As COP26 tries to shape the future, Australians are dealing with climate change now


imageClimate change now

Summer temperatures are soaring, those burnt out in the Black Summer are rebuilding, and water flows have been down for decades.As leaders gather in Glasgow, Australians are already dealing with the impacts of a warming planet.

Gerald Muench is the first to admit his house in Macarthur Heights is nothing special.

It is just a project home in a newly built western Sydney suburb that’s filled with hundreds of other project homes.

But his house stands out from the majority of his neighbours.

It’s a difference seen most dramatically from the air.

Gerald’s house has a white roof — it reflects sunlight, which helps to keep his home cooler during the sweltering summers.

“When it’s 40 degrees outside and 20 degrees in the home, the roof sits at 22 degrees,” Gerald says.

But he’s not stopped there, installing the highest insulation possible in the roof and walls, double-glazed windows, solar hot water and solar panels.

It gives him an eight-star home energy rating, well above the required six stars for a new build.

Altogether, Gerald says, these additions cost him about 10 per cent more than the base price.

Choosing white roof tiles over the dark alternatives cost him nothing.Zero dollars.

“I basically don’t pay any electricity bills.I actually get money from my provider,” Gerald says.

He says he has no idea why so many of his neighbours haven’t also installed white roofs.

“I love to use technology for creating the future for a better impact on climate change.”

In areas like western Sydney, climate change is being compounded by the urban heat island effect which traps heat in our cities.

“You’re really seeing a huge increase in heat that is retained in the hard surfaces, buildings, roads, streets, car parks, driveways, everything … compared to the reference site that only carries vegetation,” according to the University of Western Sydney’s urban heat specialist, Sebastian Pfautsch.

However, that phenomenon also sees that heat released overnight, keeping temperatures high and not allowing the body to recover from the heat of the day.

Quantifying urban heat is not as simple as looking at the numbers on the Bureau of Meteorology app or on the nightly news.

The temperatures from the bureau are taken in tightly controlled conditions, deliberately shaded and away from heat-storing surfaces.

This makes its observations consistent, but does not tell the whole story of urban heat.

“It is not the representative data to tell you something of how hot it was in your neighbourhood, in your park, in your backyard, at your shopping centre — it does not represent that,” Dr Pfautsch says.

In January 2020, during the Black Summer of bushfires, the official BOM temperature reached a record-breaking 48.9C in Penrith.

“On that day, January 4, around three in the afternoon, I recorded in the Penrith area 52.0 degrees Celsius,” Dr Pfautsch says.

Over that summer, he says, he recorded three days when temperatures were at or above 50C in western Sydney.

For reference, the highest temperature ever officially recorded by the BOM in Australia is 50.7C at Oodnadatta on January 2, 1960.

“It matters because we have more than 2 million people living under these conditions,” Dr Pfautsch says.

“The living conditions for these people are deteriorating and we have to find ways to basically save them from heat collapse.”

The situation is particularly hard for those who can’t afford to just switch on an air-conditioner.

“We have to provide better built environments that can cope with the heat,” Dr Pfautsch says.

“I’m motivated as a scientist to go out there and find solutions of how we can make living conditions a little bit better in western Sydney.”

However, he thinks there is a very slim chance of limiting larger-scale global warming and the number of heatwaves in western Sydney.

“Sometimes I feel really motivated, like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do something’.

“Sometimes I just feel, ‘Oh, my God, this is too late’.”

Out of the flames

It was a few days before Dr Pfautsch recorded 52.0C in Penrith.

As the hot wind blew up in the hills at Wingello, roughly half way between Sydney and Canberra, Michael Kirchhoff asked his wife, Casey, two questions:

“Are we insured?”

“Yes, of course, we’re insured.”

“Are you gonna stay to defend your property?”

“No, we’re not.”

So they left.

Packing up what they could into a little Hyundai Getz and a trailer, they fled to Casey’s parents house on the coast.So began the terrible wait.

On the night of January 4, Casey was one of many people awake obsessively checking the NSW Rural Fire Service app.

“I was refreshing, refreshing and just watching that fire [area] grow until it was basically encompassing the whole of the eastern side of the village, and I suspected the house may no longer be there.”

Confirmation that their house had burnt down came the next day.

In the weeks and months that followed, Michael and Casey had to decide if they wanted to rebuild on their naked, burnt-out land.

They looked at a few other properties but they didn’t feel right, so they decided to rebuild.

“The additional point is also that it’s not exactly cheap to buy a new house,” Michael says.

“It’s not obvious that burnt-down land is going to accumulate a lot of value.”

Even though they received their insurance payout, their mortgage meant they had limited funds to bargain with.

“You have to re-borrow the whole thing again, which makes that a bit of a gap up to having some serious buying power.”

Rebuilding has also given the family the opportunity to build a home that has a better chance of surviving bushfires.

But that comes at a price.

Even their front door is more expensive.

“We can’t just put on a normal front door — we need to have one that’s particularly fire-rated.It can’t have a nice little window in it because that’s more glazing,” Casey says.

So there are practical reasons, but then there is mentally dealing with living in a bushfire zone.

Casey says she’s been doing a bit of bet-hedging.

“Mentally it’s like, ‘OK, so we’ve just had a real whopper come through the surrounding bush and our five acres has been completely burnt out’.

“There will be another fire in the future, but will it be as severe as the one we’ve just had?

“I don’t know, maybe we can stay for a bit.”

Michael is more pragmatic.

“I’ve got no problem with that risk.

That’s just a risk that you take,” he says.

