FAQ: Climate change impacts in Australia

Will climate change have particular effects on Australia?

Yes, we have special reasons in Australia to be concerned about climate change. Here’s what Malcolm Turnbull said:

The idea that our country, this great country of ours, can sail through a 3, 4 or 5 or more degrees rise in temperature this century with our prosperity and freedom, let alone the Great Barrier Reef, intact is very naive.

For example, Australia is Earth’s driest continent, and we are one of Earth’s most coast-based nations. 85% of us live on or near the coast.

As OzCoasts says:

Since 1788, settlements have been built along Australia’s coast with the expectation that sea levels would remain relatively stable. In addition to significant settlement of low-lying areas, most of our buildings and infrastructure has been designed and built to standards that don’t take into account the changing climate.

Here’s Labor’s Senator Louise Pratt in Parliament:

we are among the first countries to suffer the very real impacts of climate change, with scientists telling us to expect longer droughts, continued acidification of our oceans, more severe cyclones, more natural disasters and the destruction of species and ecosystems

Here’s some information from the CSIRO summary of impacts. (The shock jocks would have you believe them, instead of the CSIRO. Who do you think is more trustworthy: the CSIRO, or people like those who were found out taking “cash for comment”?)

Southern and eastern Australia’s water supply reliability is expected to decline as a result of reduced rainfall and increased evaporation, affecting irrigation, domestic and industrial water use, and environmental flows.

Development and population growth in Australia’s coastal regions will exacerbate the risks from sea-level rise and increase the likely severity and frequency of coastal flooding.

Significant losses of unique Australian animal and plant species are expected to occur in sites such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland Wet Tropics, the Kakadu wetlands, south-west Australia, eastern alpine areas, and Australia’s sub-Antarctic islands …

The risks to infrastructure include the failure of urban drainage and sewerage systems, more blackouts, transport disruption, and greater building damage. Higher temperatures, altered groundwater and soil conditions, sea-level rise and changed rainfall regimes may also lead to accelerated degradation of materials.

Heatwaves, storms and floods are likely to have a direct impact on the health of Australians, such as causing an increase in heat-related deaths. Biological processes such as infectious diseases and physical processes such as air pollution may affect health indirectly; for example, by increasing exposure to dengue fever.

Production from cropping and livestock is projected to decline over much of southern Australia, as is the quality of grain, grape, vegetable, fruit, and other crops.

In March 2014 the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology jointly released their State of the Climate 2014 report.

The report finds that Australia’s climate has warmed by 0.9°C since 1910 – just outdoing the global mean temperature, which has risen by 0.85°C from 1880 to 2012.

The report says the duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950, with more heatwaves and fewer cool extremes. It also notes an increase in extreme fire weather and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.

The report predicts Australian temperatures will continue to increase, with more extremely hot days and fewer extremely cool days. By 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow at the pace of the past decade, temperatures are expected to rise between 2.2-5°C above the 1980-99 average.

Will climate change cause more and worse heatwaves in Australia?

Overall, yes. Of course weather is complicated, but higher average temperatures and hotter oceans can be expected from global warming. These point to more severe heatwaves for Australia. Did you know that during the January 2014 heatwave, Adelaide held the unwelcome position as hottest city on Earth?

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (a consortium of a number of Australia universities) produced a detailed report on the 2009 heatwave in Melbourne and Adelaide. As the report noted:

Climate change over the next 30–60 years will make such events more likely

While the report noted that

Southern Australian metropolitan regions have experienced severe and widespread heatwave events in the past (e.g. 1908 and 1939)

it went on to say that

Events in the first decade of the twenty-first century have been unusually intense, long-lasting and extensive.

The report also said

There was widespread resistance to recognising the heatwave as being beyond the bounds of a normal hot weather event until it had escalated to dangerous levels.

Remind you of any views you’ve heard lately about whether climate change is happening in Australia and poses increased risks of things like bushfires?

Will climate change cause more and worse bushfires in Australia?

Overall, yes. Of course we know (without needing Tony Abbott to tell us) that bushfires are a feature of Australian life. But higher average temperatures and changed rainfall patterns add to the risk. The Climate Council has a useful report. In summary:

  • Climate change is making hot days hotter, and heatwaves longer and more frequent
  • Some parts of Australia are becoming drier
  • Very high fire danger weather is becoming more likely
  • The fire season is becoming longer, reducing the opportunities for hazard reduction burning

The same advice is supported by bushfire authorities around Australia, whether Tony Abbott and his friends want you to believe them or not.

What impacts could climate change have on tourism?

Tourism is one of Australia’s biggest industries, and our unique but fragile environment is a big part of that. Just the Barrier Reef alone contributes billions of dollars annually. Climate change threatens what we have to offer the world.

What impacts could climate change have on the Reef?

Coral reefs are built by living organisms (coral polyps) in complex ecosystems. Warmer water and more acid oceans threaten these ecosystems. Experts say 3oC of warming could mean “total loss” of coral reef environments. “Total loss”.

What impacts could climate change have on Australian farmers?

Changed rainfall and seasonal patterns are not good news for Australian farmers, who already operate in such a challenging continent. Experts have warned of substantially reduced production capacity, with water shortages, and pest, weed and disease problems.

