Published 27 March 2020
High-temperature days and heatwaves make people sick and lead to death more often than most people realise. In fact, heatwaves kill and harm more Australians than all other disaster events combined, yet remain a chronically unrecognised threat to human wellbeing. At our SEI Amplified event on March 11, Reducing the Impact of Heatwaves, an expert panel explored this strange disconnection, and while each speaker brought a different perspective to the conversation, they all reinforced an understanding that heat is such a difficult threat to grapple with because it engages with and exacerbates multiple forms of pre-existing vulnerability in Australian society – the physical, the systemic, and the material.
Understanding the impacts of heatwaves and high temperatures requires an awareness of the interconnections between individual human bodies, the houses they live in, and the communities they create. At the most personal level, heat places greater stress on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems within the body, as these systems need to work harder to maintain a healthy temperature. Associate Professor Ollie Jay, Director of the University of Sydney’s Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory and Lead Researcher of the Charles Perkins Centre Climate Adaptation and Health Research Node, outlined the biomechanical reasons that many people’s bodies find it difficult to process thermal stress, including the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory, cardiovascular, and heart conditions. In examining how peoples’ bodies function and cope in hot weather, Jay’s work highlights that heat uncovers pre-existing vulnerabilities that can undermine the ability of large portions of the community to physically cope with excessive heat.
And yet, heat’s ability to exacerbate pre-existing vulnerability is not limited to the internal corporeal realm. A significant factor in coping with environmental extremes is the type of shelter available to cool the body and provide an environment that supports health. Again, we run into pre-existing vulnerabilities, and inequitable risk, among both urban and remote communities. Australians living in remote communities in the harshest parts of this desert continent already struggle to access housing that meets basic human needs and bear a completely avoidable health burden as a result. Anthropologist Tess Lea, head of the Housing for Health Incubator drove home the point that homes that lack access to clean drinking water and working systems of hygiene at the best of times are going to be heavily challenged when faced with additional environmental stresses. Lea takes the theme of pre-existing vulnerability to the political realm, and the “systems of abandonment and zones of sacrifice” that operate freely and openly in the current socio-political framework. Her radical roadmap suggests providing adequate housing that supports the health of inhabitants, and while we’re at it, redesigning urban systems that support excess consumption, waste, and ill-health. Her fundamental point is that legacy infrastructures in Australia, both physical and political, entrench neglect and waste and must be addressed, updated, and transformed if we are to achieve healthier and more equitable ways of life.
In shifting attention away from the extraordinary events we dub disasters and emergencies, Lea focuses on the everyday disasters the system creates, and that we as a society either remain blind to or tacitly accept. This applies equally well to urban vulnerabilities, experienced particularly by those who lack a safe and reliable place to call home. The NSW Department of Health recognises three forms of homelessness, ranging from having no physical shelter to having insecure or inadequate housing in the medium to long-term. In speaking about the economic, health, and housing impacts of heat on those experiencing homelessness, clinical social worker Stephanie McFarlane asked us to critically examine the assumptions we make about vulnerability and vulnerable people. To recognise that there are many in the community whose daily lives are lived in extreme conditions, conditions that often arise due to systemic and thus socially avoidable disadvantage.
“Heat events are killers because they reveal the vulnerabilities that lie at the heart of deep and complex webs of systemic inequity in modern communities. As such, we can view their disruptive impact as an invitation to really look at where we are as a society, today.”
In providing an overview of community experiences of heat in Western Sydney, Sydney Environment Institute Director David Schlosberg highlighted the huge disparities in resources experienced in an area likely to face increasing health and financial burdens around heat. Again, pre-existing disadvantages in these areas are often reflected by individual housing conditions. His research revealed the experiences of many people, including those living in public housing, without access to air-conditioning, insulation, or tenant-driven modifications are already feeling the strain. His findings revealed that while housing is practical it is also symbolic, and key to understanding wider patterns. The quality of housing directly relates to the physical, financial, and emotional wellbeing of those living there more broadly.
“Whatever the question is, community has the answer.”
Heat events are killers because they reveal the vulnerabilities that lie at the heart of deep and complex webs of systemic inequity in modern communities. As such, we can view their disruptive impact as an invitation to really look at where we are as a society, today. To recognise and care that there are many in this country already walking the tightrope of day to day health and wellbeing, and to recognise as a community that our resilience to future shock events, and particularly to heat, can be improved by taking steps to address pre-existing barriers to basic wellbeing in regional and urban communities. During the Q&A, an audience member provided a succinct and hopeful roadmap for action: “Whatever the question is, community has the answer”. She, like the speakers, presents a vision for the future that recognises that ‘home’ is not a structure, but rather a deep and profound sense of social solidarity, safety and wellbeing. Holistic resilience initiatives must acknowledge and translate this understanding from within Australian communities, responding to their needs in the present as well as their hopes for the future.
Hannah Della Bosca is a Research Assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. She contributes to two projects centred on community experiences of extreme events in the Sydney region, Resilient Sydney – Insights into Urban Community Resilience, and Sites of Violence. In addition, she has co-authored papers on generational coal mining identities and energy transitions, as well as the role of place-making, disruption, and emotion in resilience policy adaptation. Hannah holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Sydney and has a strong research interest in the nexus of environmental law, policy and place. In 2016, she completed a first-class thesis examining the efficacy of decentralised governance mechanisms in NSW planning policy. Her case-study research on the Springvale mine extension combined environmental justice analysis within a Legal Geography framework.