Adapting to climate change – vulnerable people:
In conversation with Karen Appleby
[Transcript available in the tab below]
Older people and other groups are vulnerable during extreme weather events and with climate change. Karen Appleby talks about how well our governments and institutions are adapting and the implications for social workers.
Karen Appleby is passionate about social justice and the impacts of climate change on vulnerable members of our community. Karen recently completed a project that received an award from Resilience Australia Awards (NSW) for recognition in preparing the Sutherland Shire community for natural disasters. Currently working in local government in statutory reporting, Karen has previously held the position of Community Development Officer with a focus on the aged, disability, youth and the multicultural community. Recently completing a Master of Gerontology at Charles Sturt University, her dissertation formed the basis of the paper “Climate Change Adaptation: Community Action, Disadvantaged Groups and Practice Implications for Social Work”.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2016, February 9). Adapting to climate change – vulnerable people: In conversation with Karen Appleby [Episode 81]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/adapting-to-climate-change-vulnerable-people/.
Appleby, K., Bell, K., & Boetto, H. (2015). Climate change adaptation: Community action, disadvantaged groups and practice implications for social work. Australian Social Work, 1-14. doi:10.1080/0312407X.2015.1088558
Transcription Podsocs 81: Adapting to climate change – Vulnerable people: In conversation with Karen Appleby
Thank you to the Social Work Programme at Open Polytechnic of New Zealand for this transcription and to Lindi Orth
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Tricia: Today on Podsocs we welcome Karen Appleby, Welcome to Podsocs Karen.
Karen: Thank you.
Tricia: Now just on topic, this week which is about climate change, you’re in the middle of a big storm, I’m in the middle of stinking hot heat. [Laughs]
Karen: We are just umm so if I break away dramatically its because of hail or something.
Tricia: Now Karen I invited you to talk on Podsocs because you and your colleagues have recently published an article in Australian Social work which is very interesting, about the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations. Would you like to tell us a bit about how you started this research?
Karen: Yeah so, I commenced a master of gerontology in 2013 and one of the subjects I was doing that was one of the topics that I had to investigate the impact of climate change on older Australians and that really sparked my interest. There wasn’t a whole lot of information around and I thought well this could be a potential area for further research. When I went to do my dissertation the following year, I proposed that we looked at the involvement of local government in Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan area in terms social preparedness they’re doing with vulnerable members of their community. And that’s where my interest came from.
Tricia: So, what is the impact of climate change and who does it most affect.
Karen: I suppose it’s far reaching, ah there’s been many many studies that show that people are vulnerable on lower incomes, or that are older, might have a disability, these seems to be the ones that are most impacted by things like severe weather events. So, you know we’ve got bush fires, cyclones, heavy rain, flooding, that type of thing. We’ve also got extreme heat waves which affect older people quite a lot. There’s been numerous instances where there’s been an increase in mortality amongst older people when there’s a prolonged heat wave. They had quite a severe heat wave in Spain a few years ago where quite literally thousands of people passed away. In Melbourne a couple of years ago a very similar incident but less people. They really are susceptible to increased heat.
There’s also issues around food security, as our country becomes dryer and it becomes harder to grow fruit and vegetables those prices will increase and access to those with people from limited incomes will be more difficult. There’s also changes to things like mosquito born illnesses. As things become more tropical further south we could have an increase in the spread of Ross River Fever or an increase in all sorts of diseases really can come out of that. So, they’re the major impacts. Even in country areas where there is prolonged drought there’s evidence to suggest you know the susceptibility to mental health issues. So, it’s quite a major impact.
Tricia: And it’s affected by many levels isn’t it because I really don’t know how pensioners can live anyway and afford to pay for electricity that keeps going up up up up. So older people are reluctant, I know my mother is reluctant to put on the air-conditioning when it’s very very hot and they forget to close windows and there’s mobility issues for people with disabilities and older people.
Karen:That’s right and I think even medically when you’re older you don’t pick up
on those extreme temperatures as much as younger. So, they might be inside the house thinking they’re doing ok, but they might be really suffering from the heat, until they actually pass out or have other negative side effects and not really realise.
Tricia: And do we really know who’s in our communities? I mean, I wonder, once upon a time older people were very networked in the community with their neighbours and certainly people who lived in that area. And I suspect that’s not quite the same now either.
Karen: No, I mean at least there’s evidence of social disconnection in many instances and I think that’s one of the challenges of our community today those networks and being aware of someone in your neighbourhood that you might not be. I think that’s where NGO’s have that connection from a service point that aspect in supporting people and increasing knowledge about how to react to different things with climate change.
