Terrorism and Climate Change in Perspective

Temperature Anomalies Australia first week October 2015

The crimes and threats of terrorism often dominate the mainstream media in Australia. From the horrific beheadings by ISIS to the murder of journalists in Paris the publicity of these events engenders a certain amount of fear across the country. This fear is easily exploited by cynical politicians who use scare campaigns to maintain their hold on government. But these threats are illusory and the real threat – the various disastrous ramifications of climate change – is hidden on page 12 of the news or not even mentioned at all.

To put the issues in perspective the total fatalities from terrorist crimes in Australia over the last 100 years, depending on how you define ‘terrorism’ and excluding actions of the criminally insane, is a handful. This hardly compares with the fact that between 2000 and 2016 there were 35 fatalities in Australia from snakebite. In 2015 alone there were 3000 suicides, 1209 road fatalities, 4 deaths from lightning strikes and 2 from german measles. Thus the chances of you being a victim of a terrorist attack in Australia are exceedingly small. You are far more likely to be struck by lightning or bitten by a snake.

On the other hand some of the effects of climate change, including floods, drought and heatwaves, are already causing substantial fatalities around the globe. The civil war in Syria, for instance, grew out of the worst drought in its history. This extreme weather event was almost certainly exacerbated by climate change. But in Australia it is almost certainly heatwaves (and their more visible and often associated bushfires) that are currently causing the most damage to life and property.

In his Atmosphere of Hope (Text, 2015) Tim Flannery wrote: “it was only with the arrival of the twenty-first century that our shifting climate began to influence heatwaves strongly. Humanity’s first intimation of just how great a threat to health heatwaves could become arrived in the summer of 2003. Europe’s summer in that year was the hottest since records began in 1540.” In France he noted there were “15,000 heat-related deaths” and that these heatwaves could become the norm by mid-century.

A Doctors for the Environment pamphlet noted that “Heatwaves have serious effects on human health. Often referred to as a ‘silent killer ’, heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia over the past 100 years than any other natural event. For example, the heatwave that preceded the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria resulted in 374 excess deaths, in comparison to the 173 tragically killed in the fires themselves. Across southeast Australia, the 2009 heatwave resulted in a total of nearly 500 excess deaths.”

At the moment there is great difficulty in attributing any particular extreme weather event to climate change but if the warming influence adds just a few degrees to the heatwave this can mean all the difference between a few and a very large number of fatalities. We can conclude that a substantial number of these heatwave deaths have been caused by climate change – certainly far more than terrorism. It goes without saying that Gippsland and the south-east are in the firing line with the threat of these heatwaves. And if the media – both mainstream and local – have an ‘elephant in the room’ this is it.