Heat beyond human tolerance has arrived in the Australian outback. From Alice Springs, physician specialist Dr. Simon Quilty with tales of wilting people, dying trees and a future gone walkabout. Hear this warning to a heating planet. And why don’t we count heat deaths, the way we count Coronavirus deaths? That makes it time for hot summer listening – from my earlier interview with Dr. Camilo Mora: “Twenty-Seven Ways a Heat Wave Can Kill You: Deadly Heat in the Era of Climate Change”.
Transfixed by news of riots, mass burials, and fear of disease another relentless force continues. On May 27 it was 98 degrees Fahrenheit, about 37 degrees C – in Montreal Canada. The average high for that time of year is 70 Fahrenheit, or 21 degrees C. The province of Quebec has Canada’s highest number of COVID-19 cases, over 50,000 people tested positive, and about 4500 deaths. Their economy has more or less closed down. Every stage has it’s backdrop. For our times, that is climate change. We may find a vaccine for the new Coronavirus. A new business landscape may form. But a hotter world is certain. Extreme weather is the new violence running behind the news.
Because of the pandemic, the United Nations has called off the world climate summit for this year. They did not even try to make it a virtual gathering – a move that should have been made years ago. Instead of diplomats, scientists, activists and media flying in from all over the world, the COP climate conference system needs to take it’s own medicine and ditch air travel. I guess we can just postpone climate action for another year. Except dealing with climate is just like the pandemic. Earlier action can save millions of lives. Each year of delay brings the on-set of calamity that much closer, becoming harder and harder to put out the fire. That is why you and I keep the climate watch on Radio Ecoshock.
But if you need an escape, let’s go way out there to the front lines, to a place you won’t see in the news.
FROM THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK: DR. SIMON QUILTY ON THE NEW HEAT
Dr. Simon Quilty serves patients in one of the hottest places on Earth – Northern Australia. Just last year, his patients in Katherine Australia suffered through 54 days where temperatures were above 40 degrees C. or 104 Fahrenheit. Dr. Quilty estimates during hot weather half the people admitted to hospital were pushed over the edge by heat, and some die. But on death certificates around the world, there is nowhere to record heat as a contributing factor. We know tens of thousands can die in single heat wave, like the one that hit Europe in 2003. We know more people will die as global warming delivers even more extreme temperatures. But we don’t know how many, because for a variety of reasons, we don’t really count heat deaths.
From Alice Springs Australia, we welcome Simon Quilty to Radio Ecoshock. With lead author Thomas Longden, Simon just published a paper in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The title is “Heat-related mortality: an urgent need to recognise and record”. Simon has published 22 papers, many of them outlining disadvantages in health care experienced by aboriginal people, and other Australians in remote areas, like Darwin, Alice Springs, and Katherine.
Dr. Simon Quilty (photo courtesy of ABC News Australia, see article link below)
Just to set the stage, as a kid I watched a TV show filmed in Australia “The Flying Doctors” . It kept coming back, again in 1985, and the 2008 “Bush Doctors” reality TV series. Simon has also been a “flying doctor” for remote communities in the Australian outback. In addition to serving in northern hospitals, Simon is a visiting lecturer at Australian National University and a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians.
Parts of Northern Australia are a lab where we can study extreme heat coming to most of the world, due to our greenhouse gas emissions.
In November 2017, Radio Ecoshock guest Camilo Mora described his paper “Twenty-Seven Ways a Heat Wave Can Kill You”. I replay that key interview later in this show. So it is not just heat stroke or sunburn or something. Dr. Quilty talks about the processes where heat drives other existing medical conditions into hospitalization and even death.
Dr. Mora also told us about “harvest effect” where the deaths come in days or weeks AFTER the heat wave. He also said our organs, can be damaged by excess heat, almost like an internal sunburn, which may lead to premature death even a year later.
We also discuss lead author Tom Longden’s earlier work in Climatic Change in September 2019. In my unscientific nutshell, Longden broke away from national heat statistics to develop knowledge of the bands of temperature that develop, often across national boundaries. With that new perspective, this new paper in the Lancet can better visualize where heat deaths are happening.
As I have covered in previous shows, with multiple physicians and scientists, we know that heat deaths are wildly underestimated almost everywhere. During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen many countries find ways to under-count deaths from the virus. In Russia they only listed people who showed the disease in autopsies. The United States didn’t count nursing home deaths until recently. Some countries downplayed the disease, so they don’t want the real death count known. Could reticence to attribute deaths to heat be related to government reluctance to admit the seriousness of climate change?
Perhaps medicine and governments are both stuck in a one dimensional simplistic way of thinking. We demand THE cause of death, rather than the complex ways bodies break down and can’t recover. That is what Dr. Quilty and other doctors are asking for: since a “death certificate” is less a piece of paper than a digital record, we need to add the surrounding circumstances with each death record. The person may have passed due to a heart attack, but it matters if that was during an extreme heat wave, or other contributing factors. More simple data could be recorded with the death certificate.