Tricia: What did you find in terms of differences between the states?
Karen: It was quite dramatic, I mean both states weren’t fantastic, but Melbourne metropolitan areas were doing much better than the Sydney area and there were a couple of key instances in the Melbourne metro area where they were doing some really innovative projects. I think the key to that was in Victoria there was legislation in place. There’s a climate change act where the local government have to consider climate change impacts when devising any plans or projects for the communities. They also have health and well-being plans which where you need to explicitly list the impacts of climate change and what they’re doing to address that. So that is the stick that is really forcing the councils in Melbourne to really start thinking about it. I think also Victoria has had some really extreme weather down there and they’ve had pretty bad bush fires as we all know, and they do get a lot of heat waves, so you know I think that’s front and centre in people’s minds down there and they’ve started thinking about how these communities are bearing the brunt of these changes.
Tricia: And I imagine that’s at all levels because obviously there’s some ideological stuff happening at a federal level, then it comes down to state, then it comes down to local government to put that in action I suppose. Is that what you’ve seen in your research?
Karen: Absolutely I mean when I conducted the research it was smack bang in the middle of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership where there was a lot of pushback around the science of climate change. That impacted funding at a state and local level for climate change adaptation. There was also a lot of money taken out of the CSIRO that had a specific adaptation unit that was looking into all aspects of adaptation including social. And that will flow down to local members and councils that work for local governments and they’re sort of picking up on that general scepticism and towing the party line and not being so supportive of initiatives that address the “C” word.
Tricia: Which is really quite mad in this day and age.
Karen: It is a bit crazy, but it happens yes.
Tricia: Well it all comes down to wind farms are “ugly”
Karen: Hopefully there will be a little bit of change now but there are a lot of people in the current government that are very, very anti-climate change. And we’ve got prominent people in the media as well that speak up and question the science whenever they can so…It’s crazy
Tricia: It is crazy, just unbelievable, unbelievable. But it has an impact and it affects everybody.
Karen: That’s right, so a lot of local government areas in Sydney, there’s a focus on infrastructure side of things but not necessarily the community aspect but there’s a feeling that the community will be able to look after themselves, it’s not our level or our responsibility it’s a state government responsibility or an NGO responsibility so it’s a challenge.
Tricia: Hmm so it’s really pushing responsibility away all the time.
Karen: I think umm there was a couple of councils in the Sydney area I can think of Ku-ring-gai, for example, that were doing some really innovative projects in community education but the key to that was the officers that were working in that area had a great deal of respect, they were respected by the councillors and by senior management and were able to really push the message and advocate for some funds to spend on community education and stuff.
Tricia: And actually, had a personal commitment to it as well.
Karen: That’s right! So that’s sort of the common string I found with councils that were doing something was that key person that could drive the change.
Tricia: So, we need some education all around
Karen: Yes indeed.’
Tricia: And not just getting stuck on the climate change nonsense whether it is, or it isn’t but whether it actually looking at what the impact is on people. And sort of stepping away from that debate or so-called debate.
Karen: Yeah, I found in my own instance that if you don’t relate a project to climate change and it’s to do more with natural disaster emergencies you can look around to doing similar things preparing people but not using the same terminology that might put people off.
Tricia: So, you get heard more. That’s interesting.
Karen: Yes, so it’s all around how you frame things as well. Which you shouldn’t have to but that’s the way of the world at the moment.
Tricia: Can you give us some good examples of what’s actually been put into place?
Karen: A couple of councils in Melbourne are doing some really great things. The city of Melbourne is heavily involved in local networks, different climate change networks, they’re taking on leadership roles in that area of Victoria that they have implemented a heat wave plan. If they’re notified by the bureau that there’s going to be a prolonged heatwave they actually notify different local services so that they can prepare their clients. They also open their swimming pools to homeless people so that they are able to cool off or provide shade to them if they haven’t got any other shelter. They also have an extensive website with information and education materials on there. So, they’re really committed to climate change programs in the city of Melbourne which is great to see. The city of Port Phillip also implement some pretty important projects around community development like people nominated in their streets to be a weather mentor and that involves getting to know your neighbours and speaking to them about what you would do if it was really warm or if there was an emergency hit and getting that program going and I think that -project ran for a year, unfortunately just the commitment and not having those key people in the community driving the cause meant that they had to shut the program down which was a shame.
