The mortality rate rose when daily mean temperature increased above
Lee is young, but he has long known his life is always about a math formula: income minus expense.
He and his mother receive a monthly allowance of HK$4,700 from the government. The midget digs, with hardly a space to walk in, costs them HK$3,400 a month. Thus, only HK$1,300 is left to feed two mouths.
“I had to run the air-conditioner on the hottest nights just to let my son go to sleep,” said Tao, whose husband died of lung cancer seven years ago.
She eked out HK$300 a month, over 20 percent of the household income, to give Lee air-conditioned nights.
In Hong Kong, low-income families living in subdivided flats like Lee’s household are particularly defenseless against global warming, said Fielding of HKU.
“Good ventilation is a determinant of good health,” he stressed, adding, “Imagine living in a cage home without fresh air. It doesn’t only trap the heat, but pollutants, viruses and bacteria, and people there will be infected more readily.”
The warming climate also favors the flourishing of particular strains of bacteria. E. coli, the most common bacteria causing diarrhea in children worldwide, grows at its highest rate at 37 C, equal to the human core temperature.
In 2016, a group of scientists discovered that a 1 C increase in monthly mean temperature had led to a rise of 8 percent in incidence of E. coli in Bangladesh. The study, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases last year, predicted the tally will climb. An estimated 800,000 new cases of E. coli-related diarrhea are expected to emerge, as temperatures are projected to increase by 0.8 C between 2016 and 2035.
Climate change has led to a global increase in the transmission of dengue fever by the mosquito Aedes aegypti of around 9.4 percent relative to 1950 levels, according to The Lancet report in 2017.
Aedes aegypti is not found in Hong Kong but the city’s prevalent species Aedes albopictus is also a carrier.
“The global warming temperatures are expanding the favorable habitats mosquitoes can encroach on and infect humans by biting them,” explained Fielding.
Even a milder scenario RCP 4.5 could still be devastating. It’s a situation that still arises assuming CO2 emissions peak around 2040 and decline by 2100, limiting temperature increases to 2 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 — just as stipulated in the Paris Climate Agreement. Under that condition, the annual mean temperature in Hong Kong is still projected to rise by 1-2 C by 2060, and by 1.5-3 C by 2100, relative to the 1986-2005 average of 23.3 C.
Gabriel Lau Ngar-cheung, professor of the Department of Geography and Resource Management at the CUHK, said the city’s poorest are the least adaptive to the warming climate.
“A 1 C increase affects the well-off only marginally. They could turn the air-con cooler as they like,” Lau said. “But for people living at the subsistence level, it could mean real suffering as they coudn’t afford resources like air-conditioning to ward against the damaging heat.”
The uncertain future
Tao and Lee hang around places only within walking distance. They rarely travel outside Sham Shui Po. Lack of money doesn’t allow it.
The mother, who does not have permanent residency, stays in Hong Kong on a Visit Visa. She is forbidden to work in town.
Lee slipped on his new sneakers before heading to the community center of the Society for Community Organization, an NGO that has provided furniture, computer equipment, food and a refuge from the heat to the family for years.
“I cherish this pair of shoes. They cost over HK$100,” he said looking down at the shoes, his features lit up with a fond smile and an expression of awe. As winter is coming in, his mother bought him the new pair so he can prance around the basketball court — Lee’s favorite activity which he had sat out due to the extreme heat sickening him in summers.
Tao smiled back, watching her son parade around. Silently she’s worried that Lee has become physically debilitated by the hot summers. She is beset by free-floating anxieties, like whether he might be sick on an exam day, causing his academic standing to crash. That is a worry that casts a long shadow far into the future over the enduring hope that Lee’s success in his schooling may help them break out of the lingering cycle of poverty.
In the years to come, the sun is likely to blaze even hotter. The suffering of Lee’s family may increase, along with 1.35 million other Hong Kong residents struggling below the poverty line.