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Climate adaptation has to keep poorer people cool too. Chris Riebschlager

Staying safe in a hotter Australia might depend on your income

In a summer that has so far seen unprecedented heat followed by unprecedented floods across large parts of the country, it’s hard for those of us researching climate change impacts not to say “I told you so”. But instead, we’re working on how to protect Australians from the worst possible future conditions in an equitable way and without disadvantaging Australians living today.

While a specific extreme weather event cannot be attributed solely to climate change, the devastation in recent weeks and years is certainly consistent with what we expect: extreme events in Australia – prolonged drought, intense heat, unrelenting rainfall – are becoming more frequent, and the “extremes” are also becoming much more, well, extreme.

Of course, weather extremes in Australia are nothing new. It’s a country characterised by drought and flood, and many of us are left disappointed if we don’t have at least a bit of a heatwave each summer. Coping with, even thriving under and celebrating our extreme weather has long been embedded in the national psyche.

Over the last three decades, temperatures across Australia have increased (see Figure 1). With the current rate of emissions, we’re on a trajectory for global warming up to 6°C towards the end of the century. That might seem a long way off, but we don’t have to look that far ahead to see impacts, and we can’t wait until then to take action. What will the next ten or 20 years be like?

Figure 1 Average annual daily maximum temperature in Australian capital cities (1980-2012). Linear trend, increase is per decade. Hothaps-Soft v1.0.2.4

After a couple of decades of modelling potential population health outcomes based on climate change scenarios, we have a pretty fair idea what the health impacts in Australia are likely to be. Heat-related impacts, not surprisingly, are among the best understood.

Where impacts models fall down is that they usually look only at averages – an X increase in temperature leads to a Y increase in deaths. In epidemiology this is called a “dose-response” relationship.

It’s very much harder to model a future of extreme events because we don’t yet know what these events look like. At a certain point, whole systems break down and any dose-response modelling can be thrown out the window.

To adequately prepare for our possible futures, we need imagination informed by evidence; regrettably, it’s not the stuff of science fiction. What does a catastrophic heat event look like?

The 2009 heatwave event in Victoria might give us a starting point, with buckling train tracks across the city and firestorms across the countryside. Even thinking only in averages, we’re just beginning to get a handle on what we can actually do to minimise adverse health impacts.

As a wealthy country, Australia is well placed to undertake strategic and effective climate change adaptation to safeguard the population’s health. Yet Australia remains a country of socioeconomic disparity that leaves certain population groups more vulnerable to climate change than others.

Holing up in artificial environments to see out the worst of the heat may be an option for some, but not necessarily available to everyone. You may be homeless, or work outdoors or in a non air-conditioned factory.

If you live in a poor thermally performing house, chances are that you are socioeconomically disadvantaged and will also have been priced out of domestic air-conditioning by rising energy prices. If you’re older or have a chronic disease, you’re at greatly increased risk of dying during a heat event, especially if you are socially isolated.

Adaptation planning that is effective and equitable is not an easy task. It requires some considerable rethinking and restructuring about how we produce food, use water, deal with waste and deliver energy. It requires us to rethink how we design the built environment so that it not only protects us when required but also promotes our basic needs for social contact, physical activity, and aesthetic pleasure; cities and houses don’t need to be ugly fortresses against the future.

One highly palatable function of adaptation research, policy and planning is the opportunity to deliver health and social benefits to the broader population regardless of future climate impacts.

These are “no regrets” strategies. Cleaner air? Tick. Better public transport and fewer road deaths? Tick. Job creation? Tick. More green, recreational urban public space? Tick. A more active, less overweight population? Tick.

In fact, one of the most effective things we can do in Australia to minimise the health impacts of climate change is to reduce the burden of chronic disease associated with obesity.

Another major no-regrets action is to invest sufficiently in clean energy to reduce emissions that cause climate change. If highly industrialised Germany can excel at solar power with a latitude centred around 51N and the sunshine equivalent of porridge, what’s stopping us in the sunburnt country?

However we play our adaptation cards, Australia’s future climate will no doubt change the way we relate to the outdoors. Events which now appear extreme will become normalised, and new extremes will force us to take shelter like never before. Some level of biophysical adaptation to heat is almost assured but certainly limited, and structural and behavioural strategies must take centre stage.

To this end, we need to focus on building resilience in all communities – whether a major city or little more than the pub and the servo at some outback crossroad. Resilience in climate adaptation doesn’t just mean being able to bounce back after a disaster strikes, but having the systems already in place that can mitigate and perhaps avoid catastrophe.

The transition town movement aims to do just this, moving away from large-scale commercial production and supply and focusing on local sustainability with some redundancy built into the supply system. Having a healthy population with low levels of chronic disease will contribute to a community’s climate resilience.

Whether adaptation planning is at national or local community level, a “no regrets” or “low regrets” approach means that even with uncertainty as to the extent of future climate change impacts, we’d be creating healthier, stronger communities in the here and now.

If events of the past few years still leave you in doubt about climate change, ask an insurance actuary whose task it is to calculate risks. Or simply keep an eye on your annual tax return, because an equivalent of the 2011 Queensland Flood Levy will probably become a permanent fixture.

A Bushfire Levy one year perhaps, or a Drought Levy the next. A much more honest approach would be to name it for what it is - a Climate Change Levy.

One day this might even be used to fund planned adaptation activities that prepare for the new climate norms, rather than for unexpected disaster recovery from an “unusual” event.

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