A new report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies Australia as suffering greater impacts from climate change than any other advanced economy.

The call to action is urgent. Already, heatwaves kill more people in this country than all other natural disasters combined. The report says normal outdoor activity across much of northern Australia could become potentially fatal. Much of the Great Barrier Reef and snowfields will disappear, as well as some plant and animal species. The cascading and compounding impacts of increased fire, flood, drought, storms and rising sea levels will disrupt and place stress on agriculture, cities, infrastructure, supply chains and services. Change is happening quickly and Australia’s current efforts to adapt are not keeping pace.

Climate action is social justice

The report makes clear that failing to mitigate and adapt to climate change will cost lives. Jesuit Social Services recognises that already disadvantaged and marginalised people are some of the first and worst affected by climate change.

Our latest release of Dropping off the Edge research into locational disadvantage included a number of environmental indicators that showed the overlapping and compounding nature of disadvantage. We found that already disadvantaged communities were often disproportionately affected by poor air quality and extreme heat. Without investment and well-chosen interventions in the most disadvantaged communities, climate change will further entrench inequity.

The impacts of climate change on disadvantaged communities are becoming increasingly evident over summer. People living on low-incomes in outdated, uninsulated housing are sweltering through heatwaves without access to effective cooling, and those living in Melbourne’s public housing buildings report taking extreme measures to escape the heat.

In the year to July 2019, Alice Springs had 129 days over 35 degrees and 55 days over 40 degrees. There are fears that without resourcing to adapt, more Aboriginal people will be forced to leave their traditional country, becoming climate refugees in other parts of Australia.

Incarcerated people are at the forefront of climate change impacts

The situation is dire for people living in Australia’s prisons. In January, temperatures at Roebourne Regional Prison in Western Australia – where the majority of inmates are Aboriginal – reached 50.5 degrees, and yet the people inside continue to be refused access to air-conditioning. Advocates say without action it is only a matter of time before someone dies.

Jesuit Social Services’ recently released Prisons, climate and a just transition discussion paper shines a light on the impact of climate change on people in Australian prisons, drawing on stories of prison systems under stress, like this one from Roebourne prison in 2020:

“While we inspected Roebourne prison in the cooler months of May, the memory of the hottest months was still keen in the minds of the prisoners we spoke to, and we received many complaints from staff and prisoners about the unbearable heat… During the inspection prisoners told of us having to endure prickly heat rash for months over the summer.”

Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services WA 2020

It is not just extreme heat that threatens the health and lives of imprisoned people. When bushfires burned perilously close to the Lithgow Correctional Centre in New South Wales in 2019, nearby areas were evacuated while the prisoners – around a quarter of whom were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander – remained locked inside.

Both national policy and place-based solutions are crucial to addressing climate change. In 2021, Jesuit Social Services established the Centre for Just Places, which is working with governments, local leaders and organisations to develop effective place-based approaches to address complex disadvantage, climate risk and build community resilience.

We call for decisive action towards a zero-carbon future, as well as resourcing and well-chosen interventions that support disadvantaged communities to adapt to changes already occurring. We also call on Australia to actively support opportunities for marginalised people to identify and lead solutions to the challenges they are facing.

In the move towards a sustainable future, we must leave no one behind.

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