Climate change and its impact on people experiencing disadvantage

Hang Vo, Chief Executive Officer, Sacred Heart Mission
Hang Vo Chief Executive Officer
6 March 2024
Hang Vo delivering an oration at the launch of the RMIT Social Equity Research Centre

“No other issue requires our attention more urgently right now than climate change. Specifically, we must address the disproportionate impact of climate change on those experiencing poverty and disadvantage,” said CEO Hang Vo in her oration at the launch of the RMIT Social Equity Research Centre, which is dedicated to advancing social equity and justice outcomes.

Read some of the highlights of Hang’s oration here and find out why we cannot achieve social equity unless we achieve climate equity:

The most pressing challenges facing our planet

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our planet.

Australia faces major climate change risks unless we begin to change, and transition to a low carbon economy. This is certainly not a new phenomenon.

I remember the devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, and North Queensland floods concurrently. It was quite surreal – the image of flood and fires on our TV screens at once.

The Black Saturday fires started on 7 February 2009. Approximately 400 fires were recorded across Victoria, affecting more than 78 communities. A total of 173 people died in the fires, and 2029 houses were lost.

A week earlier, the monsoonal rain in North Queensland affected 62 per cent of the State. More than 3,000 homes in Ingham were affected by the flooding.

That pattern is continuing, and our climate is far more variable now than it was, primarily as a result of climate change.

We cannot achieve social equity unless we achieve climate equity

Climate change disproportionately affects people on low incomes. People experiencing financial or social disadvantage are impacted by climate change first, worse, and longest because they have access to fewer resources to cope, adapt and recover.

Recently released research by Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) shows the link between Melbourne’s hottest and most disadvantaged suburbs. According to VCOSS,

  • Poorer people are living in hotter suburbs, often in cheaper housing, and feeling the heat a lot more.
  • For low-income Victorians in ‘heat island’ suburbs, the local environment is working against them.
  • Extreme heat is a threat to everybody, but especially those already living with a health condition or on a low-income.
  • Living on a low-income or with a health condition severely limits your ability to prepare for a heat wave and stay cool.

We see an increase in our drop-in services on really hot and cold days.

Part of the solution is greening our suburbs; more trees, more parks and less concrete.

But we also need to that recognise people on lower incomes, who live in cheaper housing in hotter areas, need extra support to deal with heat.

We need more investment to help low-income households keep cool, including free housing retrofits to enhance energy efficiency and comfort.

An example is housing. People on low incomes have little ability to change their housing situation, because the market is so competitive. Much of our public housing is old and of poor quality, meaning that heating and cooling these homes is extremely expensive and appliances are not very efficient.

Private renters are reliant on landlords to ensure their properties are robust and will withstand a range of weather conditions, as well as being efficient in a time of rising energy prices. They cannot control energy efficiency of the appliances in their homes, install blinds or double-glazed windows, solar panels, batteries or water tanks; where owners can. If you are on a low income, this is even worse because there is little choice in the properties available and it is very difficult to move.

People on low incomes are also most vulnerable to the rising energy prices. Though we have concessions and discounts for people on income support payments, it doesn’t fundamentally change the price of energy, or the difficulties in navigating the energy market. Every gas and electricity retailer makes their pricing difficult to understand, and interacting with providers largely occurs online – which is inaccessible for many people.

Photo: RMIT

One-off energy concessions don’t work, we need sustainable change

Research by the Consumer Policy Research Centre in Victoria that shows people who are eligible for concessions on their energy bills often don’t actually receive them. Their research found that people in public housing, and who speak English as a second language were most at risk of missing out on concessions.

There are similar themes for the Victorian Government’s Power Saving Bonus in 2022 and 2023.

Many people in regional areas did not access the scheme, and people in higher socio-economic areas were more likely to apply. The reason for this is also economic and educational – you needed to apply online, requiring access to the internet, and have digital literacy. It was a poorly targeted scheme that did not help the most vulnerable. It was one-off support rather than sustainable change.

Instead, we should focus our energy on helping lower income households to be prepared for the future – transitioning away from gas and towards renewables, and more efficient electrical appliances, heating, and cooling systems.

Governments must fund climate-resilient, low-income homes

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) is calling for the establishment of a national fund to slash energy bills and make low-income homes resilient to climate change.

A new report finds bolstering energy efficiency, electrifying and installing solar to low-income housing is a low-cost way to tackle the cost of living crisis and end energy poverty.

There are about 1.8 million low-income households in Australia who cannot afford to escape extreme temperatures because they’re stuck in inefficient homes that are expensive to warm or cool.

They’re either skipping food and medicine or falling further into debt to make it through the summer. Others have no way to cool their homes, leading to illness and even hospitalisation.

ACOSS is calling on the federal government to establish a Special Purpose Funding Vehicle to provide rolling funds for the upgrading of low-income social and private dwellings.

Funding upgrades to make homes electric, solar and climate resilient will reduce poverty, protect against heat-related illness, bring down the cost of power and create local jobs while turbocharging Australia’s emissions reduction targets.

There are about 400,000 public and community dwellings, and at least 270,000 private rental households on the lowest incomes.

Direct government funding for low-income housing would build economies of scale and market capacity to slash housing retrofit costs across the board.

Our sector is seeing an increase in the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities every day. We need to ensure that service policy, design and delivery takes account of this. This crisis extends beyond the areas of science and economics.

It is a humanitarian crisis which disproportionately affects those on low incomes or living in poverty.

The federal government should prioritise investment now to cut household energy bills, and ensure disadvantaged people and communities are not left behind in the energy transition.

If we do not act now, poverty and inequality will continue to escalate. We also have a duty to the next generation to ensure that they have a world to inherit.

Read on
Click here to read the second part of Hang's oration: Equity for the future starts with courageous leadership today