Springwood High School sits nestled among the dense eucalyptus woodland of Sydney’s lower Blue Mountains region. Several majestic, towering gum trees stand next to the school gate, but most of the school’s classrooms are unshaded and exposed to the baking sun each afternoon.
“We’re in these huge blocks of classrooms and … in the morning, the sunlight hits these big, exposed brick walls,” said 17-year-old student Ian Tjoelker. “They store that heat and then radiate it into us throughout the afternoon, basically like a solar oven.”
Residents here, just over an hour’s drive west from downtown Sydney, are experiencing the reality of a warming planet, with temperatures often between 8°C and 10.5°C hotter than eastern Sydney. Geography and flawed urban design exacerbate the climate change struggles of Greater Western Sydney residents and provide an alarming insight into what the future may hold, and why urgent government action is needed.
The unique geographical factors of this part of Sydney make it particularly susceptible to heat. Hot air mass comes in over the mountain range and then pushes into the valley that is Greater Western Sydney. Too far from the coast to receive any cooling sea breeze, heat is then trapped within these western neighborhoods with nowhere to go.
Since 1910, Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1 °C. And since 1950, every decade has been warmer than the one before. Australia’s hottest year on record was 2019, and the seven years from 2013 to 2019 all rank in the nine hottest years.
This long-term warming trend means most years are now warmer than almost any observed during the 20th century, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.
Increases in temperature are observed across Australia in all four seasons, with both day and night-time temperatures warming. This shift has been accompanied by more extreme daily heat events.
In January 2020, Penrith in Greater Western Sydney registered as the hottest place on earth, reaching a high of 48.9˚C, breaking records that had gone back 80 years.
As the number of hot days has increased and with no air conditioning in most of Springwood’s classrooms, Ian has begun to see how climate change is having a significant impact on students’ learning.
Evidence shows that temperatures above 24°C reduces learning outcomes, so after one too many hot afternoons struggling to concentrate, Ian and some of his schoolmates decided to take action.
They founded an initiative called ‘2Hot2Learn’ and invited scientists from Western Sydney University to come and measure temperatures at Springwood High School.
“We were just a small group of scientifically minded students. We got together and helped put up these sensors around our school. And over three months, the summer of 2018 to 2019, we monitored the temperature in 16 of our classrooms and in four sites around our school.”
Using the data students collected, scientists found the classroom air temperatures at Springwood exceeded the optimal learning threshold for 60 percent of the summer.
While hot summer classrooms have been an age-old problem for Australian students, there is no denying the growing rate of extreme weather Ian and his generation are facing.
“People say, ‘Oh, back in my day we had hot classrooms.’ But this is an issue that’s actively going to get worse. We are facing this climate catastrophe and we’re facing these immediate issues of heat. And it will continue to get worse because of climate change,” Ian says.
Down the mountain from Springwood, where the flat plains of Blacktown begin, general practitioner Dr. Kim Loo pops in on a home visit to one of her older patients.
“I’ve been working for so long in western Sydney over the last 30 years that I’ve felt the rise in heat myself,” says the doctor. “Heat has changed in its nature. And just seeing like my patients, how hot some of their houses are inside, where the internal temperature is just as hot as the external temperature.”
Dr. Loo is passionate about raising awareness of the health risks and impacts of rising temperatures.
“When you see the problem, you understand the problem. You can’t turn away! I don’t have a vested interest except for having a better, safer community and living. I’m not paid by anyone to do this,” she says.
Heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia in the past 200 years than any other natural hazard. About 2 percent of deaths in Australia between 2006 and 2017 were associated with heat, and the estimate increases to more than 4 percent in the northern and central parts of the country, though experts believe Australian death records underestimate the association between heat and mortality. During the 2014 heatwave in Victoria, the state’s Chief Health officer said there was an excess 167 deaths recorded.
“I documented a patient of mine who died during a heatwave in 2018. He had a compromised system with his heart and lungs and that was because he became dehydrated,” says Dr. Loo.
Heat stress can also exacerbate existing health conditions and chronic illnesses including diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease. Heatwaves significantly increase the number of people needing to access emergency and medical services for a range of health conditions. According to Doctors for the Environment, in the 2014 heatwave in the state of Victoria, there was a 7 percent increase in public hospital emergency department visits and a 25 percent increase in the ambulance emergency callouts in the Melbourne metropolitan area.
