Population effects of climate change

Population groups at risk

Low income groups

The social challenges that climate change present—particularly the potential inequitable impacts on disadvantaged, vulnerable or marginalised groups—raises the issue of how to manage these impacts equitably. Researchers are beginning to consider policies that have a social inclusion agenda may be best placed to manage these social challenges. Teresa Capetola from Deakin University imagines a paradigm shift in approaches to climate change based on social inclusion principles, as a means to empower vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and transform them into active contributors in meeting the climate change challenge.

The impact of climate change on lower income groups has been highlighted in a recent conference involving the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Friends of the Earth. The key points they make are that:
  • Lower income (and elderly) Australians will be more vulnerable to the effects of higher temperatures.
  • Low income groups have contributed least to the problems faced by Australia's environment.
  • Lower income Australians are less able to afford climate change modification of their homes (insulation) or absorb increased costs of energy due to climate change.

In areas where climate change impacts negatively on agricultural enterprises, lower income Australians may face a loss of employment opportunities.

The elderly

Increasing numbers of elderly Australians are likely to be vulnerable to temperature changes caused by climate change. Research suggests a likelihood of increased mortality due to severe heat in older age groups. In Australia it is estimated that around 1100 people aged over 65 years die each year due to high temperatures. Without strong measures to mitigate the extreme temperature effects of climate change it is likely that there will be an increase in heat related mortality and morbidity in the elderly throughout the 21st century.

The report Climate Change Health Impacts in Australia by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Medical Association has modelled the health impacts of increased temperatures on the elderly. The first scenario assumes that the Australian population in 2100 has experienced zero growth and models this using two climate policies that could be adopted by the Government. If a regime of low emissions is pursued, ' … the heat-related mortality [in the 65+age group] could be between 1700 and 1900 deaths each year … under [high emissions] heat related deaths could be between 2600 and 3200 per year'.

The second model uses the same comparative methods, but assumes that the Australian population has increased by 2100 with a relative increase in the proportion of those aged over 65—up to two to five times greater than today. If a regime of low emissions is pursued, the model predicts heat-related mortality in the elderly could be between 4200 and 8000 deaths each year; under high emissions this could be between 8000 and 15,000 deaths each year.

Indigenous population

The direct effects of climate change are expected to vary across regions as temperatures increase and water levels rise. However, it is likely that remote communities in particular will face significant challenges. The CSIRO's Donna Green points out that 'geographic remoteness will amplify climate change health risks'. The health risks may be further accentuated for the more than one hundred thousand indigenous Australians living in isolated locations (many in the tropical north) who often lack infrastructure, health services and employment opportunities. These disadvantages may restrict the ability of Indigenous communities to cope with climate hazards.
Remote communities, in particular Indigenous communities may experience the impacts of climate change to varying degrees. Possible impacts highlighted include:
  • Increasing cases of heat stress or heat stroke.
  • Exacerbating existing chronic health problems such as high levels of diabetes, heart and kidney diseases, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases and cardiovascular complications.
  • The degradation of biodiversity causing the loss of traditional food sources (including food and water borne illnesses in tropical areas).
  • Rising sea levels.
  • Increases in respiratory conditions and asthma attributable to more bushfire activity.
  • Increases in diarrhoeal diseases due to a rise in temperature.
  • Increases in malaria, Japanese encephalitis through wind-borne mosquitoes from PNG and climate sensitive diseases, such as dengue, scrub typhus, leptospirosis, Murray Valley encephalitis and melioidosis.
  • Storm surges in coastal areas may disrupt clean water supplies.
  • Socio-economic impacts affecting sanitation and housing.

Not only would isolation and a lack of infrastructure disadvantage many Indigenous communities, but there is a possibility of forced migration due to more dramatic climate changes. Friends of the Earth have warned:

Most Aboriginal Australians live in the country's north, often in low-lying tropical areas … Sea level rise[s] of one or two metres would wipe out dozens of populated homelands and islands, particularly those in the Gulf of Carpentaria and adjacent Torres Strait.

Source: Friends of the Earth International, Climate change—voices from communities affected by climate change, FOEI, November 2007, p. 6.


Gender is emerging as an issue in the literature on the effects and policy responses to climate change. 

One example of the significance of gender in relation to climate change is highlighted by the Gender and climate change website. The web site refers to the impact of the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, and how women were more adversely affected by the cyclone and subsequent floods. Mortality among women was five times higher than for men, largely attributed to the disadvantaged position of women in the Bengali community. Warnings were not communicated to women, their ability to act independently was restricted by cultural norms that prohibited them from leaving their home without a male relative and few women had learnt to swim.

The Gender and climate change website further argues that:

The technological changes and instruments that are being proposed to mitigate carbon emissions, which are implicitly presented as gender-neutral, are in fact quite gender biased and may negatively affect women or bypass them. An example of this is the fact the Marrakech Accords on LULUCF exclude the questions of avoided deforestation and forest management and thus exclude all interventions designed to improve traditional biomass fuel supply and use, despite the fact that 2 billion women are dependent on this.

Source: Gender and climate change web site, http://www.gencc.interconnection.org/about.htm.

Studies show that women have an information deficit on climate politics and climate protection. The Third Global Congress of Women in Politics and Governance held in October 2008 in Manila, Philippines with the theme 'Gender and Climate Change' aimed to address this information deficit, and define the action agenda for policy advocates and parliamentarians.


The interim report of The Garnaut Climate Change Review suggested that while Australia could be the ' … biggest loser among developed countries from unmitigated climate change' it is well placed to profit from full participation in the international mitigation of climate change. Not only are Australia's reserves of uranium, natural gas and enormous potential for renewable energy and carbon capture, significant assets, but so are Australia's human resources (science, medical, engineering, educational, management and finance sectors). However, in those sectors of the community where climate change diminishes employment opportunities, the interim report warns that the Federal Government may need to provide additional assistance, such as:
preparation for new employment: retraining of workers (as with textile and steel workers in the 1980s after reduction in protection); grants to communities to support improvements in infrastructure that would be helpful to the attraction of alternative industries (the steel towns in the 1980s); or assistance to parts of the industry that have opportunities for survival and expansion in the new, more competitive circumstances (design and export assistance to the passenger motor industry following reductions in protection in the 1980s and 1990s).

Source: Garnaut Climate Change Review, Interim report to the commonwealth, state and territory governments, February 2008, p. 50.

The interim report also warns that for low income earners, rising energy prices might prove a significant economic burden. It suggests that adjustments could be made to the social security system, and income tax and Government assistance such as capital subsidies could be provided to assist these households.

Further reading:

29 October, 2009
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