Australia’s climate is changing

Universities Australia

Universities Australia forum reveals how we are responding

Australia’s peanut farmers are on the move—some are relocating nearly 2400 kilometres from Kingaroy to Katherine for better access to water; last year 88 people in Victoria died in the way to hospital directly as a result of the heatwave that preceded the disastrous bushfires of early February; the average temperature across the Australian continent has risen by more than 0.8 °C in the past 60 years; the Great Barrier Reef is degrading; and more than 40 per cent of the nation’s farmers are seriously worried about the viability of their businesses in the face of climate change, according to a recent nationwide survey for the Bureau of Rural Sciences.

Those are just some of the facts that formed part of the snapshot of climate change unveiled by 16 scientists, social scientists and public servants from universities, research institutes and government agencies at a Universities Australia National Policy Forum in Parliament House, Canberra on Thursday 18 March. The contributors provided unequivocal evidence that climate change is occurring across Australia right now, that it is accelerating, and that its impact on society and the national economy is already apparent.

Speakers at the forum backed the detailed measurements of climate change presented earlier in the week by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology—temperature increases, changes in rainfall, increasing acidification of the ocean, sea level rises. But they went further. They linked those measures directly to consequences for Australians now and in the near future.

“Climate change is actually dangerous, it kills people,” said Keith Dear of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU—and not just in Victoria’s record-breaking heat. Nearly 15,000 people had died in France directly as a result of a heatwave in August 2003, for instance, and more than 35,000 across Europe. It’s figures like these that have inspired the New South Wales Government to start planning future refuges where the elderly can gain respite in extreme weather.

But that’s not all, Dear said. High temperatures also can kill indirectly—by increasing the risk of bushfires, for example. His data showing that the number of days of extreme fire weather is increasing annually was backed by Blair Trewin of the Bureau of Meteorology and the CEO of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, Gary Morgan. “The information is out on the web,” Morgan said. “The fire fighting industry is quite fearful about the future and looking at ways to adapt to it,” he said

Dear discussed predicted rises in infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. The increase in average temperature had allowed the range of the mosquito which carries the dengue virus to extend a further 800 km south-east down the coast of Australia from Townsville, he said. And he also mentioned the negative impact of climate change on air pollution, food poisoning and mental health.

In fact, the mental wellbeing of the farming community is already deteriorating measurably, said Anthony Hogan also of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU. His figures show that the breakdown of social structures and the mental insecurity induced by an increasingly unpredictable environment is creating serious anxiety in the farming community. “Sixteen per cent of our farmers are saying they can no longer cope with any more change. Another third are saying, ‘We are wobbling in the balance as to whether we can cope with any more change’.” And the people worst hit are the youngest farmers, including the greatest number of women, he says.

It’s not surprising. Farmers are among the first to feel the impact of climate change. Already the peanut industry has assessed its future and a part of it has decided to move, say Graham Baker and Roger Stone from the University of Southern Queensland. The cotton industry is undergoing a consultation process about where it is headed, and the rice crop in the Riverina has dropped from a million tonnes a year to less than 50,000.

The harvest date for wine growers has been moving a day earlier each year since 1980, according to data accumulated by Snow Barlow of the University of Melbourne, and dryland crops are being sown later and harvested earlier. That fits with evidence of changes in the timing of the life cycles of flowering plants and birds, according to his colleague Marie Keatley of the University’s department of Forest and Ecosystems.

In many places in Australia—grain-cropping in the Mallee in northern Victoria, for instance— we are getting to the limits of adaptive management where farmers can change what they are doing within their existing system, Barlow said. We are now getting to where farmers are adapting their systems and trying new crops and new ways of doing things. And, given the climate data from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, it won’t be too long before we have to consider changing our agriculture systems entirely, he said.

But not all the news is bad, says Amanda Lynch from the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences at Monash University. “By an accident of our geography, Australia is a country that is subjected to very large changes over decadal time scale because of the El Niño phenomenon. So we already have an agricultural sector and a water management sector that is used to large swings over long time scales. We are used to pragmatic, messy, contingent approaches.”

That is why, she said, programs such as the Victorian Government’s response to the long dry spell in that state had been relatively successful. Rather than being dependent on one particular thrust, it was robust and flexible, involving more than 100 different individual policy actions based on current science and technology.

Having accepted the peer-reviewed scientific conclusion that climate change is happening, the New South Wales Government was also pursuing many different policies, according to that state’s Director, Climate Change, Air and Noise, Jennifer McAllister. In addition to the development of heat stress sanctuaries, she spoke of assisting local authorities to plan for a 90-centimetre sea level rise by the end of the century, providing regional climate change scenarios for use by local decision makers, and encouraging energy efficiency and the generation and use of renewable energy.

But the problem is immense. Some idea of the scale was provided by Mike Raupach of the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research when he showed that the impact of the decline in economic activity brought about by the Global Financial Crisis—the largest impediment to growth since the Depression—was a halt of about six weeks in the rise of the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

At a regional level, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland discussed the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef which injects 63,000  jobs and activity worth $6.5 billion each year into the Australian economy. The Reef was sensitive to increases in temperature and acidity, he said, “The combination of these factors that we are seeing right now is fundamentally different to any other point in the past 700,000 years at least. This has driven recurrent mass coral bleaching and mortality since 1979, and a 15 per cent drop in the ability of reefs to grow and calcify since 1990.”

Hoegh-Guldberg reported simulation work from Stanford University in the US on how increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would affect coral reefs. The present level is about 386 parts per million (ppm) and rising at a rate of about 2 ppm a year. “By 450 ppm, we are already getting to marginal conditions for coral reefs, conditions that may not have been seen for 20 to 40 million years,” he said “Between 450 and 500 ppm, corals are no longer able to compete against other organisms like seaweed, and we would end up with the Great Weedy Reef.

“If we keep on going down that track, we get conditions where calcification is not occurring, conditions which are dissolving the reef, and storms and biological erosion start to take away the reef structure. If we like the Reef and the benefits it brings, there’s no question that we have to stabilise and bring the level of carbon dioxide down eventually. We should not spend much time above 450 ppm if we can avoid it.”

And this can be done at a reasonable cost, says John Quiggin, an economist from the University of Queensland. While it is regularly suggested that greenhouse gas mitigation would have catastrophic impacts on our standard of living, he said, the best estimates were that the cost of stabilising the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would amount to about 2 per cent of gross domestic product, or about one year’s economic growth. Such action would also have a small positive impact on employment, he said. “The GFC had a larger impact in Australia than what we are talking about.”

Getting that message across has not been helped by concerted attacks on climate science. The main story of climate change has been well established for decades, Kevin Judd from the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Western Australia told the forum. “Unfortunately the uncertainty of the detail as to how this will play out is being exploited by contrary voices, as is the natural variability of weather. But we should not get bogged down in arguments about the details.”

Such attacks on the credibility of the scientific process in unravelling climate change had ramifications for the credibility of science in general, added Ken Baldwin of the ANU Climate Change Institute. It highlighted a set of obligations—on the scientific community, to use the peer review process properly to maintain trust and confidence in science; on journalists, to report the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue; and on politicians, to accept the consensus point of view and begin to act upon it.

Written by Tim Thwaites for Universities Australia and Science in Public

For more information about the forum including presentations, audio files, speaker profiles and photographs visit

Or contact: Niall Byrne, Science in Public, 0417 131 977,