By Paddy ManningNon-fictionSimon & Schuster Australia

Body Count: How Climate Change is Killing Us

Suddenly, when the country caught fire, people realised what the government has not: that climate change is killing us.

But climate deaths didn’t start in 2019. Medical officers have been warning of a health emergency as temperatures rise for years, and for at least a decade Australians have been dying from the plagues of climate change – from heat, flood, disease, smoke. And now, pandemic.

In this detailed, considered, compassionate book, Paddy Manning paints us the big picture. He revisits some headline events which might have faded in our memory – the Brisbane Floods of 2011; Melbourne’s thunderstorm asthma fatalities of 2016 – and brings to our attention less well-publicised killers: the soil-borne diseases that amplify after a flood; the fact that heat itself has killed more people than all other catastrophes put together. In each case, he has interviewed scientists to explore the link to climate change and asks how – indeed, whether – we can better prepare ourselves in the future.

Most importantly, Manning has spoken to survivors and the families of victims, creating a monument to those we have already lost. Donna Rice and her 13-year-old son Jordan. Alison Tenner. The Buchanan family. These are stories of humans at their most vulnerable, and also often at their best. In extremis, people often act to save their loved ones above themselves. As Body Count shows, we are now all in extremis, and it is time to act.

Respected journalist Paddy Manning tells these stories of tragedy and loss, heroism and resilience, in a book that is both monument and warning.

Portrait of Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) for The Monthly magazine and author of four books including Inside the Greens, Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull. Over a 20-year career in journalism he has worked for the ABC, CrikeySMH/The AgeAFRThe Australian and was founding editor and publisher of Ethical Investor magazine.

Judges’ report

In a time of catastrophic temperatures and extreme weather events, on a continent that has been ravaged over the past 12 years by fire, drought, heat and flood, Body Count emerges to offer a holistic, public health approach to tackling anthropogenic climate change. 

In this journalistic inquiry, Paddy Manning takes the broad abstract arguments about the climate crisis and positions them alongside public health studies, crisis management strategies, interviews with scientific and public health experts, and intimate and harrowing accounts of battling extreme elements and inert bureaucracies to show the very real tally and human cost of climate change that Australia has already incurred. 

Building on the work of influential epidemiologist Tony McMichael, Manning shifts the frame of climate change to that of a public health perspective. The world has already experienced an increase in mean temperature, Australia is warming at a rapid rate, diseases are spreading due to environmental change, there are threats to food and water security, and currently, no meaningful plan to adequately address these issues.

As Rachel Carson, whom Manning quotes, observed in 1962: ‘a war on nature is ultimately a war on ourselves.’ Manning puts forward a compelling argument that moves the debate from an ominous future to a crisis now – climate change is not something that is coming, it is already here.

For all of these reasons, Manning argues, we need a public health response. Covid-19 has shown that, in Australia at least, we are capable of responding to a public health crisis. We can do what is necessary to protect ourselves and the rest of the world – indeed, we must. The apocalypse can make for great fiction, but who wants to live it?

Extract

Death of Dick and Clayton Lang – 2019/20 Kangaroo Island fires

‘Desert’ Dick Lang, 78, had just retired a month earlier, and was planning to finally spend more time with his wife of 55 years, Helen, after decades running his adventure touring business without ever taking a holiday. A knockabout former maths teacher from Adelaide, Dick became a renowned bush pilot and tour guide. Outdoorsy and garrulous, Lang had realised back in the sixties that he could offer four-wheel drive tours to remote spots like the Flinders Ranges and Lake Eyre. Initially run out of the high school common room, Lang’s ‘Desert Trek’ business took off. He quit teaching, got his pilot’s licence and took charter flights all over the outback, and abroad to Papua New Guinea, even venturing into Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Although he was an eco-tourism pioneer in Australia, Dick was no greenie. He was a self-made businessman and rugged individual – he dabbled in motorsport when he was younger, and was a keen recreational fisherman. As a commercial pilot in his twilight years Lang had to pass regular medicals, so was extremely fit for his age. Though they lived in Highbury in Adelaide’s north-east, Dick and Helen were spending more time on their farm on KI, a sanctuary and retreat for the whole family, including four adult sons and seven grandkids. Clayton, 43, was their youngest son. A specialist plastic surgeon, he followed in his father’s footsteps, racing cars and winning a national formation sky-diving competition. Having recently divorced, Clayton had moved back home to get himself together, and was spending half his time down on the farm.

