“Climate change is a killer, but we don’t acknowledge it on death certificates.” This quote, from Dr. Arnagretta Hunter, a professor at Australian National University’s Medical School, is a stark stab supported by the findings of expert analysis of over a decade of Australia deaths.
According to Hunter’s team, heat is the most dominant risk posed by climate change. And if the world’s carbon emissions don’t decrease, by 2080, Australian cities could see at least four times the number of heat-related deaths due to increasing temperatures alone.
Hunter and four other public health experts crawled through 11 years of death certificates in Australia, looking for deaths connected to climate factors. Their research suggests that deaths due to rising temperatures may be over 50 times higher than previously acknowledged. But death certificates usually only contain the direct cause of death, and not environmental factors which lead to that cause.
“If you have an asthma attack and die during heavy smoke exposure from bushfires, the death certificate should include that information,” Hunter said, pointing out one example. Similarly, many heat-related deaths are recorded as high blood pressure, strokes, or kidney or liver failure, all of these known side effects of prolonged heat stress.
Officially, figures show that there have been 340 heat-related deaths in Australia in the past 11 years. Dr. Hunter and her team believe the actual number to be close to 37,000, a fifty-fold increase.
“Death certification needs to be modernized, indirect causes should be reported, with all death certification prompting for external factors contributing to death, and these death data must be coupled with large-scale environmental datasets so that impact assessments can be done,” the study’s authors argue.
Their study includes December 17, 2019, which is when Australia’s record was set for the hottest day on record, an average of 105.6F (40.9C) across the country, much of which was already on fire. By February 2020, over 50 percent of all Australian forestland was burned and more than 34 people were killed directly by the fires. It will be years before the smoke that poured out of those fires has exacted its full toll, and every one of those deaths must also be attributed to rising Australian temperatures.
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