Group 4. Livelihood and disadvantage

‘Effects of climate change on health will affect most populations in the next decades and put the lives and wellbeing of billions of people at increased risk’ (Costello et al. 2009)

Climate change will affect the liveability of regions primarily by increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events which damage physical (built and natural) and social infrastructure, rendering them unable to support individuals, households and communities. Built physical infrastructure ranges from very large engineering works, such as bridges, roads and public buildings, to small structures such as individual dwellings. Damage to or loss of these resulting from an extreme weather event is associated with loss of businesses (and so, for some, loss of livelihoods), damage to workplaces and reduced hours of employment, loss of homes and substantial public and private insurance costs. For example, Queensland’s ‘summer of sorrow’ of 2010–11, in which cyclones Tasha and Yasi and massive flooding affected 80% of the state, cost over $6b in public infrastructure repairs alone. Alongside these very large economic impacts, over 70,000 Queenslanders were at least temporarily displaced from their homes and 240,000 experienced continuing post-disaster trauma or distress (Clemens et al. 2013). Similar patterns of effects are found in children. Because extreme weather events are associated with physical and mental health impacts, as are extreme personal and economic events, medical and social services at these times are stretched to the limit.

In rural settings, extreme weather event-related damage to the natural environment can be immense and particularly costly. Harm to biodiversity and environmental amenity can lead to a distressing sense of loss, known as ‘solastalgia’. For those reliant on the land for their wellbeing and livelihoods, this loss can also have cultural, financial and mental health impacts. For example, during the ‘Big Dry’ of 2001–08, rural Australians (but not their urban peers) who experienced unusually little rain throughout the entire drought, culminating in 12–24 months of catastrophic drought, had elevated psychological distress (O’Brien et al. 2014), consistent with studies comparing the mental health of people living in drought-prone areas to those in other areas. During the same Big Dry, rural Aboriginal Australians reported harm to their social and emotional wellbeing due to factors such as grief for the land’s suffering and loss of meeting places when riverbeds dried up, consistent with caring for country as an integral part of wellbeing; as did older farmers who felt that they had failed both the land they cared for and their descendants, to whom they could no longer leave a viable farm enterprise. Elevated rates of suicide are also detected during periods of drought with farmers particularly at risk.

Much of the harm to people and their communities arising from damage to the built and natural environments results from the harm this primary impact causes to the social environment. A large part of the resilience of individuals and households comes from their healthy connectedness to others and to a functional community. One term used to describe such connectedness is ‘social capital’ which is a combination of community participation and the social cohesion that arises when participation is frequent and supportive. People with high levels of personal social capital have a strong sense of belonging and of personal competence, which are particularly important in rural communities. Communities with extensive social capital are resilient, able to bounce back after adversity and adapt to the demands of change. By harming physical infrastructure and economic and cultural opportunity (sometimes causing people to abandon their communities), extreme weather events can damage social capital. When social capital fails, individuals and communities have to rely on their own resources or those provided by non-profit organisations and governments. Such resources are limited in availability and scope.

Social capital, like most resources, is not evenly shared but its distribution is patterned: those living in the most comfortable socio-economic and personal circumstances, in the most affluent parts of cities and on the best land have the most social capital, while those living with the greatest and most complex disadvantage have the least. These are the same people and places that are most likely to bear the brunt of weather disasters in Australia and around the world (Berry et al. 2010) and to be worst affected by these events when they happen (Clemens et al. 2013).

Questions to get you thinking

  • How will state and federal governments afford to respond and rebuild with increasing numbers and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heatwaves and fires?
  • When social capital fails, individuals and communities have to rely on their own resources or those provided by non-profit organisations and governments. What is the role of non-profit organisations and governments in such circumstances? Should resources be rationed? Flow to those most in need? Be invested in the strongest and most capable to leverage their contributions?
  • Are there opportunities hidden among the threats to social and emotional wellbeing posed by climate change and, if so, how could some of these opportunities be realised?
  • People’s general circumstances and wellbeing are the outcome of complex systems of interacting social and physical environments, past and present. To what extent can individuals reasonably be expected to contribute to arresting and adapting to climate change? Which individuals, in which circumstances and how?

Berry, HL, Bowen, K & Kjellstrom, T, 2010. Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. International Journal of Public Health 52(3): 123–32.

Clemens, SL, Berry, HL, McDermott, BM & Harper, CM, 2013. ‘Summer of Sorrow’: trauma exposure and impacts using a brief screening instrument. Medical Journal of Australia 199(8): 552–55.

Costello, A et al., 2009. Managing the health effects of climate change. Lancet 373: 1693–733.

O’Brien, LV, Berry, HL, Coleman, CE & Hanigan, I, 2014. Specific pattern of drought associated with worse mental health in rural areas but not in urban areas of Australia. Environmental Health 131: 181–87.




© 2018 Australian Academy of Science