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Supporting vulnerable people to adapt to climate change Analysis

Supporting vulnerable people to adapt to climate change

BANNER Climate change rally (Flickr John Englart (Takver))

This blog is based on a presentation made by VCOSS at the Brotherhood of St Laurence-ACOSS ‘Transitioning to a zero carbon economy’ forum held in Melbourne on 25 May, 2016.

In times of crisis, a community’s ability to respond and adapt  is a direct reflection of how strongly it is functioning to begin with.

In Victoria, more than 1 million people live near or below the poverty line.[1] Some of our most vulnerable community members also include people who face mental health issues, people with disability and their carers, people who are experiencing homelessness, women and children fleeing family violence, people facing housing stress or homelessness, and families with multiple and complex needs.

Climate change, and policy responses to it, can potentially affect low-income and vulnerable people more than others, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Low-income earners tend to live in areas or conditions more likely to be adversely affected by climate change, and have far less ability to move or adjust their living circumstances to adapt to it.

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Low-income earners tend to live in areas or conditions more likely to be adversely affected by climate change, and have far less ability to move or adjust their living circumstances to adapt to it.


Low-income earners also spend a greater proportion of their total weekly household budget on energy and water than wealthier households. These are essential services for all households, but those facing low incomes and financial hardship risk losing access to them. People on low incomes are less able to reduce their energy consumption by investing in energy efficiency measures in their homes, and face increasing electricity, gas, water, food and insurance prices. The community sector is expressing grave concern that people living on low incomes are being left behind at an alarming pace, and risk paying more and more for power and resources.

Other factors also determine how badly people are affected by climate change. Social vulnerability factors including age and health, quality of housing, inequality, income and social cohesion all contribute to the ability of people and communities to cope when crises occur.

Communities facing disadvantage are not only at risk due to lack of resources, but can be less able to mobilise resources due to a lack of community capabilities.[2] Disaster preparedness and resilience is often not a priority for people who deal daily with problems such as poverty, crime, violence, serious illness, or unemployment.[3]

Policy responses, such as shifts in investment toward renewable energy, energy efficiency measures and other activities aimed at reducing carbon emissions, can also affect lo-income earners more adversely than others, imposing costs they may find difficult to cover. Mitigation measures such as bushfire home safety ratings and flood mitigation, also risk affecting low-income and vulnerable people more than others, further exacerbating inequalities and adding to the uneven consequences of climate change.

Research bears these points out – a 2011 National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility report clearly found that the impacts of climate change will not be distributed evenly across Australia, and that vulnerability to extreme weather is more likely to be defined by socioeconomic differences in the community, rather than by environmental impact itself. The report found that the impact of climate change is felt more by people who are disadvantaged because:

  • they frequently have little choice in deciding where they live, and are often disproportionately concentrated in areas at high risk of negative environmental impacts
  • they have fewer economic resources to assist with preparing for and managing extreme weather
  • they have less of a voice and are less able to influence decision makers such as governments.

Further findings include:

  • Disadvantaged households experience greater difficulty managing extreme weather events than other households. Households facing multiple disadvantages are especially likely to experience severe impacts from heat and floods.
  • Disadvantaged groups felt a higher level of vulnerability than other groups in relation to the effects of extreme weather events, particularly in relation to rising costs of living and utilities.
  • Social exclusion and disadvantage exacerbate the level of vulnerability to the effects of climate change experienced
  • Existing sources of information to assist people adapt to climate change were largely not effective in reaching disadvantaged groups
  • People are both motivated and able to make changes in their lifestyle and behaviour toward more sustainable practices. Governments need to be prepared to provide communities complete information to enable them to make better decisions about lifestyle and behaviour as well as assist people in making lifestyle and behaviour choices with appropriate assistance programs.[4]

To better prepare all members of our communities for the effects of climate change we must provide people with a range of measures, including:

  • adequate concessions to offset the impact of utilities on a household’s budget
  • fair pricing to ensure all households can access an essential supply of energy
  • a consumer protection framework that protects all households accessing essential services
  • minimum standards for rental housing, and upgrades in existing homes for more efficient heating and cooling to reduce energy bills
  • better transport options, especially public transport, for people to access services
  • relevant information about the effects of climate change and the action that people can take
  • policies and actions to reduce health inequalities
  • community services that help people overcome disadvantage and better prepare for and respond to the risks
  • funding for community sector organisations to monitor and support at-risk groups
  • planning for just transitions for those communities directly impacted by the move to zero carbon.

VCOSS looks forward to working further with the government to examine trends, identify areas of need and priority, and develop policies and strategies to ensure that the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and the role of community sector organisations that support them, are considered in the context of climate change.

Banner image: Flickr – John Englart (Takver) (CC)

[1] Australian Council of Social Service, Poverty in 2014 Australian Council of Social Service Australia, ACOSS, 2014.

[2] Australian Social Inclusion Board, Building inclusive and resilient communities, Australian Government, June 2009

[3] National Research Council of the National Academies, Building Community Disaster Resilience Through Private–Public Collaboration,  The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011

[4] Sevoyan, A et al,  Impact of climate change on disadvantaged groups: Issues and interventions, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 2013