New study examines heatwave health risks on vulnerable households

As global warming makes heatwaves more frequent, longer and hotter, how do we help households who are most vulnerable to health and financial impacts?

Image by Phillip Capper via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A new study led by RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research is investigating the financial and health risks of heatwaves in vulnerable households.

With research taking place in Melbourne, Dubbo, and Cairns to represent different climates and communities, the major aim of the Heatwaves, Homes and Health project is to find ways to reduce health and wellbeing risks for households, and raise awareness of health implications in electricity policy-making.

Lead researcher Dr Larissa Nicholls, from the Beyond Behaviour Change program at the Centre for Urban Research, says elderly people, infants, and people with chronic health conditions are most likely to be at risk during extremely hot weather – particularly if they live in poor quality housing.

“Extreme heat kills more people in Australia than other natural hazards and creates high demand for health services,” Nicholls said.

“Although the health and emergency management sectors often advise people to use air conditioning to stay cool during heatwaves, air conditioning can be an unreliable and an unaffordable way to stay cool in extreme heat.

“Limited financial resources, shortcomings in housing quality, and a tendency to underestimate their own vulnerability means a significant portion of householders may be at risk in extreme heat.”

Nicholls said that the study, funded through an Energy Consumers Australia grant, will also look at the possible impacts of electricity price signals or cost-reflective tariffs as electricity sector responses to high electricity demand during heatwaves.

“Some households are in much better position to respond to issues of electricity supply and demand than others – they can survive the heat without relying on home air conditioning,” she said.

“The Victorian Auditor General reported that during the 2014 heatwave some heat vulnerable households stopped using air conditioning in response to public appeals to be careful with electricity consumption.”

Nicholls says that without in-depth research about how electricity pricing and messaging impacts heat-vulnerable households in Australia, governments and industry will not know how to respond effectively, efficiently, and equitably.

“It’s crucial to understand the issues faced by households during extreme heat so that electricity policy can recognise different needs and help protect vulnerable consumers.”

For interviews: Dr Larissa Nicholls, (03) 9925 9012.

For general media enquiries: Chanel Bearder, (03) 9925 0917 or 0432 140 673.