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Vital services are highly vulnerable under climate change

The responsibility of caring for those most vulnerable in society often falls to community service groups. When extreme events such as bushfires, floods, heatwaves and storms hit, many rely on local volunteers…

Many of those who help out after extreme weather hits are vulnerable themselves. AAP Image

The responsibility of caring for those most vulnerable in society often falls to community service groups. When extreme events such as bushfires, floods, heatwaves and storms hit, many rely on local volunteers. New research shows community groups themselves are struggling to deal with climate change. But, without them, can Australia adapt to a less-predictable future?

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 150,000 people die annually due to the effects of climate change. Many Australians are already experiencing the physical impacts of climate change on human health: heat exhaustion and heat stress, exacerbated chronic illnesses and even death.

These physical, or “primary”, impacts of climate change on health can lead to increasingly well understood secondary impacts. These include the spread of insect-borne diseases, mental health problems caused by living through extreme weather, increased psychological stress about the future due to climate change, or the threat to economic, social and environmental factors we all need for healthy lives.

But there is a third way Australians will experience the ill effects of climate change.

Community service organisations deliver vital services to people who really need support. There are organisations working with disabled persons, supporting families in need, providing support to children and young adults with special needs, and very common community services such as Meals on Wheels.

A recent study by RMIT and Monash researchers shows that many government-funded agencies providing vital services to the socially or economically vulnerable will likely struggle during acute climatic events. Most of them are ill-prepared for climate change.

Why is this happening? Many community service organisations rely on volunteer services from elderly people. These people are more prone to be affected by extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells. They may be unable to volunteer when the weather turns bad or an extreme event occurs, and services can fall apart without volunteers.

The breakdown of critical infrastructure is another significant problem. When the power goes out or buildings are flooded, services can’t be provided. There are flow-on effects, too. In difficult circumstances organisations miss deadlines for mandatory reporting on their service provision, which means they can miss out on funding.

These findings corroborate a recent Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) study. Researchers reported that one week after an extreme event, 50% of community service organisations are still out of operation. One quarter might never provide services again.

Climatic events and trends disrupt or break down the very support mechanisms intended to help people cope with day-to-day difficulties, including extreme weather events. It’s a tertiary effect of climate change.

Australia can expect more frequent bushfires, floods, heatwaves and other types of extreme weather events. It is scary to ponder what may happen to those who rely on community services day-to-day.

The VCCCAR funded project Implementing adaptation tools to increase the capacity of the community and natural resource management sectors has investigated how government-funded agencies are currently affected by climate-related events and how they could best be supported to adapt.

Initial findings of the study suggest community service organisations need help to:

  • promote safe and well-adapted housing
  • make adaptation part of their strategic planning
  • move on from responding to emergencies, to preparing for and adapting to climate change
  • get practical guidance on climate change adaptation
  • foster champions who can lead climate change adaptation within an organisation or across several agencies
  • engage with clients and the broader community on climate change adaptation and strengthening existing community networks.

Should we expect such support from an incoming government? The Coalition has announced their support of the recently “un-funded” National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), pledging renewed funding of $9 million. NCCARF was born five years ago with bipartisan support from Federal political parties. The question remains, will the scales balance once again on what should clearly be a bipartisan issue?

If climate change adaptation is not made a priority, people and communities are likely to suffer come the next extreme weather event. And that’s a question of when, not if.

Join the conversation

29 Comments sorted by

  1. Comment removed by moderator.

  2. Jeremy Culberg

    Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

    With the changing climate (whether you agree or not that it is human influenced, the data is unequivocal that the climate is changing), there will be some interesting stressors on society. Tropical diseases, and/or their vectors will change location (denghe and ross river fever among others), various pest species (mosquitos) will be able to move further south (Australia specific).
    Similarly, as we have just had another record hot year (as reported on the conversation yesterday), the number of extreme heat days will increase, thus providing additional stress on what is an ageing population. Given the lack of investment in power infrastructure, there is a reasonable chance that the combination of high heat / increased bush fire risk / cable droop could lead to very hot days with no power to drive the cooling systems.
    Both of these issues will have far reaching impacts, not just on the volunteers, but more broadly for society.

