Picture the towering waves of a tsunami rolling in. The ground cracking open in an earthquake. Fiery red embers raining down during a bushfire.
Heatwaves kill more people than all natural disasters combined – but because they’re not visually dramatic, we underestimate how dangerous they are.
“On the day of a heatwave, it will look very much like it does today. The people dying during heat waves are doing so predominantly outside of the gaze of the public. They're dying at home, alone, isolated, often in circumstances that they won't be found for days.”
Professor Ollie Jay has another way of showing us how dangerous heatwaves can be. In his special climate chamber, he exposes human guinea pigs to extreme heat stress, and tests the limits of what we can survive. He’s looking for ways to stay cool as the planet warms – without having to resort to air conditioning.
His groundbreaking research has informed the likes of Google and the Australian Open. Ollie shares simple and effective cooling methods that can save you money as temperatures spike – and might even save your life.
Big challenges need big solutions. Meet the minds making it happen.
Mark Scott 00:01
This podcast is recorded at the University of Sydney's Camperdown campus on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. They've been discovering and sharing knowledge here for 10s of 1000s of years. I pay my respects toEelders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Ollie Jay 00:25
Okay, so let's go and take a look at the Climate Chamber here in the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory.
Ollie Jay 00:36
So what you'll see immediately is that the walls of the chamber are really thick. So that's on the door, and the door is about three inches thick and has high levels of insulation to ensure that the heat that we're generating inside of the chamber doesn't leak too much out. In here, what we essentially do is we create different levels of heat stress, and we expose human participants of different physiological profiles - so elderly people, children, pregnant women - to these conditions to understand the way in which their body responds to extreme heat. Okay, so our participant, this is Gem. So Gem, would you like to hop on to the treadmill?
Gem the student 01:26
Definitely starting to get sweatier, my heart is starting to pump a little bit harder. So I'm definitely feeling the effects of the heat there.
Ollie Jay 01:35
If we carried on exercising at this level, for a prolonged period of time, what we'd expect to see is profuse sweating. And because it's humid in here, that sweat is really going to struggle to evaporate from the skin surface. At rest Gem's heart rate was around about 55 beats per minute. As she gets progressively hotter and hotter and hotter, what we're finding is that the heart rate’s getting higher and higher and higher. It might even be double what it was when she was thermoneutral, and at rest.
Mark Scott 02:12
No matter where we are our hottest days are getting even hotter. After watching record streaks of high temperatures wreak havoc in the Northern Hemisphere, it's easy to feel slightly nervous about the summers that lie ahead of us. And predictions of enormous pressure on the power grid mean we’ll need to find ways to cope beyond air conditioning. I'm Mark Scott, the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sydney, and this is The Solutionists. And I can't tell you how thankful I am that there are brilliant people working on smarter ways to cool us down, like Ollie Jay.
Ollie Jay 02:47
Hello, my name is Ollie Jay. I'm Professor of Heat and Health and Director of the Heat and Health Research Incubator, and the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine and Health here at the University of Sydney.
Mark Scott 02:58
That's a mouthful, but he's the world's most famous heat guy. Ollie and his colleagues are road testing the human body under heat stress. They want to prepare us to survive the heat that's coming while helping mitigate climate change. Ollie, just how deadly is extreme heat?
Ollie Jay 03:18
If we look at a variety of different natural disasters, every time and time again, we see that heat waves are responsible for more deaths than every other natural disaster often combined. Now, of course, it's not a competition. But I think what it speaks to is the perilous nature of extreme heat.
Mark Scott 03:38
Why don't we think of heat waves being as deadly as that? Why do we think of other examples of natural disasters as being far more destructive than heat waves?
Ollie Jay 03:48
I think the issue is that they're not visually dramatic events. So if we think of tsunamis with big waves crashing in, it makes compelling television images. Cracks opening up in the ground when you have an earthquake. On a day of a heatwave, it will look very much like it does today, it's 20 degrees Celsius outside today. But visually, it will look exactly the same if it's 45 degrees Celsius. And the people that are dying during heat waves are doing so predominantly outside of the gaze of the public, they're dying home alone, isolated, often in circumstances that they won't be found for days and days later. So I think that probably contributes to people's tendency to maybe not think that heat is as dangerous as it actually is.
