Longer and hotter heatwaves are already hitting parts of Australia. Are we prepared?
We build fire shelters in bushfire-prone regions. Cyclone zones have structures with reinforced rooms, such as bathrooms. Now we need to start building “cool rooms.”
Country and outback towns are in for a tough time. Their infrastructure is ageing. So are residents. And the workforce.
Then there’s the extreme heat.
“When we talk about these impacts, we’re no longer talking about future impacts,” says Energy Efficiency Council buildings policy advisor Julianne Tice.
“Really, we’re talking about the impacts of climate change right now.
”Already, in 2020, Western Sydney suffered through 37 days over 35 degrees Celsius.”
Far worse is yet to come. Over the next 50 years, the Gold Coast faces a tenfold increase in heat waves.
Dr Wendy Miller of the Queensland University of Technology says that, at the moment, the district experiences about four or five days of extreme discomfort on average annually. That’s set to soar to 45.
Another example is Mount Isa. This regional centre in the northwest of Queensland is staring down the barrel of prolonged heatwaves of up to 29 days.
Mackay, in northeastern Queensland, could soon register temperatures greater than 35°C for up to two-thirds of each year. And a single heatwave could last 72 days.
“Now that’s not a temporary thing,” says Miller. “And you can’t just tell people to take it easy, to go to the shopping centre, not to go outdoors. We actually need to adapt.”
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But that’s not easy. Turning a house or workplace into a heat refuge takes time and money. Not all of Australia’s regional communities have much of either. And updating building regulations and standards, even in suburbia, adds a whole new dimension of politics and planning to the equation.
The heat is on. Put simply; air conditioners aren’t up to the job ahead.
That’s why the Energy Efficiency Council brought together a set of resilience experts last month to discuss the path ahead.
When it comes to high temperatures for extended periods, costs will quickly become prohibitive … if you’re lucky enough to still have the power on.
Hotter. Bigger. Longer-lasting.
The chances of multiple states experiencing heatwave conditions simultaneously are soaring. And that means the national electricity grid will struggle to cope. How can we beat the heat without air-conditioning?
According to Victorian Council of Social Service policy advisor Ben Latham, we’re not ready.
He says a case study involving public housing in Mildura, in western Victoria, reveals the overwhelming effect of an extreme heat event.
Even at night, families had to take their mattresses out into the garden or down to the local river in the hope of finding air cool enough to sleep in.
“There was also increased violence. Not only does heat make people more aggressive, but people couldn’t sleep. So they were wandering the streets and drinking until the early hours because they couldn’t get any rest,” Latham says.
Community services gave some vulnerable residents portable air-conditioning. But many were returned after just one month because of surprise electricity bills.
“To keep cool, they’ve got to cut back on food and necessities, medicine and internet and things like that,” he explains.
A matter of life and death
“We’re not treating the heat hazard the same way as we treat the hazards of fire, flood, storms and cyclones,” warns Miller.
“And while we do have some policies in Australia about the heat hazards for sport and work outside, we don’t have an indoor heat warning system yet.
That’s largely understandable. Until now, simple coping strategies have been enough. But as the cost of living rises, community services must accommodate those left behind. District councils and towns have been advising at-risk residents to seek shelter in public places, such as libraries or shopping centres. Drink more water. Don’t exert yourself.
“And that’s based on a presumption that the hazard is short-term, that it’s temporary,” says Miller.
But what happens when heat waves last a month? What if the power goes out?
“At the moment, we really don’t have anything other than telling people to keep drinking water,” says Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils’ policy and projects officer Kelly Gee.
And community and commercial centres will face their own problems.
“When a whole bunch of high-risk people come into one location, then you have responsibility for those people. And what happens when it gets to 8pm?” Gee asks.
“Once the library or the community centre needs to close, people have to back to their really hot houses. And the refuge such facilities offer may be unreliable.
“Blacktown [NSW] found that, in many of their public buildings, the air-conditioning systems are only rated to function to just over 40°C. So if you are looking at really extreme temperatures, and you get people to a place, and the air-conditioning is above its operational threshold – or you don’t have back-up power – what does that look like?
”Building resilience if you live in a cyclone threat region, one room in your house – usually the bathroom – is built to be a structural refuge.”
Some bushfire-prone regions are beginning to encourage properties to include a bushfire retreat. But could you survive a 45-day heatwave? Can your building maintain a safe temperature threshold without electricity?
we’re talking about the impacts of climate change right now.
”Already, in 2020, Western Sydney suffered through 37 days over 35 degrees Celsius.”Julianne Tice
“What we’re finding here in Australia and California is that power companies often have to turn off power supplies during heatwaves. That’s because of the risk of transmission lines contributing to fires,” Miller says.
“So increasingly, we have to consider not relying on grid electricity for extended periods.
“Whatever you do, you need to start with a really good building in the first instance.”
And just as a cyclone shelter needs to be little more than a reinforced bathroom, you don’t need to cool an entire building. Focusing on just one or two rooms could help keep costs manageable. Whatever the case, there is a set of practical steps that make a good start.
“A good level of shading. A good level of insulation. Using the colours or materials that reflect the heat as opposed to absorbing it. It is possible to produce homes that let in very little heat,” Miller explains.
“Internal temperatures can be 10 degrees cooler than outside, with no air-conditioning, just because of how the building’s been built.
”But governing bodies also need to begin to take action. It might be requiring specific buildings like aged care centres to ensure that their emergency power systems will power the air-conditioners,” she says. “At the moment, they’re for life support systems only. But air-conditioning is not considered a life support system.”
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Originally published by Cosmos as Preparing to beat the heat
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.