Heatwaves are our deadliest environmental disaster and kill more people than all other environmental disasters combined. Climate change will mean hotter summers and longer more severe heatwaves that will increase the risk of heat related disease and death.
We think of older people and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses as vulnerable during heatwaves, however as they get worse a much larger percentage of our population will be in danger. Heat impacts our physical and mental health. We know that hospitalisations, assaults, domestic violence and suicides increase as the temperatures rise.
Frequently, the clearest advice given to people during heatwaves is to either attempt to keep cool at home, or to go somewhere cool. Unfortunately, homes can get dangerously hot and our public spaces aren’t designed to be heat shelters. Marginalised communities and people living in low quality housing have limited resources to keep themselves and their families safe. For example, people won’t turn on the air-con out of fear that their next electricity bill will be higher and renters can’t make simple changes to their homes like adding insulation for energy efficiency. Even using informal heat shelters like shopping centres can be difficult if there is limited seating, people feel pressure to purchase things or security guards exclude people.
We must go beyond advising people that they have a personal responsibility to stay safe. There are lots of ways we can reduce heat related illness, but the most powerful solutions acknowledge and address the structural inequalities that drive vulnerability.
It can be hard to know how dangerous a heatwave is going to be and what precautions we should take if we don’t understand how bad it’s going to be. Currently, it can be difficult for people to understand the difference between ‘Severe’ and ‘Extreme’ heatwaves (the current Bureau of Meteorology categorisations). By creating heatwave categories and a system for illustrating them, we can help communities, the media and decision makers better understand how we need to respond to a 35-40° heatwave as opposed to a 45-50° heatwave. We can also use a health-impact based system that integrates humidity and length of the heatwave to calculate risk. We use categories to describe cyclones and fire danger, and we should do the same for heatwaves. Categorisation will help businesses and government understand what services and policies need to be implemented to manage risk.
Heatwaves are called the ‘silent killer’ because their danger and impacts are widely under recognised. If we name heatwaves like storms, then we can increase awareness during dangerous periods. It will also give people the language and knowledge to see how summers are becoming more dangerous as the planet warms, and motivate people to take action to stop catastrophic climate change.
Giving people advice to stay cool when they live in hot homes, don’t have the resources to access cooling, can’t get to cooler places or need to work in the baking heat isn’t enough.
Advice to keep cool without the support to do it will be a death sentence.
We need to create the infrastructure, services and policies that support vulnerable and marginalised people during heatwaves.
- workplace safety measures so people aren’t working in unsafe conditions
- health outreach like checking in on vulnerable people
- additional resources for mental heath support
- funding to make sure people aren’t suffering in the heat because they’re afraid of big electricity bills
- rolling our renewable energy and energy efficiency programs to marginalised groups like public housing residents
- accessible local heat shelters and more.
Mobilising institutions, not just individuals, to act during heatwaves will keep more people safe.
How will we get there?
In Australia, the responsibility to keep people dafe during heatwaves is spread across every level of government and multiple departments. Local government is working directly with community members and are often the most aware of how extreme heat impacts their community. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough coordination or awareness at a state and federal level, so the resources and policies needed for heatwave safety aren’t being implemented.