Temperature records aren’t the only things that climate change has shattered this week.
A baby Koel bird sat in my garden on the weekend screaming in distress at the extreme heat wave. It sat there in the 41-degree weather, confused and making repetitive loud noises. All I could do was put water in the garden and hope it would cool it down, but I knew its chances of survival weren’t good. A few hours earlier, my mum’s friend had called, very upset, after seeing dead birds on the footpath who had fallen out of trees during the heat of the day.
Around NSW, many birds just like that baby Koel have died from the extreme temperatures. You rarely hear people talk about birds when they’re talking about global warming. The impacts on animals of extreme weather events usually aren’t considered important in the political debate. But when birds start dropping dead out of trees, you know something’s wrong.
A mere heat wave seems like a lucky break for Sydney when Victorians are suffering from floods and Queenslanders coping with both floods and cyclones, but last week wasn’t pleasant for those without air conditioners. Since records were kept in 1858, Sydney and surrounding areas have never experienced such consistently high temperatures.
Birds aren’t the only animals that suffer in extreme heat. Whatever affects the animal kingdom affects humans too. In the European heat wave of 2003, more than 70,000 people died as a result, mostly the elderly, who didn’t have the resilience to survive the rising heat. NSW Health reported yesterday that 62 people so far had been treated in emergency departments for heat-related illness in the past six days.
In 2004, The World Health Organisation concluded that the warming that has occurred since the 1970s (of 0.75oC) is causing over 140 000 deaths annually, over what would have otherwise occurred without climate change. They explain that extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60 000 deaths, mainly in developing countries.
The World Health Organisation has also singled out climate change’s impacts on floods, noting that floods are “increasing in frequency and intensity” and “contaminate freshwater supplies, heighten the risk of water-borne diseases, create breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes, cause drownings and physical injuries, damage homes and disrupt the supply of medical and health services.”
It is not news to Australian Governments that climate change brings more extreme weather, including flooding. In 2010 the Scientific Advisory Group to the Queensland Government’s Inland Flooding Study advised “an increase in rainfall intensity is likely” and “the available scientific literature indicates this increased rainfall intensity to be in the range of 3–10 per cent per degree of global warming”. Warmer ocean temperatures lead not just to heavier rain, but also to stronger cyclones.
Some Australian supermarkets are worried about fresh produce looking less-than-perfect; but we have bigger things to worry about. Rising temperatures and variable rainfall, the World Health Organisation explains, are likely to decrease the production of staple foods. This will affect not just Australia but also many of the poorest countries in the world– with staple food production reduced by up to 50% by 2020 in some African countries4. This in turn increases malnutrition and undernutrition, which already cause 3.5 million deaths every year.
Why isn’t this front-page news? I don’t understand how a certain small group of powerful, complacent polluters can still deny the existence of climate change when we have not just TV images showing devastation from extreme weather events exacerbated by warmer ocean temperatures, but reports documenting deaths from climate change.
It’s not like anyone debates other World Health Organisation reports. It’s not like we point to a report saying that, for example, over 16,000 died from swine flu and have a serious “debate” about whether swine flu is real. Maybe it’s because no one profits from selling the virus that cause swine flu; whereas the operating profits before tax from the mining sector in Australia are in excess of $45 billion per year.
Not only can Australian polluters emit as much pollution as they like without a price on carbon, they’re not even being asked to help chip in to pay for the reconstruction after our extreme weather events.
Maybe it’s too late for the baby bird that was in my garden this afternoon, but it’s not too late for thousands of other animals and humans that still have a chance of survival. Let’s not blow that chance.
 Robine JM et al. Death toll exceeded 70,000 in Europe during the summer of 2003. Les Comptes Rendus/Série Biologies, 2008, 331:171–78.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book 2009-10, Mining Industry, Summary of operations-2007-08, available at: