peer-reviewed journal Eurosurveillance [13] and the World Health Organisation [14].

In 2010, a heatwave in Moscow was responsible for 11,000 deaths. [15]

Heat stress is the main cause of weather-related deaths in the USA. [16]

What can we do about climate change?

Become engaged, acknowledge the crisis, and fight for change:

Politicians in a democracy seldom lead on difficult issues; they generally react to the demands of the electorate if their hold on power is at stake. We face a potentially overwhelming threat to our way of life and the welfare of future generations and other species. We must demand emergency action from politicians who establish laws and national strategies.

In commenting on strategic challenges facing those campaigning for meaningful action, author and commentator David Spratt quoted former coal, oil and gas industry executive, Ian Dunlop [17]:

“Honesty about this challenge is essential, otherwise we will never develop realistic solutions. We face nothing less than a global emergency, which must be addressed with a global emergency response, akin to national mobilisations pre-WWII or the Marshall Plan . . . This is not extremist nonsense, but a call echoed by an increasing numbers of world leaders as the science becomes better understood . . . In the face of catastrophic risk, emission reduction targets should be based on the latest, considered, science, not on a political view of the art-of-the-possible.”

Convincing others of the need to act can play a key role. One person convinces another, two convince two, four convince four, and so on. In that way, the message can spread exponentially until politicians take notice. “People power” has overturned governments and brought about fundamental social change, and it can do so again.

Emission-reduction measures by individuals, although helpful, will not be enough. Social commentator and author, Clive Hamilton (referred to earlier) has quoted US analyst Michael Maniates: “A privatization and individualization of responsibility for environmental problems shifts blame from state elites and powerful producer groups to more amorphous culprits like ‘human nature’ or ‘all of us'” [18]

David Spratt has suggested that campaigning efforts need to be far more strategic, focussed and united than they have been to date. [17]

Ignore denialists:

Skepticism is an essential element of science. However, generally, the more active climate change denialists do not appear to be true skeptics; they seem to oppose meaningful action for ideological reasons and/or to pursue vested interests. My article Relax, have a cigarette and forget about climate change outlines sophisticated PR techniques used by the fossil fuel sector, and before them the tobacco industry, to falsely create doubt amongst the general population about valid, crucial scientific findings. [19]

Grasp change:

When we advanced from the horse and carriage to the automobile, blacksmiths lost their jobs. However, new jobs were created. In 2008, the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) and the Australian Conservation Foundation estimated that Australia could create around 850,000 new jobs  by 2030 by investing in green technologies, including renewable energy. [20] (Many opportunities will have passed by since then, but others will be available now and in the future.)

Other actions:

Dr James Hansen has also advocated the use of the courts by those with the power to do so, to force governments to act. [21] Bill McKibben of 350.org has a strategy of convincing superannuation funds, pension funds and the like, to cease investing in fossil fuel interests. As I have written elsewhere, a general move away from animal agriculture is an essential mitigation measure.


We are rapidly losing any window of opportunity to overcome climate change. No one can realistically say they have not been warned of the dangers. If we want to avoid increasing death rates from excessive heat, along with other impacts, then we must actively engage in addressing the crisis.

Blog Author: Paul Mahony (Also on Twitter, Scribd and Slideshare)

Notes on temperature records and reports of Victorian deaths in January, 2009:

  1. Temperature records also available from from http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/data/index.shtml, using weather station 086071, Melbourne Regional Office
  2. In its report, “The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather”, the former Climate Commission appears to have mis-reported the referenced paper, by indicating that all 980 deaths were heat-related. It stated, “There were 980 heat related deaths during this period, 374 more than would have occurred on average for that time of year”. [5] Nevertheless, in terms of absolute numbers, the error appears immaterial; there were 374 more deaths than normal for the week from 26 January to 1 February, 2009, which appear to be heat-related. (Source: Steffen, W., Hughes, L., Karoly, D. (Climate Commission), Apr, 2013, “The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather”, p.14, http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/136923/20130919-1415/climatecommission.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/ExtremeWeatherReport_web.pdf)
  3. Like the Climate Commission researchers referred to above, forensic pathologist David Ranson appears to have inadvertently mis-reported relevant information. He has stated, ” . . . in Victoria in 2009, there were 374 “extra” deaths beyond what would have been expected over the summer.” In fact, the number of 374 only relates to the week commencing 26 January that year. It does not include, for example, any extra deaths on 7th February, when the temperature reached a new record of 46.4C.


