How long can the climate safety net hold?

9 January 2024

The golden period between Christmas and New Year’s Day has traditionally been a time when Australians relaxed and recharged for the year ahead. 

As climate change worsens, this period of respite will be viewed differently by today’s children, who will come to associate it with predictably unpredictable extreme weather events. 

This year, many in Queensland were still cleaning up after flooding following an unprecedented storm, and extreme weather events including a tornado hit other parts of the state, with seven people losing their lives. 

Tens of thousands lost power or suffered severe property damage. Meanwhile, parts of Victoria experienced flash flooding and a volunteer firefighter in Western Australia died in the line of duty. 

A relaxed holiday period may become seen by some as just another form of Boomer privilege. Even benign events will trigger memories of past trauma. 

The community sector has long been a critical safety net when Canberra has experienced natural disasters, and the government and wider community expect it to continue this function. 

Following a Herculean effort helping those experiencing poverty and disadvantage through the pandemic, the community sector has not been able to prepare for climate change. 

The effects of increasing damage from extreme weather events will not be confined to a few weeks of disaster a year. More regular and extensive household repairs will tighten ongoing financial stress for many Canberrans and raise rental costs. 

At the same time, decreasing agricultural viability in the region could see an influx of farmers into Canberra. 

Exhausted from an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep the family farm viable, many will be traumatised and impoverished. 

Overall, more Canberra families will require financial and emotional assistance from the community sector. 

Changing social patterns and increased social isolation mean that the community can no longer rely on a system of neighbours looking after each other during a disaster. 

However, there is no central register of people who might need extra support due to disability or who have another impediment to emergency evacuation. 

Similarly, Canberra has no clear list of essential workers, though our understanding has evolved and improved with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The need for many workers will increase after disasters, from domestic and family violence counsellors to those working in food pantries. 

A list of these essential workers is the first step to ensuring that they are available when the community needs them most. 

While some Canberran community sector organisations have thorough, up-to-date climate adaptation plans, most do not. 

Instead, they have been focusing their limited resources on meeting the crises most acutely confronting the community over the last few years, including the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. 

These crises also hindered volunteering and donations, creating a double impact for the sector. Many community organisations are small and focused on a single issue or population, and therefore lack the required expertise to create effective adaptation plans. 

There is no sector-wide adaptation plan, though climate related disasters will inevitably disrupt the complex formal and informal referral networks that enable the community sector to function so well. 

Extreme weather events will be just one challenge from climate change, which will reduce economic growth and likely increase the level of ongoing community need from the community sector. 

Even if Canberra is fortunate enough to avoid destructive extreme weather events this summer, climate change will inevitably create substantial suffering and property damage in the next decade. 

While Canberrans expect the community sector to work effectively with government to be the effective safety net it has long been for the community, the community sector is not currently equipped to do so. 

Without ambitious, specific investment, from either the government or philanthropic sources, the community sector will be unable to meet the demands of further climate change. 

Opinion piece originally published in The Canberra Times on January 3rd, 2024.
Read the article here.
For more information or comment, please contact
Devin Bowles, CEO, ACTCOSS, on 0413 435 080 or 02 6202 7200

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