Working paper

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

4 Jun 2013

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. 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.

Given high levels of uncertainty in both the biophysical and socio-economic system, adaptation measures to climate change should follow key, risk-related principles:

• No regrets/win-win: Measures should accrue benefits, even without climate change

• High insensitivity to future climate condition: Benefits should be accrued from adaptation measures regardless of the eventual climate change scenario

• Flexible and easily reversible: Measures should be able to be changed easily if they become irrelevant, inappropriate or are found to create unwanted impacts

• Safety margins: Measures should account for the full range of potential climate change scenarios, rather than just the most likely scenario

• Softness: Institutional, financial or behavioural measures are likely to be less expensive, and more easily changed, than infrastructure measures

• Reduce decision time horizons: Increase flexibility and reversibility.

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