Socio-cultural reflections on heat in Australia with implications for health and climate change adaptation

Cathy Banwell, Jane Dixon, Hilary Jane Bambrick, Ferne Edwards, Tord Kjellström


Background: Australia has a hot climate with maximum summer temperatures in its major cities frequently exceeding 35°C. Although ‘heat waves’ are an annual occurrence, the associated heat-related deaths among vulnerable groups, such as older people, suggest that Australians could be better prepared to deal with extreme heat.

Objective: To understand ways in which a vulnerable sub-population adapt their personal behaviour to cope with heat within the context of Australians’ relationship with heat.

Design: We draw upon scientific, historical and literary sources and on a set of repeat interviews in the suburbs of Western Sydney with eight older participants and two focus group discussions. We discuss ways in which this group of older people modifies their behaviour to adapt to heat, and reflect on manifestations of Australians’ ambivalence towards heat.

Results: Participants reported a number of methods for coping with extreme heat, including a number of methods of personal cooling, changing patterns of daily activity and altering dietary habits. The use of airconditioning was near universal, but with recognition that increasing energy costs may become more prohibitive over time.

Conclusions: While a number of methods are employed by older people to stay cool, these may become limited in the future. Australians’ attitudes may contribute to the ill-health and mortality associated with excessive heat.

Keywords: older Australians; experience of heat; health; climate change; vulnerability; impacts; adaptation; Australia

(Published: 16 October 2012)

Citation: Glob Health Action 2012, 5: 19277 -


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Global Health Action eISSN 1654-9880
Supplements to Global Health Action eISSN 1654-9880, ISSN 1654-9716

This journal is published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC-BY 4.0) License. Responsible editor: Stig Wall.