ADELAIDE has just experienced a record-breaking heatwave for December, with regional areas facing even higher temperatures than the city. While the much-needed cool change brought temporary relief, scientific evidence indicates we must brace for more of these events.
Australia has warmed steadily since the 1940s, and the probability of extreme heat has now increased almost fivefold compared with 50 years ago. In 2015 we experienced the hottest year ever, relieving 2014 of this dubious honour, while seven of Australia’s 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the 13 years from 2002.
Extreme heat has significant impacts on the health and wellbeing of our communities. During last week’s heatwave, from Tuesday to Sunday, there were 224 heat-related presentations to SA’s hospitals and of these 65 were admitted to hospital. Among these were two building workers — one critical, indicating how occupational health advice should not be disregarded.
During the 2009 heatwave, where maximum temperature reached 45.7°C, a study showed direct heat-related admissions increased up to 14-fold compared to a threefold increase seen during the 2008 event and during previous heatwaves.
Extreme heat affects our daily activities in uncountable ways. We all know that hot environments increase our personal discomfort, make us more irritable and impair our thinking — a combination of factors that increase our likelihood of squabbling and aggression. Having to stay confined indoors makes all this even worse.
Even more serious, high temperatures raise the levels of air pollutants that exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and pollen and other allergies that trigger asthma. Decreased productivity and performance levels occur with extreme temperatures due to dehydration, raised body temperatures and impaired cognitive function.
However, the main risk of heatwaves is heat stroke, which is a medical emergency. Heat stroke is caused by lengthy exposure to high temperatures, such that we exceed the capacity of our body to control its own temperature. Normally we are at 37°C — with heat stroke we may reach 40 or more. Because it can be fatal, first aid is critical.
Excessive heat can harm everyone, but it impacts most on those of us living on the margins of health — the very young, the elderly and the chronically ill. In addition pregnant women and those who work outside, including farmers, are very vulnerable to the health impacts of heatwaves.
Doctors are very concerned about how rising temperatures will effect the community. In 2013 the peak medical professional body the Australian Medical Association noted we are ill-prepared for the health impacts of climate change and were still waiting “for a strategy to ensure health services can be rapidly mobilised and effectively targeted during extreme weather events”.
Doctors for the Environment Australia has also recommended health service planning to enable the adequate treatment of expected increases in the numbers of injured and ill resulting from extreme weather events.
In a submission to the Senate on extreme weather events, DEA called for the establishment of a National Disaster and Recovery Fund with a levy on the predominant source of CO2 emissions, mainly coal and gas production. This is a practical and logical response for the mitigation of climate change which is impossible without a rapid transition from coal.
Our best insurance against heatwaves, which are happening more frequently, lasting longer, occurring outside the times expected in the past and are more intense, is to make the necessary changes to tackle climate change.
Failure to do so will result in South Australians and other Australians facing an increasingly warmer and inhospitable planet.
Professor John Willoughby, Dr Ingo Weber, Professor Hubertus Jersmann, Professor David Shearman and Dr Doug Shaw are members of Doctors for the Environment Australia (SA).
First published in the Advertiser on 24 December 2015. You can find the link HERE.