I think that’s one of the key messages in the community development sphere that need that bottom up approach. So, if it’s composed by government down it’s not going to be as successful if it was from some local key people. Another was the city of Darebin partnered with a local NGO received some state government funding to install an awning on peoples houses that were on the pension. This was so that they could reduce their cooling costs or heating costs and protect them from some of the extreme weather, extreme heat. That was about a hundred homes that received that. That’s some real practical examples of what they’re doing down in Victoria which was really interesting.
Tricia: So, the main difference is the legislation and the requirement to even start considering this kind of thing let alone or even how to start to go about it?
Karen: Yes, so I think that legislation is sort of given impetus to local councils in Victoria to start thinking about things a little bit more. That legislation just doesn’t exist in New South Wales. It’s very much if the council decides to do it in Sydney or other parts of New South Wales it’s pretty much off they’re own bat and whether there are key people within council that support the idea of preparing communities. So yeah, I’d like to see some changes there in New South Wales.
Tricia: It really comes down to real community development work doesn’t it? Based on what you’re saying is that it is about finding that leadership in the community and the community running with this but empowering them to do so in the first place. Rather than them doing it for them.
Karen: That’s right yeah, I suppose that’s where a local government community grants that most councils offer is a really valuable thing. Because promoting the opportunity for community members to come forward and form community partnerships and applying for grants or have an innovative program that they want to implement or trial. That’s where I think local governments can really assist local community development projects to get off the ground and be trialled. Because it’s such early days in how we adapt in the change of climate, I think we just have to try as many different approaches and programs and ideas as possible. Take the best bits out of each and go from there.
Tricia: This is where social work comes in, isn’t it?
Karen: Absolutely so I think social workers have a really key role in changing and influencing the conversation around climate change adaptation. At the moment it’s been very dominant scientific discourse or engineering or political really. There hasn’t been as much focus on the people aspect I don’t think and particularly those vulnerable members of our communities. I think from a social work perspective if we broaden the areas that we might traditionally speak up in and include areas like architecture or local government or getting on those committees at a state government level that might be heavily scientific members attached to them and just trying to change a little bit of the conversation and bring it back to humans would be a great thing.
Tricia: Does social work have a voice at an international level?
Karen: I did have a look at the recent Paris climate change talks. They had a lot of side sessions, plenary sessions, there was one specifically for social workers to discuss climate change and it’s impacts. So, I think it’s great that people are actually going along to those international talks. Trying to get that conversation more broad and not just about mitigation. That’s really important but we’ve already seen a one percent rise in temperatures and that’s already having an impact now so if we can limit it, that would be fantastic. We still need to address the changes that have already happened. I think social workers can give a great perspective on those social justice issues as well that might not be considered.
Tricia: How’s the private sector Karen? Are they on board? I’m thinking of things like the privatisation of utilities, electricity those sort of things. I mean do people get cut off if they can’t pay their bills. Are they on board with the climate change issue or not?
Karen: I haven’t really researched the private sector as much, but I think in terms of the energy companies they’re out to make a profit first and foremost. I think some of them are trying to expand into renewables and things like that, but I would hope that in a situation where someone might be cut off during a heatwave that’s when social workers are hopefully able to advocate on behalf of the client to ensure that they have power for the moment or arrange some payment scheme. But yeah, I don’t see energy companies being leaders in the field. There’s been a lot of other private companies that have been looking into sustainable buildings and things like that but not so much on how things are impacting local communities.
Tricia: So, it’s really just government NGO’s, relevant organisations all those sorts of things but there’s more people that really need to come on board here.
Karen: That’s right. I think if we have broader conversations and try and be as inclusive as possible with all the different players we could have greater success in preparing for different events and different situations caused by climate change.
Tricia: So, we have a voice at that international level. Or we are starting to. Social work obviously has lots of rolls at a practice level bringing these things in particularly at a community development. But how good are we at talking to government about some of these issues?
Karen: Well I think there’s so many different social issues that social workers are trying to address at the moment that perhaps I would make an assumption that climate change isn’t a very high priority. The thing is social workers are on the ground when a natural disaster hits. They’re there to assist people perhaps if their houses have burned down or other situations where they’ve been traumatised so they’re already feeling the affects of people being impacted by climate change. I think there’s potential role as social workers actually gaining employment at different levels of government to influence policy and policy change. Those diverse views are needed at all levels of government. Just advocating generally at a national and state talks so there’s always different sessions being held around the country on climate change. I think it would be great for social workers to actually try and get a voice or present at these to broaden that discourse.