Mark Scott 04:35
We've seen the heat waves over the Northern Hemisphere summer, and it's had a very ominous feel to it. What will the heat waves of the future be like, do you think?
Ollie Jay 04:45
The types of heat waves that we'll see in the future in terms of their intensity, how long they last, how frequently they will occur, is really dependent on the carbon emission pathways that we commit to going into the future. But what we do know is that over the next 30 years or so, we're already committed to a certain level of global warming. If we were to stop burning fossil fuels today, the climate is going to continue to warm for the next few decades. And therefore we've got to find a way to adapt to that warmer future and hopefully thrive.
Mark Scott 05:18
And if we just look at whether to what extent is it raw heat, is it heat and humidity, heat humidity, and when you know, what's the pattern we're seeing and going to be seeing?
Ollie Jay 05:28
So typically, the way in which we categorise heat through the media and things like that, and weather reports is people get really focused on temperature. And first of all, most people don't realise that temperature is actually measured in the shade. So temperature is one of four environmental parameters that define your heat stress risk - so how hot the human body's going to get. So you’ve got temperature in the shade, you've got the concurrent humidity, and humidity is important because it impacts the way in which sweat evaporates. That's our only physiological means of cooling when it gets above 35 degrees Celsius. Then there's also wind, and then also thermal radiation - so if you're in the sun versus in the shade, if it's a cloudy day, versus a clear day - obviously, the level of extra thermal burden that the body has to cope with, is greater. So it's a combination of those four factors, and finding a way of enabling people to understand the underlying risk associated with those four factors as they occur throughout a given day or within a weather forecast. It's a real challenge.
Mark Scott 06:32
Do you think that means a different kind of weather forecast, a different kind of warning to be able to bring those factors all together?
Ollie Jay 06:40
Yeah, so it's quite complex. So in Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology have developed a new heat wave warning system that's useful for understanding whether the coming environmental conditions will constitute a heatwave. However, from a day-to-day perspective, we need a simple metric that enables people to understand in a format that everybody is familiar with. So I can give you a quick example. So we received some funding from the New South Wales Government at the end of last year to develop a new heat stress scale. And this is leveraging some work that we've done before in the sporting domain, most notably with Tennis Australia for the Australian Open, where we're drawing from freely available weather information - so temperature, humidity, how cloudy it is, how windy it is - and also giving people an opportunity to provide some information in terms of what they're doing, what they're wearing. And we know where they live, because there'll be GPS on a phone, it's embedded in an app. And then it will give people a personalised risk scale. And it'll be simply on a range on a number from one to five. And then as the heat stress risk exceeds certain thresholds, it then gives us an opportunity to then push heat stress mitigation actions that are based on scientific evidence to try to reduce the risk associated with this increasing heat exposure.
Mark Scott 08:02
So the human body has a stress point, what happens when we push it past that stress point?
Ollie Jay 08:09
Well, we look at the evolution of physiological heat strain predominantly through three different avenues. So the first one is pretty obvious, it's the risk of heatstroke. This is where your core body temperature increases to critical levels. Very briefly, the underlying mechanism for that is pretty nasty. The two ways in which we respond to the heat is by sweating, and by redirecting lots of blood away from the core, towards the body - the skin surface - to support heat loss. By doing that, what we're doing is restricting the flow of blood to our gut, and the delivery of oxygen to the endothelial lining of our gut, and the endothelial cells of our gut. When that's coupled with high local tissue temperatures, such as 40, 41 degrees Celsius, the endothelial barrier - so the lining of the gut, if you will - we have these junctions, and they stay really shut when you're cool and well. But when you get really hot, and you have this reduction of oxygen delivery to the gut, those junctions start to loosen up. And then endotoxins that reside, typically inside the gut, start leaking out. They enter the circulation
Mark Scott 09:15
So you kind of poison yourself and
Ollie Jay 09:17
You kind of poison yourself. You have a sepsis response that occurs, leads to mass coagulation - so blood clotting around the body - multiple organ failure, and then death. So that's heatstroke. But one of the things that's really important to keep in mind is that when we look at the mortality and morbidity literature - so people dying, people getting sick in heat waves - heat stroke is actually typically a minority of cases.
