Sydney harbour bridge in bushfire smoke

New IPCC report shows Australia is at real risk from climate change, with impacts worsening, future risks high, and wide-ranging adaptation needed

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Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University

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Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

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Professor, ARC Future Fellow & Editor in Chief (Reviews in Fish Biology & Fisheries), University of Tasmania

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Director, ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, Australian National University

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Disclosure statement

Brendan Mackey received travel funding support from the Australian government to participate in the IPCC process.

Francis Chiew works in CSIRO and receives funding for projects from government and industry. Francis Chiew received travel funding support from the Australian government for participation in the IPCC process.

Gretta Pecl receives funding from the Australian Research Council, Department of Agriculture Water and the Environment, Department of Primary Industries NSW, Department of Premier and Cabinet (Tasmania), the Fisheries Research & Development Corporation, and received travel funding support from the Australian government for participation in the IPCC process..

Kevin Hennessy received travel funding support from the Australian government for participation in the IPCC process.

Lauren Rickards currently receives funding for climate change related work from the Australian Research Council, Victorian Government, Australian Government (Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) and has received travel funding support from the Australian Government for participation in the IPCC process.

Mark Howden received travel funding support from the Australian Government to participate in the IPCC process.

Nigel Tapper received travel funding support from the Australian government for participation in the IPCC process.

Nina Lansbury received travel support funding from the Australian Government for participation in the IPCC process.

Uday Nidumolu received travel funding support from the Australian government for participation in the IPCC process

Monash University and CSIRO provide funding as founding partners of The Conversation AU.

RMIT University provides funding as a strategic partner of The Conversation AU.

Griffith University , University of Tasmania , University of Queensland , and Australian National University provide funding as members of The Conversation AU.

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Climatic trends, extreme conditions and sea level rise are already hitting many of Australia’s ecosystems, industries and cities hard.

As climate change intensifies, we are now seeing cascading and compounding impacts and risks, including where extreme events coincide. These are placing even greater pressure on our ability to respond.

While the work of adaptation has begun, we have found the progress is uneven and insufficient, given the risks we face.

These findings are from our work as co-authors of the new Australia and New Zealand chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment Report on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation, released today.

Boats rescuing people in Lismore

What does the report mean for Australia?

This new report represents the efforts of over 270 climate change experts to review and synthesise the latest information. These authors collectively examined over 34,000 peer reviewed publications about how climate change is affecting ecosystems and societies, future risks, adaptation enablers and limits, and links to climate resilient development.

Climate change is bringing hotter temperatures, more dangerous fire weather, more droughts and floods, higher sea levels, and drier winter and spring months to southern and eastern Australia, amongst other changes. These changes are increasing the pressure on our natural environment, settlements, infrastructure and economic sectors including agriculture, finance and tourism.

In low-lying areas along our coasts, where so many Australians live, homes, infrastructure and ecosystems will be lost to the rising sea if mitigation and adaptation are inadequate.

For our farmers and the agrifood sector, climate change brings unwelcome stresses and disruptions, making it more challenging to produce food profitably and sustainably. Intensified heat and drought will place yet more stress on our rural communities, particularly in Australia’s south-west, south and east.

Australians will experience more deaths and ill health from heatwaves, as will our wildlife.

Man inspects debris of his burned house

The threat of cascading impacts

Unfortunately, that’s not all we have to contend with. We have identified two new types of climate-related risk.

The first are the cascading, compounding and aggregate impacts on our cities and towns, roads, supply-chains and services, emerging from the interaction of disasters like wildfires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, storms and sea-level rise. Think of the rolling impacts from the Black Summer bushfires, which killed people and wildlife, destroyed homes and resulted in major economic losses for tourism, farming and forestry. Or think of the ongoing floods in New South Wales and Queensland.

The second is the slow speed at which governments and institutions are moving to deal with these changing risks, undermining the system-wide adaptation needed. What does this mean in practice? That the scale and scope of what we can expect to see happen may overwhelm our capacity to respond to these impacts – unless we address these risks quickly and strategically.

Climate impacts are powerfully and unevenly amplified by existing stresses affecting our environment and people. For instance, Australia’s coral reefs already face threats from pollution and invasive species. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier.

Climate change will pose more of a threat to vulnerable Australians, such as those with inadequate health care, poor quality housing and unstable employment.

Read more: IPCC report: global emissions must peak by 2025 to keep warming at 1.5°C – we need deeds not words

We examined how much the projected damage could be reduced through better adaptation such as changes in policy, more effective planning and technical solutions.

Our ecosystems most at risk are our world-famous coral reefs and the huge biodiversity and ecosystem services they provide. Steadily warming oceans and sudden marine heatwaves have already pushed many areas to the edge.

The Great Barrier Reef is already at a very high risk of crossing a critical threshold where further warming may cause irreversible damage. Between 2016 and 2020, three marine heatwaves struck the Great Barrier Reef, causing major coral bleaching and death. Once the coral is gone, many of the fish and invertebrates do not survive.

In typical conditions, it takes a minimum of a decade for the fastest growing corals to recover from a single bleaching event. We are no longer in typical conditions. Warming beyond 1.5°C would see marine heatwaves strike more often. Bleaching will go well beyond the reef’s natural ability to regenerate.

Bleached coral, Great barrier reef

What does adaptation look like?

If we fail to address underlying vulnerabilities in our society and fail to reduce climate-related risks, we will make climate change impacts even worse and undermine our capacity to adapt, well into the future.