Children and pregnant people are particularly susceptible to the health dangers of heat. Heat exposure is linked to premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, which in turn are linked to developmental delays and are risk factors for infant morbidity and mortality, and stillbirth.
People with disabilities and older people are also at particular risk of heat-related illness and death. Some are more likely to have health conditions or use medication that can affect the body’s ability to respond to heat.
“What happens is if they get a little bit hot and their heart is trying to pump their blood to the rest of their body and their heart could fail,” explains Dr Loo.
Dr Loo worries about her older patients during heatwaves and tries to check in on those without strong support networks.
“If you are old and living on your own, you mightn’t realize that you’re getting more dehydrated. If the temperatures go up and your body temperature goes up to 38, 39 degrees, you have heat stroke. So, this is why people who live on their own, who are vulnerable, will die from heat wave.”
It’s not just daytime temperatures causing concern.
The Bureau of Meteorology says night-time temperatures in Australia are also increasing. Very warm monthly night-time temperatures occurred nearly 2 percent of the time between 1960 and 1989, but are now occurring around 11 percent of the time.
The doctor has seen how her patients’ bodies are increasingly struggling to recover from extreme heat, not just due to an increase in maximum temperatures but also from rising minimum temperatures.
Warmer nights prevent the body from recovering from extreme heat experienced during the day, with patients who cannot afford to cool their homes at particular risk.
Social isolation and poverty increase these risks. Suburbs in Greater Western Sydney have an increased rate of significant economic disadvantage, and Dr Kim has seen a growing number of patients experience energy poverty, where people cannot afford the cost to keep their homes adequately cooled.
“I’ve had patients who had to choose between turning on the air conditioner, whether they have food, or whether they take their medications,” says Dr. Loo.
The doctor is urging the government to adopt a national heatwave risk management framework.
“Heatwaves are rising and there is no national plan to deal with heatwaves. It's not something that's an option,” says Dr Loo.
Governments have a human rights obligation to protect their populations from the foreseeable harms of climate change-exacerbated heatwaves, particularly those most at risk such as children, older people, pregnant people, and people with disabilities. Essential steps governments should take before, during, and after heatwaves include:
- Assessing public health risks of heatwaves.
- Developing a heatwave mitigation and emergency response plan in consultation with at-risk populations.
- Ensuring the public is informed of imminent risks and the availability of emergency assistance.
- Ensuring access to cool environments.
- Ensuring access to water and energy.
- Ensuring access to medical care for people suffering heat-related health emergencies.
- Assessing the impact of heatwaves and the effectiveness of emergency response.
- Revising and strengthening heat plans in response to lessons learned and public feedback.
During hot days in Greater Western Sydney, playgrounds without shade sit empty. The play equipment is too hot to touch, let alone sit on.
It’s on a day like that, you can find Dr. Sebastian Pfautsch wandering around measuring surface temperatures of slides and swings.
“When everyone else is hunkering down in their air conditioning space. I have to be at places where it’s hot to collect my data,” explains Dr Pfautsch, Associate Professor in Urban Studies at Western Sydney University and urban heat expert. “I measured surface temperatures of 108˚C and I will never forget that moment.”
Dr Pfautsch says the rubber surfaces common in playgrounds intended to make surfaces safer can become a potential burn hazard in summer.
“I’m not only talking about playgrounds when it’s 40 degrees and we have extreme temperatures on those materials. We already find 70 to 80 ˚C as surface temperature during days where you have a clear blue sky and it’s just 28 degrees,” he explains.
“It’s indicating to me that there’s systematically something wrong in the design of our outdoor spaces in western Sydney that are just not made to cope with these extreme temperatures.”
The professor takes his research team and a bunch of drones equipped with infrared cameras to document and survey the heat landscape of the region. Air temperature monitors set up in different streets across the suburbs also track the microclimate, to understand what contributes to heat and cooling. The research found that tree canopies and reflective surfaces could help reduce the surface temperature of various materials by more than 40 degrees on a sweltering summer day.
