Advocacy in Brief: Climate Change

In summary

  • Climate change is caused by the burning of coal, petrol and other fossil fuels and other human activity.
  • The climate is already changing in Central Australia and we can expect more extreme temperatures, less rainfall, and more floods, fires and heat waves in the future.
  • Climate change is leading to more health problems for Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are particularly at risk because many are living in poverty, have poor quality drinking water and live in poor housing.
  • Congress is advocating for all levels of government to take action to both limit the amount the climate changes in the future (mitigation) and reduce the impacts of climate change on health (adaptation). 
  • This means:
    • reducing the amount of ‘greenhouse gases’ from the burning of coal, petrol and other fossil fuels;
    • reducing inequality and poverty in Aboriginal communities;
    • recognising and supporting Aboriginal traditional knowledge to look after Country; and
    • improving community housing and health infrastructure like clinics and staff housing.
  • Congress is working together with other Aboriginal organisations to form the Central Australia and Barkly Region Aboriginal Climate Justice Alliance (CABRACJA) to push for more action on climate change to protect the health of Aboriginal people in Central Australia.

What is this about?

Climate change means the human-caused changes in climate and weather patterns due to rises in the temperature of the world’s oceans, land and atmosphere[1].

Climate change is already negatively impacting the weather in Australia and is behind extreme hot and cold temperatures, less rainfall, and more destructive weather events like floods, fires and heat waves. In turn these changes are impacting important parts of our daily life such as water supply, our food, and the health of the natural environment particularly on native plants and animals.

While the science to show regional-level changes is still developing, Aboriginal people already recognise climate change and its effects on the ecosystem in Central Australia[2]:

“I think it is changing, sometimes hotter, sometimes colder. Weather more mixed up. Not hot all the time in summer, cold in winter. People talking about this now, now everything’s changing, one day hot, one day cold.” (Ltyentye Apurte ranger)

As well as being an environmental issue, climate change is a big threat to health and social justice for communities across Central Australia. For Aboriginal people, health is not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but includes the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole community. This can be understood as recognising:

“… the importance of connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community, how these connections have been shaped across generations, and the processes by which they affect individual wellbeing. It is a whole-of-life view, and it includes the interdependent relationships between families, communities, land, sea and spirit and the cyclical concept of life–death–life.” [3]

The disruption of the living world that climate change creates is therefore in itself a harm to the health of Aboriginal communities.

The health of Aboriginal people in Central Australia is especially vulnerable to climate change. This is due to higher proportions of Aboriginal people living in poverty, having low quality drinking water and living in poor housing. The effects of climate change include:

  • sickness and mortality caused by heat stress, with Aboriginal people particularly vulnerable due to poorer underlying health in general and higher rates of cardio-respiratory disease;
  • increased food insecurity and malnutrition due to pre-existing poverty and poor access to healthy food, and expected increases in prices of food and damage to ecosystems disrupting access to traditional foods;
  • infectious disease and increased range of some vector-borne diseases (this means diseases that are transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes);
  • poorer social and emotional wellbeing/mental health, with increasing temperatures contributing to greater stress. For Aboriginal people, social and emotional wellbeing is also undermined by damage to Country and disruption of cultural practices;
  • poorer respiratory health (making it harder to breathe) due to increased smoke from bushfires and/or dust;
  • reduced fresh water supply (both quantity and quality) due to changed rainfall and increased evaporation rates, as well as potential contamination from mining and other extraction industries; and 
  •  additionally, climate change will make it harder for health services like Congress and the Hospital to care for our community. Factors include recruiting and retaining health staff; health facility infrastructure costs to ensure health buildings and staff accommodation are appropriately insulated and cooled; and reduced productivity of health staff due to heat stress and sickness.

What does Congress think about this?

Aboriginal peoples have cared for and sustainably used the natural ecosystems of this continent for tens of thousands of years. However, the process of colonisation in Australia has profoundly undermined our ability to care for Country. Therefore, Congress demands strong action particularly by governments on climate change to reduce the harm being caused to our communities by the impacts of climate change.

What does Congress thinks need to be done?

Congress is advocating for all levels of government to take action to both limit the amount the climate changes (mitigation) and reduce the negative impacts of climate change on the health and wellbeing of the community (adaptation).