But if we step up adaptation now, we will see benefits both in the near- and long-term. This includes practicalities like making sure all strategic planning, land use planning and infrastructure developments take complex climate change risks into account – in a systematic, rather than siloed, narrowly focused, way.

Read more: IPCC report: this decade is critical for adapting to inevitable climate change impacts and rising costs

On the positive side, Australia’s adaptation efforts have increased in ambition, scope and implementation across governments, non-government organisations, businesses and communities since the last IPCC assessment in 2014.

In recent years, Australia has created a government agency for recovery and resilience , a disaster risk reduction framework , and national adaptation guidance.

States and territories have introduced climate adaptation strategies, with some evidence of implementation. Local governments, regions, communities and associated alliances are becoming more active in adaptation. In the private sector, there is some rapid work underway to address climate risk and disclosure.

Volunteer planting trees

Laudable though this progress is, we found that progress on adaptation is distinctly uneven. That’s due to implementation barriers as well as limits to adaptive capacity. Barriers we found include competing objectives, divergent risk perceptions and values, knowledge constraints, inconsistent information, fear of litigation, up-front costs, and lack of engagement, trust and resources.

If we are to get better at adaptation, we have to shift from reactive to anticipatory planning, to better plan for and reduce climate-related risks. Systemic risks demand systemic adaptation.

We found there was a great deal to be gained from better integration and coordination between levels of government and sectors through more effective policy alignment and more inclusive and collaborative institutional arrangements.

Australia would benefit from a national risk assessment and a national climate adaptation implementation plan. Other ways to enable more effective adaptation include serious and stable funding and finance mechanisms, and nationally consistent and accessible information and decision-support tools.

Read more: There's no end to the damage humans can wreak on the climate. This is how bad it's likely to get

The way we go about adaptation is also important. Climate planning that promotes inclusive governance, collective action and mutual support can make the process of change easier, fairer and more effective.

Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their institutions, knowledge, values and self-determination is especially important. The knowledge, skills and experience held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is relevant to climate change adaptation across society.

The best time to act is now

If we delay introducing effective adaptation methods and significant global emission reduction, the damage caused will be more expensive and require far greater change. We need robust, timely adaptation, and deep cuts to emissions.

That’s to have our best chance of keeping global warming to 1.5-2°C and reduce the challenges of adaptation.

Although the climate impacts and risks we face are increasingly severe, it is by no means too late to avert the worst outcomes.

It is still possible to move to a pathway of “climate resilient development” in which we work together to rapidly contain global warming, adapt effectively and help secure a better future for all.

  • Climate change
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Extreme weather
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
  • IPCC report 2022

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Australia’s wildfires have now been linked to climate change.

Climate-influenced temperatures raised the wildfire risk by 30 percent

the Orroral Valley Fire in Australia

On the outskirts of Canberra, the Orroral Valley Fire blazed on January 28, 2020. New research suggests the recent record-breaking heat in southeastern Australia, which is linked to climate change, helped increase the region’s fire risk by at least 30 percent.

Nick-D/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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By Carolyn Gramling

March 4, 2020 at 12:39 pm

Human-caused climate change made southeastern Australia’s devastating wildfires during 2019–2020 at least 30 percent more likely to occur , researchers report in a new study published online March 4.

A prolonged heat wave that baked the country in 2019-2020 was the primary factor raising the fire risk, said climate scientist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute in De Bilt. The study also linked the extremity of that heat wave to climate change, van Oldenborgh said March 3 during a news conference to explain the findings. Such an intense heat wave in the region is about 10 times more likely now than it was in 1900, the study found.

Van Oldenborgh also noted that climate simulations tend to underestimate the severity of such heat waves, suggesting that climate change may be responsible for even more of the region’s high fire risk. “We put the lower boundary at 30 percent, but it could well be much, much more,” he said.

This week, the southeastern Australia region was declared free of wildfires for the first time in over 240 days, according to a statement March 2 by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service on Twitter. The fires have burned through an estimated 11 million hectares, killing at least 34 people and destroying about 6,000 buildings since early July. About 1.5 billion animals also died in the blazes. Researchers are still tallying the damage and assessing the potential for recovery for many native plant and animal species ( SN: 2/11/20 ).

The climate attribution study was conducted by the World Weather Attribution group, an international consortium of researchers who investigate how much of a role climate change might be playing in natural disasters. Given the quick turnaround time, the study has not yet been peer reviewed. “We wanted to bring the scientific evidence [forward] at a time when the public is talking about the event,” said climate modeler Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford. Then the group examined how climate change altered the Fire Weather Index, an estimation of the risk of wildfires.

The climate simulations show that the probability of a high Fire Weather Index during the 2019–2020 season increased by at least 30 percent, relative to the fire risk in 1910. That is primarily due to the increase in extreme heat; the study was not able to determine the impact of climate change on extreme drought conditions, which also helped fuel the blazes.

Researchers previously have suggested that an El Niño-like atmosphere-ocean weather pattern known as the Indian Ocean Dipole , which was in a strong positive phase in 2019, may have played a role in exacerbating the dry conditions ( SN: 1/9/20 ). Global warming may make such extreme positive phases of this pattern more common. The new study confirmed that the 2019 positive phase made drought conditions more extreme, but could not confirm this particular phase’s relationship to climate change.

“It is always rather difficult to attribute an individual event to climate change,” but this study is nicely done, says Wenju Cai, a climate scientist at CSIRO who is based in Melbourne, Australia. The link identified to climate change is reasonable, if not particularly surprising, he says.