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Jeremy Culberg

      Jeremy Culberg wrote; "... whether you agree or not that it is human influenced, the data is unequivocal that the climate is changing"
      This is refreshing to read and a very rare observation here. As climate change has always been a risk management issue.
      Accepting any concept is subjective, but ignoring this simple fact is proving crippling to our stage of development. Going right to the articles premiss of vulnerability.
      The most vulnerable are those without economic and political power. Failure to address this balance makes Australia a less civilised culture.

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    2. Trevor S

      Jack of all Trades

      In reply to Jeremy Culberg

      "Given the lack of investment in power infrastructure, there is a reasonable chance that the combination of high heat / increased bush fire risk / cable droop could lead to very hot days with no power to drive the cooling systems."

      Prof. Kevin Anderson makes that point in his lecture last year here

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RInrvSjW90U&list=PLrxz4TA-4amxhP5Ja8zji58d-ie-m_Kyw

      "Your A/C won't work because your infrastructure will have collapsed, it wasn't designed for that sort of heat" He was using New York and Europe as an example.

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  3. Valerie Kay

    PhD candidate, public health

    I agree with most of the gist of this article but would like to stress one thing - community organisations should not just be concerned about 'adaptation' but should be focusing on mitigation. Health and community organisations have often seen their role as responding when things go wrong, but we really need to be going beyond that to preventing further climate change and promoting sustainable living.
    My own research (www.fairgreenplanet.blogspot.com) and that of others, shows people are interested in living more sustainably, if it's promoted positively as something that will benefit themselves, their families and communities, and the environment, rather than as a scare campaign.
    I know that we - especially researchers - need to be aware of risks and dangers, but it doesn't seem to be the most effective way to create social change.

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  4. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    Assuming for a moment that temperature projections are correct and there is an increase in extreme weather events and so on - would this have an effect on services described? I doubt it, or at least I'd need more information. Temperatures and weather events are only one factor on the fitness of older people and volunteers to live active lives, or on the pool of volunteers. For example, we are supposed to be facing a demographic bulge in which the number of elderly people are supposed to be in higher…

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    1. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      There is a move by both political parties to develop the north of Australia. Along the Queensland coast the towns of Mackay, Townsville and Cairns constitute one of the fastest growing areas in the country. After Cyclone Yasi, the complaining about the cost of home insurance, especially unit (body corporate) insurance is still running hot - the voices of senior citizens louder than most. And this was after an event that was about as far removed from any of these centres as is possible. In due…

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    2. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Hugh

      I'm not sure if you are permitted to mention the impacts of natural disasters on infrastructure.

      I wrote, on this thread, that another earthquake has hit near Japan this morning (with the obvious possible effect on the ailing nuclear power plant in Fukushima) and I am led to believe that this is verboten.

      Yet it appears bleeding obvious when planning future development, geological as well as climatological aspects need to be factored into any proposals.

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    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark Lawson wrote; "Assuming ..... an increase in extreme weather events and so on" Probabilities as outcomes are the domain of actuaries in our economic system. Insurance premium have increased with risk. When did they announce they worked on assumptions?
      Mark Lawson wrote;"... facing a demographic bulge .... so wouldn't that increase the number of volunteers? If it is assumed many boomers do not understand the climate is life threatening and shift or stay in safer regions.
      Mark Lawson wrote…

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    4. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Account Deleted

      James - of interest but the disease pointed to in the article remains rare.. the main concerns are about stuff like malaria and dengue fever and its been shown that temperature is just one factor in the spread of those diseases and not a particularly important one.

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    5. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Hugh - there have been countless stories about insurance and major weather events, especially since the Qland floods, so its difficult to know where to start. The issue with cyclones is not insurance but building codes. If the newly arrived elderly are living in houses that do not meet current building codes (which should cover category 5 cyclones), then they won't get insurance.. if they do they will get it but probably won't need it.. same story with floods incidentally..

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    6. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer

      In reply to Account Deleted

      James, I'm afraid Mark is spot on with his comment - and that article in yesterday's Conversation was a load of rubbish. Most so-called "tropical" diseases are really diseases of deprivation, which disappear magically and spontaneously when living conditions improve. They remain in the tropics todays simply because that's where most of the world's poor people live, not because of the heat o humidity (or position on the map).
      Even malaria was once rife in Europe (including Scandinavia), accounting…

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    7. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul - go back and look at your own post. Your first point is irrelevant. I was simply declaring I wasn't arguing about the temperature forecasts. Your second point about the demographic bulge misses what I was saying entirely. I was simply mentioning it as another factor, I wasn't debating whether there would be an effect.. And your objections are not particular weighty. Has their attitude to climate affected their willingness to volunteer in the past? I doubt it. Your last point is of no value.

