Literature review

Impact of climate change on health and wellbeing in remote Australian communities: a review of literature and scoping of adaptation options

14 Aug 2013

Executive summary: This report explores the relationship between climate change and liveability in remote Australia. The term ‘liveability’ here describes the state of wellbeing realised by the sum of interactions between the physical and social environment, with health and infrastructure as the primary focus.

Globally, climate change is predicted to affect liveability both directly and indirectly. Direct effects include changes in the incidence and geographical range of diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Mental health will be affected, with hot temperatures linked to poor concentration, aggressive behaviour and stress. An increase in aeroallergens and particulate matter may lead to respiratory problems and a decline in the efficacy of medication. There may be changes in precipitation that affect drinking water supplies, and increase pollutant and/or turbidly in water bodies. Agricultural profitability may change. Social cohesion may be affected as sea level rise displaces populations.

Vulnerability to climate change is the degree to which a population is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, the adverse effects of climate change. Variations in pre-existing health, socio-economic status, geographical location, social capacity, infrastructure and demographic attributes mean that particular groups of people are likely to be more affected than others.

Exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity to climate change vary significantly in space and time. Adaptation to climate change therefore needs to be location-specific, and both target and involve the most vulnerable groups. Policy- and program-makers who wish to manage the worst of the potential climate change impacts need to know which climate change impacts may be most relevant locally, which populations/sub-populations are most vulnerable, and their current level of adaptive capacity.

Climate change is complex, multi-scaled and characterised by a high level of uncertainty. Detailed climate change risk and vulnerability assessments require climate change information at a more localised scale than is presently available, to capture the substantial variation both within and between remote areas. For this reason, this report examined three focal areas: Cape York (Queensland), Central Australia (Northern Territory) and the Kimberley (Western Australia). These three areas were selected as they crossed multiple jurisdictions, and economic and climatic zones:

  • Cape York’s climate is tropical to sub-tropical, with hot temperatures and a summer wet season. Cape York has relatively high levels of employment in primary industries and lower levels in secondary and tertiary industries. Much of the population is reliant on welfare and employment in public administration. The population is relatively mobile compared to the national population, but is the least mobile of the three focal areas.
  • Central Australia is arid, with low and highly variable annual rainfall. Precipitation is summer- dominant and winters are cold. Communities, outstations, pastoral leases, mining interests and tourist camps in Central Australia are serviced by the town of Alice Springs. Its economy is more diversified than other focal areas, with fewer people working in mining and more working in the arts and food/accommodation industries.
  • The Kimberley’s climate is semi-arid to dry tropical, with a summer wet season. Six major towns act as major service centres to the region’s pastoral leases, mining enterprises, communities and outstations. A high proportion of people are employed in the agricultural and mining industries. The population is highly mobile, and there is a large non-resident population that peaks during the dry season, contributing to the demand for goods and services.
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