|Lottomatica Foundation and Percorsi di secondo welfare started a collaboration on the topic of sustainability. Our Laboratory accompanies the Foundation in defining a programme agenda that takes sustainability issues into consideration. Alongside more strictly research activities, we also propose some thematic in-depth studies published on the Foundation’s website. This article is part of a series of articles we’re writing on the various facets of social and environmental sustainability. It has been published on the Lottomatica Foundation website and is also available in Italian.
Heat waves are now a regular occurrence in our country and around the world: in the last two years, our continent has continuously recorded record temperatures. The consequences of heat peaks are numerous and of various kinds. The environmental issue is obviously fundamental, but this condition also profoundly affects – for example – the way we live and work. Therefore, the social consequences of heatwaves, especially for certain groups of people, are also complex and very significant.
Heat waves: the social consequences for the most vulnerable
Heat waves are an increasingly frequent, intense and long-lasting phenomenon. In the United States alone, it is estimated that the average number rose from 2 waves in the decade 1960–1970 to 6 in the decade 2010–2020 and that the “wave season” lasts 49 days longer than in 1960. If the average heat wave in Italy was 13 days in 2023, it could double to 61 days in 2080, becoming the summer norm.
The waves produce consequences on many fronts. For example, they lead to droughts, agricultural losses and energy crises, and increase the risk of fires and mortality. According to a study published in Nature in the summer of 2022, the hottest ever recorded in Europe, there were 61,672 heat-related deaths. Italy has both the highest number of deaths (18,010) and the highest mortality rate (295 deaths per million population). The figure is, of course, affected by the average age of the population but it is clear that the phenomenon is a very serious problem for our future. In addition to the elderly, the most fragile individuals are children, both for physiological reasons and because they are not yet able to practice behaviors to self-protect against heat. Unicef estimates that children in Europe and Central Asia will be exposed to increasingly frequent heat waves by 2050 (4.5 waves or more per year); 81 percent will be exposed to long-duration waves (4.7 days or more) while 28 percent will be exposed to high intensity waves (2 degrees or more above the local average).
Another particularly exposed category is that of workers in certain occupational sectors, such as workers engaged in heat-producing activities, or outdoors, or those who wear heavy protective clothing/equipment: above 38 degrees Celsius, the risk of injury rises by 10–15% (ETUI 2022). Finally, if the poorer population is generally more vulnerable – because, for example, they live in overcrowded housing, often more exposed to the sun and without air conditioning – it is the homeless who are the most exposed. Not only because they have no shelter, but also because they cannot hydrate, feed and treat themselves. In the city of Phoenix – one of the hottest cities in the US – in 2022 more than half of all heat-related people dead were homeless (Yale Climate Connections).
How can we mitigate the impact?
Without going into what actions can counteract rising temperatures here, what can be done to mitigate the consequences?
First of all by protecting those who are most vulnerable. Indeed, heat puts additional stress on the body, amplifying health, mental health, addiction and disability problems. Equipping those who suffer from it to alleviate its impact is therefore crucial, for example by ensuring access to medical care, medicines and food. A key route in this regard is that of proximity networks, which can provide social support for dealing with paperwork and errands, distributing food and maintaining relationships between people. Studies that have begun to investigate the impact of these measures in fact confirm that projects that intervene on isolation are effective and inexpensive in reducing mortality, for example, among the elderly.
Central is then redesigning urban spaces by providing them with green areas and plants, so as to combat the so-called heat islands, areas where the average temperature reaches particularly high peaks. According to a study published in The Lancet, assuming that 30 per cent of the urban area is covered with trees, the number of heat-related deaths would drop by more than a third. Dwellings can also be protected from the heat either by using specific materials for new buildings or by increasing green courtyard areas or the use of curtains for existing dwellings. Then there is the game of work, which in the summer season, or at least during heat peaks, should be reorganised in terms of shifts, workplace suitability, personal protective equipment and protective clothing, so as to limit workers’ exposure.
Finally, there is a need to promote greater public awareness on how to behave, for example through education and training programmes aimed at workers in at-risk sectors or at those who care for fragile subjects, such as teachers and caregivers, so that everyone can protect themselves from risk.