Extreme Heat A Far Greater Threat For Most Australians Than Extreme Cold Weather, Study Finds

Sydney Morning HeraldPeter Hannam

Extreme heat is a far greater threat for most Australians than extreme cold weather, with the risks falling largely on the elderly.
Research published on Tuesday in the Climatic Change journal examined the deaths of 1.717 million Australians between 2006-2017. It found about 2 per cent were attributable to heat, while "close to zero" were caused by cold days, said Thomas Longden, a senior researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney, and author of the paper.
"We're going to get some very extreme events that really may start pushing people ... over a threshold": study author Thomas Longden, a senior researcher at UTS. Credit: Ryan Stuart 
Dr Longden's research took aim at a 2015 study in The Lancet that examined 384 locations globally - including Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney - and found a warming world would generally be beneficial, claiming mortality from cold was greater than hot weather.
That study used data from 1988-2009 and was based on a so-called minimum mortality temperature. In Melbourne's case, some 90 per cent of its days were treated as cold, based on a 22.4 degree average daily temperature.
"It such a bizarre result to find more cold deaths to heat in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney," Dr Longden said.
His study used median daily temperatures in six climate zones across the country, and found 2 per cent of mortality in Sydney was associated with heat and a near-zero linkage to cold weather. Melbourne showed similar results.
Only in the climate zone characterised by mild to warm summers and cold winters - Tasmania and the alpine regions of NSW, Victoria and the ACT - were more deaths associated with cold than heat, he said.
In regions with hot, humid summers - such as Townsville, Cairns and Darwin - as many as 9 per cent of deaths were related to heat.
Scientists expect climate change will create longer, more intense and more frequent heatwaves for much of Australia, a trend that would exacerbate the risks of heat-related deaths.
"In the future we're going to get some very extreme events that really may start pushing people, who have not had an issue in the past, over a threshold," Dr Longden said. "Hospitalisation, ambulance call outs and deaths can occur after that."
The elderly, in particular, will face more pressure on their health as temperatures rise, Dr Longden said.
Separately, the Australia Institute on Tuesday released its Climate Of The Nation report, which has tracked attitudes to climate change since 2007.
The survey of 1960 Australians aged 18 years and older by YouGov Galaxy was taken between July 25 and August 1. It found 77 per cent of respondents agreed the climate was changing, matching the highest level recorded in 2016. Some 81 per cent said there were concerned the shift would result in more droughts and floods, up from 78 per cent in 2018.
Other findings included 78 per cent of respondents saying they were worried climate change would lead to water shortages in Australian cities, up 11 percentage points in two years. More than two-thirds backed "an orderly phase-out of coal" and a similar ratio supported Australia reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Australians are rightly concerned about more extreme heat waves, droughts and bushfires, and they want the Morrison government to show leadership on climate change and do more to prepare for the impacts that are already locked in," said Zali Steggall, the independent MP for Warringah, who launched the report.


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