“A lot of it is just trying to get your life back and not so much whether or not the bushfire is going to come back … I just want to have a place to live.”

Casey says she hopes people moving to regional areas from the city will also be aware of the risks.

“As we’re getting more city folk coming out into these regions … I’m not saying it’s dangerous to live in regional New South Wales or Australia by any means.

“But just know that bushfire risk is real and it’s not going away.”

And it is not just one day of stress to live through.

“The anxiety around weather conditions like that is unparalleled,” Casey says.

Months before the fire, the couple were monitoring the weather and wearing masks to be able to be outside.

“We needed a mask just to get into the swimming pool because it was so thick with smog out there,” Michael says.

“We’ve got these COVID mask photos, but then we’ve also got the bushfire mask photos for us Australians — I guess it’s just mask life,” Casey laughs.

“I shouldn’t laugh, I guess, but what can you do? What can you do?”

Studies following the 2019–20 bushfire season found that climate change had made fires a conservative 30 per cent more likely .

Associate Professor Marta Yebra, director of the Australian National University’s bushfire initiative, says the fires were both directly and indirectly impacted by climate change.

“Directly, because it has a direct effect on fire weather and the fire weather conditions were extreme in the 2019-20 season.”

Indirectly, she says, because low rainfall and high temperatures leading up to the season led to extreme fuel dryness.

Usually trees can maintain their canopy soil moisture, even if there is a heatwave or a few days without rain, because they can draw on moisture from the soil.

But, in 2019–20, the soils were unprecedentedly dry.

With no moisture reserves to draw on, the trees were basically kindling.

Many trees that avoided the flames in 2019–20 simply died from lack of moisture.

While recent rains may be giving us a relative reprieve from fires this year, the long-term trend is pretty bleak when it comes to fire in Australia’s south.

“If we don’t change the path that we are on, and we don’t take actions to slow down the increases in temperatures and fire weather conditions … we will have more extreme weather conditions, we’ll have longer fire seasons,” Dr Yebra says.

“The fuel will be getting drier and drier.We will have more extensive areas of forest that is pretty much dead and may not recover.”

The Golden Pipeline

Over in the West, living in a harsh climate is nothing new.

As the desert community of Kalgoorlie grew, it was abundantly clear there was not enough water and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme was hatched.

Mention it to any West Australian and they will regale you with tales of the intrepid CY O’Connor and his 500-kilometre pipeline from the Mundaring Weir in the Perth Hills all the way to the red desert Goldfields.

Since 1903, water from Perth has been pumped east to quench the desert thirst but, in recent decades, the weir has been waning.

“Now, there’s not enough water in the Mundaring Weir because of reduced rainfall,” WA Water Minister Dave Kelly says.

There has been about a 20 per cent reduction in rainfall in the Perth region since the 1970s.

“While that sounds like a lot, it’s actually led to about an 80 per cent reduction in the stream flows into our dams.”

Perth’s water supply now comes from 43 per cent desalination, 39 per cent groundwater, 15 per cent dams and 3 per cent groundwater replenishment.

“We now desalinate the Indian Ocean, pump it up to the weir and then push it 500 kilometres up the pipeline to Kalgoorlie,” Mr Kelly says.

For Mr Kelly, it is the one piece of infrastructure that tells the story of climate change.

“The idea that, when you’re in Kalgoorlie and you turn the tap on, you’re actually getting [water from] Cottesloe Beach is really quite extraordinary.

“But it’s extraordinarily expensive to do.”

He says the Water Corporation in WA has spent at least $2 billion on moving drinking water supply from dams to desalination.

“So, to people who say climate change is something that’s a problem for some time in the future, it’s actually cost taxpayers in WA a significant amount of money now for Perth’s drinking water supply.”

On the other end of the pipeline, a sea of green stands out from the red dirt.

“We’ve been very active — from an economic development and population growth point of view — [about] understanding the key factors that affect liveability and make people want to call a place home,” says Alex Wiese, acting chief executive for the City of Kalgoorlie Boulder.

“And people across Australia love golf.

“We’re very proud to have one of the top-rated golf courses in Australia, that is unique in terms of it’s a very green desert golf course.”

First, the water from Perth is used by Kalgoorlie households and businesses.

The waste water is then recycled and combined with runoff to form a secondary supply that’s used to maintain this golfing oasis.

“So this is just another wonderful outcome from our reticulated sewer network, the recycling of the water and the shandying of that with storm water.”

From water-efficient gardens to ensuring evaporative air conditioners are not leaking, every drop of water is precious in Kalgoorlie.

“We can extract more value out of water than maybe other places and most places in Australia, and do it in innovative and creative ways,” Mr Wiese says.

The recycled water also supplies commercial businesses, including a new partnership with Lynas Rare Earths, which is going to use it for industrial processing in very large quantities.

“When we start supplying them in the beginning of next year, that will effectively mean we are recycling 100 per cent of the water that comes here from Perth.”

The area’s forward agenda even includes hydrogen production.

“It’s a really exciting space to be in.Water is just fundamental to every part of life and we have to treat it as a valuable resource,” Mr Wiese says.

He thinks it is something that everyone should be doing.

“We’re happy to host anyone that might be interested in learning how we do it in Kalgoorlie.

“I think we’ve all got our part to do in helping to create a sustainable globe and country, and the reuse of water is an essential part of that.”


– Reporting: [Ben Deacon] and [Kate Doyle]

– Photography: [Ben Deacon] and [Jarrod Lucas]

– Video: [Jarrod Lucas] and [Ruslan Kulski]

– Producer: [Daniel Franklin]

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