Mark Scott 09:45
So what else happens to you?
Ollie Jay 09:49
Cardiovascular collapse is very common in people with underlying cardiovascular disease during heat waves.
Mark Scott 09:55
And I imagine if you have a pre-existing condition of you know, cardiovascular vulnerability you're particularly susceptible. But could it happen to someone who, who really doesn't have a history of heart disease under these kinds of pressures, that's how their body could respond?
Ollie Jay 10:10
It's going to be less likely. But what we do know is that there are people walking around with an underlying cardiovascular disease that haven't been diagnosed. And those are probably the people who are going to be at the greatest risk. The third way is through dehydration. So the other way in which we protect body temperature, is through secreting sweat. If we don't adequately replenish those lost body fluids, then we'll get a fluid deficit. And then that will reduce our blood volume that aggravates those other two problems, it will increase the rate at which we heat up, it'll also increase the cardiovascular strain that occurs inside the body when our skin is getting hot, but also places a lot of stress on the kidneys as well. So that's one of the reasons we think that there's a high prevalence of kidney failure as well during extreme heat events, particularly in people who have underlying renal disease. So we're simulating a heat wave, and our participant is ready to go in. So let's take a look at some of the cooling strategies that we test. This is what you get from doing a PhD in my laboratory. Grant is filling up a bucket with a compound, which is made of hydrogen and oxygen, I believe.
Ollie Jay 11:32
We have a little Cooling Strategy station set up here for Gem. So one of the strategies that we've found works really well irrespective of the heatwave condition that we're testing is something called self-dousing. So this is simply applying water to the skin surface, you can use a sponge or a wet flannel, or in some cases, you can even wet your clothes. In this particular case, we use a water spray.
Grant the student 11:58
Okay, we're going to spray Gem here, we're going to spray her on her face, her arms, as well as her legs.
Grant the student 12:14
So Gem, how are you feeling after that?
Gem the student 12:20
Much more refreshed. Thank you.
Ollie Jay 12:22
Another simple strategy that people can use is actually immersing their limbs in cold water. And we test the immersion of the feet. Your feet have a very high surface area to mass ratio, they're also highly vascularised. So it's a good opportunity to actually dump heat away from the body into cold water. So Gem, do you want to immerse your feet into the bucket of cold water that we have in front of us right now? So of course, we're not asking people to keep their feet in this water for hours on end, that will make their feet all wrinkle up, I would think, even though that's probably the last of your worries if you're exposed to a heatwave. So the protocol that we use is the feet are immersed for 10 minutes, and then they are taken out for another 10 minutes. So what we're also testing is simply just having a bag of ice, and it's progressively adding a bit of ice to that water to keep it cool, but also comfortable at the same time.
Mark Scott 13:24
You're not just talking about studying the impact of stress in the body, you're talking about what we can do to combat it. You know, we've seen what we've seen elsewhere in the world, we've experienced some of this in Australia, can you take me through the approaches that you're working on now to help us combat the impact of heat on human bodies?
Ollie Jay 13:40
We're trying to identify what the optimal low resource cooling strategies are for the most physiologically vulnerable people. So within the heat and health research incubator nested within that we have a laboratory, the thermal ergonomics laboratory. And that houses a state-of-the-art Climate Chamber. And within that Climate Chamber, we can simulate heat waves of the past, heat waves of the present, heat waves of the future. So as long as we know what the temperature and the concurrent humidity of those events were, we can also simulate solar radiation with these lamps, we can moderate airflow in there as well to recreate these conditions. And then we recruit and expose under careful clinical guidance, of course
Mark Scott 14:20
they know what they're getting themselves in for, right? Hell on earth in Ollie Jay’s lab
Ollie Jay 14:23
That’s right, but we also we carefully monitor them throughout as well, of course. And so we expose elderly participants, potentially people with coronary artery disease, to these simulated heat wave exposures. We measure what it does to the body, how hot they get, how dehydrated they become
Mark Scott 14:36
So they're kind of strapped up with monitors and all that?
