Vulnerable populations will be hardest hit by climate change in Australia

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20.05.20

In summer 2019, UNSW Canberra Honours student Zak Baillie was keeping a watchful eye on Australia’s unfolding climate crisis for multiple reasons. 

With a study focused on climate modelling, particularly on Australia’s eastern seaboard, Zak’s research aims to link the frequency of heatwave days experienced in Australia to forecast and predict what lies ahead.

“We saw that 2019 was one of Australia’s hottest years on record,” Zak said.

“What is evident is that there is an intimate link between bushfires and heatwaves and the way that heatwaves draw moisture out of the environment and make it really susceptible to burning.”

Examining the linkage between bushfire prone conditions and recent heatwaves delivers vital forecasting to assist those responding firsthand to the effects of intense, prolonged heat.

Zak is particularly interested in how the devastating effects of climate change have lasting consequences on communities and populations who are at times powerless to combat it.

“People are familiar with populations in Kiribati and the Marshall Islands and how they’re getting the raw end of climate change,” Zak said.

“They emit such a fraction of global carbon emissions, yet they might lose their homes because of the sea level rising.

“This is a really stark example of how climate change has unequal impacts on populations.”

Closer to home, climate change rears its effects in a similar manner where suburbs in Sydney’s west are tasked with combating the effects of heatwaves.

“Western Sydney is projected to warm a lot faster than its neighbouring regions,” Zak said.

“One of the issues in Western Sydney is that there is a lot of bare concrete and bitumen, which absorbs heat and reflects it back into the street.

“It is also home to some of Sydney’s most disadvantaged populations, by a number of different measures, so you have this compounding effect where climate change is wreaking its most damage in an area where it’s able to because the population is so vulnerable.”

Simple measures such as switching on the air conditioning or using a pedestal fan become incredibly tough decisions for families who are already battling financial constraints, leaving those who are often without the tools to fight the heatwave’s effects defenceless to do so.

“This is a very tricky issue to remedy and will take action from a very local level, all the way to the top,” Zak said.

Not only in Australia, but across the world, climate change is on track to impact our most vulnerable, to a greater extent, and much sooner than the rest of society.

Climate modelling offers a preview of what we might expect in the future, highlighting the need to take action. 

“For me, climate science is interesting because it has a very human aspect to it,” Zak said.

“Climate is going to have a massive impact on a range of different things and that’s why it’s such an interesting area to work within.”

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