Heatwaves and hope

When I call Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick early one morning, our conversation naturally starts with the weather. For Perkins-Kirkpatrick, it’s not just small talk — she’s an expert on extreme weather events like heat waves at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“It’s not the average changes that kill people,” she explains. “It’s the extreme events, whether it’s a heat wave or flood or drought or cyclone.”

She currently focuses on what drives heat waves, how they can be measured, how they’ve changed over time, and how they affect human health.

Today, extreme heat most strongly affects the elderly and the very young. As the planet’s average temperature rises, however, heat waves will “increase and become more intense, so a larger proportion of people are going to be exposed to their adverse effects”. 

Despite the Paris Agreement setting an international goal to keep the average global temperature from rising 2°C above pre-industrial levels, Perkins-Kirkpatrick thinks we will see much more warming.

“I think we’re heading towards a 3°C warmer world,” she says. “That will inevitably bring a whole lot more impacts than what we’re currently experiencing.”

This is a cause for personal concern for Perkins-Kirkpatrick, particularly since the birth of her daughter Aurelia a year ago.

“In 34 years time, when she’s my age — how much different will things be then?” Perkins-Kirkpatrick wonders. “What sort of extra heat waves will she be experiencing when she’s having a family, and what will her kids be exposed to?”

Despite her well-founded concerns, Perkins-Kirkpatrick finds comfort in her career choice. “I’m trying to get people to realise how bad it is and what we can do to fix it. I worry, but I haven’t become depressed.”

Her research has, however, influenced her lifestyle choices. In the long term, she and her husband are considering moving their family somewhere cooler. “I have a few colleagues who have actually already bought land in Tasmania,” she says.

But the biggest way climate change influences her life is the decision to limit the size of her family.

“I love being part of a large family,” she says. “But regardless of how you slice and dice it, the more kids you have the larger the carbon footprint they will have.”

As it is, Perkins-Kirkpatrick and her family try to limit their footprint, from using solar hot water to catching public transport to reducing food wastage.

“We have a lot of aspirations to be more green, but it is challenging when some of those options are quite expensive,” she says — a challenge that many Australians recognise.

It’s particularly frustrating, she adds, to watch “all these politicians arguing over what coal plants are going to be kept open and what mines are going to be constructed”.

Why, she asks, are they not investing in renewable energy and technology to reduce emissions? Why are they not creating incentives for Australians to make lifestyle changes?

“Everyone has their own responsibility, but they should also be encouraged by structures up the food chain.”

When I ask what Australia must do in the next few years to curb the effects of climate change, Perkins-Kirkpatrick doesn’t even let me finish the question.

“We need to stop using fossil fuels,” she cuts in. “It’s getting ludicrous now. We need to lead by example — if a lot of developed countries heavily reduce their emissions, other countries will follow suit.”

At times, Sarah says, she’s “gobsmacked” about the lack of action. “I just don’t understand why we’re not moving away from fossil fuels.”

Does she see herself as a climate activist?

“I heard a talk at a conference recently saying if you’re a climate communicator then you’re a climate activist, and to a certain degree I agree with that,” she answers. “But I don’t involve myself with political activism, because I try to remain as non-partisan as I possibly can.”

That doesn’t mean she shies away from public engagement. Alongside school talks, online courses and media interviews, Perkins-Kirkpatrick sees the value in unconventional approaches. She’s an advocate for climate fiction (or cli-fi), has created a website called Scorcher that tracks heat waves, and even worked with an artist, Kate Dunn, to create 3D printed sculptures of heat waves over Sydney. 

One sculpture had a strong effect on Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s husband. “He went, ‘Oh I get that now!’ I mean, I’ve been married to him for a few years and he hears me talk about my work all the time, but he saw [the sculpture] and understood exactly what was going on in that split second.”

Over the next few years, Perkins-Kirkpatrick will be looking at links between heat waves and health, as well as the physical mechanisms behind heat waves, especially their link with droughts.

In the future, she’d love to be able to tweak the focus of her research — but that will depend on how we as a planet choose to act.

“What I’d actually really like to do is to be creating climate projections about how much better it’s going to be in a hundred years, because we’re actually trying to do something.”

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