A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Meltdown: health risks of a warming world worst for young, old and poor

Climate change poses a chronic physical and mental health threat to those with least, reports Jerome Des Preaux, in the second story in our regional reporting series, a collaboration of the Centre for Advancing Journalism and the Bendigo Advertiser.

Meltdown: health risks of a warming world worst for young, old and poor

Photo: Shutterstock

Story by Jerome Des Preaux

The dangers of rising temperatures aren’t limited to flashpoints like fire and drought. Creeping impacts on physical and mental health also loom as a serious  public health threat, experts warn, and Greater Bendigo’s population profile reveals it faces some significant localised risks.


The Greater Bendigo population is older, particularly in the 65-74 years bracket, and ageing; sicker, recording higher than average rates of long-term disease across all of 10 specified conditions; and poorer, with average household income of $1448 compared to Victorian average $1759.

The very old and very young have a “potentially longer chronic risk associated with those stresses in the environment”, says Dr Bruce Bolam, director of Loddon Mallee Public Health Unit, which includes the Bendigo region.

The temperature extremes people are exposed to will be determined by whether their households have cooling systems they can afford to run, or good insulation. “People who are in stable accommodation and high-quality accommodation are at a lower risk than those in lower quality or in more housing vulnerable situations,” he says.

“We need to think about the direct impacts [of climate extremes] on individuals and families,” Bolam says – and these include broader, long-term health impacts.

In 2022, the World Health Organisation identified mental health as a priority for climate change action, stating that global warming exacerbates social and environmental risk factors for mental health, such as strained social relationships and loss of job or income. This can lead to emotional distress, the development of new mental health conditions and worsening symptoms for people already living with these conditions.


With average night temperatures rising faster than those during the day, people who not able to get a rest from the heat – those who are sleeping rough, or cannot cool their home, for example  – and have pre-existing conditions, face compounding disadvantage, says Dr Cybele Dey, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-chair of the Doctors for the Environment Australia Mental Health Special Interest Group.

“In many ways, climate change is a cost-of-living issue,” Dey says.

Professor Lauren Rickards, director of La Trobe University’s Climate Adaptation Lab, says Bendigo is recognised as a leader in climate change adaptation.

Bendigo Sustainability Group’s Giving Power crowdfunding campaign, which retrofits solar panels on low-income households, is a powerful example of community-based action. The group, previously involved in outfitting council-owned buildings with solar panels, has raised over ​​$49,000 for its current campaign since April.

Another proactive initiative is the City of Bendigo’s tree planting strategy, which targets urban heat islands – areas with little vegetation and lots of hard surfaces where conditions trap and radiate heat. One such residential street in Epsom, in Bendigo’s north, recorded 47.2 degrees on a 32-degree day in 2017. By contrast, tree-lined streets are typically cooler, even on days over 40 degrees.


In 2018, the City of Greater Bendigo identified areas in urgent need of cooling and has since planted trees in vulnerable areas including California Gully and Eaglehawk in the city’s north-west. Among the areas identified were Bendigo’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Psychologist Dey says involvement in projects like the Giving Power campaign brings wider mental health benefits, particularly for those suffering anxiety or depression.

“Every fraction of a degree matters, and every bit of improvement in terms of less climate change is actually going to be lives saved.”

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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