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    8. Fred Smith

      Electrical Engineer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Diana, I am sure you are permitted to mention the impacts of natural disasters on infrastructure, but it would be better suited to an article that is about natural disasters and infrastructure. This one is about natural disasters and community service organisations, with specific reference to volunteers and severe weather events.
      It has nothing to do with Japan, Earthquakes (in Australian context please) or nuke bashing. I am sure there will be a more suitable topic to get back on that particular soap box soon enough. :)

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    9. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Mark Lawson wrote; "... I wasn't arguing about the temperature forecasts." True, Mark. The response was the about the tone comment was made on.
      Mark Lawson wrote; ".... your objections are not particular weighty"
      Those that understand statistics and weight put on probabilities will be aware however.
      Mark Lawson wrote; "Has their attitude to climate affected their willingness to volunteer in the past? I doubt it." The article is projecting into a future scenario. Attitudes change so do values.
      From this perspective there has never been greater change in human history than in this last decade. If you choose to believe little has changed, that's ok. The opinion is appreciated, after all we are dealing with Black Swan events and this is their nature.
      Mark Lawson wrote; " Your last point is of no value." So true, it is just a worldview. One of many in our community at various altitudes.

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    10. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      I just didn't want to kick off another pro/anti-nuclear thread, they go forever and detract from on-topic discussion.

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    11. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Point taken Jane, when I first heard the news this morning, I was upset. Japan has difficulties enough with the exacerbation of another tsunami. Fortunately, the earth quake was far enough offshore to mitigate a storm surge.

      However, I do believe any disaster plan need to include for climate, geological, fires and so on.

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    12. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      My comment is a little of topic, apologies.
      Dianna Arthur wrote; ".... the earth quake was far enough offshore ..." National Earthquake Information Center - NEIC. Might be worth checking next time. As automated Data is available from ocean buoys, assessment made and emailed globally.
      _________________________________________________
      http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/usb000jgfc#summary
      http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/neic/

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    13. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Paul Richards

      That's funny Paul, I was about to comment on hindsight being 20/20, then I noticed your occupation as being "strategic foresight".

      I think you got the strategic part correct.

      :D

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    14. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Sorry Mark, but the issue of the day today is insurance. In the last two years insurance premiums in north Queensland have skyrocketed. No, I mean really gone up out of sight. Because the claims made in the large towns a long way away from Cyclone Yasi were unbelievable. You may not appreciate the fact that Townsville, although about 180 kms away from the coast-crossing point of that Cat 4/5 cyclone, itself experienced a Cat 2 cyclone.
      Most houses and units built in Townsville post (say) 1980…

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    15. Fred Smith

      Electrical Engineer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      I thought my comment was polite. Perhaps you can give me some lessons in 'snarky' as you seem to have got it down pat?
      How was that? :)

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  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Chris Gillham

    Journalist

    "According to the World Health Organisation, more than 150,000 people die annually due to the effects of climate change."

    What nonsense, and it would have been nice for the authors or subs to add the word "globally" instead of dropping it into a story about Australia with an obviously false assumption by readers. The WHO undoubtedly has some weird algorithm to back their claim, but a small summary of deaths from historic "extreme weather" caused by "climate change":

    100,000+ 1228 Netherlands…

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Chris Gillham

      Chris Gillham wrote; "What nonsense, and it would have been nice for the authors or subs to add the word "globally"... " The keyword in the WHO acronym is world, meaning also globe or globally relevant.
      "The World Health Organisation estimates ........ climate change of the past 30 years already claim over 150,000 lives annually." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16292302
      Highlighting a historical baseline in statistics is immaterial. As the 150,000 lives annually was inclusive. This goes to…

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  7. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    'The Coalition has announced their support of the recently “un-funded” National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), pledging renewed funding of $9 million.' Let's hope this is an indication that the Coalition is, at long last, taking climate change/global warming seriously. Community groups will be hamstrung in attempts to address and adapt to a warmer world, if leadership does not come from the top.

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