Expert statement on extreme heat and health
Last week I attended the release and launch of the Climate Council’s latest report of health impacts of extreme heatwaves. Climate change and the urban heat island effect result in increased frequency and intensity of extreme heat events. They are silent killers especially affecting those most vulnerable. Our political leaders need to heed the advice of the experts involved in this Climate Council report on heat health (PDF 4.2MB). They issued a concise statement calling for action (reproduced in full below).
Past studies (Loughnan etal 2013) have shown that Moreland in particular has a high social vulnerability index to extreme heatwaves. Moreland Council has been proactive in adopting a heatwave strategy and urban forest policy to assist in moderating the urban heat island effect.
After criticism by the State Auditor, the State government placed more emphasis on the state Heatwave Plan. But according to my interpretation of current research there is a 2 degree C gap between the threshold for mortality and morbidity during an extreme heat event and the Mean daily temperature that triggers a heat health alert. Despite a letter to the minister for Health in 2015 no one has been able to describe why there is this discrepancy. This probably results in avoidable heat related deaths.
I noticed this year emergency services announcements were giving equal weight to the health threat from extreme heat as bushfires. This is a welcome step in the right direction. But at the Federal level there is no action.
On the research side, funding for health related climate change research by the National Health and Medical Research Council has all but dried up, with some researchers insinuating political bias in grant approvals.
At a round table Australian Summit on Extreme Heat and Health following the launch of this new Climate Council report, the co-chairs issued a statement outlining actions that need to be taken. Broadly, these are grouped in 3 main areas: prevention and preparation; whole of government response required encompassing Federal, State and Local action; and community education in building awareness about heatwave risks and developing effective warnings for the public.
Time for our Ministers of Health at both state and Federal Level to step up.
The co-chairs of the Australian Summit on Extreme Heat and Health issue the following statement.
Heatwaves have killed more Australians than all other extreme climate events combined and are putting health professionals, hospitals, health and community services, and workers under increasing pressure.
More frequent and intense heatwaves driven by climate change pose an immediate and pressing risk to the health of Australians. Whilst all Australians are at risk from heatwaves, socially disadvantaged groups are most vulnerable.
In recent years, many state and local government bodies have made significant progress in addressing the adverse impacts of extreme heat on health and the health sector by establishing heat response plans and strategies. It is important that this momentum accelerates, in order to improve heatwave preparedness and resilience for all Australians.
For the last two days, twenty-four experts representing a wide variety of disciplines including emergency management and medicine, nursing and midwifery, workplace health, health policy, community services, planning and the built environment, environmental science, and physiology, came together to discuss how to improve Australia’s preparedness for increasing extreme heat.
All the experts agreed that extreme heat is a critical and growing health issue for Australians. While the health sector is key, it is only one part of the response.
Summit co-chairs Professor Fiona Stanley, Professor Lesley Hughes and Dr. Liz Hanna, joined by key summit participants, issued the following statement:
Three key actions are needed to more effectively address the health and health sector impacts of heatwaves.
- 1. Prevent and Prepare: tackle the health impacts of heat extremes by:
- Mitigating, adapting and building resilience to the challenges of extreme heat
- Incorporating climate-sensitive urban design into planning our cities and towns. This includes smart infrastructure, housing, energy, water, shade and precinct planning.
- 2. Respond: a whole of government response is required, including all levels of government across all states and regions. This response should include:
- The acknowledgement of heatwaves as a hazard
- The real time release of impact data and forecasts by government agencies during and immediately following a heatwave, including data on the correlation between heatwaves and mortality/morbidity
- Development and implementation of a scaled response to heatwaves, similar to the scaled bushfire response
- d. Improved understanding of the impacts of heatwaves on human health, the environment, infrastructure and the economy, now and into the future
- e. The assessment of current and future response capacity to heatwaves
- 3. Educate: We need to build awareness about heatwave risks, and develop effective warnings for the public, health and community services, and the Australian workforce.
- Education should be supported by evidence-based advice and analysis of heatwaves and health impacts.
- Behavioural and cultural change is required to prevent and reduce heat stress.
- Health and community services require improved support to assist vulnerable groups.
- Educate workforces about heat stress and how it affects them.
It is vital that Australian governments, at all levels, continue to address this significant and growing issue to reduce the impact of heatwaves on Australian’s health and on the health and community sectors and, ultimately, to save lives.
This Communique is signed by the Australian Summit on Extreme Heat and Health Co-Chairs.
You can read the original statement at the Climate Council website