The IPCC report has confirmed human activity is making the world hotter, while pictures of the forest fires in Greece, Algeria and Italy have been viewed by people across the globe. There is no doubt that we are seeing the effects of climate change happening before our very eyes. Now is the time to act, not only to mitigate against irreversible damage to the planet, but also look at the policy and practicalities of the way we live in order to protect the most vulnerable, explains Dr Raquel Nunes from Warwick Medical School, a public health and environmental social expert specialising in the effect of heatwaves.
Some people are still calling heatwaves ‘unprecedented’ but they are already the norm for many across the globe. This year alone, the Pacific Northwest and Canada heatwave in June and the current Eastern Mediterranean heatwave in August have caused loss of life, and the impact has been felt most by those that are most vulnerable.
Of these two heatwaves, the first, in Canada, occurred in a population not experienced in dealing with these kind of effects but the other, centred around Greece, is a well-experienced population. We saw that this had implications regarding the preparedness of governments and individuals in both regions. People in Canada suffered because they are not used to or prepared for high temperatures. But since the 2003 European heatwave and its impacts, many countries all over the world have adopted heatwave plans aiming at reducing vulnerability, building resilience and improving adaptation by guiding action to better prepare society, prevent and limit illness and death.
Why can some people cope and others can’t?
Heatwave risks and impacts are felt unequally globally but also the way in which the effects of heatwaves are distributed are unequal within a population. This is not because the human body cannot withstand the heat, but because some individuals are less able to respond to it.
The human body can cope with high temperatures, but over a certain threshold we begin to become unwell. The trouble is we don’t live in a laboratory where all the conditions are controlled. Some of us live in poorly connected or adapted places. Some places also have high humidity which affects the human body’s own cooling method – sweating. Some of us live in densely built up areas with lack of green spaces, where the effects of Urban Heat Islands are most felt. So the standard medical model does not work for everybody and we need to consider a social model of health in relation to dealing with the problems heatwaves can pose.
Supporting adaptation to extreme temperatures is possible and can be complemented with efforts to reduce vulnerability and building resilience, generally.
It’s only getting hotter
The increased incidence of heatwaves is happening now – not in a few years’ time. So governments looking to mitigate against climate change need to also be looking at adapting to living with higher temperatures in order to protect lives.
We need to be looking now at planning for and understanding the wider determinants of health and getting to grips with the notion of assets. Assets can be human (e.g. living arrangements, level of education, health status, occupation), financial (e.g. income, expenses, savings), physical (e.g. housing type, housing tenure, living conditions, floor number), place-based (e.g. access to and quality of services and amenities, access to green spaces, Heatwave Plan) and social (e.g. social contacts and networks, social participation and activities) – they are all factors which can affect an individual’s ability to respond to stresses and threats, such as heatwaves. The implementation of an asset-based approach is the key pathway that individuals, their families and carers, governments, policymakers, researchers and practitioners can follow to ensure effective adaptation and promote health and well-being.
Opportunities to improve adaptation range across all types of assets (i.e. human, financial, physical, place-based, social), and include improving education and individualized advice, incentives and income, insulated and more energy-efficient homes, access to cooling places and technologies, social and health services, policies and safety nets, as well as social networks. These were considered by participants of my research to be opportunities that if implemented would enhance their responses to heatwaves.
The five ways we can help people cope with heatwaves
Concrete policy recommendations could take the form of programs, plans, and actions supporting individuals to enable them to better deal with challenging life events through people or community-centred approaches linked to specific priorities, problems, and needs. Policies and strategies could focus on:
- Identifying health problems, lack of literacy and health literacy (human assets)
- Improving physical assets, such as home insulation and provision of cooling devices/systems
- Looking at financial assets, such as reduction in energy prices for the vulnerable
- Improving social assets, such as social activities to improve social networks
- Improving access to place-based assets like public green and blue spaces and public indoor spaces for cooling
To increase all types of assets requires an investment in tailored national and local policy decisions and interventions. Enough funding and political commitment are needed for the short, medium and longer-term to successfully achieve increases in the ‘asset portfolio’ of individuals. This would reduce vulnerability, increase resilience and improve adaptation to heatwaves in particular – but also to other threats, events and stress in general. Additionally, increased development and better communication of policies and procedures between government agencies and citizens is also needed.
Focusing on assets will require a shift in the passive way in which people are currently informed and advised or made aware of the Heatwave Plan, with no further actions put in place to ensure they do not suffer the health impacts of extreme heats. As a result, new ways in which information is distributed need to be carefully considered and adjusted to different types of people in order to allow easy and equal access to advice. Special attention should also be given to the type of adaptation measures provided in such advice so they don’t exclude people and are suitable for different individuals.
13 August 2021
Dr Ana Raquel Nunes joined the Warwick Medical School (WMS) in January 2015 and is currently a Senior Research Fellow. She has over 18 years' experience working across the field of public health, having held positions in universities, hospitals and in the World Health Organization (WHO).
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