Heatwaves — the vulnerable are suffering most

Photo: John Towner/Unsplash

Yes, it’s been hot, blackouts are a problem and peak load is an important policy challenge.

But there’s also a growing humanitarian problem that heatwaves are just beginning to expose.

It’s the weakest: the poor, the very old and the very young, and those without adequate housing who will bear the greatest brunt of the changing climate.

We don’t know how many record heatwaves we’ll have or how many freak storms, cyclones or bushfires we’ll endure. But we do know that more extreme and unpredictable weather will most affect those who have the least ability to protect themselves.

Extreme temperatures contribute to the deaths of more than 1,000 people aged over 65 each year in Australia according to the Climate Institute. That number is due to increase substantially in line with Australia’s increasing temperatures and more frequent heatwaves.

Macquarie University risk scientist Lucinda Coates estimates that, “since 1900 extreme heat events have been responsible for more deaths in Australia than the combined total of deaths from all other natural hazards barring disease epidemics.”

Our Adelaide call centre where Red Cross volunteers check in with older people who are especially at risk during times of the extreme heat.

In Adelaide late last week one of our Emergency Services volunteers dropped into an elderly man’s house after he had failed to answer his daily Red Cross phone call.

He lives alone. Our volunteer found him collapsed, unconscious on the floor in an extremely hot house. An ambulance was called, he was hospitalised and fortunately he was able to be revived.

Sadly similar scenarios repeat over and over in these sweltering conditions. Heat waves can cause deaths through heart attack, stroke and heat exhaustion.

Heat stress is Australia’s most fatal natural disaster.

Babies in cars. Older people all alone. People who are homeless or without adequate housing or living in hot boxes without any cooling. People with a disability, mental health, alcohol or drug issues. These are the people who most feel the brunt of these weather extremes.

It’s everyone’s business. Adapting everything we do to a new and changing climate is a shared responsibility. No one person, group, business or government can do it alone.

Red Cross emergency volunteers lend a hand wherever they are needed. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Dilini Perera

Please make sure you, your loved ones and people in your community are prepared for the breadth of emergencies that can happen, big and small. Learn about the risks in your area, write down important phone numbers, learn first aid and make an emergency plan.

But most importantly, talk to your neighbours. Find out who may need help during extreme weather and lend a hand.

Neighbours can make all the difference before emergency services arrive.

Climate change is affecting all of us but our most vulnerable people are getting the worst of it. Governments and businesses have their part to play but we can all take simple steps to reduce their burden.

Here’s some advice on taking care of yourselves and others.

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By Judy Slatyer — Australian Red Cross CEO