Keep Calm and (Don’t) Carry On: Understanding Climate Extremes with Dr Sophie Lewis

It’s a familiar story. We just had a heatwave in Canberra, and it’s almost as though we’ve already forgotten the link it has to the changing climate.

The catastrophe of the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires is forever branded into the memory of Australians. News reports were emblazoned by a hellish red and Parliament fuelled by the political firestorm of bushfire policy. Something that was lost amidst the flames, however, was the fact that the number of deaths associated with the heatwave that came in the week before actually resulted in twice as many deaths as caused by the Black Saturday bushfires.

The forgotten heatwave is indicative of a need to change the public’s understanding of extreme heat events.

Dr Sophie Lewis, a climate scientist and Research Fellow at the ANU Fenner School, examines heatwaves and other extreme patterns of weather in Australia, and assesses whether these events are influenced by human-induced global warming – which is increasingly the case. Dr Lewis recently published a research paper which found that by 2025, the heatwaves we are currently experiencing will be the ‘new normal’.

It is fair to say that Australians are slightly obsessed with the weather – but they are also rather forgetful of it. The heat is something we are accustomed to, and our resilience to it almost forms a part of our national identity. The challenge, says Dr Lewis, is that ‘Australia’s objectively variable weather’ means heat extremes are less likely to be perceived by the public as being associated with long-term, human-induced climate change.

So how do we connect human-induced heat extremes to the large-scale public consciousness on climate change when Australians are already so used to heat waves?

Throughout our discussion, Dr Lewis highlighted preparedness as crucial to developing a public consciousness of acceptance towards the need to adapt to heat extremes. The correlation between public health and heatwaves needs to be made apparent, such that a heatwave becomes ‘treated on the scale as a snow storm in the Northern Hemisphere’. Australia remains behind the rest of the world – where, in countries like France, intense campaigns have been held in response to a catastrophic loss of life due to excess heat.

This is also pertinent in an ANU context. Many of you will recall the flurry of emails disseminated by the ANU about emergency health during the heatwave on the 11 February weekend. Dr Lewis believes that ‘if we find that the type of heatwave we had a couple of weeks ago is influenced by climate change, then we know that they will happen more frequently and more intensely in the future.’ So, if this degree of heat will likely become a reality for undergraduates throughout their working lives, the dialogue has to revolve around what extremes we should be preparing for, and how.

Though preparedness and public awareness is arguably getting better, Dr Lewis suggests that Tasmania and New Zealand’s South Island are the best places to move to in order to remain in optimal climate conditions (much to the chagrin, one can imagine, of the high-flying mainland folk).

Our conversation inevitably touched on the political landscape of Australia, and Dr Lewis acknowledged dealing with heatwaves to be a ‘politically contentious issue’. The politics of Australia’s economic growth – mining and carbon emissions – becomes messily tied up with the essential issue of saving lives and preventing deaths. In analogous circumstances, intense government-led campaigns against smoking were won through the canvassing of public health effects. This is where large scale responses to climate change lie. To address scary and complicated climate extremes amidst political moratoria the meaningful fight, Dr Lewis says, rests with changing policy, however difficult it may be.

We wonder what drives climate scientists amidst these political challenges. For Dr Lewis – aside from an utmost passion for her work – it is ‘motivation by necessity.’ It is the real life applicability of climate science to the everyday lives of every single person on the planet that fuels her passion. To her, climate change feels like the most important problem – particularly when poverty and inequity are further exacerbated by it.

What also drives Dr Lewis’s passion for climate science is the infectious enthusiasm garnered from members of the community, and not just from within the university environment. As part of her science community engagement work, Dr Lewis fondly recounts her work with kindergarten students, who are infinitely curious and eager to learn more about science.

It is also this younger generation, Dr Lewis says, that will push for and see gender equality in STEM disciplines. Yes, women climate scientists are faced with the same tough choices as women in other professions: the crossroads of securing more grants and short-term contracts, or giving up careers to raise a family. Dr Lewis, however, refers to the climate science community as especially supportive. She recalled a recent climate conference that explicitly addressed gender equity through policies related to appropriate conference behaviour and childcare considerations – a signal that positive change is on its way.

So where to from here for Dr Lewis?

The path for the future is determining just how bad these climate events will get so that preparation can occur before the extreme weather hits. Us non-climate scientists easily lose track of the big-picture trajectory of the climate. It falls to people like Dr Lewis to aid policy, determine the scale of events, and facilitate the thinking that leads to effective preparation.

How does one remain so level-headed and optimistic when unpacking the wicked problem of anthropogenic climate change? Dr Lewis refers to a bottom-up approach that fosters excitement and an opportunity to build the ‘future we want, instead of generating fear by framing the risks of the future’. She refreshingly suggests that ‘it’s not about what we have to give up,’ but rather, about building a better-connected society that more equally benefits us all. Student movements, and local and state scale responses to climate issues have been most effective in doing this, says Dr Lewis.

After abundant thanks, we left the interview feeling surprisingly optimistic. The tangibility of what the future holds, all thanks to Dr Lewis’s research and the corresponding solutions through policy and preparation, are at odds with the feeling of apocalyptic foreboding (and contra to the quasi-clickbait ‘Hell on Earth’ articles propagated during the 11 February weekend heatwave). The way forward is lucid when unobscured by sensationalist reports. All that remains is the search for small-scale solutions in the absence of political action, and a long-term engagement with the reality of our future.

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