The heat records just keep breaking; it’s much hotter for much longer.

As our communities grapple with record-breaking temperatures and prolonged heatwaves, the human cost of extreme heat events is becoming increasingly evident. July 2023 has marked the hottest global average temperature on record, with the Northern Hemisphere experiencing relentless heatwaves spanning from the United States and Southern Europe to North Africa and East Asia. Beyond the alarming headlines, the true toll lies in the loss of lives and social harm, particularly in urban areas.

Reports highlight the devastating impact on vulnerable populations, including agricultural and bicycle delivery workers, as well as the elderly, who, having survived COVID-19, succumb to the intense heat within their homes. Global trends indicate a rise in heat-related deaths, with a 2019 Lancet study attributing 356,000 deaths to extreme heat. In July 2023, Spain and Portugal witnessed over 2,000 deaths in a week, predominantly among the elderly. Additionally, emerging evidence from India and Pakistan links heatwaves to adverse effects on pregnancy, including a 5% increase in the risk of premature and stillbirths for every 1-degree celsius temperature rise.

The escalating heat crisis is a consequence of both regional weather patterns and climate change, driven by a 1.1-degree celsius global warming to date. The implications of extreme heat events pose a severe threat to human rights, particularly in regions where social services are crucial. The Southern Hemisphere must acknowledge the inequities exposed by heatwaves and draw lessons from the experiences of the Northern Hemisphere.

In Australia extreme heat events are defined as temperatures sitting 5 degrees above average for three or more days, the Queensland Department of Health warns of serious health risks for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women, outdoor workers, and those with chronic health conditions—all of whom heavily rely on social services.
Heatwaves also impact people’s ability to work, access services, and exacerbate issues related to housing stress, homelessness, energy poverty, power failures, and inadequate housing. Urban planning shortcomings become evident, as certain areas, like Western Sydney, grapple with heat sinks due to past poor planning practices.

While some Australian states, such as South Australia and Melbourne, have implemented strategies to address climate health, the lack of a federal climate health strategy raises concerns about the nation’s readiness for the impending El Nino southern summer.

“Heatwaves also impact people’s ability to work, access services, and exacerbate issues related to housing stress, homelessness, energy poverty, power failures, and inadequate housing..”

Key Australian issues

Addressing the following urgent questions and concerns is essential to develop comprehensive strategies that safeguard vulnerable populations, uphold human rights, and mitigate the escalating impacts of extreme heat events on society.

Seasonal mobility

Discussions in Northern Queensland indicate the possibility of people relocating south for relief from extreme heat during January. Will certain regions become uninhabitable on a seasonal basis, impacting sectors like summer sports, agriculture, and tourism?

Decent work

The International Labour Organization (ILO) identifies the concept of ‘decent work,’ emphasizing fair income, workplace security, and social protection. Should the government provide JobKeeper-type payments to outdoor workers during heatwaves, and how can companies implement extreme heat labor safeguards?

Health access

Heat-related stresses on the health system, ambulance callouts, and emergency department visits pose challenges. How can long-term planning address the varying strategies among states and effectively mitigate health risks during hotter months?

Homeless population

Homeless individuals face increased challenges during heatwaves, requiring adequate shelter, food access, and water availability. Can strategies like trauma-informed extreme weather resilience education be expanded, and can public spaces serve as ‘cool banks’?

Mental health

Beyond social connectedness, increased heatwaves impact mental health, potentially leading to aggression and higher suicide rates. How can communities support mental health during extreme heat, drawing lessons from the pandemic?

Staying cool

Electricity bills and access to cooling

Debates on power shutdowns during extreme heat events and eviction policies are crucial. Should utilities companies be allowed to cut off power during heatwaves, and is there a right to air-conditioning in specific spaces?

Rights to air-conditioning and shade

Should the state bear the cost of air-conditioning in various facilities, including early childcare centres, aged care homes, prisons, and schools? What about the provision of free swimming pools in towns lacking air-conditioned spaces? Do citizens have a right to shade in public areas?

Launch of the Climate Action Beacon’s Climate Justice Observatory

In early 2023, Griffith University’s Climate Action Beacon launched its Climate Justice Observatory in Birdsville to explore these questions and more. The Observatory will apply the established human rights methodologies of observatories – the provision of reliable information, equity data, climate modelling, long- form journalism and multidisciplinary expert analysis – to the question of climate justice. This online resource will allow citizens to monitor issues, map local problems and crowd- source solutions while also providing campaign resources. 

With its first work focused on heatwaves in Queensland, the Climate Justice Observatory has begun the critical work of monitoring and tracking the development of laws, policies and justice interventions in this region and beyond, adding value to existing open-access global resources for citizen education and action everywhere. 

The Observatory is a growing and living resource designed to be updated as our knowledge grows, and the impacts of climate change becomes clearer. Griffith University is keen to partner with and source contributions from across Queensland and Australia to help build our knowledge-base of climate justice, so feel free to get in touch.


Professor Susan Harris Rimmer focuses on international human rights law, climate justice and gender equality in the Griffith Law School and is a member of the Law Futures Centre. She was the Director of the Griffith University Policy Innovation Hub (from July 2020 – December 2023). She was previously the Deputy Head of School (Research) in the Griffith Law School and prior to joining Griffith was the Director of Studies at the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

13: Climate Action
UN Sustainable Development Goals 13: Climate Action