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Laughing in the face of climate change despair

  • 30 May 2016


Someone on Twitter asked how people feel about the future, taking climate change into account. I replied that I don't expect to have grandchildren, but imagine that humanity would remain resilient.

Naturally, we segued into survivalist-apocalyptic jokes. My kid wields swords and sticks with a bit of flair, I offered. My friend said that would come in handy when the bullets run out. It was a bleak exchange, hovering between the smallness of our lives and harsher, larger realities.

This week in Pakistan, mass graves are being dug in anticipation of a heat wave. Last year, more than 1500 people perished from the heat, too many to bury at once. 'Thank God, we are better prepared this year,' a Karachi gravedigger says. At least 300 holes in the ground are ready.

In Rajasthan, India, a weeks-long heat wave spiked to 51-degrees Celsius last week. It has overlapped the drought in more than 13 states, affecting more than 330 million people. Life has wilted to a halt in parts of the country.

There is a temptation, when such unusual severity unfolds, to minimise it as anomalous. Heat waves aren't uncommon in certain regions, and can be part of the seasonal cycle. In this way the scale of casualties, damage and response may be framed in terms of preparedness, something to be managed.

But it is getting harder to suppose that human efforts could long outrun the inevitable. Recent data visualisation of global temperatures from 1850 to 2016 indicates the heat is set to reach levels never seen in all of human civilisation. Every single month since August 2015 has been the hottest on record.

Among other things, this means that many cities will become uninhabitable by mid-century. My kid will only be 42 years old then.

According to Johannes Lelieveld, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, 'the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy'. Heat waves could occur ten times more frequently, and last longer — up to 80 days each year. Lelieveld says such conditions 'will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate'.


"In Australia, as in the United States and elsewhere, we'd be hard pressed to find election campaigns indicating that climate change is a serious issue."  

If governments struggle today to respond to the exodus from conflict-ridden areas, how will they cope when climate change