The year 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest since modern recordkeeping began in the country in 1910. Summers Down Under also appear to be lengthening: The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, released a report March 2 that found that Australian summers during the years 1999 to 2018 lasted longer by a month , on average, than they did 50 years ago.

Temperature observations going back to 1910 show that the region’s temperatures have risen by about 2 degrees Celsius on average, van Oldenborgh and colleagues report. The climate simulations underrepresented that warming, however, showing an increase of only 1 degree Celsius in that time.

Climate modelers previously have struggled to reconcile the disparity between recorded temperatures and simulated heat waves: Simulations tend to underestimate the severity of the extreme events. The team noticed a similar underestimation in its simulations of the 2019 heat waves in Europe ( SN: 7/2/19 ). Conditions not generally factored into regional climate simulations, such as land-use changes, may be responsible for the disparity. Changes in vegetation cover, for example, can have an impact on how hot or dry a region gets.

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Australian case study report on piloting the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures framework

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The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) is an initiative led by the private sector. It aims to create a global framework to help organisations manage and disclose their nature-related risks and opportunities. The TNFD is working to shift global financial flows towards nature-positive outcomes.

Today, the TNFD released its recommendations and guidance. The TNFD framework is now ready for voluntary use in the market.

Australia has supported the design and development of this global framework. The Australian Government funds the TNFD. It has sat on the TNFD Stewardship Council since November 2021. Other governments on the council include France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

We have led the Australian Government’s engagement on the TNFD framework. We have worked with the TNFD and private sector to help build market readiness.

We commissioned TNFD pilots with Australian businesses and financial institutions.

The pilots covered the following 5 value chains:

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Information from the pilots has now been published. This includes the case study report and 5 value chain deep-dive guidance documents. Organisations can use the package to assess their nature-related risks and opportunities.

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  • Published: 23 February 2021

Apocalypse now: Australian bushfires and the future of urban settlements

  • Barbara Norman   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-0772-6651 1 ,
  • Peter Newman   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8668-2764 2 &
  • Will Steffen 3  

npj Urban Sustainability volume  1 , Article number:  2 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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The apocalyptic Australian bushfires have challenged the way we plan settlements. What is the future for small urban settlements within fire-vulnerable forests and bushland? Could they create a new model for rural settlements with wider lessons for development in big cities? This paper draws together observations of the 2019/20 bushfire size, intensity and destructiveness and links the fires to the global nature of the climate crisis and an earlier case study that accurately predicted the fire impacts in southeast coastal Australia. The findings are set out in two scenarios suggesting that the fires can lead to a new model for climate resilient development that can flow into larger centres with multiple benefits.

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The Australian bushfires

The Australian bushfires brought in the 2020s with a global sense of apocalypse. The extent, timing and intensity of the fires dramatically demonstrated how climate change is already driving catastrophic impacts 1 . The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports have highlighted fire risk to Australia in every major report since 2001 2 , 3 , 4 and Australia’s own Garnaut Report in 2008 said prophetically ‘….without adequate action, the nation will face a more frequent and intense fire season by 2020’ 5 . Nevertheless, the Australian delegation at the COP 26 Madrid climate change conference was part of the group of four nations attempting to reduce the Paris commitments in December 2019 even as the fires were spreading rapidly.

The IPSOS (2020) report 6 on Australian attitudes showed a dramatic increase in concern for the environment in January 2020, now the highest concern of all issues (see Fig. 1 ). The poll showed that ‘citizens mostly attributed their worry to climate change, drought and bushfire’ with a strong concern about the ‘reluctance of government to be proactive’ about this and other environmental concerns.

figure 1

Green shows the rise of environmental concerns to highest % during bushfires. Pollsters found the public linked fires to climate change and lack of action by government.

The 2019/2020 Australian fires resulted in the tragic loss of over 400 lives, 33 of them directly from the fires and 417 from smoke inhalation 7 . Over 3000 homes and 7000 facilities and outbuildings were destroyed; 12.6 million hectares burned; and over 100,000 head of stock lost 8 . Nearly 80 percent of Australians were affected either directly or indirectly by the fires 9 . Tragically, an estimated one billion native animals died 10 , a scenario almost unimaginable. The fires blanketed urban areas with heavy smoke. During January 2020, the national capital Canberra measured the worst air quality index of any major city in the world 11 .

These dramatic impacts across the Australian landscape are driving a deeper consideration of their implications for the future pattern of urban development. Australia is predominantly a coastal urban nation with 85% of the population living in the coastal zone and mostly in urban centres where there are significant areas of native forested bush. Such native bush is fire-dependent in its ecology so there has always been some awareness of the need for protection with a long history of volunteer fire brigades being a part of Australian settlements in such forested areas. However, the unprecedented ferocity of this fire season has traumatised Australia (Fig. 2 ). These deeper concerns have been called ‘collective trauma’ 12 , now magnified by the corona virus. It exposes Australians to reconsider how we live.

figure 2

Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia, Date 8 March 2020 (photo taken by Barbara Norman).

Here we examine how climate change-related bushfires now challenge the growth patterns of smaller regional centres across Australia, especially non metropolitan urban communities and the scattering of rural development into forest and along coastlines. Such development has much greater exposure to fire as well as often being heavily resource consumptive, so we need to urgently rethink how urban growth in these regional communities can be planned more sustainably in the future, perhaps setting a model for how larger cities can change 13 , 14 .

