Australia: Extreme Heat Threatens Lives

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Denham Court Housing Estate in Western Sydney. Housing estates with homes crammed close together capture and store heat that radiates from one neighbor to the next. January 28, 2022.
© 2022 Matthew Abbott for Human Rights Watch

(Sydney) – Australian local, state, and federal governments should act to protect their populations from the foreseeable harms of heatwaves exacerbated by climate change, Human Rights Watch said today in a new photo essay on the struggles of living with extreme heat.

The photographs show life in Greater Western Sydney, where geography and flawed urban design exacerbate climate change-driven heat, providing an alarming insight into what the future may hold and why urgent government action is needed.

“Australians are paying the price of government inaction on climate. Our leaders are not taking the critical steps needed to reduce carbon emissions and help prevent the most catastrophic climate outcomes, including an increase in extreme heatwaves,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Local and state governments need to develop heatwave mitigation and emergency response plans, ensure the public is informed of imminent risks, and provide access to cool environments.”

Heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia in the past 200 years than any other natural hazard. Those most at risk of heat stress are children, older people, pregnant people, and people with disabilities. Extreme heat can also exacerbate existing health conditions and chronic illnesses including diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts significant climate-related health impacts for people in Australia if urgent action is not taken to reduce emissions, including excess heat-related deaths in Australian cities quadrupling between 2031 and 2080 compared with 1971-2020.

Extreme weather events, which are intensifying in Australia due to climate change, have disrupted the lives of millions of Australians this summer. Parts of Western Australia have experienced their hottest summer on record, while towns and cities in southeast Queensland, northern New South Wales, and in Sydney flooded under record levels of rain, resulting in the deaths of 22 people and the destruction of thousands of homes.

“The Australian government should rapidly reduce emissions, stop subsidizing fossil fuels, and increase its support for clean, renewable energy,” McNeill said. “The government has a human rights obligation to prevent foreseeable climate harms, of which this summer’s extreme heat and flooding is a sign of things to come.”

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