People experiencing poverty and inequality will be affected first and worst by the impacts of climate change to infrastructure and human settlements, including those caused by increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events and natural disasters. They have the least capacity to cope, to adapt, to move and to recover. Community service organisations (CSOs) play a critical role in supporting individuals, families and communities experiencing poverty and inequality to build resilience and respond to adverse changes in circumstances. As such, the services they provide comprise a critical component of social infrastructure in human settlements. However, very little is understood about CSOs own vulnerability to – or their role in managing and mitigating risks to their clients and the community from – climate change impacts to physical infrastructure.
The Extreme Weather, Climate Change and the Community Sector – Risks and Adaptations project examined the relationship between physical and social infrastructure (in the form of CSO service provision). Specifically, the ways in which the climate-driven failure of CSO service delivery worsens risks to the individuals and communities they serve and, on the other hand, how preparedness may reduce vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather impacts to human settlements and infrastructure.
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 key methods of consultation and data collection. A literature review examined research conducted to date in Australia and comparative countries internationally on the vulnerability and climate change adaptation needs of CSOs. A program of 10 Community Sector Professional Climate Workshops consulted over 150 CSO representatives to develop a qualitative record of extreme event and climate change risks and corresponding adaptation strategies specific to CSOs. A national survey of CSOs, which resulted in the participation of approximately 500 organisations, produced a quantitative data set about the nature of CSO vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather impacts to infrastructure, whether and how CSOs are approaching the adaptation task and key barriers to adaptation.
While the methods employed and the absence of empirical data sets quantifying CSO vulnerability to climate change impacts create limitations to the evidence-base produced, findings from the research suggest that CSOs are highly vulnerable and not well prepared to respond to climate change and extreme weather impacts to physical infrastructure and that this underlying organisational vulnerability worsens the vulnerability of people experiencing poverty and inequality to climate change. However, the project results indicate that if well adapted, CSOs have the willingness, specialist skills, assets and capacity to make a major contribution to the resilience and adaptive capacity of their clients and the community more broadly (sections of which will be plunged into adversity by extreme events). Despite this willingness, the evidence presented shows that few CSOs have undertaken significant action to prepare for climate change and worsening extreme weather events. Key barriers to adaptation identified through the research are inadequate financial resources, lack of institutionalised knowledge and skills for adaptation and the belief that climate change adaptation is beyond the scope of CSOs core business. On the other hand, key indicators of organisational resilience to climate change and extreme weather impacts include: level of knowledge about extreme weather risks, past experience of an extreme weather event and organisational size.
Given its size, scope and the critical role the Australian community sector plays in building client and community resilience and in assisting communities to respond to and recover from the devastating impacts of extreme weather events and natural disasters, the research identifies serious gaps in both the policy frameworks and the research base required to ensure the sector’s resilience and adaptive capacity – gaps which appear to have already had serious consequences. To address these gaps, a series of recommendations has been prepared to enable the development and implementation of a comprehensive, sector-specific adaptation and preparedness program, which includes mechanisms to institutionalise knowledge and skills, streamlined tools appropriate to the needs and capacity of a diverse range of organisations and a benchmarking system to allow progress towards resilience and preparedness to be monitored. Future research priorities for adaptation in this sector have also been identified.