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Heatwaves – A Global Threat to Human Health and Habitation From Climate Change

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A brutal heatwave affected players and fans alike at the 2014 Australian Open.

Fourth in a series of blogs on climate change and population displacement.

By Claire Havens, ACT population displacement researcher.

I recently relocated to Melbourne, Australia without much knowledge of the regional climate. Over the winter, which was mild but not much warmer than an average February in Vancouver, I was warned repeatedly by locals about the extreme temperatures that can occur in the summer. On cool, grey days, this was hard to imagine – but one recent spring day that reached 36 degrees signaled what is yet to come.

Tennis fans will remember last year’s Australian Open, when an unprecedented heatwave saw temperatures rise above 40 degrees for three days running. Many players and 1,000 spectators were treated for heat stress. Matches had to be cancelled because conditions were so dangerous. The Australian Climate Council has found that the frequency of heatwaves in Australia is “projected to increase significantly” and ties the extreme temperatures during the tennis tournament directly to climate change. During periods of extreme heat in Australia’s major cities, elderly and low income residents living in energy inefficient homes without modern air conditioning are at particular risk.

Heatwaves may have been freak occurrences in the past, but they are becoming increasingly common in many places around the globe, with serious implications for human health. A new study in Nature has found that, by 2070, the Gulf in the Middle East, the centre of the global oil industry, will experience heatwaves “beyond the limit of human survival” if climate change continues at the current rate. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and coastal cities in Iran will suffer extreme heatwaves, more intense than any ever experienced on Earth. After 2070, the hottest days in current climatic conditions will become routine, essentially rendering the region uninhabitable for residents without access to air conditioning. In a recent Guardian article, the study’s authors noted, “Under such conditions, climate change would possibly lead to premature death of the weakest – namely children and the elderly.”

Heatwaves are deadly. Extreme temperatures in Europe in 2003 killed 30,000 vulnerable people and in Russia in 2010 50,000 people perished from respiratory illnesses and heat stress. Both incidents have been linked to climate change. This isn’t an entirely foreign concept for some Canadian cities; Toronto and Montreal regularly experience summer temperatures in the high 30s, and medical health officers routinely issue warnings to the elderly and families with children to take precautions.

There is still time to avert a rise in extreme and extended heatwaves in the Middle East and elsewhere. Global action to reduce carbon emissions would mean that temperatures in the region would experience much smaller rises. “The [Gulf] countries stand to gain considerable benefits by supporting the global efforts” to mitigate emissions, said the researchers. So do other climate laggards, such as Australia and Canada.

As some regions become uninhabitable as we creep towards 2070, without significant action on reducing emissions we can expect intensifying instances of migration to cooler parts of the globe as people try to escape the health effects and high costs of extreme heat. In some countries, this will mean moving internally to more temperate areas; in others, it may eventually mean complete abandonment of certain regions. Where will those escaping extreme heat go, and how will their movements impact arrival cities and regions?

Countries like Canada with lots of room, water, and social services plus less likelihood of the kind of extremes that are projected for the Middle East should begin now to consider their options – especially considering the crisis unfolding in the EU as Syrian people arrive in the thousands, partly due to drought.

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