Dick and Clayton were not members of the local CFS brigade but, like many of the farmers on the island, they had their own fire-fighting equipment to defend their property, including a trailer with a 900-litre water tank, pump and hose. As Clayton returned home before Christmas he had actually seen the first lightning strike that started the Duncan fire which at one point had threatened the Langs’ own farm. When the Langs saw the New Year’s Day emergency call-out by Dan Florance, who did some share farming with them, they responded immediately – unasked. Florance was worried about Dick, and recalls that Clayton was a bit of a fish out of water confronting the inferno, having never worked on a farm. Clayton held his nerve and even joked at one point that if he could stop a heart’s artery leaking with a finger, then a little bit of stressful fire-fighting was a piece of cake! They fought fires at Gosse for two days, staying even as a wind shift brought worsening conditions across KI, and other farmers started peeling off from the crew at the Florances’ place to go home and defend their own properties. On the evening of Friday 3rd, after the fire was completely out, Dick and Clayton enjoyed a meal and debrief with Dan, who says he was especially grateful because ‘we were down to a skeleton crew by then’. Just before 8pm, father and son took off back along the Playford Highway, with their 2000s Landcruiser towing the trailer, water tank now empty. Helen had followed the official advice and evacuated to Kingscote, on the island’s north-east tip, as a precaution. She left the key out for them – the farm was not threatened. Dan says the two men, as they drove off, had no idea they were heading into danger:

We didn’t even know [the fire] had left the Chase by then, and it was only 20 km away . . . we had ten or 12 local farmers helping us with our property that day. Most of them lost their own farms without the knowledge of it even getting close to them. There was no warning . . . they had no idea, no way of tracking it.

As they drove into thickening smoke and heat, Dick and Clayton came across a truck turning around. The driver could see the fire approaching and told them the highway was impassable. They turned back too. As the visibility got worse, Dick and Clayton avoided a stray cow, but the truck hit it and pulled over – both the truck driver and his passenger survived. Dick and Clayton drove on, but never made it out of the fire. The burnt-out shell of their car was found in the early hours of the next morning.

Dick’s son Justin retraced their last few kilometres and measured skid marks a few hundred metres long, with bits of rubber left on the road. He believes the heat was so intense that the tyres were melting as they drove at low speed through the black smoke. With such intense heat, the car broke down – the mag wheels caught fi and the aluminium bull bar was melting, indicating a temperature above 660 degrees. They’d pulled over to the side of the road, right next to a bluegum plantation, with the fire enveloping them. Justin believes Dick and Clayton must have had a frantic discussion about whether to stay in the car or make a run for it. Dick had seen where a young man died in his truck in the 2007 fires that struck Kangaroo Island, and had told his sons at the time that if they were ever caught in a bushfire, ‘do not stay in the car’. Justin says Dick and Clayton’s last minutes must have been harrowing: ‘As a father you can’t just leave your son, but Dad would have been saying, “We have to get moving!” With Clayton staying, his father’s calculated advice would’ve been to “Keep low and throw a blanket over yourself”.’

Clayton’s body was found lying behind the back seat of the wagon. Dick got 220 metres along the road, and was found face down – there were no identifying features. CFS firefighters on the scene afterwards said Dick was almost in the clear.

Justin is a trained environmental scientist and has no doubt the fires that took the lives of his father and brother were exacerbated by climate change:

If you like, it was the perfect storm at the time, to have a fire and a heatwave come through. Extreme heat doesn’t quell a fire, it fuels it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say climate change killed them, because it was a fire that killed them, but climate change and the associated heatwave in the preceding weeks was a contributing factor, in making it the perfect storm that happened.

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