Ollie Jay 14:38
That’s right, yeah, we measure how much work their heart has to do. And then we can test the efficacy of these simple, low resource cooling strategies that are going to be accessible in low resource settings to find out which ones are the best at reducing how hot people get, how dehydrated they become, how much work their heart has to do.
Mark Scott 14:56
So what are some of those interventions?
Ollie Jay 14:58
Really simple ones like moving air more with devices such as electric fans, placing water on the skin. So obviously drinking water is, is a very good idea, but also using water by placing it on the skin, allowing it to evaporate - that provides latent cooling - and conductive cooling strategies such as cold ice towels wrapped around the neck, foot immersion, and baths of cold water.
Mark Scott 15:23
So, these are lots of different techniques do they all work as well, under any of these circumstances?
Ollie Jay 15:29
No, they don't, and this is really important as well. So we see many different types of heat waves. And that's important, because in some parts of the world, we have very hot, but very humid heat waves - they might be 39, 40 degrees Celsius and 50, 60% humidity. In other parts of the world, it can be very, very hot - 45, 46 degrees Celsius, maybe even higher - but typically, that's accompanied by low humidity. Now to give you an example of why this is a really important factor to differentiate is that if we use the example of electric fans, what we find is that in hot, humid heat waves fans are very effective at cooling people - they allow sweat that otherwise wouldn't evaporate, that just sits on the skin, helps it evaporate and cool the body. In very dry heat waves, what's happening is that all of that sweat evaporates anyway. Plus we're adding extra heat to the body because the temperature of the air is hotter than the body. So you're forcing extra heat into the body. What we find that under those circumstances is that it doubles the rate at which you heat up, it doubles how much work your heart has to do, it doubles your rate of dehydration.
Mark Scott 16:33
This is this is crazy stuff, isn't it? Because on a hot day, you go down to Harvey Norman, and all anyone is doing is buying fans. But you're saying sometimes those fans are going to make them hotter?
Ollie Jay 16:43
Absolutely, they could - we don't know this. But based on our data, it is plausible to imagine that they could really severely aggravate heat stress risk.
Mark Scott 16:53
So how do you educate people on that?
Ollie Jay 16:56
Finding the answers is one step. But then translating that information to get it into the hands and into the minds of the people who need it is a real challenge. So we work with public health organizations to try to ensure that we're helping inform their heat action plans. We collaborate with the World Health Organization, we're collaborating with New South Wales Health, the Victorian Government's Department of Health, and we've also got a new collaboration through the World Health Organization and the Red Cross with Google. Google are launching a new heat alerts package that's going to be on every Google Map App, and every Google search engine in over 200 countries worldwide.
Mark Scott 17:37
One of the things hearing you talk about all this, I mean, you know, I think in the back of our minds, we often think it's hot out there, it's hot outside, but part of your research insinuates it can be really hot inside, if you don't have air conditioning, in particular. Are there strategies for people to keep cool at home, and what do we do in our own homes, particularly if we don't have air conditioning?
Ollie Jay 17:58
Well, air conditioning is exceptionally protective against heat related illness, that's undeniable. But there are a lot of problems with air conditioning use. So from an environmental perspective, many air conditioners are powered by electricity that's generated by coal fired power plants. So the more electricity that we use, because we're using air conditioners more to adapt to a hotter planet, that's going to aggravate climate change in the future, because those fossil fuel power stations are going to be belting out more CO2. So we find ourselves locked in this vicious cycle, whereby it's hotter, we're adapting by cooling more using our air conditioning units. If that electricity is generated by coal fired power plants, generating more CO2, that then aggravates climate change, and almost assures a hotter future.
Mark Scott 18:46
That's a very vicious cycle.
Ollie Jay 18:47
It certainly is. And finding solutions to break that vicious cycle is really what we're all about. But the focus should be on cooling the person, because it's the hot person in the hot environment that's the health problem. It's not the hot environment, per se.
Mark Scott 19:03
When we know there's a child who is sick, and running a fever, cooling the room might be one thing, but you've got to be able to treat the child.
Ollie Jay 19:09
Mark Scott 19:10
The heat in the child, right. And you're saying more broadly for the community during you know, stressful moments of high heat, it's an individualised Cooling Strategy that we need to focus on.
