More than a Hot Week


In February 2017, Australia experienced one of its most extreme heatwaves on record. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory were all affected by the extreme weather event.

My home state of New South Wales experienced its two hottest days on record. 10 February was 42.4 degrees Celsius, whilst 11 February was 44.02 degrees. The previous record had been set on 15 February 2004 at 41.99 degrees. NSW’s maximum temperatures for February have been 4 degrees above average.

The Rural Fire Service Commissioner warned that the fire danger in NSW was ‘without precedent’. ‘Catastrophic’ fire warnings had only been issued once before in NSW. They were issued again in February, with much of the state facing ‘catastrophic’ or ‘extreme’ fire danger.

A single heatwave doesn’t prove anything about climate change, just as a single snowstorm doesn’t. The important thing isn’t this week’s or last week’s weather, but rather the long-term trend.

The long-term trend is for the earth to get warmer. Much of this global warming has occurred since the mid-1970s due to human activities. 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, with 2016 being the hottest. Additionally, heatwaves in Australia have become both hotter and more common. As climate change continues, the heatwaves are going to get much worse.

A heatwave is more than a hot week. It is also an issue of environmental justice.

An environmental justice perspective recognises that the benefits and burdens of the physical environment are rarely distributed evenly. Some people receive more than their fair share of the benefits, whilst other people bear more than their fair share of the burdens. This is true of many environmental issues, from coal seam gas mining to the construction of roads. It is also true of Australia’s increasingly ferocious heatwaves.

Heatwaves impose significant burdens on the affected areas. They cause power black-outs, disrupt public transport and cost local economies billions in lost productivity. They also pose health risks, placing strain on health and emergency services. Heat-related illness can cause irreversible damage and even death.

Such outcomes are already more common than you may think. Heatwaves are ‘responsible for more human deaths [in Australia] than any other natural hazard, including bushfires, storms, tropical cyclones and floods’. The 2009 heatwave in Victoria and South Australia killed 374 people in Victoria alone. Moreover, the number of heatwave-related deaths will increase rapidly in the next 33 years.

Heatwaves burden almost everyone in the affected areas, but they do not burden everyone equally. Very young people, older people, pregnant people and people with a medical condition are especially vulnerable to heat-related illness. People who have a lower socioeconomic status also face particular challenges during a heatwave. Many people’s homes and workplaces do not have air conditioning, and very few people have the freedom to simply change their circumstances. For example, switching on a fan might seem like a sensible response to a heatwave, but for a family on a tight budget, the electricity costs can be prohibitive.

Some people have no choice but to suffer through the debilitating heat, whereas other people can mostly keep themselves cool. This might explain why some people find it funny, whereas others are outraged, when Government ministers toss around a piece of coal in the Parliament.

We all have a lot to lose from climate change, but some people will lose more and sooner.  


The author, Sean Bowes, is the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for the summer semester 2016/17. He is in his final year of a combined Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws at the University of New South Wales. To read more articles from The Student Voice, click here.



Photo supplied by author.