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Climate change will kill you, part one: heat

Jan 5, 2021 • 18m 59s

In this new series, journalist Paddy Manning investigates the link between climate change and human health, and tells the stories of those who have become some of the first casualties of the climate crisis. Today’s episode is part one: heat.

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Climate change will kill you, part one: heat

• Jan 5, 2021

Climate change will kill you, part one: heat

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is ‘Climate Change Will Kill You’ - a special series from 7am.

The climate emergency is the biggest crisis facing the planet.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire, Grantham Resident

“He said look, and we looked across the paddock and all you could see was a bloody house coming in the water.”

RUBY:

While the rest of the world moves towards a zero-carbon future, our politicians praise coal and fossil fuels.

Archival Tape -- Matt Canavan MP

“We know and can see how important our coal is for the world.”

RUBY:

But Australia is one of the countries that has the most to lose from a failure to take action.

Archival Tape -- Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glen Innes

“Was like fireballs in the air that explodes, cars blowing up before the fire even gets there”

RUBY:

From devastating bushfires and heatwaves

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Doctor

“just cardiac arrest, cardiac arrest, cardiac arrest.” (helicopter and fire sounds)

RUBY:

to floods,

Archival Tape -- Unidentified youth

“It’s getting higher!” (torrential rain sounds)

RUBY:

and the increasing severity of disease, Australians are already feeling the physical consequences of a warming planet.

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

It's not a question about the future generations. It's not a question about, you know, the environment only. It's a question about people's lives.”

RUBY:

Journalist and contributing editor to The Monthly Paddy Manning, has travelled around the country, investigating the impact climate change is having on Australians right now.

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

“Do you consider yourself a victim of climate change disaster?”

Archival Tape -- Interviewee

“Ummm...”

RUBY:

In this three part series, inspired by Paddy’s book, Bodycount, we’ll hear about the people who have become some of the first casualties of the climate crisis.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman

“We have to turn off his life support, just like that - gone.”

RUBY:

Their stories should be a wake up call. Climate change is killing us, and we can’t ignore it any longer.

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

“We have this kind of ‘oh, was that linked to climate change?’ and it's seen as somehow politicising or opportunistic to talk about that and so it kind of gets swept under the carpet and the stories of those victims don't get told.”

RUBY:

This is Part One: Heat.

Paddy, can you tell me about where this project started for you?

PADDY:

Yes. So my research for this project started at a Stop Adani rally out in Western Sydney, in Parramatta, just ahead of the 2019 Federal Election. And one of the speaker’s was a Western Sydney doctor, Kim Loo.

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo.

“Hi I’m Dr Kim Loo, I’m a mother of two children and I’ve been a general practitioner and now working for 30 years in Western Sydney, I’m a child of Western Sydney.”

PADDY:

She got up and talked about the impact of climate and how it's disproportionately severe in the Western suburbs of Sydney, which is kind of a heat trapping kind of bowl.

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“During heat waves we are often 6 to 10 degrees hotter than the rest of Sydney. This is because of our geography and our urban design. We have houses built so close together you can’t plant any greenery around it. This is a microclimate to trap heat.”

PADDY:

Temperatures are higher in the Western Suburbs. You don't get the kind of sea breezes that you get on the coast and that is impacting people's health. And she's seeing it amongst her own patients.

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“I had one of my patients, a long term patient I’d looked after for 14 years, he had a previous heart attack, he had asthma…”

PADDY:

She talked about a particular guy who’d suffered from the heatwave of December 2018.

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“On a Saturday which was 41 degrees I was called from home by the police, I went there and saw what happened”.

PADDY:

And I thought, I need to talk to that woman.

RUBY:

Ok, Paddy, that was 2019. You've since spent a lot of time with Dr Loo and she introduced you to the family of a man called Chuck McCleod - a patient who she was particularly close to.

PADDY:

I interviewed Chuck’s daughter, Evelyn, she lived about twenty minutes away and they were very close, she checked in on him everyday and called regularly.

Archival Tape -- Evelyn North

“I’m Evelyn North, daughter of Charles McLeod, who we affectionately call Chuck.”

PADDY:

So that summer was a hot one, there were record breaking heat waves all through the holidays all around the country, and that year the Mcleods celebrated Christmas together.

Archival Tape -- Evelyn North,

“Next day. I just asked him how he was thinking. I popped into to see him on the way home from work and tried to constantly remind him that it's hot, don't go out.”

PADDY:

But on the 29th Evelyn had to work and didn't actually drop in on him. She just texted.

Archival Tape -- Evelyn North

“And it took him a while to get back to me. He’s said “It's okay. Everything's fine. Yeah. Just had a bit of a sleep in, taken advantage of the cooler weather in the morning.” I said ok, no worries, he said this neighbour has been on the phone as well. Because she used to have a thing where he'd open the curtains in the morning and she knew that he was up...”

