Australians Living on Low-Incomes Have the Fewest Protections from Climate Change Impacts

Australians Living on Low-Incomes Have the Fewest Protections from Climate Change Impacts

In 2013 the now-defunct National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility raised the spectre of climate risks to disadvantaged Australians. Three heavily disadvantaged local government areas in the state of South Australia – Port Adelaide, Port Pirie and Berri – face the brunt of extreme weather events, rising temperatures, decreased rainfall and sea level rise but are ill-equipped to deal with the costs of climate damage. One-on-one interviews with residents in these areas confirmed a high anxiety about the fallout from climate damage and increased utility bills, but very little idea about what they could do – if anything – to combat climate change.

In September 2019 we at Climate Scorecard assessed the social costs of climate change in Australia, with two solid examples of climate injustice emerging:

  • Remote Indigenous communities in the country’s north dominate the list of the Australia’s most disadvantaged local government areas, and all of these communities are facing temperature increases between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius by 2050.
  • Residents in the far-north city of Townsville are at high risk; youth unemployment is double the Australian average and downturns in the resource industry are drying up job opportunities. Increased flooding is making Townsville one of the epicenters of a climate-driven home-insurance crisis. Worse, the Adani coal mine saga is playing out in their backyard, with the project’s backers selling expanded coal extraction as a necessary step to secure a prosperous future for the city.

Since last September the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) has been campaigning for the rights of those in “energy poverty”: public housing tenants, low-income renters and elderly Australians who have all been hit by extraordinarily high consumer prices for electricity. ACOSS also led the social service sector in taking a firm stance on climate action, with a call for net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The sector’s official statement highlights the same fundamental problem that affects remote Indigenous communities and Townsville residents:

Australians living on low-incomes or experiencing disadvantage…have the fewest protections from climate change impacts and live in the most affected places.

Activity Rating:  * Little to no focus on climate justice in Australia currently

Sadly, policymakers are paying no attention to the increased risks of climate damage on disadvantaged Australians. But then, very few efforts have been made this century to improve the entrenched inequities disadvantaged Australians face every day. Australia’s baseline social security payment (NewStart) has not increased in real $ terms for twenty-five years and sits well below the official poverty line. There is little political appetite to improve the lot of disadvantaged Australians from the government or its opposition party, with action in the social services space still framed in terms of taxpayer cost, rather than benefit. The current federal government has also been thoroughly embarrassed by the failure of a debt-recovery scheme designed to crack down on social service overpayments, and have been ordered to repay over $700 million in illegally-recouped debt.

And all of this doesn’t begin to cover the experiences of Indigenous Australians, who already suffer from an extraordinary gap in life expectancy and health. None of the “closing the gap” targets recently announced by the federal government take into account the growing cost of climate change to Indigenous health and wellbeing.

Take Action

Action alert message:

Dear Mrs. Ruston,

We’re glad to see the government update its Closing the Gap targets this week. But we’re concerned. Indigenous Australians face so many uphill battles already, and the full impact of climate damage on the health and wellbeing of remote communities is not properly being taken into account. How can the health gap be closed when these communities face temperature increases of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by 2050? State governments may be helping these communities attain energy sovereignty thanks to cheap, off-grid renewable technologies, but it will be for naught if social services and health policy don’t catch up.

We also urge you to get behind ACOSS’s call for net-zero emissions by 2050. Low income Australians cannot afford to bear the brunt of climate change, and solid climate action will help alleviate their costs and anxieties. In your own state the most disadvantaged South Australians in Port Adelaide, Port Pirie and Berri all worry about the increased cost of extreme weather events, higher temperatures and sea level rise but have little (if any) clue on how to combat what’s coming. Social services will benefit from lowered costs, reduced demand and a healthier public if strong climate action is taken.

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This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Julian Atchison

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