Ollie Jay 19:22
Yeah, particularly if we don't have access to air conditioning. So I don't want anybody listening to this thinking that I'm suggesting that air conditioning is not protective. Of course it is. It's incredibly protective. But it's also, there's lots of problems with air conditioning use, and also the most vulnerable often don't have access to it. We're also thinking about the 75% of Australians who do have air conditioning, and we're not suggesting that they shouldn't use it. But we want to find ways in which we can incentivise them to use it less without sacrificing how hot they feel. If you move air more in an indoor environment, the temperature at which you feel thermally uncomfortable, you feel too warm, is hotter. So you feel the same at 23 degrees Celsius, with still air as you will at 27 degrees Celsius with air moving, because we're cooling the person, instead of cooling the air. Then we did an analysis where we tried to assess, okay, well, what are the potential energy savings here, if everybody in Australia adopted this very simple strategy. And we estimate quite conservatively that we would have a 70%, seven zero percent reduction in the electricity usage for cooling throughout the year. And cooling is the biggest electricity item on our electricity bills in the summer, if you have air conditioning.
Mark Scott 20:39
So what you're saying is we may have air conditioning in our houses. But if we set up airflow in our house in the right way, then we will only need the air conditioning when the temperature is much higher than it normally is.
Ollie Jay 20:50
That's exactly right.
Mark Scott 20:51
So Ollie, in your lab, you have the ability to create different climatic environments very specifically. And some of it you're really focusing on specific places, you're recreating what it's like to live on or work in an in a specific place. Tell us about how you do that.
Ollie Jay 21:09
So the best example I can give you is some work that we've been doing that's funded by the Welcome Trust, where we're looking at the heat stress conditions that workers in the readymade garment factory industry in Bangladesh are exposed to. So particularly during the months of March to June, it's excessively hot in these areas. So through that project, what we did is we partnered with a readymade garment factory in Dhaka - this is in collaboration with a Griffith University - and we kitted out the factory across three levels, with 65 temperature and humidity sensors for a year and a half. And we monitored the environmental conditions that they're exposed to. So heat, humidity, we also measured in certain spots, airflow and radiation as well, thermal radiation. And so what we were able to do is get a full picture of the type of conditions that these people are working under. It's also important to keep in mind that the type of labour conditions that these people are exposed to are very different from what a lot of people in Australia might be familiar with. So they get paid on how much they produce, as opposed to how much time they spend at work. And the number one thing that we do when we're exposed to the heat, and we’re physically active is that we slow down, because we reduce how much heat we're producing inside the body. And that helps maintain our body temperature within safe levels. So what we find is that some of these people are spending an extra hour, an hour and a half extra work every day when it's hot, in order to get paid the same amount.
Mark Scott 22:37
When you looked at the data, the heat sensors, the sensors produced, were you shocked by those conditions?
Ollie Jay 22:43
Absolutely. Yeah, so the peak conditions that we registered on the hottest week, were 40 degrees Celsius, and 38% humidity. So 40 degrees Celsius is extremely hot, plus, going to work for eight hours, 10 hours under those conditions at a pace that enables you to get paid the amount that you would normally get paid on a cooler day. Really quite striking conditions.
Mark Scott 23:13
And so you take that data, and then you recreate it in your lab.
Ollie Jay 23:17
Yeah. So what we did then was said, okay, back to Sydney, let's recreate those environmental conditions. But it's not just enough to do the same environmental conditions, we have to create the same working tasks, we have to make sure that we're recruiting participants that have the same heat adaptation status. So then we systematically assess these different interventions, simple things - air conditioning is not a an option - but air movement, hydration strategies, to find out which ones work the best at reducing how uncomfortable the participants felt. The rate at which they can work as well, which is a really important one. That was important not just for the workers, but also for the employers as well. Because what we want to be able to say to the employers is that by enabling your workers to take a five minute break, or take a bit of time to drink some water, it's actually not detracting from their ability to perform their job, because they slow down anyway, if they don't get the opportunity to do that.
Mark Scott 24:15
So that's the kind of solution that really should be able to scale shouldn't it, in those kinds of climates?
Ollie Jay 24:20
Absolutely, and that is the key to the work that we do. It's really important that we come up with the scalable interventions that can be applied to the settings where people are most vulnerable.
