Hot enough yet? What this heat is doing to our health
Illustration by natasha pollack on Behance

Public libraries are staying open longer to help communities deal with heat stress and we might need school shut downs as well and meanwhile we get a more sedentary lifestyle.

Disastrous bushfires in Tasmania, mass fish kills in the Murray-Darling system, temperature records smashed across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, and the ACT… 2019 is so far seeing the climate change impacts experts have been predicting making headlines everywhere.

However, from the corridors of power in Canberra, all we can hear is the chirping of crickets in terms of sound policy and strategic interventions to mitigate both the cause and its effects.

The OECD’s Environmental Performance Review of Australia released this week is a case in point.

The government spin through environment minister Melissa Price was a self-congratulatory spiel on how great the government is doing on various environmental fronts.

“The report praises Australia’s outstanding achievements in protecting both land and sea through reserves,” the statement said. 

“It notes that our National Reserve System covers about 20 per cent of Australia’s land, which is above the OECD average of 15 per cent.”

This neglects to mention that mining, logging and other forms of development are allowed in many reserve areas – but Price was not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

“The Coalition’s record in oceans management is exemplary,” the statement claims, and then goes on to single out the Commonwealth’s approach to “tackling the urgent issues faced by the Great Barrier Reef through the Reef 2050 Plan,” as something the OECD singled out as a highlight.

What the OECD had to say stands in stark contrast with the nation’s continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite “some progress” in replacing fossil fuels with natural gas and renewables in electricity generation, Australia remains “one of the most carbon-intensive OECD countries and one of the few where greenhouse gas emissions (excluding land use and forestry) have risen in the past decade.”

“The country will fall short of its 2030 emissions target without a major effort to move to a low-carbon model,” the OECD says.

It noted the need for a long-term strategy that integrates energy policy and climate policy, an effective carbon price and more renewables for the electricity sector. It also appeared to query the wisdom of ongoing government support for the fossil fuel industry.

The OECD also said we need to address increasing pressures on our biodiversity arising from population growth and the associated infrastructure in coastal corridors.

“Australia is home to a tenth of global species and is seen by many as synonymous with pristine coastal areas and an outback brimming with nature. However the country is increasingly exposed to rising sea levels, floods, heat waves, bushfires and drought,” it adds.

OECD deputy environment director Anthony Cox, said this made it “all the more important that Australia take a more proactive role in fighting climate change and addressing biodiversity loss.”

A need for better water management was also singled out as vital, to respond to the changing climate and prevent “further toxic algae blooms forming and killing fish in the drought-hit Darling River”.

What to do

Recommendations include the distance-based and congestion pricing for roads; revising fuel taxes to bring them in line with environmental impacts; do more to address water pollution from agriculture; and increase investment in biodiversity conservation ecological restoration.

A teachable moment

Down at ground level over the past few weeks, local governments, not-for-profits, state health services and emergency services swung into action to mitigate the impact of the extreme heat.

Dr Liz Hanna, Senior Fellow of ANU’s Fenner School of Environment & Society and Climate Change Institute Fellow told The Fifth Estate that there have so far not been any public releases of data on spikes in mortality caused by the heatwave.

That’s because public health data is generally not available to researchers for two years after the event.

She says the data that came out in the aftermath of the deadly 2009 heatwave in Victoria came directly from the Victorian Health Officer and was based on real-time data.

While the state health departments will “no doubt” look at the data around emergency call outs, emergency department admissions and mortality, there is no certainty as to whether there will be a public report on the statistics in the near future, she says.

Media coverage at the height of the heatwave, however, noted that in South Australia there had been a significant increase in heat-related emergency department presentations and general admissions for heat impacts.

Another reason there has not been wider coverage of heat-related health impacts is that when effective public health measures are taken, a heat wave does not have to be a major health disaster.

She gives an example of the ACT and Victoria enacting emergency plans including increasing the number of ambulances on the roads and increasing staffing levels to ensure there are not mass casualties.

The key aim of public health measures is to also “get the messaging out” to the community about how to mitigate the risks.

She cautions that it is important to recognise that fixing the problem of preventing heat-related deaths can lead to a mistaken view that there is therefore “no problem” in the corridors of power.

The increased funding and support mechanisms that have enabled the response to the past few weeks of heat must be continued into the future, she says.

