Rural communities disproportionately affected by climate change

31 October 2011

Rural and Indigenous communities are being disproportionately affected by climate change and in
the October issue of The Australian Journal of Rural Health four thought-provoking papers
outline some important lessons we can learn from rural experiences of climate change.

Anthony J. McMichael’s editorial points out that after a decade of droughts and a year of severe
floods it is clear there has been a more detrimental effect on those living in rural and remote areas
than on those in cities. Rising average temperatures bring a more variable climate with more
extremes, and as McMichael writes, “Property, harvests, jobs and community vitality are at risk.
More troubling, there are great risks to physical and, in particular, mental health”.

The first paper reports a study of community development intervention in rural communities; the
second study focuses on the experiences of older farmers; the third on young people; and the
fourth explores the experiences and needs of Indigenous Australians in rural New South Wales.

Between them the studies demonstrate that the effect of climate change on mental health has been
underestimated. More elusive than physical injury and organic disease, the mental health impacts
of climate variability now loom increasingly large in the Australian landscape.
The only silver lining is that mental health stresses due to drought and other climate extremes
should help bring the mental health category into sharper focus.
The papers suggest that the solution lies not in simply providing financial relief. It is essential to
go deeper and to understand the extent, nature and distribution of these risks to mental health. As
McMichael suggests, “a combination of mental health literacy, enhanced social and service
provider networking and activity, and education about coping with drought can engage whole
communities to collectively respond to the threats posed by drought”.

Each study indicates ways that communities, service providers, practitioners and policy advisors
can better respond to the needs of affected communities and groups. They also reveal the
necessity for understanding the impacts of climate change in terms of human ecology: how whole
groups, communities and cultures are affected by changes in climatic, environmental and living
conditions.

The Australian Journal of Rural Health is a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal about rural
and remote health. It is owned by the National Rural Health Alliance and can be found at
www.ruralhealth.org.au

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