Ollie Jay 24:38
So in terms of the peak temperature that we can achieve inside this chamber, right now we can achieve 55 degrees Celsius without any problem whatsoever. Another key aspect of the way in which this chamber was designed was to enable us to work with climate scientists to understand what the heat waves of the future are going to look like, and then actually recreate those different futures in the chamber now -expose your participants to those different visions of the future and demonstrate what impact those different heatwaves are going to have on people. There's this model that has been socialized quite widely over the last 10 years, which predicts the future limits of human survivability with climate change. And the metric that's been used to express this limit of future habitability is something called a wet bulb temperature. So on the right hand side of the main window, we have the main control box of the chamber itself. And right now, I'm going to turn up the temperature to 54 degrees Celsius, and 26% humidity. The reason that we've chosen those particular conditions is that it's one of those magic temperature humidity combinations, that generates that 35 degree Celsius wet bulb temperature. So if we exceed this 35 degree Celsius, wet bulb temperature condition in the future, it will be impossible for humans to keep physiologically cool, and we would all die of heatstroke within six hours. This research is really important, because one thing that we do know is that extreme heat can be and is deadly. It's responsible for more deaths than all natural disasters combined. Now, it's not a competition, but I think it's really important that people understand how dangerous extreme heat can be. We know that days that used to be considered extremely hot back then, are going to be the new normal by the start of the next decade. So we need to be prepared for coping with the inevitable warming that's coming.
Mark Scott 26:49
I think it's interesting. I think everyone's looked at what's happened around the world and think this feels strange. We are in an unprecedented place. You know, what do we know about heat waves of the future? What's coming at us? What can you see that we're going to have to stare down?
Ollie Jay 27:03
we know that the severity, frequency, and duration of heat waves of the future are going to be dependent on the choices that we make now, and going into the future. We will need to learn how to adapt to a warmer future, over at least the next 30 years. The legacy of human activity to date is baked in a certain amount of warming in the climate system. And even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, that is still going to happen. But it's making sure that the adaptation strategies that we use in the near future to ensure that we don’t just survive, but thrive in that warmer future doesn't aggravate the problem further down the line. And that's a real key component of the work that we do right now.
Mark Scott 27:49
It used to be an old joke, you know, everybody talks about the weather. Nobody ever does anything about it, you know. But when it comes to climate, why hasn't there been more meaningful climate action? I mean, the science has been staring us in the face for decades, now. What do you put it down to?
Ollie Jay 28:06
Well, I think that there's a certain amount of fatigue in the way in which the debate has been highly politicized. I think that is a little problematic. And I think you’ll just fine, people generally are quite reasonable, I think. And I think it's just finding a way to help people understand what the true consequences are. One idea that we do have came from when I went to the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019. I went to a game in Kobe, and I was a little early, so I thought I'll just go to the earthquake museum. And what struck me when I was there is that it was very compelling, and by the end of it, you really felt viscerally what the impacts of these earthquakes had on the residents of Kobe in the past. And then you look at the statistics of now the people are impacted from deaths and morbidity - again, it's not it's not a competition, of course - but what struck me is that the amount of people that die from heat waves is a far greater number relative to earthquakes. And then it gave me the idea of what we need to do is find different ways of trying to get people to understand the impact of heat now, and what the impact of increasing heat stress in the future is going to have, based on the decisions that we make now. And we can do that by utilizing a variety of different approaches, we can use the arts, we can think about ways in which we can mitigate people's different senses, not just what they see, but also what they hear what they feel, and trying to get people to understand the severity of what faces us but also give them hope. I think that's a really important component as well, is that I think a lot of people are scared about what's going to happen, but they feel helpless because they don't know what to do about it. And it's really giving people agency so they can feel as though can they can make a difference themselves.
Mark Scott 29:54
Are there countries around the world you look at and you think you know, they're getting onto this well, and they're putting strong solutions in place?