What effects could climate change have on Australia’s snowfields?

Australian snowfields industries worth $1.8 billion and employing 18,000 people are at risk from climate change. One of the reasons we need a carbon price is to deal with the external costs that fossil fuel power stations and industries are otherwise able to shift to these other industries for free.

The Victorian Government refused to release a 2012 report, Climate change impacts on snow in Victoria but the ABC obtained it through a Freedom of Information request. The report predicts that by 2050 the maximum snow depth could decrease by up to 80 centimetres, and the ski season might shorten by more than two months. Snow making technology has advanced a lot, but may not be able to keep up.

As the Climate Institute pointed out in February 2014:

The decrease in snow cover also has a profound impact on spring and summer water supplies and critical agriculture areas like the Murray-Darling Basin that depend on water from the Australian Alps catchments for around 30 per cent of its inflow. That water – worth as much as $9.8 billion a year to the national economy – supports around 2.1 million Australians and helps produce 45 per cent of Australia’s irrigated agricultural production.

That amount of money is, of course, far more than the total cost to a small number of firms of the carbon price, which Greg Hunt claims to think is the same as the cost of carbon pricing to the whole economy (as if the Clean Energy package didn’t include compensation for consumers, and as if there was no such thing as savings through energy efficiency and renewables).

Like the proper experts tell us, the cost of doing nothing will be far higher. There are substitutes now for fossil fuel power. There aren’t any substitutes for water.

What health issues are raised by climate change?

Here’s what the CSIRO has said:

Heatwaves, storms and floods are likely to have a direct impact on the health of Australians, such as causing an increase in heat-related deaths. Biological processes such as infectious diseases and physical processes such as air pollution may affect health indirectly; for example, by increasing exposure to dengue fever.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer concluded that there were 374 additional deaths in Victoria during the 2009 heatwave. The Victorian Council of Social Service has pointed out that this was more deaths than occurred in the terrible Black Saturday bushfires around the same time, and has called for heatwave planning to be linked into emergency management plans.

The report on the 2009 heatwave from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility also noted that

During the heatwave period, compared with the same period in 2008, large increases were documented in emergency ambulance dispatches and attendances to heat-related conditions, as well as for presentations of heat-related conditions at hospital emergency departments.

So it’s ironic that Victoria’s Liberal Government (now, thankfully, gone) chose to stage a Parliamentary inquiry not on the health impacts of climate change, and what more we should do about things like minimising impacts for people at particular risk, like older people, but on the impact of carbon pricing on the health system! Their inquiry takes submissions until the end of February 2014 and reports in May 2014.

And no inquiry into health effects on the people of Morwell from the smoke of Hazlewood’s brown coal mines that caught fire after privatised operators were allowed to remove sprinklers to save costs. All that unnecessary red and green tape … !

Meanwhile Tony Abbott (and Nick Xenophon) is staging yet another inquiry into supposed health effects from wind farms despite the National Health and Medical Research Council reaffirming that there is no proper evidence of any such effects. What we do have is objections to wind farms from climate deniers like Tony Abbott’s business adviser Maurice Newman; and from entrenched power generation interests who openly say that renewable energy threatens their profits. Really.

What impacts could climate change have on power generation?

Coal fired power stations need very large water supplies. For example: currently the existing five power stations in the Latrobe Valley use 125 billion litres of water, equivalent to a third of Melbourne’s water use. Less reliable water, means less reliable coal fired power too.

By contrast, the world’s largest solar thermal power plant (in California near the Nevada border) uses as much water as two holes of the nearby golf course.

Can’t Australia’s wildlife and plants just adapt?

Australia already has more than its share of endangered species from human impacts. Rapid climate change in the patches of their native environments left could be the end for more of them.

As the Australian Conservation Foundation says, the warming by 2100 of 4oC or close to which we are currently heading towards:

will exceed the adaptive capacity of land, freshwater, and coastal Australian environments, leading to catastrophic environmental outcomes for Australia.

What are the key climate risks to coastal settlements?

Here is what OzCoasts has said:

In late 2009, the Australian Government completed a national assessment of the climate change risks to Australia’s coast. The assessment identified the climate change risks to coastal settlements, infrastructure, industries and ecosystems; it found that up to 247,000 residential buildings in Australia, with an estimated replacement value of $63 billion (2008 values), may be at risk from rising sea levels by 2100.

In coastal areas and in waterways connected to the ocean, erosion and inundation may be key impacts from rising sea levels. Saltwater intrusion into groundwater and freshwater bodies could also have a significant impact on ecosystems (such as Kakadu wetlands) and on potable water availability.

Where can I find a map of sea level rise impacts in Australia?

Online maps are available from OzCoasts . Maps of sea level rise for 50mm, 80 mm and 110mm sea level rise are available for Sydney; NSW central coast and Hunter; Melbourne; Brisbane and SouthEast Queensland ; and Perth to south of Mandurah. As these maps show, high tides spread the impact further, even before we think about storms.

Where can I get information on Australian emissions?

The Department of the Environment still has good information on its website on emissions targets, with projections including 2012 figures on stationary energy, transport, fugitive emissions, industrial process emissions, agriculture, waste and deforestation and reforestation.

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