Doctors are calling for better extreme heat preparedness as record-breaking warm weather over winter raises prospects of a severe Australian summer.

Led by former Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley, the doctors, writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, said while heatwave effects on electricity supply and the reliability of transport services were quite visible, a hidden factor was the “accompanying surge in morbidity and mortality which in turn places enormous stresses on the health care system”.

“Predictions of more heatwaves are deeply concerning to health professionals who are at the front line of care,” Professor Stanley said, speaking on behalf of Doctors for the Environment.

As an example they noted the 2009 heatwave in south-eastern Australia, which saw a threefold increase in patient deaths on arrival at emergency departments, with 374 overall excess deaths.

The doctors said older people, very young people, and those with chronic diseases and mental illness were most at risk.

“The homeless and socially isolated, people of lower socio-economic status, and those living in poorly adapted urban environments are also at increased risk.”

The built environment was an area that could help to mitigate against the effects of increasing heat.

“Sectors traditionally outside health have a role to play in redesigning our cities and buildings through increased green infrastructure (such as tree canopy cover and parks), innovative water recycling and improved public transport and urban planning, making them more sustainable and energy efficient, with better temperature control and lower air pollution,” the doctors said.

While adaptation was needed, climate change action was singled out as “the most fundamentally appropriate response” to heatwaves.

“Heat kills — and while we need to put in place proper adaptive responses to ensure better health outcomes for all Australians, ultimately the appropriate response is to address climate change,” Professor Stanley said. “In particular, the burning of coal must be phased out.

“The sooner we act, the more lives we will save and the more savings we can make to the health budget.”

The doctors said a coordinated national framework for heatwave response had been recommended but was currently lacking.

“A national heatwave plan could provide some consistency across jurisdictional subplans, covering social and public health responses, communication, surveillance, additional resourcing, longer term capacity building and evaluation.

“Medical leaders have been urging governments to recognise the health threats posed by climate change, develop a comprehensive national assessment of risks to human health, such as those of the United Kingdom and the United States, and boost national health spending on research, which has thus far been miniscule.”

Weird winter confirmed

Professor Stanley said unusually early warm weather experienced across swathes of Australia was “a stark reminder that higher average temperatures are the new normal”.

The concerns have been backed-up by a new report from the Climate Council, which revealed Australia has just gone through its hottest winter on record.

Hot & Dry: Australia’s Weird Winter said more than 260 heat and low rainfall records were broken during the winter months, and that climate change had made the record-breaking season 60 times more likely.

Other key findings in the report include:

  • Winter average maximum temperatures were almost 2°C above average
  • The nation experienced its second driest June on record and the driest winter since 2002
  • Australia’s average winter temperatures have increased by around 1ºC since 1910
  • Winter warm spells are lasting longer, occurring more often and becoming more intense

The report also noted that the hot and dry winter had led to an even earlier start to the bushfire season

“A hot and dry winter such as the one we have just experienced has set the scene for dangerous bushfire conditions for many parts of Australia, especially in the southern states,” climate councillor and ecologist Professor Lesley Hughes said.

She said the federal government needed to act on climate change as a matter of urgency.

“Without any meaningful action to tackle climate change, we will continue to see many more hot winters, just like this, as global temperatures rise,” Professor Hughes said.

“The current situation in which the government continues to not only delay real action to reduce emissions but is actively supporting further development of coal-fired power is simply nonsensical.”

She said the solution was “clean, efficient and affordable renewable energy and storage technology”.

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