The apocalypse defined: biophysical trends

The apocalypse (as set out in Box 1 ) is caused by human civilization going beyond biophysical limits leading to collapse 15 . The apocalypse has been a part of much global ecological concern with accelerating climate change and the transgression of planetary boundaries 16 , 17 . Such a sense of apocalypse was associated with two features of the 2019/2020 eastern Australia fires—the unprecedented nature of the fires themselves and the key role that climate change played in driving them.

Box 1. The apocalypse in history

The apocalypse is about cataclysmic change symbolising the end times. It has been a part of Jewish literature since the Babylonian era 68 , in Muslim literature 69 and in the Christian era is set out in the book of Revelation during the collapse of the Roman era. This involved four horsemen that symbolised: pandemics, famine from climate change, war (continuous conflict) and death (of civilization). Such ideas have been used in the past two thousand years to portray starkly different futures through art and literature 70 , 71 . The future was portrayed as a cataclysmic choice between two cities that were based either on frivolous consumption that would collapse from the four horsemen or on long term meaningful work (represented by building the city from diamonds, in harmony with the Tree of Life and River of Life) 72 .

The unprecedented nature of the fires

The fires were unprecedented in several ways, most notably for their huge size. For example, the Gospers Mountain fire near Sydney burned over 500,000 ha, with massive impacts on the World Heritage forests (Fig. 3 ); this was the largest individual fire ever recorded in Australia 18 . The aggregated total area burnt was unprecedented, not only in an Australian context but also globally 19 . The area burned in eastern Australian eucalypt forests, well-known for being fire-prone, is only 2% or less on average, even in extreme fire seasons, similar to the average areas burned of temperate broad-leaf forests on other continents, where the fraction is well below 5% (apart from Africa and Asia, where the burn area can reach 8-9%). However, the 2019/2020 eastern Australian fires consumed over 21% of the total forested area, an area far beyond anything previously experienced in Australia, or in the rest of the world.

figure 3

Yellow shows world heritage areas burned, green shows world heritage areas unburned, and grey shows burned areas that are not world heritage.

The threats to urban areas from the massive fires were also unprecedented. On 12 November 2019, catastrophic fire danger weather was forecast for the Greater Sydney area, the first time ever the city itself has been directly threatened with such extreme fire conditions. Dense smoke blanketed Sydney for days, with the air quality index more than 12 times the hazardous level in parts of the city. Parts of Canberra registered an air quality index of 4650, more than 23 times the hazardous level, a level never seen before in that city. A state of emergency was declared for Canberra on 31 January 2020 as large fires burning in the mountains immediately south of the city threatened to force a mass evacuation of the southern suburbs and closed the airport for several days 18 .

Although the massive and destructive nature of the fires came as a shock to many, they were not unexpected for the scientific community. Climate and weather-based indicators used to assess dangerous fire weather also reinforced the unprecedented nature of the inferno. The Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI), a composite indicator of bushfire weather, incorporates temperature, humidity, wind speed and antecedent conditions (e.g., longer-term rainfall that influences the condition of the vegetation). The FFDI reached record high levels in 2019 20 . As early as September 2019, well before the normal start of the bushfire season, catastrophic fire danger conditions (FFDI above 100) were recorded at several locations in NSW 18 .

Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019. The average maximum temperature was 2.09 °C above the baseline, breaking 2 °C for the first time and a full 0.5°C higher than the previous record 20 . 2019 was also the driest year on record for Australia, with rainfall across the continent a staggering 40% below the long-term average 20 , setting up the forests to burn. Fig. 4 shows the two-year deficit in rainfall across Australia, with most of the forested area along the east coast from southern Queensland to eastern Victoria experiencing its driest ever 2-year period 21 . The southwestern region of Australia has been drying for 40 years, linked to climate change, and in the last years has reverted to 60% dependence on desalinating seawater for the water supply of over two million residents in the Perth region 22 . Such long-term drying out of the landscape has also been occurring in the populous southeast over the past two to three decades.

figure 4

The dry conditions that contributed to the size and intensity of the fires came on the back of prolonged rainfall deficiencies across most of southeast Australia, underpinning one of the worst droughts on record.

The link between the fires and climate change

The conditions leading up to the 2019/2020 mega-fires were influenced by both longer-term trends of increasing extreme heat and less cool season rainfall in SE Australia, and by shorter-term modes of natural variability. The extreme dry conditions of 2019 have been linked to a very strong positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which leads to dry conditions across much of Australia. There is very likely a link between climate change and the unusual strength of the IOD in 2019 23 . According to paleo studies over the past 800 years, there have been 10 exceptionally strong IODs, and four of them have occurred during the last 60 years when human-driven climate change has been accelerating. Thus, the odds are increasing that even stronger IODs could occur in the future 24 .

The record high temperatures of 2019 were thus the latest in a multi-decadal trend of rising temperatures, driven by climate change 25 . The recent very dry conditions are part of a longer-term trend of decreasing cool season rainfall over southeast Australia in the past two to three decades—a decrease of about 15% in late autumn and early winter rainfall since the mid-1990s 26 , a trend that has been linked to climate change 25 .

In summary, there is strong evidence that climate change has played a key role in the size, intensity and destructiveness of the 2019/2020 eastern Australian bushfires. The fundamental physics of bushfire dynamics and climate change, backed up by observational and paleo evidence, suggest that the magnitude and ferocity of the 2019/2020 fires would have been virtually impossible without climate change.