Tricia: The other thing Karen, do you think we need to expand our thinking about conducting assessments and psychosocial assessments and ask some of these questions about not only peoples experience with disaster but what they might do about it if something happened?
Karen: Absolutely. Recently, I was a part of a one-year project that the council I worked for received some funding from the state government. It’s called disaster resilience project. Part of that project was to hold workshops with local NGO’s and emergency services personnel to raise awareness around potential threats around our local area. To really prompt those managers those NGO’s to think about what preparedness they’ve put in place that involves their organisation and staff and clients. So, we were really encouraging them to start having that conversation with clients that might be isolated or have a disability or be from a non-English speaking background, to think in a situation like a bushfire, what plans do you have in place because potentially we might not be able to get to you. Emergency services will be busy elsewhere. Even just normal preparedness for their business so if their staff are unable to get into work or if their building is in a situation where they might be under threat. What plans does that organisation have in place to be able to continue to conduct their service to the community? I think there was real interest there from those NGO’s but there wasn’t very much preparedness in any of those aspects. So, I really hope those workshops have the conversation commenced.
I did speak to a lady that worked in an NGO in the blue mountains who had a bush fire a couple of years ago. She had been very good at preparing their business, they had all the drills and all the plans in place, so when a bush fire did hit they were very well equipped to deal with it. But they actually received a knock on the door during the bushfire emergency from another NGO who had put them down as their safe place without actually speaking to that NGO and they turned up with busloads of people, and people with quite high needs and had to accommodate them in their building. So that situation actually prompted local networks to be established so that people could start communicating to help that community in going forward. And that was really helpful in the end.
Tricia: And it really highlights that preparedness aspect, not even just teh planning but having some practice acting out, how does it work in a real run. Because that’s how you pick up these issues.
Karen: That’s right, and she said the same thing. Even when they implemented their plan, all sorts of different issues came up that they hadn’t considered so a big thing was recently we had quite a big storm locally a lot of power outages and people didn’t have a lot of generators in place. So even if people are relying on kidney dialysis, having that uninterrupted power supply in place in case there’s prolonged power outages. Things like that, that you don’t necessarily think about like attachment to their pets and they don’t want to leave their homes because of their pet. Just having all sorts of different things in place.
Tricia: And yeah certainly, I mean there’s people at home on bed ventilators and unless there are some subsidies and support or medical schemes that can provide those things people aren’t going to be able to have those back up services.
Karen: No that’s right so it’s a real concern. Hopefully something that the state government will identify to assist because that’s why vulnerable people are so susceptible to major disasters because they might not have those different methods in place to deal with it or they might not have transport, or they may not be able to afford a car to get out and they’re some fairly big issues.
Tricia: It’s also people who can’t speak English, they might not be able to understand information or advice from the television or something like that. Have you come across that?
Karen: That’s right. That was actually an issue that came up with emergency services personnel that got back to me. They had difficulties in the past people leaving early or this is what happens in a situation we need to ensure all their information is translated in different community languages. But they also need to look at creating partnerships with multicultural organisations. I think that is also really challenging state government agencies, you might not necessarily have thought of previously to think that way but now they need to think a little bit laterally. I think that where social workers and other community developers can assist these organisations to make connections with community groups and maybe be there to translate if necessary. Translating technical talk so that community groups might understand. I think that’s the key.
Tricia: So, politicians if you are listening, you need to pay attention to climate change and its impact because it does affect everybody. Your recommendations Karen, to end?
Karen: I suppose I’d really like to see legislation created at a New South Wales state government level to really push local government particularly including climate change adaptation policies for their local communities in policy and planning. I think they need that stick to get them going. From a social work perspective, I think we really need to continue get our voices heard at those different levels of government. That means writing to your local member, speaking to your local councillor and asking them what’s happening in your community. Whether that’s trying to attend some of the scientific conferences and giving that perspective of community level to really emphasise the importance of creating programs and policies for all. I think there’s a long way to go. I think we need to keep talking about it, keep acting and start planning.
Tricia: And as social workers we need to start thinking about this at all levels of our practice as well.
Karen: Yeah, so I don’t think we realise how far reaching the impact can potentially be, but it will flow down from quite a high level from fear security impacts on people’s health and well-being, health and morbidity all those sorts of risks. From a social justice perspective, it’s really important that social workers consider the impact of climate change and really get our voices heard on the local, state, national, international levels.
Tricia: Wonderful Karen, thank you so much for being on Podsocs.
[Musical outro 27.14 to END]
Interview ENDS: 27.44