Hong Kong’s July heatwaves highlight the city’s lack of holistic climate governance
Since 15 July 2022, the Hong Kong Observatory has issued a very hot weather warning, which has been the 15th consecutive day. This July has broken several records of extremely hot weather since its establishment in 1884. Since the Great Heat Day on July 23 (one of the 24 solar terms in traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), major local media have reported that the extremely hot weather has successively led to the death of many mountain hikers from heat stroke, and then a number of civil society organizations have discussed the impact of the extremely hot weather on subdivided flat households and outdoor workers, etc. and let the sufferers tell their stories.
However, until now, only two newly appointed senior officials have responded, namely the Secretary for Development, Ms. Bernadette Linn Hon-ho, and the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr. Chris Sun Yuk-han. They respectively defended the Construction Industry Council's "Guidelines on Site Safety for Working in Extremely Hot Weather" and the Labour Department's guidelines on the prevention of heat stroke, pointing out that construction sites have adopted and complied with the guidelines, claiming that employers will be punished if they fail to take preventive measures to prevent heat stroke. At the same time, they rejected the initiative of civil society to legislate to prohibit outdoor work under high temperature. Mr. Sun even believed that heat stroke should not be included in the scope of occupational diseases, but is only willing to consider improving the risk assessment of high-temperature outdoor work, by adding a wet-bulb globe temperature (WGBT)1 index in the heat stroke evaluation. From the media reports, it seems that the government has simplified the heat wave as a problem of heatstroke among workers. Neither the Environment and Ecology Bureau, the Medical and Health Bureau nor the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau responded to the difficulties that other vulnerable groups were facing.
In fact, the Paris Watch programme of CarbonCare InnoLab has held a series of community dialogues since September 2020. The impact of climate change on disadvantaged groups has been discussed with the welfare sector, community care sector, and concern groups for sub-divided flat households, outdoor workers, the disabled, mentally ill, women's groups, and environmental groups and experts conducted multi-stakeholder dialogue. Among them, heat waves are the climate disasters that have been mentioned the most by civil society and are also the most concerned. The heat waves also led to three major problems in Hong Kong's climate governance: insufficient community support, insufficient social protection, and lack of consistency in policy implementation across departments.
1. Insufficient community support
Participants in the community dialogues generally reported that disadvantaged groups often lack community support in the face of heat waves. For example, outdoor workers lack drinking water facilities, places to rest, change clothes, and eat, and do not receive work allowances in hot weather. For example, some disabled people and the mentally ill cannot afford to buy a smartphone, and may also be afraid to use it due to the complexity of its functions, and fail to receive timely alerts of extreme weather through mobile phone text messages. Moreover, due to their weak awareness of taking the initiative to seek help, they often fail to obtain the necessary supplies in time under extreme weather, and they may not have the opportunity to raise their awareness of climate change.
On the other hand, community dialogues also cite concerns about climate change among welfare workers and caregivers. Heat has the greatest impact on the health of the elderly and chronically ill, yet welfare and caregivers are poorly trained. In the absence of adequate knowledge, training and support, it is difficult to cope with demand, thus facing more workload and more pressure. For example, there has been an increase in requests for support regarding the impact of heat waves, typhoons and rainstorms. The additional workload, including cleaning and maintenance of public facilities, distribution of supplies in the event of extreme weather, is beyond the capacity and budget of welfare workers and caregivers.
2. Insufficient social protection
The heatwave is getting worse, reflecting the inadequacy of social protection. For example, households in subdivided flats are afraid that they cannot afford the high electricity bills and turn off the air conditioner. Many residents in subdivided flats suffer from health problems or indoor heatstroke. Even if the government provides electricity subsidy, the subsidy falls into the hands of the landlord, and the landlord has no incentive to give back to the tenants.
Work safety in extreme weather has always been a grey area for occupational safety and health. Most workers are unaware of the work safety guidelines issued by the government. First, it may reflect the lack of publicity by the government. Unaware of the risks of working outdoors in extreme weather, the work safety guidelines have not been effective in promoting dialogue between employers and employees on this issue, making the guidelines weak in implementation.
The above two are just some of the examples raised by the participants. They are not new issues and have been around for some time, but the authorities have not taken them seriously. It also reflects that the government has not raised the issue of social protection caused by climate change to a higher policy discussion.
3. Lack of forward-looking and consistent policy implementation
In fact, accidents that occur during a heat wave can be avoided as soon as possible. However, this round of heat wave reflects the lack of forward-looking policy of climate change in Hong Kong. The climate adaptation part of the "Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050" only focuses on the achievements of engineering projects dealing with climate disasters, and does not take into account the plight of the above-mentioned disadvantaged groups. Nor does it explain how the public can participate in decision-making and oversight of climate change responses, let alone climate policy to bring the disadvantaged together.
The lack of consistency in the implementation of climate action plan has led to multiple political issues on climate governance. When everyone thinks that the Environment and Ecology Bureau is responsible for the overall coordination, the Development Bureau and the Labour and Welfare Bureau came out first to set the tone for dealing with the heat wave, focusing only on outdoor workers, but it does not mean that outdoor workers can get the best protection. It seems that in the eyes of the Environment and Ecology Bureau, the Medical and Health Bureau, and the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau, other vulnerable groups remain invisible under the heatwave.
When heat waves, like the COVID-19 pandemic, become the new normal of a society, climate adaptation work should not continue to be divided by departments, but should be elevated to a higher level of overall planning. The problem is already happening, and the government should not just rely on the people to save themselves and continue to ignore the problem. On the contrary, the government should co-ordinate all relevant policy bureaux to provide appropriate protection policies and support to the disadvantaged before extreme weather event occurs again. For more specific suggestions, please refer to the Community Dialogue reports in the appendix below.