Introduction to Australia

Australia is an island country comprising the continent of Australia, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in Oceania. Its population of 25.69 million people1 is about 14 percent rural.2 Australia is home to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area that includes Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, and is ranked second most irreplaceable among UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its singular biodiversity.3 The climate crisis has intensified the frequency and severity of fires, droughts, and cyclones across Australia.4 In terms of region-specific impacts, the east of the country is considered one of the most fire-prone regions in the world.5 Critically, Indigenous Australians (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) will experience climate hazards and the impacts of extractive industries far more severely than non-Indigenous Australians given how settler colonialism is ongoing.6 Today, Australia is the third largest fossil fuel exporter;7 the fourth largest mining country;8 the largest producer of lithium; and a global top five producer of gold, iron ore, lead, zinc, and nickel.9 It also has the world’s largest uranium and fourth largest black coal resources.9 This material richness and continued global technological innovation mean that Australia will likely experience increasing demand to supply mining resources to the world.9 Since resource extraction began with colonization in 1788 and through the exploitation that continues today on the part of mining magnates and multinationals, First Nations have long resisted. In order to pursue climate goals while also upholding Indigenous rights, it is critical for the Australian government to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and follow their lead in seeking economic opportunities that care for their ancestral lands.6

Mapping Major Climate Events and Climate-Induced Displacement

Australia as a whole faces low risk of climate events, ranking as the 142nd overall country on the INFORM Index for Risk Management.10 However, climate vulnerability is not monolithic across the country. The Cross Dependency Initiative’s Gross Domestic Climate Risk positions Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland (all eastern Australian states) among the top 10 percent of global jurisdictions most at risk from climate-induced physical damage to the built environment.11 The country’s east coast is particularly vulnerable due to extreme events induced by rising sea levels, warming waters, and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle of weather variability (which is predicted to worsen due to the climate crisis).12  

Discourse about climate-induced displacement in the context of Australia usually involves the country’s boat turn-back policy with regard to in-migration from the Asia-Pacific region.13 The tables turned when the bushfires that raged across the country from July 2019 to March 2020 caused the largest peacetime evacuation of Australians from their homes,14 with at least 65,000 new displacements and longer-term displacement for about 8,100 people.5 This unprecedented internal displacement is not a one-time crisis; as the frequency and severity of Australian bushfires increases, the east of the country is particularly vulnerable to repeated displacement.5 It is important to note that two eastern states, New South Wales and Victoria, are home to more than a third of the country’s 865,000 Indigenous Australians, and one in four Indigenous Australians living in these two states have homes in fire-affected areas.15 Because some of these towns with high Indigenous populations are remote and less protected due to limited disaster management infrastructure, they are more exposed to climate hazards such as storms and fires, as well as their resulting displacement.15 Indigenous Australians’ evacuations during “Black Summer” were harsh reminders of permanent displacement during the colonial period.15 Due to bushfires and other climate disasters, there was an estimated total of 49,000 internally displaced people in Australia at the end of 2021.16  

Mapping the Costs of the Climate Crisis

The GDP of Australia is $1.55 trillion,17 of which the mining industry accounts for around 10 percent.8 The country is a top 20 global emitter of greenhouse gasses responsible for climate breakdown,18 the costs of which are felt everywhere but disproportionately harm countries in the Global South.19 If global temperatures continue to rise at their current rates, Australia will experience major ecosystem loss in its oceans as well as higher food prices from severe drought.4 “Black Summer” caused devastation across Australia in more ways than one; in addition to record-breaking internal displacement, the bushfires destroyed more than 3,100 homes and just covering the housing expenses of the people who evacuated was estimated to cost between $44 million and $52 million.20 Additionally, one lost day of economic production due to people not being able to work was estimated to cost around $510 per person.20 The Climate Council of Australia estimates that by 2030, one in every 25 properties in the country will be uninsurable due to flooding and other climate risk-associated annual damage costs.21

Mapping Resilience and Migration Pathways

Australia’s 2021 Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan outlines its approach to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 through investment in low-emissions technologies without reducing the competitiveness of its energy exports or implementing any new taxes and mandates.22 Additionally, in the updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that the Australian government submitted in 2022, the country increased its emissions reduction target to 43 percent on 2005 levels by 2030.23 This strengthened emissions reduction goal and progress in renewable energy use have moved Australia from dead last on climate policy in 2022 to ranking 55th out of 63 overall in the 2023 iteration of the Climate Change Performance Index, which assesses the countries that are collectively responsible for more than 90 percent of global emissions.24

The UN Human Rights Committee’s September 2022 decision about Australia’s Torres Strait, which comprises low-lying islands, is groundbreaking for climate reparations efforts across the globe.25 The Committee found that the government of Australia 1) failed to adequately protect Indigenous Islanders against climate impacts through upgrading seawalls on the islands, reducing emissions, and making other necessary changes to prevent loss of life and lifeways; and 2) violated these communities’ rights to practice their culture free from arbitrary interference with their privacy.26 Committee members asked Australia to compensate Indigenous Islanders for the harm they experienced (e.g., severe flooding destroying family graves, rising sea levels killing off foods that are important to their traditional diet, etc.) and also meaningfully consult with community members to address their identified needs through climate action measures.26 Given the erasure of Indigenous Australians’ longstanding political and cultural claims to their lands, this UN decision is significant in that it “has created a pathway for individuals [anywhere] to assert claims where national systems have failed to take appropriate measures to protect those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change on… their human rights.”26  

Necessary Changes

Despite moving up four places on the Climate Change Performance Index, Australia is still lagging behind in climate commitments.23 According to the Climate Council of Australia, the country needs to 1) further strengthen its 2030 emissions reduction target, which remains one of the weakest among the Global North; 2) phase out coal (whose mines and their accompanying methane emissions threaten Australia’s 2030 climate goals)6 and gas production, and no longer publicly fund it; and 3) contribute its fair share of international climate finance.27 In addition to emphasizing these same overarching recommendations, the Indigenous Peoples’ Organisation calls on Australia to prioritize the following targeted actions: 1) ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights to clean water and healthy housing, by providing solar panels on and appropriate cooling in all public and Indigenous housing; 2) reversing policies away from the sale and commodification of river waters on the finance market toward water access to Indigenous communities and continuous environmental flows; 3) creating a framework and investment for Indigenous community initiatives and businesses to benefit from new and emerging opportunities within the future energy and renewable economy; 4) incorporating Indigenous employment targets within all climate abatement initiatives; and 5) extending the Indigenous Ranger Program to all Indigenous communities, as well as ensuring that the program is locally led and responsive to communities’ needs.6

Like other Global North and high emitter countries, there are demands upon Australia to fund climate reparations as well as mitigation and adaptation strategies.28 Alongside this international role, Australia must also necessarily manage its own high emitting industries, such as lithium mining. In order to do so, Australia and other nations can reduce the car dependence of the transportation system, decrease the size of electric vehicle batteries, and maximize lithium recycling.29 Due to challenges in the civic domain, including partisan politics and generational divides in support for climate action,30 coalition building within Australia is required to facilitate a just transition.31 Furthermore, to establish and sustain measures that are anti-colonial, all levels and aspects of climate governance must incorporate Indigenous leadership, which means honoring Indigenous communities’ knowledge and capacity to “care for country” as well as enabling traditional climate management strategies.32