‘Dying in a heatwave is like being slowly cooked … It’s pure torture’
– Camilo Mora 2017
As the northern hemisphere emerged from its catastrophically hot summer last year and moved into battling extreme winter weather events, large swathes of Australia have been hit with seemingly unrelenting extreme heatwaves threating human and planetary wellbeing.
With 2019 predicted to become the hottest year on record and heat records tumbling like there is no tomorrow, the lack of a national heat health policy has become striking.
Successive extreme heat events frightened themselves rather profoundly into my memory and became the catalyst of my PhD research – ‘Urban heatwaves, gendered social vulnerabilities and public cooling spaces’.
It was mid-January 2014 and the whole of Southeast Australia was baking under an unrelenting sun and the brightest blue sky imaginable. From 14 to 17 January that year, Melbourne sweltered through its most extreme heat in 100 years, with four consecutive days above 41°C and only one night below 25°C.
This heatwave occurred in the broader context of a warming planet due to anthropogenic climate change and a shrinking welfare state defined by years of neglect, neoliberal policies and privatisation. Melbourne residents were not only confronted with furnace-like weather conditions, but also rolling power blackouts, collapsing public transport infrastructure and overstretched emergency services that were unable to meet the demand of its stressed and suffering population.
My rented house was like an oven; a combination of lack of insulation, west-facing windows and a small clapped-out air-conditioning unit that just couldn’t keep up. It was a scenario that repeated endlessly across our boiling city. People dreaded going to bed, as the suffocating nights promised little respite. I prolonged the inevitable by spending most evenings until well after midnight sitting wrapped in a wet sarong under the olive tree in the slightly cooler front yard. With my exhausted old dog at my feet and a couple of cranky housemates sharing in the ordeal, I could count myself lucky.
I was healthy, mobile and socially connected. While my ‘hot box’ brought little relief at night, I had both the capacity and opportunity to escape to cooler alternatives during the day working on an air-conditioned and very empty university campus. Occupying such underutilised cool emptiness was unsettling in the knowledge that so many vulnerable people in the community were struggling to cope and even survive. In my mind, the taxpayer-funded campus facilities could have provided much needed respite but were not listed as a local heat refuge (in 2019 they still are not listed).
For the most unfortunate Melbourne residents, unable to afford private air-conditioning or access public heat refuges (promoted as ‘primary heat preparedness’ mechanisms in public health policy), stifling homes became both sites and agents of mortality. The loss of life during that period was nothing short of a disaster: mortality increased by 24% with 167 deaths attributed to the heatwave. The high death rate was not an aberration and neither did it create an outcry, even though heatwaves have killed more people in Australia than any other natural disaster.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already warned, back in 2014, that increasing deaths from heatwaves could become one of Australia’s most detrimental impacts of climate change. Recent studies suggest that global heatwave mortality rates are set to make up 99% of climate-related deaths by the end of the twenty-first century, with global risk of heatwaves deaths set to rise to 74% under a growing emission scenario.
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’. Deaths are heavily concentrated among the elderly, with chronic illness, gender, poverty and social isolation other key contributing factors. 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.
Health outcomes and human survival are influenced by complex and dynamic interactions at a global, national and local level and cannot simply be reduced to genetic disposition, human biology and individual lifestyle choices. For most victims, their personal vulnerability to heat is either amplified by or a direct outcome of structural inequality experienced by an entire population group or a geographic urban area, which is precisely why any future policy requires intervention guided by social justice and human rights.
The majority of people over 75 who live alone in Australia are women, a group identified as being at heightened heatwave risk in national and international research. We need to ask ourselves if the current health adaptation measures being promoted actually reflect the needs and opportunities for this particularly vulnerable population group.
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.
Unless there is a drastic shift away from the business-as-usual approach to climate changes, fuelled by an irrational fossil-fuel-burning growth economy, extreme heatwaves will become an apocalyptic familiarity, hitting the least responsible the hardest.