Australia has long had its freakishly hot days, but this summer feels different
The Guardian. January 31, 2019
One minute we are all in court watching interminable CCTV footage of me in a car getting pulled over by police on Bondi Road, and the next minute we are all sitting in darkness. The power is out. The courtroom has gone black. It’s a brown-out – caused by stress on the electricity grid due to the Thursday’s extreme heat in Sydney.
In the sun all the cops, defendants, solicitors and a TV crew stand under a paltry few trees. The temperature is around 40 degrees and the air feels viscous and substantial. Our case is eventually moved into the main courtroom in the city. There would be millions of these tiny vignettes being told all over Australia this summer, small stories of the things that happen to us (and happen to our infrastructure and our environment) in the heat. They are stories about the way things break down, or are interrupted or are made difficult because of the heat.
But these vignettes all add up to something, a sort of mosaic that shows us what it is like to live in this country at this moment. In this heat we live cautiously and reactively. We plan around the weather. Even if it’s not as dramatic as a court being closed mid-case, the rhythms of our daily life are changing.
We’ll avoid going outside, particularly when the heat is at its most intense. We’ll use our cars more instead of walking, we’ll head to a shopping mall rather than the beach. We’ll move slower, do less. Psychologically the heat is also having an effect. Over 35 degrees, and our sleep is interrupted, we exercise less, and feel more irritable. Domestic violence cases rise.
In extreme heat, our worlds shrink to a manageable size. Give us a chilled room and a cold drink, and we can sit there all day, waiting for a cool change.
Without the chilled room, there is discomfort – even suffering.
I’ve had only two nights at my house this summer. I’m a climate change refugee of sorts. I can’t stay there right now, it’s too hot – and so I’ve sought out places that are around 10 degrees cooler, and on the coast. My house is old and not air-conditioned in inland Victoria, and for almost two months now the temperature there has been in the 30s and 40s. The mornings start cool but the days heat up and reach their zenith around 6 or 7pm and don’t drop much at night. Relief from this type of heat used to be found up the road in a dam, but when I swam there last week, the water was warm, thick and brackish, like swimming in something with the consistency and temperature of blood.
My garden is fried, while inside the fans turn warm air but provide little relief. I suppose I’ll relent and get air conditioning – but isn’t that the sort of thinking that got us here in the first place?
Australia in summer is morphing from what currently exists in our popular imagination of long days at the beach, to long days indoors. January has been our hottest month on record.
Residents, particularly moneyed expats, don’t so much live in Dubai over the summer as exist in a climate-controlled version of it. They spend time in cars going between their offices, homes and the mall – and buildings are connected via air conditioned walkways. Leisure time is spent not outdoors or in nature, but in indoor play centres and gyms or enjoying long hotel brunches, where for a fixed price (and fixed temperature) it’s bottomless glasses of Veuve and all-you-can-eat buffet.
Dubai shows you can build an alternate reality that ignores the actual reality of what is happening out there – that it is 50 degrees and dangerously hot. And of course building that reality around the climate is an intensely neo-liberal exercise. The rich are comfortable in the cool indoors, the poor bake outside, on boiling building sites and in substandard accommodation.
Australian summers have long had their heatwaves and the odd day that is freakishly hot but this summer feels different. It feels different because it is. The run of hot days in a row are longer, and hotter. The minimum temperatures are rising, and it doesn’t cool down dramatically at night. Records are tumbling all over the place.
In Melbourne last week, when I left the tennis to get a tram, it was 41 degrees at 6pm, and the air was so hot and dry that being outside felt like being placed in a kiln, and the idea of anything more than five minutes in it seemed dangerous. The streets of Melbourne that evening were empty except for people like me, scurrying as quickly as they could from one cool place to the next.
But yet there still exists in the popular imagination this idea of Australia being the land of the glorious summer. Of long beach days and life lived outdoors. Instead it’s been the summer of dead fish clogging warm rivers, while we watch the devastation on television, inside our chilled houses.
When will we acknowledge that our summer selves are more akin to those of Dubai’s residents than our former all-day-at-the-beach selves? That we seek cool, dark places now? That Australia has become too hot?
Because things are only going to get worse.
- Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist
Categories: Extreme Heat Update