Ollie Jay 30:02
I think the countries that have experienced the greatest impacts, and then have the resources to try to address them have shown great progress. So the two biggest heat waves that occurred in the 1990s and early 2000, with the 1995 Chicago heat wave, which had enormous impact on human health, and also the heatwave in Western Europe, in 2003. France, in particular, were heavily impacted by that heatwave. And what we've seen since then, is lessons learned from that experience, and the way in which they've developed heat action plans to try to alert people to the perilous nature of extreme heat and try to ensure that resources are available for the most vulnerable. And then the activities and behaviours that people are adopting are appropriate. They're packaged into an approach that has been quite successful to date. The death toll, for example, in the heatwave in 2003, was much greater than in more recent heatwaves, despite them being pretty comparable when it comes to severity.
Mark Scott 31:07
Were you surprised there wasn't a stronger policy response around heat to the terrible bushfires and drought we had in Australia in 2019?
Ollie Jay 31:16
Yeah, yeah, it is. It is surprising. And I think that there's lots of different reasons for why action is taken and not taken. There are political components to it, that I can't really fully articulate but
Mark Scott 31:29
Ollie Jay 31:30
Or understand. And, but, you know, hopefully, the signals that we're getting from the new federal government are quite promising, I think, in terms of their intentions to support action in this area. I think that gives us cause for optimism. You know, election cycles are three to four years long, and ensuring that these actions are sustained, irrespective of who's in office, I think, is absolutely imperative. And that can only come from a large-spread understanding of the necessity for these actions.
Mark Scott 32:04
It's challenging research, Ollie. And sometimes the modelling can look pretty bleak. But you're still optimistic there are things that we can do to protect ourselves and protect those that we love and care for. What should we be thinking about?
Ollie Jay 32:18
Absolutely. So at the personal level, there are these very simple strategies that we can use under certain circumstances. So moving air is a very effective way, it's a clean way, accessible way of keeping cool in heat waves, if it's below 40 degrees Celsius. If it's above 40 degrees Celsius, you don't want to be using those devices. If it is above 40 degrees Celsius, taking water, applying it to the skin surface, enabling that to evaporate, that's a very effective way of keeping cool - these conductive strategies through taking cold towels wrapped around your neck, immersing the feet in cold water. Again, these are very simple strategies that everybody can do in most settings. But I think we also need to think about ways in which people with air conditioning can reduce their reliance on air conditioning without sacrificing their thermal comfort. So by moving indoor air more, we can chill it less, that'll save you up to 70% on your electricity bill, then if we're thinking further down the line, we need to be thinking about ways in which we can influence policy in terms of building codes to make sure that there's a minimum standard of the way in which houses are built, so they have a minimum level of resilience from the perspective of things like insulation, the way in which glazing is installed, etc. And then at the landscape level, it’s advocating for more green space, more blue infrastructure, and thinking about ways in which other sources of anthropogenic heat are extracted away from the places where people are occupying. So thinking about the way in which traffic is navigating its way through cities, and things like this.
Mark Scott 33:52
It’s interesting listening to you, Ollie. At times we can just feel so passive in the face of the enormity of climate change - we have no power over the weather. But you give us an enormous list of things that we can do, to take as much control as we can, to look after ourselves as best we can, to look after our family and our loved ones at the same time as we wait for the politicians to lead us and do the work that they need to do to take us to a safer world. Professor Ollie Jay thanks for your ground-breaking research. Thanks for your energy. Thanks for your innovation. Thanks for being in the solutions business.
Ollie Jay 34:26
Thank you Mark. My pleasure.
Mark Scott 34:31
I'm Mark Scott, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, and a huge thanks to Professor Ollie Jay for his insights today. Ollie is Professor of Heat and Health and Director of the Heat and Health Research Incubator and Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney. Make sure you're following the solution lists in your favourite podcast app, so you never miss a chance to meet the brightest minds working to solve the most complex issues. The people who are making change happen. The Solutionists is a podcast from the University of Sydney produced by Deadset Studios.
The Solutionists is a podcast from The University of Sydney, produced by Deadset Studios.
This episode was produced by Monique Ross. Sound design by Jeremy Wilmot and field recordings by Harry Hughes. The executive producer is Rachel Fountain. Executive editors are Jen Peterson-Ward, Kellie Riordan and Mark Scott.
This podcast was recorded on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. For thousands of years, across innumerable generations, knowledge has been taught, shared and exchanged here. We pay respect to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.