Denaturalising urban heatwaves: Gendered vulnerability and our right to be cool
Heatwaves have killed more people in Australia than all other climate related disasters combined. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already warned in 2014 that increasing deaths from heatwaves are likely to become one of Australia’s most detrimental impacts of climate change, with major implications for emergency services and public policy development. The catastrophic dimensions of heatwave mortality are not spread evenly across society and are heavily concentrated among the elderly, with gender, poverty and social isolation key contributing factors. Systemic gender oppression, associated with power imbalances and reduced access to economic resources, has been identified a key heat health risk factor for older women. This suggests that vulnerability to contemporary climate disasters is largely determined by the intersection of human decisions with geography and culture, in other words, is socially and historically constructed. Urban environments rate particularly high on the heatwave risk index. This is due to the complex interaction of a growing and aging population, the built environment and the Urban Heat Island effect. Some neighbourhoods are more vulnerable than others, which challenges generic concepts such as ‘urban resilience’. It exposes the existence of systemic and spatial inequality and the role of the State in the construction of risks in urban ecology. For most heatwave victims, their personal vulnerability is either amplified by or a direct outcome of structural inequality experienced by an entire population group or a geographic urban area, which is precisely why any future policy requires intervention guided by social justice and human rights. By rejecting the proposition that heatwave disasters are ‘natural’, hence unavoidable and inevitable, we make heatwave survival a whole of government and community responsibility and not dependent on highly limiting concepts such as ‘individual resilience’. Older, poorer women should not be made into the shock absorbers of the climate crisis.