Australia’s youth on the frontline of climate change disruption

Posted on 17 Apr 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Climate change mental health young Australians

Young Australians are not only increasingly worried about climate change, but they are also experiencing the “profound and distressing” effects of severe weather events personally.

An analysis of data from the 2023 Mission Australia Youth Survey showed that six out of ten young people worried about climate change.

Mission Australia Orygen report

Further, one in ten (13%) said they had been personally affected by floods, bushfires, landslides, destructive storms or heavy rain, droughts or other extreme events.

The findings are included in a new report from youth mental health service Orygen and Mission Australia titled Impact of Extreme Weather Events on Young People: Findings from the 2023 Mission Australia Youth Survey.

The release of the report coincides with an event co-hosted by the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) and the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) in Melbourne today aimed at exploring how remote, rural and regional communities are adapting to climate change at a grassroots level.

Mission Australia’s executive of practice, evidence and impact, Marion Bennett, said young people across Australia spoke up in the report about how climate change and the rise in extreme weather had taken a toll on their lives.

“Our report reveals that young people in Australia whose home or community were impacted by climate disasters, particularly those in lower socio-economic areas, experienced heightened psychological distress and greater financial pressures and housing instability,” she said.

Marion Bennett Mission Australia
Mission Australia's Marion Bennett.

“This echoes what our frontline staff at Mission Australia see among the vulnerable young people we support in our community services and housing across the country.”

One 17-year-old girl from Queensland recounted her experience during floods which inundated her community.

“The floods were very stressful as it got really close to my house. There were financial worries which impacted my mental health. School was closed for a while.”

Ms Bennett said the message from young voices was clear.

“They demand tangible measures to combat the impacts of climate change, while urging Australia to step up and mitigate the harm they endure.”

“This report is a call to action for policymakers, communities and organisations to come together to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of Australia’s young people in the face of climate change."
Orygen senior biostatistician and environmental epidemiologist Dr Caroline Gao.

Her comments were echoed by Orygen senior biostatistician and environmental epidemiologist Dr Caroline Gao, who said extreme climate events were having a “profound and distressing” impact on young Australians.

"They range from impacts on health and wellbeing to educational interruptions, housing issues, financial hardship, barriers to social engagement and trouble accessing essential services.”

Dr Gao said young people impacted by extreme weather events reported higher levels of psychological distress – 30% compared to 24% among their peers not subjected to extreme weather events.

 “It is particularly concerning that adversities were disproportionately faced by vulnerable groups, including First Nations young people, those in lower socio-economic areas, and individuals with disabilities.”

Dr Gao said young people were calling for direct involvement in developing climate disaster response policies and practices. 

“This report is a call to action for policymakers, communities and organisations to come together to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of Australia’s young people in the face of climate change.

“As extreme weather events continue to rise in frequency and intensity, it is imperative that we listen to the voices of young people, understand their concerns, and take decisive action to support their wellbeing and future.”

The report from Mission Australia and Orygen contained a number of recommendations, including:

  • engaging young people in the development of future disaster recovery strategies, planning and implementation 
  • better access to housing and financial support 
  • increased mental health support for impacted communities 
  • strengthened capacity building for trauma-informed responses in local mental health workforces 
  • extended local workforce support for young people 
  • improved disaster resilience and climate change education. 

Mission Australia’s Marion Bennett also said governments needed to act.

"We call on governments to strengthen support systems, extend homelessness and housing assistance as well as financial aid, particularly in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“Most importantly, decision makers should work hand-in-hand with young people to come up with solutions that address their specific concerns about climate-induced mental health challenges, housing instability and financial uncertainty.”

CLCS Ngardara Cooperative Ltd
The Ngardara Cooperative Ltd plan to use their Community Led Climate Solutions grant to establish their own solar microgrid.

Beefing up the climate change fight in the bush

Speakers at the Melbourne climate change event include FRRR CEO Natalie Egleton and AEGN climate change program manager Daisy Barham.

Also taking part were recipients of grants from the FRRR Community Led Climate Solutions program, who were scheduled to talk about their work to kick-start climate solutions in their communities.

Grants totalling almost $280,000 were awarded under the program to 16 projects designed to help remote, rural and regional communities decarbonise, adapt to a changing climate, and mitigate the risks of global warming.

FRRR said remote, rural and regional communities were particularly vulnerable to the effects of increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters and climate extremes.

This reality also threatened to exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities and negatively affect the liveability – and therefore the sustainability – of country communities.

Sarah Matthee, FRRR’s general manager of partnerships and services, said that the more than 50 applications received for the Community Led Climate Solutions program reflected the diversity of community organisations in Australia, the variety of climate solutions underway across rural communities, and the breadth of opportunities available to enable local groups to take action.

“The requests we received reinforce the fact that these communities are being impacted socially, economically and environmentally by increasing temperatures and extreme weather events,” she said.

“These communities are aware and concerned about the impacts of a changing climate, and these projects demonstrate their ambition to engage locals in conversations about their region’s future and lead their community in taking action to reduce emissions.

“People living in remote, rural and regional communities have the knowledge and ideas to implement solutions that can help to decarbonise, mitigate climate risks, and adapt in a changed climate environment. But they need a hand to take action.”

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