Disadvantage in Australia

Climate change deepens disadvantage and widens the gap between rich and poor people.


Without adequate resources to begin with, how will vulnerable Australians cope with rising temperatures, expensive energy and increasingly severe climate disasters? 

If breaking the cycle of disadvantage is your priority as a funder, climate change cannot be ignored.  

One in eight Australians already live below the poverty line, struggling to pay bills and put food on the table. Energy prices have been skyrocketing, causing cost-of-living prices to grow at their fastest pace in 32 years. 

Disadvantaged communities are on the receiving end of these pressures. Australians on low incomes, public housing tenants, people living with disabilities and chronic health issues, single mothers and others without equal opportunity will pay a much higher price for climate inaction.  

Scorching temperatures erode standards of living that are already precarious. Add to that the rising rate of energy poverty, and social mobility is rendered impossible. Climate change will push many Australians further into poverty. At the same time, climate action can help improve living standards and break the cycle of disadvantage. 

Our current economic model has been an enabler of catastrophic climate change and equally catastrophic inequality… Addressing the disproportionate carbon emissions from the wealthiest in society must be a key priority.

— Ban Ki-moon, Deputy Chair of The Elders, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals 

Heat inequality

Heatwaves kill more Australians than floods, bushfires and storms combined. From 2001 to 2018, 64 per cent of people who died from heat-related illness in Australia lived in the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas. Residents in these areas often have to stay in sub-standard, heat-affected rental accommodation that has no air-conditioning and swelters in summer. These same communities exist exactly where urban heat islands occur. 

Western Sydney, for example, is one of the most heat-affected places in Australia — it’s also the most impoverished part of Sydney. In some suburbs, where most public housing has been pushed, 80 per cent of the surface area is sealed with roads, concrete pavements, car parks, cement buildings and other kinds of construction that trap heat. Natural cooling in the form of large trees and green spaces has been removed in favour of cheaply made, heat-attracting apartment developments, most of which will become unliveable due to extreme heat. Some suburbs of Western Sydney are already experiencing temperatures between 8°C and 10.5°C hotter than Eastern Sydney, which is also much more affluent. 

On a global scale, green spaces built in cities to promote urban cooling mostly benefit white and affluent communities. Australia is no different. 

Energy poverty

The ability to access affordable energy underpins human health and wellbeing. Australian cities can expect 50-degree summer days by 2040, even if we limit global warming to 2 degrees. Some disadvantaged Australians already struggle to sleep or eat during summer because they can’t afford air-conditioning or refrigeration, and cooking inside further heats their blisteringly hot apartments.

Working from home becomes dangerous, even fatal, if you live in sub-standard housing where the landlord won’t provide air-conditioning. Disadvantaged Australians feel the pain of power costs more than any other group. 

The direct consequences of energy poverty are an increase in health expenditure and a gradual decrease in labour productivity in the long run.

— Dr Mita Bhattacharya, Monash Business School.

Climate disasters

Disadvantaged people are more likely to live in areas most affected by climate impacts. When disasters hit, these communities have less resources to cope. And when the dust settles, they are left further behind. In Lismore, 21.3 per cent of residents lived in poverty before the devastating floods in February 2022. Many vulnerable people living in rental accommodation built on low-lying, flood-prone areas lost everything they owned.  Eight months later, more than 1300 people were still living in emergency shelters including tents and caravans. Without adequate housing, the cycle of disadvantage is hard to escape. 

Similar scenarios played out during and in the aftermath of the 2019–2020 Black Summer bushfires. Studies of this horrific event show socio-economically disadvantaged communities were disproportionately exposed to the fires. And declining farm incomes, limited access to essential services and lower populations in rural and regional towns made these residents more vulnerable to the fires’ impacts. Two years on, only 15 per cent of houses in affected areas of Victoria have been rebuilt. 


For reference sources, refer to the endnotes

​in the Climate Lens (pdf) 

What funders can do

  • Ensure skills, training and employment programs include preparing participants for employment in the burgeoning clean economy. 
  • Support organisations that provide emergency housing and accommodation, so they are prepared to respond to climate impacts like heatwaves and floods — for example, by providing emergency shelter at scale. 
  • Fund social and welfare organisations such as the Australian Council of Social Service and their state counterparts to advocate for climate policy and programs that address disadvantage to ensure all Australians benefit from climate change funding. 
  • Support low-income households to climate-proof their homes, which may require retrofitting to increase insulation from extreme heat and cold, and switching old appliances to electric away from expensive and polluting gas. 
  • Ensure affordable housing developments or retrofits meet high energy efficiency and building standards. 
  • Ask organisations you already fund how climate change is affecting (or will affect) them and if they need support to adapt.