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As the planet burns, we must plan for more dangerous heatwaves – and do more for young people’s mental health

In the wake of blistering heatwaves in the northern hemisphere and other recent climate-related extreme weather events, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is stepping up efforts to strengthen heat-health early warnings and integrated action plans.

It has urged governments and others to do more to prepare and adapt for an unavoidable increase in more intense and extreme heat.

The warning is timely as work continues on developing Australia’s first National Health and Climate Strategy (consultations close on 24 July).

“Heat is a rapidly growing health risk, due to burgeoning urbanisation, an increase in high temperature extremes, and demographic changes in countries with ageing populations. Hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable heat-related causes each year,” the WMO said in a statement on 18 July.

“Global temperatures have been at unprecedented levels for several weeks. The extensive and intense heatwaves this year are alarming, but not surprising because unfortunately the conditions being observed are in accordance with projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The WMO said a simultaneous heatwave phenomenon is currently occurring, with temperatures in North America, parts of Asia, and across North Africa and the Mediterranean above 40°C for a prolonged number of days this week.

These types of events are very concerning, have increased sixfold since the 1980s, and have serious impacts on people, economies, and the natural and built environment, the WMO said.

Prepare and adapt

On the weekend of 15-16 July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said excessive heat warnings and advisories covered more than 100 million people in the United States with “dangerous and swelting heat” especially across much of the Western USA.

The WMO said overnight minimum temperatures are expected to reach new highs. This is concerning because repeated high night-time temperatures are particularly dangerous for human health because the body is unable to recover from hot days, leading to increased heart attacks and deaths.

“Whilst most of the attention focuses on daytime maximum temperatures, it is the overnight temperatures which have the biggest health risks, especially for vulnerable populations,” said the WMO.

“We need the world to broaden its attention beyond the maximum temperature alone. In many locations where the maximum is reaching into the high 40°Cs and higher, the temperature may still be near 40°C at midnight. In these circumstances, the minimum temperature is more important for health and failing critical infrastructure during extreme heatwaves,” said senior WMO extreme heat advisor John Nairn.

“Worldwide, more intense and extreme heat is unavoidable – it is imperative to prepare and adapt as cities, homes, workplaces are not built to withstand prolonged high temperatures – and vulnerable people are not sufficiently aware of the seriousness of the risk heat poses to their health and wellbeing,” said Dr Nairn.

Tried, tested, and iteratively updated response strategies and communication plans are needed to target both the general population and vulnerable groups such as older adults or outside workers; displaced and marginalised populations.

A statement by the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, also urged action to protect health and lives from extreme heat.

“Beyond adapting to our new reality this summer, we must look to the years and decades ahead. There is a desperate and urgent need for regional and global action to effectively tackle the climate crisis, which poses an existential threat to the human race,” he said.

“Earlier this month in Hungary, countries from across the WHO European Region adopted the Budapest Declaration, committing to address the worst impacts of climate change on our health and health systems, and to do so in partnership with each other.

“Crucially, we must involve the youth, because they are truly engaged on the climate issues they are inheriting, often bursting with ideas and solutions.

“Finally, action on climate change cannot be predicated on a particular government or political party – it truly needs to be a non-partisan issue championed by all sides of the political spectrum, from left to right.”

Youth mental health

Meanwhile, policy makers and services in Australia have been urged to do more to address the mental health implications of the climate crisis for children and young people.

The National Health and Climate Strategy must include a specific focus on the needs of children and young people, including their mental health, according to a new Issues Brief released this week by the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association’s (AHHA) Deeble Institute for Health Policy Research.

The brief, ‘Promoting Mental Health in a Changing Climate: Children and Young People as a Priority Population Group’, identifies knowledge and research gaps concerning the mental health implications of climate change on this demographic, as well as the policy areas that demand immediate attention.

It says mental health interventions aimed at reducing the impacts of climate change on children and young people’s mental health must be identified, developed and implemented using co-design.

This will require an understanding of how children’s and young people’s mental health is affected by climate change, particularly as this age group will bear the consequences of climate change impacts throughout their lifetime, says the brief.

It says there are no climate change specific counselling services targeting children and young people in Australia, and that targeted mental health services are needed to address the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on children’s and young people’s mental health.

The brief highlights the need to upskill mental health professionals to respond to growing demand in this area, and suggests governments support development of climate-related mental health literacy programs for children and young people.

Programs that normalise seeking help for related issues should also be prioritised, and governments should do more to combat climate misinformation, including through regulation.

The brief also recommends a national climate change education curriculum be implemented, with a focus on health and mental health.

AHHA Chief Executive, Kylie Woolcock said in a statement that a lack of research evidence, knowledge and awareness about the mental health impacts of climate change has been a major policy barrier in developing effective early interventions aimed at children and young people.

“We need policymakers to have better consultation with our young people, to help address a lack of inclusion in decision-making processes, especially when it comes to policies that directly affect them,” she said.

“Australian mental health services are, at this point, not ready to deliver care for climate change related mental health issues. This brief advocates that government should incentivise and adequately resource services to provide climate change specific support for children and young people to meet the growing need.”

The brief, co-authored by 2023 HEAL Scholar Hasini Gunasiri, a PhD candidate at the School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University, also discusses the importance of providing safe spaces for children and young people to come together and discuss their concerns about climate change.

Recommendations from the brief

More climate news


Read Climate ConnectionsWatch the New Scientist interview