Australia Treading Water on Climate Change Will Widen the Gap for Indigenous Communities

A version of this article first appeared at Independent Australia.

Joanna Psaros

11 November 2021

The 2019/2020 Australian bushfires devastated communities- none more so than those Indigenous

Indigenous Australians will be disproportionately affected by climate change, with communities already facing physical and cultural devastation from fire, drought, and rising seas. But if Prime Minister Scott Morrison is concerned, he’s certainly not showing it in the leadup to the UN Glasgow Climate Summit. By refusing to commit to a 2030 emissions reduction target in line with the international community, and in the government’s lethargic progress on emissions reduction domestically, Morrison demonstrates his misplaced priorities and hypocrisy when it comes to the welfare of Indigenous Australians. 

“I’m really anxious to attend,” said President Joe Biden of the upcoming summit. In contrast, the Federal Government has been non-committal in all senses, with indications Australia may not even attend the conference, described as “a turning point for humanity” by UK PM Boris Johnson. 

“I mean it is another trip overseas and I’ve been on several this year and spent a lot of time in quarantine,” Morrison told The West Australian. 

Apathetic at best, this attitude will have consequences for all Australians, but in particular Indigenous Australians who will experience the impacts of climate change far more severely  to non-Indigenous Australians, both in proximity (only 1% of the population in major cities is Indigenous, while in remote areas the proportion this rises to 64%) and in the severity of harm experienced with social, cultural, economic and spiritual ties to the country heightening their anxiety and grief over environmental destruction.

In short- Indigenous Australians (who contribute less to global emissions than non-Indigenous Australians) will experience far more severe impacts of climate change- and it will hurt more. It’s another compounding inequality for communities who already experience more than their share of challenges. 

Well after climate-induced disasters and weather events, Indigenous communities impacted face a multitude of flow-on effects, such as the fracturing of cultural ties, poor mental health, and unemployment.  Yet Australian Government policy shows an infuriating refusal to recognise the link. 

Nowhere is the hypocrisy more apparent than the “Closing the Gap” initiative; the apex of government commitment to Indigenous rights which has repeatedly failed to meet its targets on Indigenous wellbeing outcomes. Despite identifying economic development, mental health, and cultural connectedness targets of the program, the impact of climate change on these factors is entirely excluded. 

Scott Morrison announces $1 billion to go toward the new Closing the Gap Implementation Plan 

Perhaps the most egregious omission, considering the emphasis on improving physical and mental health outcomes, is that the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan (drafted in 2013 and reviewed in 2019) does not include the words “climate change” despite the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and Australian Psychological Society’s statements declaring climate change “a key public health issue” and “the greatest health threat of the 21st Century”. In effect, this stubborn compartmentalisation of Indigenous issues and the issue of climate change has resulted in healthcare policy that ignores the expert opinion of doctors. 

In 2019, a group from the Torres Strait islands took matters into their own hands and sought to hold the Australian government accountable before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The group argued that their cultural and ancestral sites were at risk from rising sea levels due to the government’s inadequate climate change policy. 

The matter is still pending, but in 2020 lawyers for the Morrison government requested the application be dismissed stating that “it concerns future risks rather than impacts being felt now”. Putting aside a question of accuracy, (Climate Council data from 2014 found that between 1993 to 2010 the sea level in the Torres Strait had risen by 6 millimetres every year- more than twice the global average), the government’s argument epitomises its overall attitude toward the problem of climate change with its dismissal of “future risks” seeming to be a common thread of its policy and action on the issue, no matter what the cost to the Australians who can’t afford to wait around for irreparable damage to their lands. 

The decisions Australia makes on climate change today will affect current and future generations like never before, and international cooperation and participation are essential in driving change. Morrison’s lack of commitment to the Glasgow Summit and failure thus far to commit to a serious emissions reduction target by 2030 while pouring resources into the historically unsuccessful Closing the Gap program is a short-sighted attempt to treat the symptoms of climate change experienced by Indigenous Australians while ignoring the root cause. 

The coalition still has time to turn things around and take what would be a significant step forward for the planet’s fight. But if the risk of unprecedented destruction of the homes, livelihoods, and lives of Indigenous Australians is not incentive enough for the government to rethink its reactive and myopic stance and abandon its trajectory of climate inaction, Indigenous communities will be bearing the brunt of consequences long after the Glasgow Summit wraps up. 

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