7 September 2019

Australian social workers call for action on the climate emergency


“The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing.”
~ Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), 2010, AASW Code of Ethics, p.7



We, as a profession founded in social justice and with a duty of care to human and environmental wellbeing, cannot be silent and watch as governments and industries continue to minimise the threat posed by the climate emergency.

We, the undersigned, ask the Australian Association of Social Workers to support social workers who engage in social action. We ask our governments of all levels to acknowledge the reality of the climate emergency, and respond accordingly.


Full letter:

We, the undersigned, are social workers united by our distress at Australia and the world’s negligible response to unfolding climate emergency and ecological disaster.

We hear the warnings of worldwide expert bodies including the CSIRO, IPCC, NASA, WWF and WHO. They are becoming increasingly urgent, emotive and united. We observe escalating extreme weather events, spread of infection and loss of productive land.

We heed predictions of societal collapse and consequent mass migration, both worldwide and within countries. Such societal collapse will trigger damage to physical and mental health on an unprecedented scale.

Climate change will affect low income households and disadvantaged communities first and disproportionately. In Australia, low income earners tend to live in areas more likely to be adversely affected by climate change, and have far less ability to move or make other necessary adjustments to their living circumstances. “Business as usual” will see the climate crisis exacerbate and deepen Australia’s already wide and growing inequity, with disastrous consequences.

As caring professionals we cannot countenance current policies which push progressive environmental catastrophe on the world’s most vulnerable now, and all of us in the future. It is unethical to fail to properly and effectively inform the public and act to change our course as carbon emissions continue to rise, societies and habitats are destroyed and the risk of irreversible damage increases.

The IPCC warns that we have only 11 years to halve global emissions (and then reach net zero by 2050) to meet their 1.5C target. Yet politicians prevaricate and global emissions still rise. Our unchecked consumption, dependence on fossil fuels and decimation of ecosystems continue. It is a massive task to avoid catastrophic warming and we need action now. What chance do we have to meet the IPCC target if we delay?

The AMA, hundreds of Australian Academics, Australian psychologists, insurers, businesses and architects have all either declared or called for declaration of a climate emergency.

The Australian Association of Social Workers has declared a climate emergency, along with the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). The IFSW identified that social workers have a role in taking action. These declarations must be met with action.

We, like other professions founded in social justice and with a duty of care to human and environmental wellbeing cannot be silent and watch as governments and industries continue to minimise the threat posed by the climate crisis to the safety of all people.

We acknowledge the challenge of transforming individualistic, consumerist, fossil-fuelled economies into economic systems that enable environmentally and socially sustainable societies. However the social and economic costs of failing to act are deep. There is hope, and tackling the climate crisis “could be the greatest global opportunity of the 21st century”. Urgent action will mitigate the environmental damage we are being forewarned of every day. But delay massively increases the cost of mitigation. Delay risks the irreversible progression of this global challenge.

We also recognise the crucial role First Nations people have played for tens of thousands of years, and continue to play in maintaining species, and caring for the land, water and air. We recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ care for Country and support recognition of Indigenous sovereignty.

Our asks:

  • We urge Australia’s federal Government and our media to communicate effectively the reality and extent of the climate crisis.
  • We ask our Commonwealth, state and territory Governments and local councils to respond immediately by reversing policies inconsistent with this reality, and boldly introduce policies that will address this reality with equity of outcome.
  • We ask that governments effect carbon neutrality within the IPCC timeframe
  • We ask that governments establish and are led by Citizens Assemblies to enable climate and ecological justice.

It is incumbent on social workers to look beyond an immediate environment to a broader consideration of the structural factors impacting upon the lives of the people they support. Combating oppression is very much to the fore of our work. We see that Governments are abrogating their responsibility and relegating millions to poverty, illness and death by pursuing grossly inadequate policies that risk environmental collapse. Non Violent Direct Action then becomes the reasonable choice for responsible individuals. History, evidence and recent events demonstrate the effectiveness of persistent, peaceful protest, including enabling the media to communicate this complex but vital message.

We sympathise with current widespread protest, notably by children who will be the most affected.

Peaceful protest can change society. Social workers are change agents. We are feminists and have a commitment to active participation in society as a means to bring about meaningful social change.

The more we focus on individual action and neglect systemic change, the more we’re just sweeping leaves on a windy day… while personal actions can be meaningful starting points, they can also be dangerous stopping points.

Our asks of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW):

  • We ask that the AASW endorse our requests of Governments at all levels.
  • We ask the AASW to promote and encourage and support Australian social workers engaging in peaceful, direct social action.
  • We ask the AASW to adopt a policy that members who are charged due to civil disobedience are not penalised in their professional registration and are pardoned.

These views are those of the individuals undersigned in the letter, not their institutions.



This petition was developed in consultation with the Climate Emergency Declaration Mobilisation 

See also:

The climate crisis is an emergency – the AASW joins the IFSW and social workers worldwide declaring a climate emergency




Much of the content of this letter reflects that written by ‘Doctors and the Cancer of Climate Change’, available here, because we wish to send a consistent message from all health and allied professionals.

The 2018 Report of the Lancet Countdown, available here

Australian Council of Social Service & Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, 2018, Tackling climate change and energy affordability for low-income households, Sydney. Available here.

Australian Council of Social Service and University of New South Wales, 2018, Inequality in Australia 2018, Sydney. Available here.

Watts, N. et al. 2015. Health and Climate Change: policy responses to protect public health, available here.

Wilks, T. 2012. Advocacy and Social Work Practice, McGraw Hill Education, p.10

Stephan, M. J. & Chenoweth, E. 2008. ‘Why civil resistance works. The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent conflict’ International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 7–44

Heglar, M. A. June 4 2019, ‘I work in the environmental movement, I don’t care if you recycle.’ The Highlight by Vox. Available here.