Concerns about climate change have apparently been crowded out by the cost of living. The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) reported last month that people are struggling to transition to renewable energy sources. But cost of living and climate change are not opposing crises to rank higher or lower on your list of worries. These two issues are fundamentally linked, even if our capacity to care about both is being stretched right now.
The cost-of-living crisis is undeniable. The latest inflation figure from the ABS is 6 per cent, while the actual living costs for most workers have gone up by almost 10 per cent. This reflects what we're hearing from services we work with in our ACT community. For example, our local foodbanks have been flooded with people. OzHarvest, one food aid provider, has seen the number of ACT residents seeking help double this year. For 31 per cent of aid recipients, this is the first time they've ever sought help. In many cases, foodbanks are helping two-income families who are struggling to afford groceries.
It makes sense that when people struggle to feed and house themselves, loftier and more abstract concerns begin feel remote. It's hard to keep the passion for an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent and net zero emissions by 2050 alive when you're at risk of eviction tomorrow.
The sliding of climate change down the list of voters' priorities is borne out by recent polling indicating that a mere 45 per cent of voters felt that climate change was a "serious and urgent" issue - a fall from 51 per cent in 2021. Meanwhile, cost of living was the key issue for 91 per cent of survey respondents.
But this apparent apathy towards climate change doesn't mean that people want inaction. In fact, as ACTCOSS's research shows, it's an important cue to do more to address the mental health toll that climate change is taking and will increasingly take as costs inevitably rise due to climate change.
There are some policies that are helping to both address both climate change and the cost of living. However, these policies have forgotten renters and average workers. Subsidies for solar panels and electric vehicles benefit homeowners, people who can afford expensive cars, and people who can make large financial outlays now to save money in the future.
We don't all have the luxury of wearing upfront costs like this. ACTCOSS reported that for people on low incomes, almost half reported that the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuel gas was a barrier. The majority (74 per cent) said that they would be more likely to transition with the assistance of government support. Precisely the kind of government support wealthier homeowners and luxury car drivers are getting with existing subsidies.
As gas prices are set for a steep jump within the next five to seven years, and as electricity and petrol costs continue to rise, we need policies to take the pressure off everyday life. As the ACT government does its bit to prevent climate catastrophe, it needs to remember equity. Subsidising cars and solar power for people who are already homeowners isn't an inclusive policy for ordinary workers and renters to make their lives both environmentally and financially sustainable.
Financial instability leads to mental ill-health. We represent all of the ACT's community-managed mental health services and our members are seeing that, just as demand for foodbanks is rising, so too is the demand for our crisis services. Earlier this year, for example, Lifeline saw a significant increase in people seeking support for financial stress, which puts people at risk of depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
Across the board, our 48 community-managed mental health services are reporting unprecedented turn-away rates. In other words, our services simply cannot respond to all the people who need them. Many people seeking our services are experiencing mental ill-health caused by the cost-of-living crisis. Some people, especially young people, are also identifying climate anxiety as a reason for seeking help.
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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised that climate change has a significant mental health toll. It has urged governments to integrate mental health support with climate action.
ACTCOSS offers further important guidance about how to apply this to the ACT. As Canberrans with poor insulation and draughtproofing struggle with cold winters and hot summers and the financial stress of electricity bills, their mental health suffers. Policy measures such as targeted financial assistance and subsidising the gas abolishment fee for low-income households will help improve energy efficiency, reduce reliance on gas, and enhance wellbeing.
The ACT government has taken some excellent steps to drive climate action - including new regulations to prevent new gas network connections. But climate action and the cost-of-living crisis must be addressed together, with the most vulnerable in mind.
Community-based mental health support can also be a major part of this solution. We can protect those most at risk of experiencing trauma, financial stress, and anxiety related to disasters and climate change through increasing the capacity of our services to deliver supports before, during, and in the aftermath of disaster.
Unlike hospitals or acute clinical services - which are expensive to run and rely on a finite pool of clinical professionals - community-managed mental health care focuses on connecting people to their physical places and communities. With a strong peer workforce, and significant volunteer mobilisation capacity, we can operate with creativity and agility, and at the scale needed to address these dual crises.
While people are under grave pressure from the cost of living, they do care about our planet's future. But the transition to renewable energy needs to consider the mental health and financial security of all people - especially those doing it tough.
- Melanie Poole is the CEO of the Mental Health Community Coalition ACT.