Opinion: As Western Sydney residents grapple with climate change, they want political action

The following opinion piece, co-authored by Dr Declan Kuch and Associate Professor Malini Sur both from the Institute for Culture and Society and Associate Professor Stephen Healy from the School of Social Sciences and the Institute for Culture and Society, was first published with full links on The Conversation(opens in a new window).

Western Sydney is being developed rapidly, increasing its already high vulnerability to climate change. One day in January 2020, Penrith was the hottest place on Earth. Residents who have endured searing heat, bushfires, heavy rain, floods and huge damage bills in recent years are now a political force.

In addition to being overwhelmed by such events, residents sometimes feel they are not heard. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, essential workers in Western Sydney felt alienated and over-policed, and demanded their predicaments be taken into account. In the recent federal election, local candidates gained traction due to their trusted presence in the community.

The preferences of the region’s culturally and economically diverse voters are no longer predictable. They could also have a substantial influence on the March 25 state election.

Our newly published report, Climate Matters to Western Sydney: Everyday Sustainability Practices in Uncertain Times, documents 100 residents’ responses to our survey about their environmental practices and their struggles to secure their families’ wellbeing. Their aspirations for a sustainable future emerge clearly from the survey responses.

Our findings challenge the idea that Western Sydney residents’ financial concerns, such as costs of living and energy, are somehow separate from and outweigh their environmental concerns. There is a strong desire to adapt creatively to the challenges of an uncertain climate.

Shared air, shared infrastructure

In 1837, British inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage wrote:

The air itself is one vast library on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.

The COVID pandemic made it impossible to ignore that the quality of the air around us is measured and qualified, and it’s both intimately personal and shared. Air quality is a signature of wellbeing – it’s pivotal to household comfort and sustainable cities. Our respondents understand the complexities of these interactions with air very well.

As with earlier research, we’ve found a divide between people who have air conditioning and those who don’t. More than half of our study participants didn’t have it at home.

However, air-conditioning users are more attuned to their environment than the idea of a “new climate denial” would suggest. Three-quarters said they had a comfort or precise temperature threshold, ranging from 22℃ to 40℃, for turning it on.

Most respondents, including those with air conditioning, used blinds to cope with increasing heat. They also used fans and cross-ventilation, shading and planting, and went to air-conditioned shared spaces like libraries and shopping malls to cope with increasing heatwaves.

It’s not all about cost of living

Our participants told us the ways that the movement of both air and water is crucial for their wellbeing, household comfort and urban sustainability. For example, one Parramatta resident of mixed heritage in their 50s reported:

I wrap myself in wet clothes – neck, head, douse myself in water in the yard – when working in the garden.

Residents adapt to changing environmental conditions using both low and high-tech solutions to balance wellbeing, sustainability and cost. This includes using blinds, fans and other ways of regulating the temperature. They also design solar-passive solutions themselves, such as vines and other external shading. Planners often overlook these solutions, but they are crucial to household comfort.

Air is both common and private, affected by energy, architecture and urban gardening. Coming out of the COVID experience, being at home in Western Sydney increasingly extends beyond the walls of the house to include community and creative spaces, parks and gardens. While half our respondents reported staying put during heatwaves, the other half sought out public pools and beaches or common air-conditioned spaces, such as shopping centres.

Our respondents were emphatic: the cost of living is not just its price. While households play a significant role in climate change and contribute to environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, they also act in ways that promote ecological sustainability. These extend from preserving local parks and creating community gardens to pressuring federal and state governments to act on their responsibilities. For example, a resident told us:

Insist that green cover be measured and monitored very publicly […] insist that tree cover remains. Identify all sites that can remain parks and totally protect them from any private enterprises, leases and developments.

Shared solutions for shared problems

Councils, electricity networks and other organisations at the front lines of the climate crisis are asking profound questions about how we live together: where will people go during the next catastrophic fires? How can we create community refuges that will be safe and have dependable communications and electricity?

These are not questions that can be answered simply with more housing supply or lower interest rates. While private homes can offer a refuge in times of crisis, acknowledging our air, water and even electricity are common resources – our “vast library” – helps start a different discussion about responsibilities, rights and our shared existence.

The voters of Western Sydney understand this, and politicians ignore it at their peril.

ENDS

7 March 2023

Media Unit.

The Conversation