Impact of Climate Change on Disadvantaged Groups: Issues and Interventions

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Graeme Hugo
The University of Adelaide
Year Started: 
South Australia

Executive summary from final report:

In Australia the impending effects of climate change and the widening gap between economically and socially advantaged and disadvantaged groups are both issues of widespread national government and community concern. However, the relationship between the two remains little investigated. This study has sought to contribute in this area by adding to the small body of empirical knowledge of the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of disadvantaged groups in Australia in the face of impending adverse impacts of climate change.  

Increasingly large body of research has shown that Australia is undeniably experiencing long term changes in climate involving higher surface air and sea-surface temperatures, more hot extremes and fewer cold extremes and increased sea levels, and that these changes will continue in the future. There has been less advance, however, in tracing the complex interrelationships between the climate change scenarios on the one hand and socioeconomic change on the other. The assessment and measurement of population vulnerability (a concept central to considerations of the impact of climate change) has become a major focus of both academic and policy related work in this area and there is a great deal of contestation about the operationalization of the concept. This study adapted an approach of developing a measure of social exclusion as a way of measuring social vulnerability and adaptive capacity. 

Based on this approach, the study has utilized the ABS 2011 Population Census Data to measure social vulnerability and through mapping identify the areas with the highest level of social exclusion at LGA level in South Australia. Among the most interesting findings of the spatial analysis was that there is a considerable overlap between various indicators of social exclusion, showing that multiple disadvantages are common in SA. 

Using the concept of social exclusion as a measure of social vulnerability to the potential impacts of climate change, the project also included a survey of disadvantaged groups to study vulnerability and adaptive capacity of disadvantaged groups. The primary data were collected through a survey of 1800 households, and in-depth face-to-face interviews with 58 households and 17 service providers. 

Key findings:

Bivariate analysis:

  • Multiple disadvantages are common in the three study sites. Certain disadvantaged groups, such as Indigenous, single parent and renting households, are more likely to have reported more than one type of disadvantage than others. 
  • The greatest economic difficulty experienced by disadvantaged groups is related to the increasing cost of utility bills which the households find increasingly difficult to keep up with. 
  • The lack of economic resources among the less privileged households are not compensated for by stronger social networks, which are important for maintaining access to formal and informal social support systems for developing resilience and effective adaptation to climate change. 
  • The level of social support and social participation are very low among all respondents, however, those in metropolitan area show particularly low levels of social connectedness.
  • The majority of respondents believe they are well informed about the causes and consequences of climate change, but much lower percent think they know how to respond to it. 
  • There is a high level of acceptance of the reality of climate change, but about one third of respondents believe it won’t affect them.
  • While each of the disadvantaged groups recognize the challenges resulting from extreme weather events, less than half of them consider them climate change issues. 
  • Disadvantaged households have greater difficulty coping with extreme weather events, than households without disadvantages. Households with multiple disadvantages are especially likely to find heat and floods to be challenging.
  • All disadvantaged groups have a higher proportion than the control group who believe they will have difficulty adapting to climate change.
  • Unawareness of house energy efficiency was twice as great among the disadvantaged as among the control group.  

Multivariate analysis:

  • The findings of multivariate analysis showed that the level of social exclusion can mostly explain the increased perception vulnerability and lower adaptive capacity of certain disadvantaged groups to the impact of climate change and of extreme weather.
  • Despite the inconsistency in the results of multiple disadvantage analysis, there is some evidence that having multiple disadvantages may increase the perceptions of vulnerability and difficulty of adaptation that cannot be explained by the level of social exclusion.

Qualitative interviews:

  • The qualitative discussions revealed a strong feeling of vulnerability among disadvantaged groups with respect to the effects of extreme weather events and the rising cost of living.   
  • The in-depth interviews with excluded groups revealed that social exclusion and disadvantage exacerbate vulnerability to the effects of climate change in the three study areas.
  • Especially in the non-metropolitan areas, considerable ingenuity and resilience was being demonstrated in adapting to environmental change.  However, this was tempered by a deep, widely expressed concern that people’s resources and ability to cope were being stretched and exacerbation of these impacts could mean that this resilience will not be sufficient to offset its effects.
  • Existing sources of information to help people adapt to climate change were largely not effective in getting through to disadvantaged groups
  • Regardless of views or beliefs on climate change, all interview participants were making adaptations to their immediate environment or daily lifestyle practices in response to changes in the weather and/or the rising cost of living.

 Policy Implications

  • It is important that social inclusion elements be injected into climate change adaptation strategies not only at national level but also state and local levels. However, it is equally important to include a consciousness of the effects of climate and environmental change in the social inclusion agenda.  
  • Effective adaptation to climate change is strongly influenced by local factors and this is especially the case for disadvantaged groups. The overall necessity of strengthening local communities is of basic importance to responding effectively to climate change effects.
  • An initiative on assisting Aboriginal adaptation to climate change is clearly an important and urgent priority.
  • There is a clear role for better communication of information to support different groups, especially the disadvantaged, to adapt effectively to current and impending impacts of climate change.  It is clear that ‘one size fits all’ approaches to communication are doomed to failure in the context of disadvantaged groups.  
  • Governments at all levels need to recognise that population is both motivated and able to make changes in their lifestyle and behaviour toward more sustainable practices, and be more prepared on the one hand to give communities complete information to enable them to make better decisions about lifestyle and behaviour and on the other hand assist people in making those lifestyle and behaviour choices with appropriate assistance programs.
  • There is clear need in the support of wider initiatives to overcome disadvantage, to empower disadvantaged groups, to increase the economic resources available to them, to increase their social connectedness and sensitise all government and non-government activity to their needs.
  • There is a need for developing synergy between the state, community and civil society in order to develop social capital and strong communities.
  • As part of the nation’s Social Inclusion Agenda, it is imperative that the costs of utilities to the disadvantaged be addressed.  Undoubtedly the strategy of more rational costing of resources like water and electricity are needed as a wider societal initiative to become more sustainable. 
  • An important ingredient in facilitating local intervention is the involvement of community and non-governmental organisations.

View the final report

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