Referring to planning in Greater Western Sydney as a “multilayered disaster,” Dr. Pfautsch says green space has been all but eradicated from some areas, and turned into “grey infrastructure” such as housing, roads, and businesses.
“We introduce heat by transforming green to grey,” he says. “We have allowed larger and larger homes on smaller and smaller lots. We have situations where it, it’s not even possible to put trees in or any meaningful cooling green infrastructure because there’s no space left.”
Left: Galloway Street in Parramatta in western Sydney had a relatively milder microclimate with the area having just five days of temperatures above 40 degrees instead of 13 days recorded in the nearby Daking street. What was the difference? The study found it was the streets’ tree canopies. January 28, 2022. Right: Denham Court Housing Estate in western Sydney. Housing estates with homes crammed close together capture and store heat that radiates from one neighbor to the next. January 28, 2022.
Housing estates with hundreds of homes crammed close together capture and store heat that radiates from one neighbour to the next, with air conditioning units spewing hot air from one house to the next.
“There’s no more air circulation. You can walk from rooftop to rooftop in many places without even jumping!” says the professor.
“There is a lot of trouble in just the way that we organized how people live in these suburbs physically; with single glazing, dark roofs, dark colours, people paint their driveways even black because it seems to be fashionable. So, all these things contribute to increasing heat further.”
After years of pushing, local and state governments are beginning to adopt the urban planning policy changes Dr. Pfautsch has been calling for.
In November 2021, the New South Wales government announced it will move to ban dark roofs for new homes as part of its efforts to deliver more sustainable housing. Research shows a light-coloured roof could reduce temperatures inside the home by up to 10 degrees during a heatwave.
The Cumberland City Council in Greater Western Sydney also recently worked with the professor to build Australia’s first dedicated “UV-smart Cool Playground,” complete with safer, more heat-resistant materials and specialised shading.
“We changed the surface material to a rubber material that I found was the coolest material in rubber. We tested different shade materials and strategically put shade cloth in various places in different configurations. There was tree planting, additional trees were planted to increase shade naturally around the playground,” he said.
For Dr. Pfautsch, these changes are a positive step and signify the beginning of an effort to see his recommendations come alive.
“I want to see the examples where the new planned suburbs will not have black roofs anymore, where you see retention of existing vegetation instead of bulldozing everything and starting from scratch. I want to see the action that comes from these policy changes on the ground,” he says.
The climate crisis poses serious risks to the fundamental rights to life, health, food, and an adequate standard of living of individuals and communities across the world, and governments everywhere have a human rights obligation to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving it.
Despite Australia being one of the world’s biggest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, the Australian government is failing to take the critical steps needed to prevent the most catastrophic climate outcomes.
The Australian government should rapidly reduce emissions, stop subsidizing fossil fuels, and increase its support for clean, renewable energy.
If global warming continues at the current rate, studies suggest that extreme heat days over 35 degrees will increase five-fold in Greater Western Sydney by 2090, with some neighbourhoods experiencing almost two months of extreme heat per year.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts significant climate-related health impacts for people in Australia if urgent action is not taken to reduce emissions, including excess heat-related deaths in Australian cities quadrupling between 2031 and 2080 compared with 1971-2020, and climate change exacerbating the health inequities already faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Australia Institute has found that state and federal government action in line with international efforts to curb rising emissions could help limit the number of extreme heat days to fewer than 17 per year.
Back at Springwood High, Ian recently learned that the state government declined to fund the installation of air conditioning at his school. For the teenager, the battle for a cool classroom continues, but he is mindful this is just the first skirmish in a much bigger fight.
“Obviously, there’s the larger issue of climate change and the solution is action by the federal government. Australia is really missing the memo. There’s just a complete lack of real action,” says Ian.
“When you’re young, you see adults as the ones who fix things, they fix your problems. They fix the problems out in the big world as well. But as I grew up, I realized that there was this huge issue and adults weren’t doing anything about it…. My whole youth has been shaped by climate change. The students at our school, my friends, we all know that heat, climate change and its other effects will continue to affect us as individuals and collectively for the rest of our lives.”
Sophie McNeill is the Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch. Intern Alex Drew conducted the research for this project.