Our guest blogger, Monica Taylor, is a lawyer and the Climate Resilience Coordinator at Community Legal Centres Queensland. She is currently completing a PhD that looks at how the climate crisis will impact legal need. She is the former QCOSS Principal Advisor for the Human Rights Housing and Homelessness project.

Queensland is no stranger to extreme heat. A geographically diverse state with different climatic zones, we feel the heat differently depending on where we live. But whether we reside in the humid South-East, the tropical North or the hot dry West, global warming is a game changer: catastrophic high heat futures across all weather regions in Queensland are already forecast for the coming decades. As the climate crisis intensifies, we must urgently prepare our communities for the devastating impacts that our brutally hot summers will bring.

Heatwaves – a lethal climate injustice

Heatwaves are Australia’s most deadly extreme weather event. They are known as silent killers, with severe and extreme heatwaves claiming more lives every year than bushfires, floods and storms combined. Heatwaves are especially cruel in their unequal impact. Death and illness occurs disproportionately amongst people with the least ability to cope, adapt, or recover from extreme temperatures. People helped by Queensland’s frontline community services are most at risk: those experiencing homelessness or living in precarious housing, the elderly, people with chronic illness and disabilities, the very young, and pregnant women. Poor people typically live in hotter suburbs, in substandard housing and feel the heat much more than wealthier Queenslanders. This inequity is a climate injustice that requires urgent policy attention across many areas such as housing, local government services, and urban planning.

Let’s consider the human rights impact of extreme heat, and the obligations on public entities to protect Queenslanders from heat-related injuries.

What human rights are impacted by extreme heat?

The major harm from a heatwave is death or severe illness caused by heatstroke or heat stress. On extremely hot days, residing in cool and well-ventilated homes is critically important. The ability to stay in place and not have to travel elsewhere to seek refuge is the safest and most equitable way for people to endure prolonged heatwaves.

Housing

As public entities, community housing providers and the Department of Housing are legally obliged to consider human rights when delivering housing services. Extreme heat is literally a matter of life or death for some people, so the right to life is clearly engaged (and arguably the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) when these service providers make decisions around housing design, installation of air-conditioning, and other cooling measures. The right to equal treatment is also important given that heatwaves disproportionately impact people with certain attributes. For family households, the right to the protection of families and children will also be engaged.

QCOSS is a partner of the Power Together alliance that is calling for rooftop solar and batteries for social and community housing properties across Queensland. Policies like this will result in greater energy efficiency and reduced power bills for people who cannot afford to cool their homes even if they have an AC unit. Power Together joins the dots to ensure that climate adaptation is just and fair for everyone, not just those who can afford to adapt.

Local government services

On extremely hot days, people whose homes bake like an oven (and are therefore unsafe) may go in search of air-conditioned premises such as a public library, a shopping centre, or a public pool. These local community facilities are important sites of cooling respite for people during heatwaves, but they often have limited opening hours or require money to access. They are also not necessarily well serviced by public transport. Extending facility opening hours during summer, making these services low-cost or free, and offering free public or community transport options for people most at risk of harm, are human rights-respecting adjustments that can and should be made. A decision by Brisbane City Council to reduce pool entry fees over summer this year has helped many families on low incomes to keep cool.

The obligation to consider human rights does not arise for privately operated facilities like shopping centres or commercial building foyers, where people may be refused entry if they are not attending for consumer purposes. Measures could be taken to extend human rights obligations to commercial operators during dangerously hot conditions, or at the very least they could demonstrate good corporate citizenship by encouraging the general public to use their premises as cool refuge sites.

Urban planning

Heatwaves in densely built-up areas like cities and regional hubs generate more overnight heat due to the urban heat island effect. This is when city structures with lots of concrete, high-rise buildings, roads – and a lack of green canopy – absorb heat during the day then steadily radiate it overnight. This increases night-time temperatures so people have little to no respite or opportunity to cool down their core body temperatures.

There are so many ways to design our urban spaces to be more protective of vulnerable people. We need to do this equitably and on a large scale. Increasing shade and green canopy along all footpaths and pedestrian walkways, installing more water bubblers in public spaces, and developing targeted urban heat equity plans can all assist. Designing neighbourhoods where people feel safe to open their doors and windows is key to reducing social isolation. A human rights approach to urban planning places the person at the centre of the plan (rather than cars and high rise buildings) and carefully considers what is needed to ensure their rights are respected, protected, and promoted. One organisation doing great work in this area is Sweltering Cities. They work directly with people living in Australia’s hottest suburbs to advance more liveable, equitable and sustainable built environments.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the best protection against heatwaves is to stop greenhouse gas emissions from entering our atmosphere and rapidly drawing down carbon that is already present. But even if we completely cease emitting carbon tomorrow, heatwaves will continue to pose significant risk to the life, health, and wellbeing of people most at risk of climate harm. We need to prepare the long-term resilience of our communities by strongly advocating for human rights-respecting, equitable policies in areas of housing, local government services and urban planning.

To find out more about how community legal centres are supporting disaster and climate resilience, visit Community Legal Centres Queensland.

6 March 2024 |