By Haydie Gooder and Skye Davey from the Centre for Just Places, Jesuit Social Services

Although climate change is affecting people across the globe, it is clear that marginalised and disadvantaged people and communities are often first and worst impacted. Councils already play a role in responding to the more frequent and intense extreme weather events, however the current magnitude of climate impacts require all levels of government to go beyond emergency management to deepen their understanding of what needs to be done to build climate resilient communities for all. The Centre for Just Places is supporting councils to do this work.

Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places was established with seed funding from the Gandel Foundation and the Victorian Government, to support and enable place-based approaches to social and ecological justice through research, collaboration and knowledge exchange.

Executive Director, Dr Susie Moloney, said the Centre works at the intersection of social and ecological justice, in recognition that highly disadvantaged and marginalised communities are often first, worst, and hardest hit by the environmental risks and harms such as climate change, with fewer resources to cope and adapt.

“If you’re already experiencing a range of social inequities, climate change will compound those problems. During heatwaves, people in low income housing and poor quality, uninsulated rentals are more likely to suffer heat stress, anxiety and disrupted sleep, which can have a detrimental impact on overall health and wellbeing,” Dr Moloney said.

“We know that social and environmental injustice are linked. We weren’t surprised to see that Jesuit Social Services’ 2021 Dropping Off the Edge research into locational disadvantage across the country, found that communities experiencing high levels of social injustice were also experiencing disproportionately high levels of environmental injustice such as heat stress, air pollution and lack of green canopy.”

Enabling climate just and resilient communities

The changing climate, including the compounding impacts of bushfires, heatwaves, increased storms and flooding, is forcing communities across Australia to find new ways to adapt.

The Centre is working with communities, community service organisations and local governments to increase capacity, co-design responses and build community resilience.

Dr Moloney said she believes place-based, community-led approaches to building climate resilience are crucial, because residents and community organisations have lived experience and deep knowledge of the needs, vulnerabilities, strengths and opportunities within their own regions.

“Having local people and organisations that support communities involved in program design and implementation can increase the effectiveness of an initiative, achieving higher levels of community trust and greater flexibility and responsiveness to the real and changing needs of the community,” Dr Moloney said.

Working one-on-one with local communities

In recognising the urgent need to adapt, between 2021-2022 the Centre delivered a series of climate adaptation and resilience workshops across metropolitan Melbourne.

The workshops aim to strengthen collaboration between community service organisations and local governments, to build resilience to extreme weather and protect the health and wellbeing of those most at risk. Serving as a critical conversation starter, the workshops built common understandings of climate vulnerability and community needs in each local government area and catalysed future collaborations.

In Darebin – an area of Melbourne with high heat vulnerability – relationships developed through the workshops enabled deep engagement with at-risk community members and their lived experience of climate change.

The Centre worked with the City of Darebin to hear what a diverse range of residents needed to stay safe and well during heatwaves and other extreme weather.

This engagement resulted in the identification of a wide range of impacts on health and wellbeing, and how best to respond to remain safe and well during extreme weather, particularly heat wave conditions.

“We worked with people already vulnerable to climate change through intersecting experiences of marginalisation – finding that while people had a number of solutions already in place to cope with heat, they also felt council had a critical role to play in advocating on behalf of more vulnerable residents and strengthening relationships between council and the community,” Dr Moloney said.

Dr Moloney said the Centre’s engagement with local councils has made it clear that councils must work closely with trusted community leaders and build on community strengths to best address community needs.

The role of councils in adaptation and building resilience

Communities, and the councils and services that support them, will invariably bear the brunt of climate change impacts, which is why enabling more just and resilient communities requires support from all levels of government.

The recent floods across Australia’s east highlight the importance of coordinated and effective responses. Alongside system-wide action, local adaptation plans are crucial to preventing, preparing for, and minimising climate impacts.

This does not mean that responsibility for adapting to climate change rests entirely with councils, but they do play an important role in understanding where, and who, will be most impacted and how best to reduce vulnerability in communities.

This was reinforced in the findings of a recent 12 month initiative undertaken by the Centre in Melbourne’s west, funded by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, which identified local government as central to information sharing and leadership on climate justice.

Managing and mitigating the impacts of climate change is not an easy task and there are some real challenges for councils, particularly around the resources and capacities needed to develop and implement adaptation plans, how to ensure that diverse communities and sectors are involved in shaping those plans, and how to ensure a whole of council approach to implementation.

Dr Moloney said this also means establishing a shared understanding of climate justice across councils and within communities, focusing on the voices and needs of those most vulnerable.

Councils themselves are also vulnerable to climate change. For example, extreme weather events can disrupt some council services due to factors such as unsafe staff working conditions or damage to physical infrastructure.

If councils are unprepared, there will be flow on effects to community members who rely on those services, further exacerbating their vulnerability.

Dr Moloney said research shows that, while there is progress in adaptation planning across local governments, there are implementation gaps in terms of leadership and measures to support adaptation.

There is a need for consistent national and state level commitment backed by adequate resourcing, including legislation, frameworks and guidance to ensure that all councils and communities can reduce vulnerability, adapt and build resilience.

Preparing and adapting for the summer season

During the summer season communities are increasingly on high alert. When it comes to heat, we know that those with pre-existing health issues, older populations, those in poorer quality housing or outer urban areas with limited greening are likely to suffer more from heat stress.

For the summer of 2022-23, under La Niña conditions, the projected weather forecast of more rainfall combined with the bushfire season raises the urgent need for communities and councils to be better prepared.

For councils, working with community leaders and organisations to ensure targeted and culturally appropriate messaging around heat stress, and strategies to minimise it, is one way to prepare.

Climate change adaptation is an ongoing responsibility and challenge which requires focusing not only on emergency responses but on building on community strengths, reducing vulnerability, and preventing adverse impacts wherever possible.

“In order to successfully adapt and build resilience, place-based, cross-sectoral coalitions which include the voices of those most affected are important. Councils have a key role to play in these collaborative partnerships,” Dr Moloney said.

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