Climate Change and the Community Welfare Sector - Risks and Adaptation

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Dr Karl Mallon
Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS)
Year Started: 
New South Wales

Executive summary from final report:

(The rich will find their world to be more expensive, inconvenient, uncomfortable, disrupted, and colourless – in general, more unpleasant and unpredictable, perhaps greatly so. The poor will die (Smith, 2008: 1).

People experiencing poverty and inequality in both developing and developed countries will suffer the greatest harm from climate change, including increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events. They have the least capacity to cope, to adapt, to move and to recover. In October and November 2012, this fact was borne out by the experience of public housing residents in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, thousands of whom, unable to evacuate without assistance, were left without power, heating, hot water, food and medical care for almost two weeks when the organisations in place to support them failed (New York Times, 9 December 2012).

Every day, thousands of large and small community service organisations (CSOs) provide essential social services and support to people experiencing poverty and inequality in Australia including, people with a disability, people who are unemployed or living in low-income households, frail older people, single parents, women and children at risk of violence and abuse, the homeless, people living with chronic mental and physical ill-health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers amongst others. They are embedded within the communities they support and comprise a critical component of the social infrastructure in human settlements. Their role in building community resilience and in supporting individuals and communities to respond to and recover from extreme events and natural disasters is also increasingly recognised. And yet, despite the crucial support they provide to those most in need, both day-to-day and in response to crisis, very little is understood about the capacity that CSOs have to withstand climate change and extreme weather impacts.

The Extreme Weather, Climate Change and the Community Sector – Risks and Adaptations project investigated and addressed this significant knowledge gap. Its key objectives were to understand the extent to which CSOs are aware of and prepared for climate change, particularly extreme weather risks to physical infrastructure and critical services; to investigate the consequences of climate-driven CSO service delivery failure for the people reliant on them to meet basic needs; to identify a comprehensive set of adaptation options to increase the resilience of CSOs and their clients; and to explore barriers to implementing adaptation.

The research comprised a comprehensive and critical scoping, examination and review of existing research findings and an audit, examination and judgment-based evaluation of the current vulnerabilities and capacities of CSOs under projected climate change scenarios. It employed three major methods of consultation and data collection. Firstly, to ground the project in existing knowledge, a comprehensive, integrative review of the Australian and international (limited to developed countries) research addressing climate change adaptation for CSOs was conducted. In its second phase, a program of 10 workshops was conducted in each state and territory with over 150 representatives from a diverse range of CSOs. These produced rich qualitative data about the specific ways in which climate-driven infrastructure disruptions trigger the failure or strain of CSO service delivery and the strategies that organisations can implement to maintain service delivery in the event of serious climate change and extreme weather impacts. Thirdly, the Climate Change and the Community Sector National Survey – the largest of its kind ever undertaken – produced quantitative and qualitative data about the impacts of physical infrastructure failure on the capacity of CSOs to deliver services; the impacts of service failure on client groups; the actions taken by CSOs to adapt; the major barriers to adaptation; and the inherent capacity within organisations to support community resilience to impacts. The survey established two measures to identify indicators of CSO vulnerability and resilience to climate change and extreme weather impacts, which were tested using linear regression analysis.

Major findings from the project include:

1.    CSOs are highly vulnerable and not well prepared to respond to climate change or extreme weather events, with many small and medium-sized organisations at risk of permanent closure as a result of major damage to physical infrastructure and disruptions to critical services. For example, the survey results demonstrate that one week after an extreme weather event 50% of organisations that sustain serious damage to their premises would still be out of operation; 25% might never provide services again;

2.    The detailed consequences of major disruptions to social service provision for people experiencing poverty and inequality – for whom CSOs are the shock absorbers for every day adversity as well as crises – are very serious as they impact the basic needs for human survival: homelessness, deprivation, hunger, isolation and death;

3.    Despite the size of the problem of CSO vulnerability and the severity of its consequences, the literature review clearly shows that to date the community sector has been overlooked in the climate change adaptation policy settings and research agendas of developed economies as evidenced by major gaps in the academic and grey literature;

4.    CSOs have a stated desire to prepare for and adapt to climate change and extreme weather impacts and if well prepared, they have inherent skills, assets and capabilities to contribute to community resilience to climate change and in response to disasters. These include the ability to educate, contact, locate and evacuate vulnerable people with specialist needs; specialist skills such as counselling, case management and volunteer management; and specialist assets and facilities such as disability transport;

5.    At present, CSOs perceive an overwhelming range of barriers to action. Key amongst these is a lack of financial resources and skills and the concern that adaptation is ‘beyond the scope’ of the sector’s core business. The issue of scope is central to establishing if increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events represents a new ‘normal’ for CSO operation; and

6.    Knowledge of the risks, past experience of an extreme event and organisational size are indicators of organisational resilience to climate change impacts, including extreme weather events. Given that organisations have little or no control over their size or the occurrence of extreme events, raising awareness about the direct and serious ways in which climate change and worsening extreme weather events will affect their ability to provide services and therefore to fulfil their mission to people experiencing poverty and disadvantage becomes critical.

To raise awareness about the risks to service delivery from climate change and to support capacity building within the community services sector, the project produced a series of outputs and resources, which are immediately available for implementation by organisation to assist with the process of identifying, analysing and responding to climate change and extreme weather risks:

·      The first national survey data set covering the vulnerability of CSOs and their clients to climate change and extreme weather impacts to infrastructure;

·      A set of CSO Failure Mode and Adaptation Mode Exemplars, which identify and codify the mechanisms by which service delivery is disrupted in response to infrastructure failure and, conversely, the processes for and consequences of implementing adaptation for organisations, clients and the broader social system; and

·      Community Sector Risk and Adaptation Registers, which describe and catalogue over 200 discrete risks and 450 adaptation actions specific to four key areas of CSO activity and operation.

This report concludes with a set of recommendations about what is required to address the risk and adaptation needs of CSOs. These recommendations focus on four key areas for action: resources, preparedness, building resilience to direct impacts and sharing risks through insurance and collaboration. Directions for future research on this important topic are also suggested. Critically, an urgent and significant investment of funds to the community sector is required to enable organisations to begin the resilience-building task..

View the final report