[1] Cauchi, S. & Zielinski, C., The Age, 17 Jan, 2014, “Temperature to plummet as cool change makes its way across Victoria”, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/temperature-to-plummet-as-cool-change-makes-its-way-across-victoria-20140117-30zqf.html

[2] Hanlon, P., 15 Jan, 2014, “Extreme heat proves too much for Canadian player Frank Dancevic”, http://www.smh.com.au/sport/tennis/extreme-heat-proves-too-much-for-canadian-player-frank-dancevic-20140114-30t3y.html

[3] Final Report – 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/finaldocuments/summary/pf/vbrc_summary_pf.pdf

[4] Victorian Government Department of Human Service, 2009, “January 2009 Heatwave in Victoria: an Assessment of Health Impacts”, http://docs.health.vic.gov.au/docs/doc/F7EEA4050981101ACA257AD80074AE8B/%24FILE/heat_health_impact_rpt_Vic2009.pdf

[5] Hamilton, C., “Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change”, Allen & Unwin 2010, p. 203

[6] Medew, Julia, “Anger over heat deaths”, The Age, 27 Jan, 2014, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/anger-over-spike-in-deaths-during-record-victorian-heatwave-20140126-31gxb.html

[7] President Lyndon Johnson, 1965 message to Congress, cited in The Science Show, ABC Radio National, 8 January, 2011, “Naomi Areskes – Merchants of Doubt”.

[8] Shabecoff, P., “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate”, New York Times Archive, 24 June, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html

[9] Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Speech to United Nations General Assembly (Global Environment), 8 November, 1989, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107817

[10] Ranson, D., “Death in a hot climate: southern heatwave to take its toll”, The Conversation, 17th January, 2014, http://theconversation.com/death-in-a-hot-climate-southern-heatwave-to-take-its-toll-22039

[11] Jordi Sunyer and Joan Grimalt, “Global climate change, widening health inequalities, and epidemiology”, Int. J. Epidemiol. Advance Access published February 17, 2006, http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2006/02/17/ije.dyl025.full.pdf, cited in Ranson, D., “Death in a hot climate: southern heatwave to take its toll”, The Conversation, 17th January, 2014

[12] Phelan, L., “Cuts in emissions are at a premium”, The Age, 25 Jan 2011, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/society-and-culture/cuts-in-emissions-are-at-a-premium-20110124-1a2ul.html

[13] Brucker, G., Vulnerable populations: lessons learnt from the summer 2003 heatwaves in Europe. Euro Surveill, 2005. 10(7): p. 147, http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=551, cited in Vic Govt Dept of Human Services, “January 2009 Heatwave in Victoria: an Assessment of Health Impacts”

[14] Robine, J.M., “Death toll exceeded 70,000 in Europe during the summer of 2003” in “Protecting health in Europe from climate change”, p 14. Edited by Bettina Menne, Franklin Apfel et al, World Health Organisation, 2008, Comptes Rendus Biologies, 2008. 331(2): p. 171–178, cited in Vic Govt Dept of Human Services, “January 2009 Heatwave in Victoria: an Assessment of Health Impacts”

[15] Paul Tullus, Time, Science & Space, 10 May 2012 “Global Warming – An Exclusive look at James Hansen’s Scary New Math”, http://science.time.com/2012/05/10/global-warming-an-exclusive-look-at-james-hansens-scary-new-math/

[16] Dr Michael H. Smith, Australian National University and Investor Group on Climate Change, “Assessing Climate Change Risks and Opportunities for Investors: Mining and Minerals Processing”

[17] Spratt, D., “As Tony Abbott launches all-out war on climate action, what’s the plan?”, Climate Code Red, 28 January, 2014, http://www.climatecodered.org/2014/01/as-tony-abbott-launches-all-out-war-on.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ClimateCodeRed+%28climate+code+red%29

[18] Hamilton, C, “Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change”, (2007) Black Inc Agenda, p. 110

[19] Mahony, P., “Relax, have a cigarette and forget about climate change”, Viva la Vegan, 7 Aug, 2012, http://vivalavegan.net/community/articles/358-relax-have-a-cigarette-and-forget-about-climate-change.html

[20] ACTU and Australian Conservation Foundation, 2008, “Green Gold Rush: How ambitious environmental policy can make Australia a leader in the global race for green jobs”, http://www.acfonline.org.au/sites/default/files/resources/Green_Gold_Rush.pdf

[21] Hansen, J, “Storms of my Grandchildren”, Bloomsbury, 2009, p.291


Heat Wave High Temperatures © Lucidwaters | Dreamstime.com

Seal of the President of the United States © Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com

James Hansen, Columbia University

Margaret Thatcher © | Dreamstime.com

Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2 Aug 2012 “Shifting Distribution of Northern Hemisphere Summer Temperature Anomalies, 1951-2011”, Animation No. 3975, http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?3975

Australian Academy of Science, “The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers”, Aug 2010, Figure 3.3, p. 8, http://www.science.org.au/reports/climatechange2010.pdf (Original source CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, 2010 “State of the Climate”)