The growing apocalypse: urban sustainability and 1.5 degrees

Cities, the biggest source of greenhouse house gas emissions, are growing rapidly across the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now focuses on cities in the AR5, AR6 and the 1.5 °C Special Report 27 , 28 , 29 .

One of the key ideas being used to explain how hard it is to find effective solutions to climate change is the notion of ‘lock-in’, a concept central to urban sustainability but rarely seen to be associated with peri-urban and rural settlements which were the focus of the Australian apocalypse. Lock-in is where we live in housing that is not only dependent on high levels of power, water and other resources for comfortable living but are part of urban forms that are heavily automobile dependent and hence very oil dependent 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 . From the 1950s, this lock-in around fossil fuels and other resources was driven by a mass shift outwards into high consumption suburban living mostly in New World cities but increasingly in Europe 34 . Such low-density urban fabrics have much higher metabolism compared to older dense city centres or transit-oriented corridors 35 and much policy debate has focussed on the need to consolidate around lower metabolism fabrics, especially for climate mitigation 28 .

The fires in Australia could also be seen as partly due to lock-in as fire management and settlements built in forests are both subject to regulations that were shown to be seriously inadequate. They have highlighted two major issues with respect to climate change. The first is the need to adapt to a future where such fires will likely be increasing, threatening non metropolitan urban communities directly as well as settlements in the bush and forested areas around the cities. The second is how settlements in the burnt areas rebuild in order to be part of the mitigation process required. These issues can be linked as the areas destroyed by fire were in peri-urban and rural settlements that are potentially more resource consumptive and are highly vulnerable to climate change due to their fire exposure 36 .

In Australia the past 50 years has seen a movement to rural and coastal areas with housing that is positioned within forested areas, located a few hours from big cities, called ‘sea change’ or ‘tree change’ settlement 37 . Peri-urban development is now 15% of Australian settlements and rural settlements just 3% 38 . Such housing is heavily car dependent and often without much sustainability-oriented planning control over its location and issues such as energy and water efficiency or other elements of ecological footprint.

The apocalyptic fires were blamed by some commentators on a lack of prescribed burning, especially around settlements, though this was rejected by many scientists who argued that the fires could have been exacerbated by ‘hazard reduction burning’, which itself is very damaging to biodiversity and risks nearby settlements 39 . This fire debate has been raging in the academic and public policy arena for many years 40 , 41 , 42 . The threat to settlements is now much more real, prompting a reassessment of more nuanced, small scale approaches that are closer to Indigenous techniques and could be applied in and around settlement areas 43 , 44 .

The core themes of recent IPCC reports that can be applied to the Australian peri-urban and rural settlements, as well as larger urban areas in general, are:

Retreat and rebuild : scattered development along coastlines and into forested bush are now very vulnerable and many developments will need to ‘retreat’ as well as rebuild using new materials and circular economy principles. (See all recent reports from IPCC WG2 on Adaptation).

Solar or eco villages: new development will need to be in zero carbon villages which are more compact and built for 2050 zero carbon outcomes in housing and transport as well as having other less resource consumptive features such as water sensitive urban design; they will need to be in locations that are less vulnerable to fires and with landscaping that is also more fire resilient. Such small-scale local technology can be relevant to all developing and developed settlements of any size but need to be demonstrated in ways that are relevant to local conditions. (See chapter 4 in 1.5° C Report). Post corona virus recovery programs can feature such cost-effective, job-intensive projects.

Forest fire management and urban planning: maintaining the carbon in forests as well as protecting biodiversity needs to be a higher priority in future. Thus, changes in fire management to protect settlements will need to be more ecologically assessed, along with more Indigenous involvement in smaller scale burning regimes. (See Chapter 5 in the 1.5° C Report).

Equity and sustainability: the need for more agglomeration to provide better services and less car dependence is important to pursue in peri-urban and rural settlements as well as big cities. The scattering of urban development rather than building hamlets or villages is not sustainable or equitable as it is frequently not affordable housing or living. The zero-carbon agenda for houses and transport can alleviate poverty as well as achieving more sustainable outcomes. Such villages can share local solar facilities with solar recharge for electric vehicles, and create better public and active transport. (See chapter 4 in the 1.5° C Report and the Transport and Cities chapters in AR5 report).

Innovation and flow back to larger urban areas: the rapid rebuilding of such areas can flow back into retrofitting our cities as it can demonstrate the value of such innovation for more sustainable urban outcomes in both adaptation to fire and mitigation of climate change. (See chapter on Cities in AR5).

The Australian bushfires are the miner’s canary on climate change 45 and can begin to demonstrate the above climate resilient development principles in the rebuilding process of fire-impacted settlements. The next section presents a case study showing urban planning’s role in presenting the risks and how they had been well understood for many years.

The apocalypse experienced: case study of Southeast Australia

Case study of southeast australia.

During 2013, an Australian government funded research project on ‘Coastal urban climate futures in Southeast Australia’ was undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of climate scientists, coastal managers, urban planners, economists and health specialists. This earlier national case study is included partly because of its innovative interdisciplinary approach and importantly, as it turns out, its accuracy in predicting what happened in the 2019/20 bushfires 46 .

The study, funded by the ‘National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility’, explored possible coastal urban futures to 2030 and beyond 47 . It particularly focussed on seven local coastal areas stretching from Wollongong on the eastern New South Wales coast to Lakes Entrance on the southern Victorian coast of Australia. Coastal planning in the context of climate change was central to this research with the location being precisely in some of the worst Australian fires of 2019/20. The research method comprised the following key approaches: an inductive approach drawing on carefully selected coastal case studies; an integrated approach connecting science, urban planning, governance; a descriptive approach in identifying drivers and scenarios and a temporal dimension of 2030, 2070 and beyond.