“We need to keep on top of it,” she says.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves.”

There needs to be continual funding and ongoing research into the essential services that mitigate heat impacts on community health and wellbeing.

Public libraries helping the community cope with heat stress

On a grassroots level, Hanna observes that measures in Canberra such as public libraries opening for extended hours to act as heat refuges and the distribution of free bottled water to the homeless have also been a positive measure.

“These are the good stories of people looking after people,” Hanna says.

At the same time, despite measures that have likely saved lives, she says that people she has been speaking with report an inability to “get anything done” during the extremely hot weather.

Normal summer holiday chores like home repairs, fencing, gardening and landscaping, for example.

Continuous days of heat coupled with hot nights makes us “fairly stupid”, she says. It can also bring on symptoms including headaches and vomiting.

One of the problems is that heat effects are like the effects of alcohol – people often think they are fine right up until the point they clearly are not.

Hanna says one of the reasons heatwaves create a feeling of lethargy is a natural biological defence mechanism. Using energy during activity generates heat in the body – and as our bodies are trying to stay cool, bodily systems react by discouraging exertion. Even cooking and shopping can fall by the wayside.

Interventions are required. Public housing, for example, needs to have airconditioning as a “bare minimum” requirement, she says, so it “provides an environment that is actually safe for people.”

We may also need to consider an Australian equivalent of the snow days currently closing down schools, workplaces and other activities in the US during the polar vortex.

“The effects [of climate change] are going to escalate more quickly than we expect,” Hanna says.

The gendered space of heat impacts

Monash University PhD candidate Margareta Windisch pointed out there is an equity issue in heat impact.

An interesting essay she published in Overland pointed out: “Heatwave disasters are not as publicly dramatic and noisy as bushfires, storms or floods and the human catastrophe tends to unfold in isolation and in private homes, behind closed doors 

“Heatwaves are infamously labelled ‘silent and invisible killers of silenced and invisible people’.”

The elderly, those with chronic illnesses, women, those living in poverty and those in situations of social isolation comprise the majority of deaths.

“This group of community members is not considered economically active, and are therefore often perceived as a burden on a society imbued with neoliberal ideology that increasingly rejects the concept of ‘the common good’ or government responsibility for the care of its most vulnerable,” she says.

An ever-growing number of older women are particularly vulnerable, and she questions whether there are safe and appropriate spaces for women, particularly older women, to access as refuges from extreme heat. 

“Moreover, we need to reject the proposition that heatwave disasters are ‘natural’, hence unavoidable and inevitable, and we need to make ‘individual resilience’ a government and community responsibility. This will require drawing attention to the various ‘non-natural’ dimensions of key heat risks and work toward effective mitigation and adaptation strategies that will save lives now and in the future.”

How (not) to bake couch potatoes

During the searing weeks, researchers from Western Sydney University published findings on the impact of rising temperatures on the liveability of cities.

The crux of the matter is a lack of cooling elements in public outdoor spaces and an over-reliance on airconditioning are leading to people leading more sedentary lifestyles and experiencing greater social isolation.

In other words, many of us hide inside with the A/C going and avoid going anywhere.

The research drew on the findings of the transdisciplinary Cooling the Commons pilot study, and interviewed groups of residents in Western Sydney to find out how they keep cool in extreme heat. Vulnerable groups including the elderly, mothers with young children and carers were asked how they would like to see their communities improve.

“We could see how the lack of shaded and other cool public spaces is forcing an increasingly sedentary lifestyle,” Dr Louise Crabtree from the Institute for Culture and Society says.

“One group of participants told us how their children in childcare are not allowed to play outdoors after mid-morning due to the lack of shade. School-aged children come home straight after school, rather than riding their bikes, to ‘just chill’.”

The researchers found indoor shopping centres and fast-food restaurants were the only major sites for cooling and recreation for many people in the area.

The researchers also say that the over-reliance on airconditioning as a response to managing heat impacts has seen outdoor public infrastructure such as shade, shelter, public water and public places to rest “neglected”.

The researchers point out that more airconditioning also increases energy demand – and while energy is primarily derived from fossil-fuel generation, that then leads to an increase in carbon emissions. 

So, coping with climate change impacts as we currently do also means worsening climate change impacts – an utter lose-lose equation.

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