Actions to mitigate climate change include:

  • all governments will need to implement big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if catastrophic effects on human health are to be avoided;
  • we support the Northern Territory Government’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. However, in order for this target to be met, the ban on Hydraulic Fracturing (‘fracking’) in the Northern Territory needs to be reimposed as it is incompatible with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and poses a range of other environmental and health threats;
  • the Northern Territory Government needs to invest in sustainable renewable power (e.g. solar) especially in remote communities, including well-resourced systems for maintenance and back-up;
  • there needs to be widespread recognition and investment in Aboriginal traditional ecological knowledge to manage Country and reduce the release of greenhouse gases, for example through Ranger programs to manage fire regimes, revegetation and feral animals and weeds; and
  • the government must work towards an economic system that is focused on public health and the reduction of inequality, rather than the unrestrained pursuit of private profit and the exploitation of the natural world.
  • addressing the social and economic determinants of health that increase the vulnerability of Aboriginal communities to the health effects of climate change. This includes action on poverty, lack of appropriate education, employment, and housing and action to reduce inequality;  
  • increasing the resources for comprehensive primary health care under Aboriginal community control (including social and emotional wellbeing services) to respond at the grassroots level to increased health risks posed by climate change and provide a centre for coordinated action and advocacy on health needs;  
  • increasing investment in health infrastructure to ensure that all clinics and staff housing are fit for purpose in the context of increasing temperatures and more extreme weather events;
  • substantially improving community housing to ensure that public housing and houses in Aboriginal communities meet the needs of Aboriginal families facing increasing temperatures. This includes improved insulation, air-conditioning, and water supply, and that construction specifications are updated and enforced and increased maintenance is provided; and
  • establishing appropriate regulatory and taxation regimes to ensure that government addresses inequality and has the revenue to invest in transitioning to a low carbon economy.

What is Congress doing?

Congress is working together with other Aboriginal organisations to form the Central Australia and Barkly Region Aboriginal Climate Justice Alliance (CABRACJA). This alliance is working to kick start community-driven activities and to advocate for prompt policy action to mitigate and address the impacts of climate change. This work has only just started and more news will be made available as the group progresses.

Congress has also started looking at improvements to our internal processes to reduce our impact on the environment, such as energy and water use, and use of other resources in our clinics and offices.

In December 2020, Congress wrote a letter to the Australian Government’s Standing Committee on Environment and Energy to confirm our support for a proposed Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020 and related legislation to achieve zero net emissions by 2050. The Standing Committee finalised their report in July 2021 for the Australian Government to consider.

Prior to this, Congress wrote a submission in December 2018 to the Northern Territory Government’s process for developing a climate change policy. The Government’s Northern Territory Climate Change Response: Towards 2050 was released in July 2020.

What happens next?

As part of our role with CABRACJA, Congress will speak up strongly for:

  • developing Heat-Stress Action plans, including access to public air conditioned spaces, shaded areas and walkways, and water in all communities to safeguard against extreme heat and manage demands on the health system and other essential services;
  • ensuring all death certificates record the maximum and minimum temperature and humidity on the day of death. This would enable effective data to be collected on excess deaths that occur on days and nights of extreme heat;
  • stronger work health and safety regulations that protect workers from working on extreme days, avoiding heat stress and other heat-related illnesses; and
  • preventing communicable diseases (diseases spread from person to person) from animals – the result of wild animals coming into closer proximity to humans due to loss of habitat and other issues such as bats, donkeys, pigs and camels.

Congress is also continuing to have a say and be a part of conversations happening at different levels – nationally, at the Territory level and locally. This includes Congress being a part of discussions on the Australian Government’s development of a new National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy. This Strategy will be released later this year and aims to be a roadmap for Australia to understand, monitor and respond to the changing climate.

Find out more

Congress Submission to the National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2021 – the Physical Science Basis (August 2021)

Advisory Report on the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020 and Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2020 (June 2021)

Congress’ submission to the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020 (December 2020)

Northern Territory Government’s current framework for climate change – Northern Territory Climate Change Response: Towards 2050 (July 2020)

Congress’ submission to the Northern Territory Government on the development of a Northern Territory Climate Change Strategy (December 2018)

[1] IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Mooney M, et al., Climate change: Learning about what is happening with the weather in central Australia. 2014, CSIRO with Central Land Council: Alice Springs.

[3] Dudgeon P, et al., Effective strategies to strengthen the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 2014, Produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare / Australian Institute of Family Studies: Canberra / Melbourne.