The research sought to better connect climate science with local planning and the consideration of local decision makers. Fire was an important consideration along with other major coastal climate risks, particularly coastal inundation, floods and storms. The isolated nature of the coastal communities highlighted barriers to adaptation such as single-road access in the case of an emergency evacuation as well as the relatively high proportion of aging residents in some coastal villages, increasing the vulnerability of residents.

The South East Coastal Adaptation (SECA) report identified important characteristics of the coastal townships and villages that pointed to future climate risk and vulnerabilities for coastal communities in the near future. This included increased temperatures, further sea level rise, increasing coastal inundation, and the increasing risk of bushfires. Furthermore, small settlements with aging communities are particularly vulnerable due to physical isolation with limited access to public transport, health and other community facilities. This vulnerability could be exacerbated in the future with additional urban development in these settlements coupled with the impacts of climate change. Significant seasonal population fluctuations during summer months exacerbate the challenge of planning effectively for emergencies (see page 4 in ref. 47 ).

The research concluded with a number of measures that can mitigate future climate risks, recognising the ‘business as usual’ pattern of urban development discussed above. The SECA study proposed seven principles for a climate-adapted coastal town in 2030, including:

i) an integrated approach should be adopted for sustainable regional and local planning;

ii) the precautionary principle to decision-making should be applied to the location of new and redeveloped urban settlement and infrastructure;

iii) risk management approaches should be incorporated into local and regional strategies for coastal settlements;

iv) appropriate forums should be established at the regional level to enable collaboration;

v) there should be an ongoing process of community engagement;

vi) the skills and knowledge of regional and local communities should be connected (see page 61 in ref. 47 ).

Seven years later the findings of this report have unfortunately proven to be prescient with the recent catastrophic fires followed immediately by intense flooding, exacerbating the impacts on the natural and built environments. The socio-economic concerns foreshadowed are also now evident with the most recent data indicating a high dependency by the affected communities on social security. There is increasing concern that already vulnerable communities are becoming even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change with less capacity to adapt to new circumstances 48 .

The Australian government response to climate change

The Australian government response to climate change since 2013 has been arguably one of systematic dismantling of action on both mitigation and adaptation. This has included the abolition of the Climate Commission, the defunding of the National Climate Adaptation Research Facility and the deskilling on climate science and adaptation in national agencies including the CSIRO and the Federal public service 49 . As a consequence, there has been a general devolving of responsibility to the subnational level, resulting in a patchwork of initiatives rather than an integrated climate response.

Overall, as the climate science has become more definitive 2 , 3 , 4 , 25 , the Australian climate policy framework has become weaker. The SECA study highlighted that local communities need the support of higher levels of government to ‘enable’ local actions on both mitigation and adaption as coastal regions are at the forefront of climate risks (inundation, storms, fire exacerbated by drought conditions).

Action on climate change at the subnational level

In contrast to the lack of national action in Australia, there have been ‘stand out’ examples of climate change action at the state/territory and local level as has been found in many other places where weak national policy has been countered with strong city and state policy action 2 , 3 , 4 , 25 .

The Australian Capital Territory, the home of the national capital Canberra, is located inland in the southeast region. It is a prime example of action on climate change providing hope to communities operating in an environment of negative national governments. It has strong targets of 100% renewable electricity by 2020 (now achieved); carbon neutrality by 2045; and interim emission reduction targets of 40% by 2020, 50–60% by 2025, 65–75% by 2030, 90–95% by 2040. These have been supported by legislation though few controls have yet happened on peri-urban development or enabling of Eco-Villages. The four key strategic interventions include (i) clear legislated emission reduction targets, (ii) a commitment to renewable energy, (iii) the introduction of rapid transit in the form of light rail, (iv) a commitment to ‘living infrastructure’ and (v) innovation. Each of these are being discussed publicly in the context of ‘adapting an inland national capital to a warmer future’ 50 . Fire issues will now be firmly on the agenda across all Australian cities after the 2019/2020 apocalypse that threatened to engulf Canberra.

Apocalypse avoided? Scenarios for the future

So what does all this mean for Australian settlements in terms of future urban planning in a rapidly changing climate? Two scenarios are suggested.

Scenario 1: business as usual

Australia returns to ‘business as usual’ following the fires using traditional approaches in rebuilding settlements and surrounding bushland in peri-urban and coastal areas. There are no special processes that allow communities to express what they want to see in their future as it was decided just to go back to what was. The insurance system and local regulations led to ‘lock-in of business as usual’ with houses being quickly rebuilt in the same locations and using the same materials and designs approved by councils. The infrastructure for power and water is just patched up as there is no framework from any level of government to guide the installation of new systems that reduce their carbon and water footprint. Roads and petrol stations are rebuilt to encourage fossil fuel-based car use. Economic decline sets into rural areas as people traumatised by the fires refuse to return to settlements that become increasingly expensive due to their fossil-fuel and car dependence. Poverty and violence become more and more characteristic of the forested areas of scattered development. Forest and bushland management remains based on large scale prescribed burning but fails as most areas have become too dry and too hot to undertake such hazard reduction burning safely. Finally, as dry and hot weather intensifies further, another set of fires sweeps through, destroying homes and bushland in new and old areas, sweeping into big cities and causing sever panic and destruction. Australians lose their sense of resilience and concern for others as the future seems out of their control.

