Is it time we started to rank heatwaves according to health risks?
More Australians die from extreme heat on January 27 than any other day of the year. It’s because after spending the public holiday out in the sun, often drinking alcohol, by the next day many people are suffering from dehydration and heat illness.
Heat is the silent killer that most people don’t take seriously. It has killed more Australians than all other extreme weather events combined. More than bushfires, floods, cyclones. In fact, research shows that there is actually substantial under-reporting of heat-related deaths and that from 2006-2017 more than 36,000 Australians lost their lives due to extreme heat.
Australian doctors are now calling for heat to be recorded on death certificates, to more accurately recognise and understand its impacts. During the record heatwave in Canada last year, an emergency room doctor entered “climate change” as a cause of admission in the medical record of a patient presenting with dehydration on the background of asthma and diabetes. The doctor noted scientific evidence that the heatwave was virtually impossible without human-induced warming, and that the patient would not have been admitted to hospital otherwise.
More than one-third of warm season heat-related deaths are caused by climate change. The World Health Organisation estimates that climate change currently causes 150,000 deaths each year, but if we continue to burn coal, oil and gas, pumping more and more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, this number will only escalate.
So what can we do? A number of jurisdictions — including California, Greece and Seville in Spain — are implementing new systems to name and categorise heatwaves, to rank them according to health risks. Such a system could help to raise awareness and to better convey health advice about the risks and could also be the basis for triggering public health responses such as opening cool refuges and free energy for households to run air-conditioners.
However, there is a limit to what the human body can adapt to. In 2018-19, Alice Springs had 55 days above 40C. Combined with drought and widespread poor-quality housing it is likely that parts of central and northern Australia will become unlivable. That means we will have climate refugees in our own country.
As a doctor, I find it inconceivable that Australia — one of the countries on the frontlines of climate-health impacts — is one of the worst on climate action. In fact, we are ranked dead last on climate, which is ludicrous given that strong, urgent action would have substantial health benefits: cleaner air, healthier diets, greener and cooler cities.
A government’s primary responsibility is to protect the health and safety of its people. A Federal Government touting a gas-led recovery, supporting and even funding new fossil fuel projects, and acting as a wrecker in international climate negotiations is one which is actively contributing to a climate-health crisis which is harming its own people.
Diagnosis: heat stroke. Contributing cause: climate change. Underlying cause: government negligence.
Dr Kate Charlesworth is a public health doctor and a Climate Councillor