Dr. Quilty adds that attending physicians may be less aware of the oppressive heat outside, since most assessments happen inside air-conditioned hospitals, at least in the developed world. In a lot of places, nobody even tries to record a cause of death. If a person drops dead on the streets of Lagos Nigeria, or the slums of Sao Paul, there is no investigation into the causes. I doubt we will ever know the true number of people on a global basis who die due to extreme heat.
The other odd thing about official heat mortalities is: we can’t use them as a gauge of how much the climate is warming. For example, in Northern Europe and North America, heat deaths may have decreased – not because it isn’t hotter, but because authorities reacted to shocking numbers dying. They instituted social changes to cope, like cooling centers for the poor and homeless. India reduced heat mortalities that way. It kind of hides the real dangers of increasing heat. I think we could see another mass mortality if a heat wave is accompanied by a massive and long-lasting power failure. When the air-conditioning goes off, along with city water, we may be surprised.
In addition to the large-scale heat maps employed by Longden, we can also find temperatures much higher within cities, that are never recorded. For example, on Radio Ecoshock we spoke with Dr. Mat Santamouris, a Professor of High Performance Architecture in the University of New South Wales. Mat was measuring local heat within cities. A drone carrying heat measuring equipment discovered 158 degrees F (70 degrees C) on an upper level of a car park in Darwin. If someone moves from an air-conditioned office into that kind of heat, could that bring on medical problems?
Many scientists predict this planet could warm up to 4 degrees C by the end of century, unless we can find a climate miracle. In a recent show, Dr. Tim Lenton said the real figure on land would be much hotter, perhaps 7 degrees hotter. Simon tells us with temperature predictions for Northern Australia, part of Australia reach the point where humans can’t live there. That is exactly the kind of uninhabitable places our recent guest Radley Horton explained in more new science. Here it is, already popping up in the outback of Australia.
As Dr. Quilty mentioned, when outside temperatures go above 120 degrees F. or 48 degrees C. – air conditioners struggle to keep up and power bills can become prohibitively expensive. Most A/C manufacturers only provide test data to 120 degrees F. If outside temperatures soar to 130 degrees F, or 54 C. – the air conditioner will likely overheat and shut itself down. In other words, air conditioning cannot protect humans from the developing extremes of heat on a warming planet. When those temperatures appear for any length of time, humans will have to abandon those places and go live somewhere else, if they can. Otherwise, Dr. Quilty says, ten or twenty percent of the population will die from causes driven by the heat. Air-conditioning may prolong out stay, but don’t count on machines to save us.
Here is a quality article about undercounting heat deaths, “Experts Warn Climate Change Is Already Killing Way More People Than We Record” by Carly Casella, published May 25, 2020.
“Worryingly, research shows that it is highly likely that there will be an increase in their frequency and severity under a changing climate, however, evidence about the impacts on mortality at a global scale is limited,” says co-author Antonio Gasparrini from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
With an international team of researchers, Gasparrini created a database of daily measurements of temperatures and mortalities from the start of 1984 to the end of 2015 for 412 communities around the globe.
They used these numbers to predict mortality rates extending back to 1977 and all the way forward to the end of this century, varying the outcomes based on several scenarios.
For the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, the news is grim.
“This research, the largest epidemiological study on the projected impacts of heatwaves under global warming, suggests it could dramatically increase heatwave-related mortality, especially in highly-populated tropical and sub-tropical countries,” says Gasparrini.
By 2080, there’s an outside chance that Colombia could see an increase in heatwave deaths of more than 30 times today’s numbers. For Brazil and the Philippines, the numbers are only slightly less concerning, at around 10 to 20 times the current mortality rate.
Major cities in the US and Australia could see at least four times the number of deaths.”
ABC Australia adds even more alarming news to the scenario of under-counted deaths.
“The research team found that out of the 1,717,224 deaths in Australia between 2006 and 2017, heat was listed as a cause of death on fewer than 1,000 death certificates. But the analysis of deaths and temperature found that heat was likely to have contributed to at least 37,000 of the deaths, although that relationship went unrecorded.”
There is no up to date data on heat related deaths in Australia, however there are some useful facts and figures on this climate change website.
Research is on-going into the mental health impacts of excess heat. We know suicides go up. The data on violent crimes is mixed, especially if it is just too hot to go outside. But we can know how our bodies react to high heat. All of us should learn the signs, our pre-existing risk factors and all that. Nobody has studied that more thoroughly than Dr. Camilo Mora from the University of Hawaii. Here is a reply of my interview with Dr. Mora, recorded in November 2017. His paper is “Twenty-Seven Ways a Heat Wave Can Kill You: Deadly Heat in the Era of Climate Change”. My blog about it, with all the links, is here.
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