In seeking to build a more just, inclusive and resilient society, we must strengthen the community sector to respond to the inequitable impacts of climate change, writes Jesuit Social Services’ Ecological Justice Support Officer, JACK PIPER.

The Centre for Just Places was established in January 2021, with seed funding from the Victorian Government and Gandel Philanthropy, to enable resilient, inclusive and regenerative communities and support place-based approaches through research, collaboration, engagement and knowledge exchange.

Jesuit Social Services has a deep understanding of place-based approaches through extensive experience and expertise gleaned over many decades. Our way of working embeds self-determination and enhanced community participation as the informing principles of all our work, realised through community conversations built on deep-listening and local leadership. Our work with people on the margins draws our attention to the multiple and interrelated factors that cause disadvantage, diminish community capacity to shape their future, and damage the natural environment we all depend on.

The Centre for Just Places builds on the leadership and advocacy established through the Dropping Off the Edge reports into inequality and place-based disadvantage. This work highlights that particular locations across Australia experience high levels of persistent disadvantage which manifests in multiple ways. The 2021 Dropping Off the Edge research will include environmental indicators to create a deeper picture of the preconditions and intersecting causes and drivers of vulnerability and disadvantage.

In recognising that there is a direct relationship between caring for people and caring for country and planet, this focuses our attention on how social and environmental justice issues intersect. We know that the most marginalised are also those worst affected by the environmental crisis – including climate change. While everyone has a part to play in transforming the ways we live and the everyday decisions we make, much work needs to be done to improve the places and systems that substantially shape these everyday lives.

In seeking to build a more just, inclusive and resilient society, we need to work collaboratively to affect change in everyday lives, organisations and communities. Understanding that climate change disproportionately impacts those most marginalised demands that we focus on addressing the drivers of inequity and disadvantage.

There is important work to be done in supporting, partnering with and empowering First Nations organisations, community service organisations (CSOs), local governments and communities to understand and build resilience to the inequitable and disproportionate impacts of climate change.

The urgency of this work was made all the more clear with the release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on August 9th, 2021. The report highlights that “climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways” and projects that “in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions. For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.”

In recognising the urgent need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the Centre for Just Places has been delivering climate adaptation and resilience workshops across metropolitan Melbourne to strengthen collaboration between CSOs and local governments to build resilience to extreme weather and protect the health and wellbeing of those most at-risk to impacts of heatwaves, bushfires and smoke, floods, storms and drought.

Those most impacted by extreme weather are already experiencing disadvantage and climate change will only magnify the injustices we already see in our community. For example, during heatwaves low-income families living in poor-quality rentals are more likely to suffer from heat stroke, stress, anxiety and disruption to sleep, and this can lead to spikes in family violence or poor engagement at school. As an informative (and confronting) resource to help us better understand the inequitable impacts of heat, the Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) recently released a series of short interviews with at-risk community members in Melbourne, called “Feeling the Heat”, capturing their experience of heatwaves.

Community-based organisations hold local knowledge and, through their relationships with the community, are best able to understand the vulnerabilities, strengths and appropriate responses in any place. To draw out this knowledge, and enable the co-creation of collaborative responses, the climate resilience workshops for CSOs first build a common literacy around climate change. CSOs work at the frontlines in providing critical support for those most at-risk, particularly during extreme weather. Through the workshops, however, we unpack how CSOs themselves are also vulnerable as services become disrupted through periods of heightened need. During a heatwave for example, staff movements and outreach services might be restricted due to safety concerns for staff or because of power outages and transport delays. Efforts to protect the health and wellbeing of the community through more frequent and intense weather events must therefore include support for the community sector to adapt to climate change. A VCOSS survey of 139 CSOs in 2019 highlighted that while many are aware of and already experiencing many of these disruptions to their services, few are prepared for the inevitable ongoing and future impacts.

The workshops create an opportunity for CSOs to make sense of these very real challenges and also highlight that each organisation needs to work collaboratively if we are to build the sector’s resilience.  The workshops bring together diverse cross-sector organisations working in particular geographic areas and LGAs, including services in the areas of housing and homelessness, mental health, settlement, community development, education and gender justice, as well as religious leaders and local government. Collaborative responses to local impacts become realisable, as the conversation goes beyond emergency management into a deeper understanding of what needs to be done together to adapt to the reality of a changed and changing climate. It becomes apparent that work these organisations have been doing for many years to address the underlying drivers of vulnerability can in fact also be seen as climate change action. This work now has a renewed sense of urgency creating a willingness to collaborate across sectors.

Participants report leaving the workshops with a deeper understanding of climate vulnerability and their responsibility to adapt. Resources are shared with participants, including the Jesuit Social Services’ Climate and Ecological Justice Resource Pack, which offers practical tools for addressing climate change adaptation within homes and organisations.

The place-based workshops serve as a critical conversation starter, building common understandings of climate vulnerability and community needs in each local government area and catalysing future collaborations. In one local government area, for example, relationships developed through the workshops enabled deep engagement with at-risk community members and their lived experience of climate change. These conversations will inform local government adaptation policy and programs. Elsewhere, we have seen Neighbourhood Houses come together to commit to developing a collaborative climate action plan.

Through our own work at Jesuit Social Services, accompanying those encountering the justice system, recently arrived migrants, and those experiencing homelessness, we understand that while climate change affects everyone, it is the most marginalised who are impacted first and hardest. The Centre for Just Places is committed to empowering communities and the community sector to adapt to climate change, sharing resources and co-creating strategies needed to tackle entrenched social disadvantage and enable ecological justice at this challenging juncture in history.