PADDY:

For whatever reason he went up to Coles and got a you know, and made it back in time before the day really got severe. But then he cracked a beer and, you know, after half a glass decided, bugger it he was gonna back up. He must have forgotten something. He was going to go back up the shops.

Archival Tape -- Evelyn North

“Even though I'd remind him, don't go out. And he said, oh, is it really that bad. And I'd say, yes, don't go out. It was me trying to… He’s probably thinking ‘oh that bossy woman's telling me... all these bossy women telling me what to do.’ ”

PADDY:

And so he hopped back on his scooter in that ferocious heat back up to the shops.

Archival Tape -- Evelyn North,

“You know, the doctor's telling me what to do. This nurse is telling me what to do. The daughter's telling me what to do. I’m me own man. I’ll do me own things”

PADDY:

He made it home, but the neighbour actually noticed that his air conditioning was still on, normally, he would have turned it off. And because they all live quite close together and they all looked after each other and she rang Evelyn and said, I think you better come over. I'm worried about Chuck.

Archival Tape -- Evelyn North

“And he was just lying on the floor on his side.”

PADDY:

And so Evelyn went over and sure enough, and found him dead.

RUBY:

So Paddy, you first learnt about Chuck through talking to his doctor, Dr Kim Loo. What did she say to you about his death?

PADDY:

Well Kim was asked to fill out Chucks death certificate and Kim did something she'd never done before -

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

“What did you write on the death certificate?”

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“I wrote down heart attack and I wrote down heat.”

PADDY:

She wrote down heat alongside heart attack and respiratory failure.

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“Like if it was a cold day or a cool day, he’d probably still be alive but the heat just tipped him into having a heart attack. He was lovely. I’m still upset about Chuck actually. Sorry.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

“That's ok”

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“You know as a GP you look after people and you do become attached to them.”

RUBY:

Is it unusual for a doctor to put down heat as a cause of death? How significant was that decision?

PADDY:

This is the thing, you know, heat deaths are underreported. Most often they're recorded as a heart attack or a stroke, and that's the immediate cause of death, if you like.

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“It was such a hot day so I thought it was a major factor in ummm… a major factor that precipitated his death.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

“Do you think that's activism? Is that part of your activism?”

Archival Tape -- Dr Kim Loo

“No, it's... it's what we know about heat and its impact on the body. It’s not activism at all, it's the reality of what I work with every single day.”

PADDY:

There's a real argument amongst, in the medical profession now that environmental factors should be included in, you know, we could do a much better job, put it that way of death certification, perhaps death certificates should have environmental factors on them. We do need to get smarter about how we prepare ourselves for heat and also how we how we how we, you know, record these deaths, because the first step to managing a risk is to identify it and so far, you know, we haven't properly identified it.

RUBY:

Right, but is that beginning to happen Paddy? We are starting to see a greater recognition of the links between natural disasters, climate change, and death, aren’t we?

PADDY:

Well, we know that the World Health Organisation says that between 2030 in 2050, they expect, half a million deaths per year, from climate change as a result of heat, as a result of disease and other factors and scientists say they can be more confident about the connection between climate change and heat waves than any other extreme weather event.

So heat is the most dangerous extreme weather event in Australia over our history. It's caused more deaths than every other extreme weather event combined. And year after year, we're seeing more severe heat waves. We're in the middle of another hot summer. The Climate Council has run out of ways to describe our angry summers, the angriest summer. It's just getting worse year after year.

And so if we start thinking about deaths like Chuck’s as related to climate change, I think that's that's that's a real wake up call to heat, which is disproportionately those on lower incomes, those older those, you know, people in our communities very often, either in the suburbs of our major cities or out in places like the Northern Territory, the centre of the Northern Territory, which on some forecasts will be uninhabitable in the second half of the century.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paddy, we’re talking about the casualties we’re starting to see from extreme weather, caused by climate change. You’ve spent the better part of a year looking into this, and I wonder - are you able to pinpoint when climate change became fatal for us here in Australia?

PADDY:

I've kind of come to an imprecise starting point, which is around the turn of the century. I got there by looking at the history of extreme weather events and which caused, you know, loss of life and fire behaviour started to change in Australia around the turn of the century and that the 2003 Canberra bushfires were very alarming to scientists.

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 1

“As it stands this is the fire situation, 500 firefighters are tonight battling the biggest blazes ever seen in the capital.”

Archival Tape -- Interviewee 1

(Crying) “It just came through so fast”

Archival Tape -- Newsreader 2

“It was the unthinkable, a megafire in the nation's capital”

PADDY:

So there were four fatalities in the Canberra bushfires.

Archival Tape -- Interviewee 2

“Holy jesus, this is bad news.”

PADDY:

They spread at the fastest rate ever measured. They were spreading it 20 kilometres an hour. There was the first fire tornado.

Archival Tape -- Interviewee 2

“Just like a big fireball tornado, look at it.”

PADDY:

That was the first time this phenomenon had ever been observed between two fire fronts, that they whip up this whirling ‘fire-nado’ that just hit the western suburbs of Canberra at a speed that firefighters, you know, were just unable to stop it.