Scenario 2: bouncing forward

Australia decides not to just bounce back, but to bounce forward as good resilient settlements must do, adapting and mitigating as they rebuild 22 . The key responses begin in small demonstrations and rapidly spread into the bushland peri-urban and coastal areas so badly burnt and from there into regional communities nearby and across Australia.

Establishing more sustainable coastal centres with distributed solar power and water: many small towns that were cut off from power by the fires begin to create a 21 st century stand-alone power system based on solar and batteries. The coastal centres using donated solar PV and batteries establish distributed micro grids in 100 of the worst hit areas like Cobargo and Goongerah and the new model quickly spreads throughout regional areas rebuilding their energy and water supplies 31 , 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 .

The temporary small systems are evaluated after some testing weather and are found to be better than the previous model as shown in other global disaster recoveries 56 , 57 . These sustainable coastal centres quickly adopt another role as solar recharge hubs for community batteries, electric cars, bikes and small vans. This enables each rural centre to become free of all fossil fuels for residents and businesses as well as transport systems. People come to live in such villages as they are part of the zero-carbon transition and there is a new mood of hope in the community as they demonstrate leadership. The model quickly spreads across Australia, building on a long history of distributed power and water systems in remote areas. As they become more popular, the technology and governance systems flow into all peri-urban and rural towns and then into the big cities through small scale Citizen Utilities 58 .

Building Eco Villages into Australian cities: the dramatic growth in household solar in Australian urban communities 56 enjoys an even bigger growth spurt as the peri-urban/rural Eco Village model is copied across urban grids using community-scaled technology with solar, batteries and Solar Recharge Hubs for electro-mobility as well as water sensitive urban design and local citizen utilities. The 2020s see a complete phasing out of fossil-fuel based power and fuel as households and businesses adopt the new model, driven by cost reductions and the need to respond to climate change and the bushfire apocalypse.

Indigenous burning practices: after the failure of large-scale prescribed burning, the approach demonstrated by Indigenous fire experts in small parts of the landscape, such as Adelaide parklands, begins to take off as it is a more community-based, smaller scale and effective approach 42 , 59 . The application of this approach to non-metropolitan urban communities then follows. Management of bushland and forested areas of these smaller urban settlements is based on a patchwork of fire-regimes related to the biodiversity, ecology and human uses of each area, making them less susceptible to large-scale wildfires 44 , 60 .

Re-thinking our peri-urban/rural towns: the need for resilience to be built into all town planning and the consciousness of rural communities post the apocalypse makes it easier to replace the scattered approach to housing in vulnerable areas around the big cities and along coastlines, rivers and into forests. The focus is now on compact housing where Eco Villages are facilitated and other services can be better provided. New Towns along major train lines are built using the Eco Village model with strong resilience features and possible wider lessons for larger urban centres. Australians begin to see a better future is possible to rise out of the ashes of the apocalypse.

Apocalypse avoided: conclusions for urban sustainability

The Apocalyptic beginning to 2020 commencing with the Australian bushfires followed by hail storms, floods and most recently the COVID-19 virus global pandemic, has stretched everyone in Australia to cope with such a dramatic and continuing assault. We have focussed here on the Australian bushfires but the wider sustainability context cannot be ignored as it challenges many systems, including urban systems and ultimately urban resilience and sustainability 61 , 62 .

The above brings together three critical fields of research—urban form and structure, climate science, and planning for climate change. It seeks to connect leading global science and urban planning with locally grounded research and what it means now for directly impacted non metropolitan and peri urban communities. This is then seen as a globally important demonstration for urban communities to accelerate their transition away from fossil fuels. The green-shoots of burnt forests in Australia are like the regeneration of urban communities from these demonstrations (Fig. 5 ).

figure 5

Date of photo: 9 March 2020, Place: Genoa, Victoria, Australia (photo taken by Barbara Norman).

Overall there must be a combination of factors that come together to prevent the apocalyptic horsemen from mainstreaming and leading to collapse of our urban settlements with the following factors particularly important:

‘Renewable energy’ replacing oil and gas as well as coal. By focussing on a large-scale renewal of peri-urban and rural settlements made vulnerable by the apocalyptic fires, it is possible to create a model for distributed energy and water systems with electrification of transport, that spreads into the cities. Renewable urban centres can lead the world of change to renewable cities. But it can only work if it is combined with urban planning that implements a more integrated approach to action on climate change to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing future; indeed moving towards a regenerative urbanism that creates positive ecological outcomes not just less negative ones 63 .

‘Urban sustainability’ that can deliver climate responsive urbanism and not the scatter that has locked in such high consumption and poor ecological outcomes. This will mean:

Regenerating each urban fabric differently especially in fire-vulnerable small towns;

Creating more sustainable urban centres by consolidating ad-hoc development enabling rural concentration, similar to how polycentric development in urban sprawl has been focussed to make less car dependent suburbs 64 .

Retreating from risky areas; some settlements in forests should not be rebuilt but rather the forests should be regenerated, increasingly using Indigenous fire management approaches.

Co-designing climate change-savvy urban scenarios with communities, as deep changes need deep engagement to develop climate sensitive plans for living infrastructure, urban design, green precincts, place making and heat reduction 65 , 66 . The potential to re-invent the Volunteer Fire Brigades into ecologically-oriented fire managers working closely with all householders and businesses, as well as with Indigenous experts, on both adaptive and regenerative strategies can be a way to build community as well as address the apocalypse.

