Published 21 February 2020
As we have recently seen and experienced, climate change is here, and it is now. Of all the developed countries across the globe, Australia is particularly vulnerable to the consequences. Extreme heat is one of the most prominent climate change-related health hazards facing residents of Sydney, and surrounding areas. In response to this, various heat-health action plans, designed to mitigate the public health burden of extreme heat events have been developed in recent years. However, the evidence base on which these are built remains limited and their efficacy questionable.
For several reasons, protecting the health of the public from the dangers of extreme heat exposure is inherently challenging. First, the health impacts of hot temperatures (as typically reported in isolation by mainstream media outlets) are modified by several important environmental parameters including humidity, solar radiation exposure and wind speed. Secondly, we are affected by heat exposure in different ways depending on our individual physiological make-up and general health status (age, medications, co-morbidities, social factors etc.). Put simply, some of us are more susceptible to the hazardous effects of heat than others. Finally – and possibly most importantly – existing heat-stress policies often fail to engage the communities they intend to help, and therefore do not utilise important pre-existing knowledge, relationships, and resources present in the community.
“…the health impacts of hot temperatures are modified by several important environmental parameters including humidity, solar radiation exposure and wind speed.”
Our workshop was aimed at engaging representatives from the local community and initiating discussion surrounding the heat-related issues considered important to the residents of Sydney. We believe this approach represents an important starting point in the co-design and implementation, of an accessible extreme-heat-health policy informed by both scientific evidence and the experiences and expectations of our local community members.
We were fortunate enough to be joined by representatives from several community organisations and initiatives including: New South Wales Health; Sydney Local Health Districts; Resilient Sydney, Sydney Alliance as well as representatives from local council organisations.
Attendees brought a diverse range of experiences to the table and afforded insight into the types of problems typically encountered by Sydney residents during periods of extreme heat. We were particularly eager to learn about the lived experiences of those most vulnerable to the heat. Identification of the key barriers and enablers of heat-stress resilience within elderly, low socio-economic, homeless and difficult-to-reach communities is crucial to the success of a truly city-wide heat-health strategy. Such insight is often difficult to glean from our University offices and academic circles.
Outcomes, Challenges & Opportunities
The general enthusiasm for the project was encouraging and left academics in the room reassured that the proposed research could meaningfully benefit the local community. We were left in little doubt that the heat-related issues faced by Sydney residents are real and require urgent action. Many of our ideas relating to community-based strategies to combat extreme heat were well-received, however, it also became evident that there were many additional considerations still to be addressed.
A recurring topic of conversation centred on the difficulty of striking a balance between public health messaging that is simple and accessible to the general population, yet also tailored to a diverse range of individual needs. For example, the heat-health guidance offered to a healthy student living in an air-conditioned home must undoubtedly differ to that promoted to a socially isolated, elderly individual with compromised thermoregulatory capacity living under challenging socioeconomic conditions. Similarly, the coping strategies suggested during periods of very hot but dry weather will inevitably differ to those recommended during hot but also very humid periods. Our challenge is to ensure that our heat-health messaging transcends this complexity to provide simple, yet effective guidance for all. To lean on a cliché, when it comes to our approach to this, one size will certainly not fit all.
Clearly, these challenges are not unique to heat-stress policy development and it will be important that we reflect on both the successes and failures of previous public health messaging campaigns.
Feedback from community members at the earliest stages of project development, as well as continued community consultation, will be crucial to the project’s success.
We are presented with an exciting opportunity to work with our community to co-design this research project and are hopeful our combined efforts will result in the development in a heat-health plan that can truly benefit our local neighbourhoods.
Ollie Jay is the Director of the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory, in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney, and Lead Researcher of the Charles Perkins Centre (CPC) Research Node on Climate Adaptation and Health. His research activities primarily focus on developing a better understanding of the physiological and physical factors that determine human heat strain and the associated risk of heat-related health problems during work and/or physical activity, as well as among the general population during heat waves.
David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. His work focuses on contemporary environmental and environmental justice movements, environment and everyday life, and climate adaptation planning and policy.
James Smallcombe is a Post-doctoral Research Associate in the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory. His research focusses on the physiological responses of children and adolescents during exercise in environmental extremes. His other research interests include the impacts of heat stress in vulnerable populations.