Archival Tape -- Firefighter

“Get outta here, that way, follow us out!”

RUBY:

So those 2003 Canberra fires. Can we link them to climate change? What do the people who were there say?

PADDY:

I interviewed David Tener, who lost his wife that day. We spoke about that fire, you know, how his wife, Alison, lost her life and whether that fire was connected to climate change.

Archival Tape -- David Tener

“I think Alison got caught out. I think it just arrived in the suburb like a tsunami without warning, so to speak. And. But I would like to have thought that if I was here I have gotten her out you know”

PADDY:

And, you know, he was open-minded about whether the bushfires were linked to climate change.

Archival Tape -- David Tener

“I know we're in drought. I know we have climate change. I know the place is a tinderbox. But even with all that, how can we have so many fires in such a short period? I mean, what's actually sparking them?”

PADDY:

Later, after I had spoken to the Bushfires and Natural Hazards CRC, in particular, a scientist down there called Phil Zylstra, who's looked at the history of bushfire in the Alps in Australia. And, he told me that these fires were started by dry lightning and that they were, you know, a turning point in the history of bushfires in Australia.

And when I put that to David, he said, well, yes, in that case, I think you can link Alison's death to climate change. His thinking about her death kind of evolved as I spoke to him over the course of, you know, half a dozen different conversations or interviews, over a span of about a year. As time goes on, the science comes in, takes years to come in that will attribute a particular extreme weather event to global warming.

And the people, the victims who are most affected don't necessarily keep track of the science and don't necessarily see the story. Even if it appears, you know, in the back pages of a newspaper, years after an event which says actually that fire was linked to warming. And so, David's own thinking, it kind of changed in the course of my interviews with him.

Archival Tape -- David Tener

“If the Canberra fires were started by dry lighting, then yes I guess you could say we were a victim.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy Manning

“Hmmm”

Archival Tape -- David Tener

“you could have had 500 firetrucks and 5000 men and it would not have stopped this.”

RUBY:

How much has that conversation, on bushfires and climate change developed since those 2003 fires Paddy?

PADDY:

I think the most recent bushfire season was the first time when people on the ground, the affected communities, insisted that climate change be part of the discussion. When the bushfire season started to really deteriorate, we saw the first loss of life up on the New South Wales’ North Coast. And the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, was saying, not today. She was asked by reporters whether the fires, the severity of the bushfires was linked to climate change. She said not today.

Archival Tape -- Gladys Berejiklian

“I certainly don’t think it’s appropriate to get into a political argument as to what the causes are at this stage, there’s no doubt…”

Archival Tape -- Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

“Premier, it’s not a political argument…”

PADDY:

And straight away, the response from the people on the ground was, if not now, when? When are we going to talk about climate change? Because, you know, we're dying here.

Archival Tape -- Regional Firefighter

“You knew this was coming. It’s been coming for a few years and you’ve been totally ignorant, and now we are wearing your problem.”

Archival Tape -- Crowd of Protesters

“enough is enough, enough is enough!”

RUBY:

Paddy, by pulling all of this together and drawing these links with this project, what is it that you're hoping to achieve? Is it to bear witness to these deaths or is it an attempt to raise the alarm about climate change in a perhaps more tangible kind of way?

PADDY:

It's a bit of both. Ruby, it is an attempt to bear witness because I think that it is an attempt to honour the people who have lost their lives and their loved ones because they get left out of the climate debate. And this is a trend now that is established. As a kind of community, we have been debating climate change forever. And there's no prospect yet that that debate is going to kind of conclude or come to some kind of consensus. I hope that it does.

But while we have that debate, people are dying and we're not being honest about the connections between global warming and these deaths. If we don't understand global warming at its most acute, where it's killing us, if we don't understand it in those terms, we're not understanding the danger that we're facing. At the most acute, it's a question of How climate change is killing people, and so it seemed to me over the years, you know, it's always a hot button topic after every extreme weather event that causes loss of life.

We have this kind of “Oh, was that linked to climate change?” and it's seen as somehow politicising or opportunistic to talk about then and so and so it kind of gets swept under the carpet and the stories of those victims don't get told.

RUBY:

That was Paddy Manning, the author of Body Count, which inspired this series.

Next week, on Part Two of ‘Climate Change Will Kill You’, we investigate how floods and rising sea levels are making more of the country uninhabitable. And what that means for where we choose to live.

Make sure to subscribe to 7am in your favourite podcast app.

I’m Ruby Jones, thanks for listening.

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From bushfires and heat, to floods, and the increasing severity of disease, Australians are already feeling the impacts of a warming planet. In this new series, journalist Paddy Manning investigates the link between climate change and human health, and tells the stories of those who have become some of the first casualties of the climate crisis. Today’s episode is part one: heat.

Guest: Contributing editor to The Monthly, Paddy Manning.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.


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: Climate change will kill you, part one: heat