Extreme heat and climate change: adaptation in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Peng Bi
The University of Adelaide
Year Started: 
South Australia

Executive summary from final report:

High environmental temperatures can be harmful to human health and may lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. With compelling evidence that global temperatures will continue to rise and heat extremes will become more frequent, the need for the identification of at risk populations and appropriate preventive strategies intensifies. 

Migration has shaped Australia’s multicultural society to the extent that currently more than one quarter of the nation’s population was born overseas. Moreover, migrant numbers will increase in the future and first generation migrants will become part of Australia’s ageing population. Studies in the United States point to a disparity in the risk of heat-related illness in people from ethnic minorities. However, despite Australia’s harsh summers, no Australian study has specifically investigated vulnerability to heat in overseas-born people. The aim of this study was therefore to investigate risk factors in people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds during extreme heat and the implications for longer term climate change adaptation.

Interviews and focus groups were conducted with stakeholders involved with, and part of, a range of multicultural communities. Key informants and service providers from state and local government, non-government organisations, the health sector and community groups were included. In total, there were 36 respondents (21 from Adelaide, 6 from Melbourne and 9 from Sydney). Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and standard qualitative data analysis techniques were utilised. 

Our findings showed that people who settle in Australia from overseas have a high adaptive capacity. Nevertheless, a number of inter-related factors were identified that may place some people in the communities at increased risk during extreme heat. These relate to socioeconomic disadvantage; cultural factors; health issues; poor housing conditions and limited access to air conditioning; linguistic and social isolation; and language barriers and low literacy rates limiting access to health warnings. People in CALD communities who are reportedly at risk during extreme heat tend to be older people, new arrivals and people in new and emerging communities. Risk in the vulnerable can be compounded by language barriers, cultural factors and lack of acclimatisation to local environmental conditions. Unfamiliarity with the ‘different’ type of dry heat was a factor in Adelaide and Melbourne, whereas in Sydney gambling can be a problem for people seeking a cooler environment in the many sporting and service clubs.

Older, first generation migrants are vulnerable for reasons applicable to the aged in general, including declining physical and cognitive health, overdressing, lack of thirst and high risk of dehydration, limited transport, and importantly, the fear of high power bills manifesting in reluctance to use air conditioning. Additionally, cultural factors can add to vulnerability, particularly for those with poor English proficiency or who revert to their primary language and culture with age. Linguistic and social isolation may result, limiting access to heat-health warnings and prevention messages disseminated in English.

People who have recently settled in Australia are also reportedly at risk. Being unacclimatised to local environmental conditions and lacking awareness of adaptive behaviours can lead to increased vulnerability, particularly for the old and the very young. Members of new and emerging communities have often arrived from refugee camps and can have underlying health issues, poor educational attainment and poor proficiency in English. Socioeconomic disadvantage and poor quality rental housing can result in limited access to air conditioning, and an inability to afford the associated high running costs. Wearing garments more suited to cooler weather and not being used to drinking water can add to vulnerability. Some are reluctant to spend time in publicly cooled spaces such as shopping centres; and beaches and swimming pools can pose a safety risk for those unable to swim. Additionally, new migrants may be unaware of and unprepared for the extreme conditions of a typical Australian summer. The uniquely dry searing heat reportedly causes discomfort, anguish, sunburn and the potential for severe health impacts. 

This study has recognised the unmet needs of migrants in terms of information about extreme heat and ways to minimise the risk of harm during heatwaves. Respondents recommended that this information be delivered in a number of culturally appropriate ways to people of non-English speaking backgrounds. Firstly, newly arrived migrants should be supplied with information about extreme heat as part of their orientation information. Secondly, messages during heat (and other) emergencies should be accessible to people of non-English speaking backgrounds. Thirdly, it was recommended information sessions about climate risks associated with climate change and extreme heat be organised for people in CALD communities. It was suggested a range of approaches be considered to facilitate information transfer including bi-cultural community engagement, translated fact sheets, multi-lingual media broadcasts, or messages via community leaders or schoolchildren. Funding limitations are a barrier for organisations with strategies in place.

Adaptation to extreme heat and more frequent heatwaves associated with climate change will require approaches that are inclusive of people with CALD backgrounds. Breaking down socio-cultural and linguistic barriers will assist in reducing inequalities and improving access to information. Additionally, encouraging a more socially inclusive and accepting society will bolster adaptive capacity in the broader Australian population. 

In conclusion, it has been identified that barriers exist which can compound heat-related risks in vulnerable people within CALD communities. These include social, cultural and economic factors, lack of acclimatisation, and heat-health information not being effectively communicated in suitable formats. Enablers are the high adaptive capacity and connectedness within migrant communities. With equal opportunity and access to risk communication and emergency information, potential disparities in vulnerability to extreme heat and climate change will be minimised. This will require a suite of socially inclusive communication tools to cater for the growing number of residents with diverse cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds.

This study has policy implications and has opened the dialogue amongst health and emergency services policymakers about the need to broaden the scope of heat-health promotion based on extensive community engagement and consultation with people in CALD communities. More participatory action research on climate change adaptation within minority groups is required to build upon these findings.

View the final report