Although the changing physical resilience of the atmospheric–oceanic system is a critically important focus of concern, so too is the resilience of different human and animal populations to the changes in climate that are already occurring and will continue for the foreseeable future. The degree to which any population is resilient will depend on its sensitivity to specific elements of climate change and its capacity to adapt. Sensitivity will be influenced by factors such as location and the level of security of food and water supplies. In human populations and in the ecosystems of which they are part, adaptive capacity is strongly influenced by the rate at which change occurs. In the case of humans, this markedly affects our ability to anticipate change, develop adaptive strategies and marshal resources to adjust to change in a way that minimises harm and takes advantage of opportunities.
Resilience of human populations to climate change will vary between and within nations. As a general rule, within any society, the most marginal groups in terms of income, health and education are likely to be the most sensitive to climate change and the least well equipped to adapt without assistance from those better off. At the international scale, this generalisation holds true, as evidenced by many small island states that are highly sensitive to climate change–induced sea level rise and have inherently limited scope for adaptation. A critical role for policy makers at both national and international levels is therefore to recognise and reflect these variations in ‘social resilience’ when framing measures to adapt to climate change.
In the Australian context, a significant number of coastal communities are sensitive to sea level rise, particularly the Indigenous communities of Torres Strait, a number of which face inundation from rising sea levels. Across the nation, 160 000–250 000 homes are estimated to be potentially at risk of inundation from a 1.1-metre rise in sea level.82 By comparison with most small island states, the great majority of Australia’s coastal communities have considerable scope and resources to plan for and adapt to such change. However, without effectively coordinated planning and action at national, state and local levels, the potential resilience of these communities may not be realised.
For many of Australia’s Indigenous communities, climate change represents a major threat. In addition to sea level rise, increasing temperatures and likely (but less certain) changes in seasonal rainfall will impact these communities in many ways, including through changes to plant and animal populations.83 This is not to suggest that these communities lack resilience or a willingness and capacity to identify and seize opportunities that are likely to accompany change. As Professor Marcia Langton noted in an address to the National Indigenous Land and Sea Management Conference held in Broken Hill in November 2010, ‘… opportunities emerging from climate change includ[e] a growing industry in which Indigenous land and sea managers can be involved, such as carbon abatement and sequestration, solar and wind farms, biodiesel, and tidal energy. Green collar jobs should be black collar jobs. Indigenous rangers can provide very good environmental management services that can be marketed’.84