‘Investment in implementing climate responsive cities’ and continuous review of urban management strategies informed by the latest climate science and community needs to ensure that appropriate strategies are implemented in a timely and effective way to minimise risks to urban communities 66 .

The essence of effective urban planning is to manage change in a way that considers the community, the environment and the economy with the aim of developing more sustainable solutions. The impact of climate change is significantly increasing the challenge of managing urban growth. While the focus must remain on reducing emissions, much more consideration needs to be given to working with affected communities experiencing the negative impacts of climate change. Here we provide some insights into the possibilities and the benefits of approaching this global challenge and local challenge of resilience in the face of the apocalypse as confronted Australian settlements in 2019/2020. We suggest that the peri-urban areas and coastal settlements razed by the fires can become a model for climate resilient development that can flow into larger non metropolitan regional centres, bouncing forward in an integrated way, simultaneously responding to climate change and ensuring multiple benefits to urban communities small and large.

Data availability

This paper is a synthesis of a wide range of data and information from other sources. Thus, no new datasets were generated or analysed during the current study. The following figshare data record includes the original images presented in Figs. 2 and 5 of the article (taken by the corresponding author Dr. Barbara Norman), and descriptions of the publicly available data sources: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.13114643 67 .

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Norman, B., Newman, P. & Steffen, W. Apocalypse now: Australian bushfires and the future of urban settlements. npj Urban Sustain 1 , 2 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42949-020-00013-7

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case study on climate change in australia

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Photo by Jonas Gratzer | LightRocket via Getty Images

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Just days later, officials from around the world would convene in Glasgow, Scotland, for a United Nations summit to discuss the broader crisis that necessitates work like Harrison's: climate change.

"Like all reefs around the world, the Great Barrier Reef is under increasing pressure – and primarily from human impacts," says Harrison, a distinguished professor and director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University.

As world leaders continue to meet in Scotland to discuss major actions that can be taken to halt climate change, experts say that while more drastic, coordinated efforts are still needed, some promising projects are underway in Australia to address one of the many impacts of global warming: coral health. These experiments may provide a useful model for other countries trying to preserve their own reefs.

Not long before the U.N. Climate Change Conference – also known as COP26 – began, a damning report painted a picture of just how many corals have been lost in recent years. The findings from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network , released in October, show that 14% of the world's coral was lost between 2009 and 2018 alone. Australia, South Asia and the Pacific were the regions that experienced the greatest declines since 2010, according to a news release attached to the report. Australia alone is home to more than 16% of Earth's total reef area, the network notes.

Coral Reef Bleaching Outlook

Source: NOAA Satellite and Information Service

Within the global trend of declining coral cover, Australia's reefs "have endured a turbulent two decades, with a series of disturbances and recovery periods," David Souter, chief research officer at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and main author of the monitoring report, says in an email.

Australian reefs have lost about a quarter of their corals since 2007, and the Great Barrier Beef specifically lost about a quarter of its own hard cover between 1994 and 2019, Souter adds.

The main culprit for the losses is something called coral bleaching, a phenomenon that causes corals to expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues and turn completely white, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration . Souter notes that bleaching is caused by rising sea surface temperatures – a major result of climate change. One event in 1998 alone killed 8% of the world's coral, according to the global monitoring group's report. In Australia specifically, there have been three mass bleaching events since 2016, and these have taken a "heavy toll," Morgan Pratchett, a professor and reef research leader at James Cook University's ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, says in an email.

The state of Australia's reefs is not completely dire, experts note. Pratchett says the effects of the recent bleaching events vary and there has been "remarkable recovery" in some regions. Harrison, of Southern Cross University, describes the Great Barrier Reef as a "mosaic," with different levels of impact and some "beautifully healthy, thriving reefs" that escaped the bleaching.

The problem, Harrison says, is that recovery is "very patchy" in many parts of the Great Barrier Reef, and fewer reefs are recovering naturally because of the significant loss of adult breeding corals.

"Our real fear is that the next bleaching event will be followed by another major bleaching event at increasingly shorter timescales to the point where into the future, it's predicted that some level of bleaching may be occurring every year," he adds.

GLOBAL SURVEY:

This increasing frequency also concerns Anna Marsden, managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

"There are threats that are finally getting on top of the system, and the system is finally unable to repair itself," Marsden says. "The best way that someone explained it to me was if coral reefs were in a game of Snakes and Ladders. Climate change is dumping a bucket of snakes on the game."

The impact on Australia – and so many other countries that are seeing their corals die – is multilayered. While coral reefs only cover 0.2% of the global seafloor, they support at least 25% of marine species, according to the monitoring group's report. In Australia, there has been a "marked decline in the abundance and diversity of coral-associated fishes" since the recent bleaching events, according to Pratchett.

Beyond this clear environmental influence and its consequences, Australia's coral reefs are a key economic driver. Souter, of the marine science institute, notes that the Great Barrier Reef contributes about 6.4 billion Australian dollars ($4.7 billion) to the country's economy and supports 64,000 jobs in sectors such as reef-based tourism and fisheries. The U.N. World Tourism Organization did not respond to a request for information on data that might illustrate the impact that declining coral health has had on tourism in the country.

"The Queensland tourism industry is very conscious of the threat posed by declining reef health and water quality, and are very vocal in calling for increased action on climate change and water quality," Pratchett adds.

Anecdotally, Harrison says the tourism industry tied to the Great Barrier Reef has been "resilient," with operators being able to adapt and diversify where they bring visitors, even if they have to shift from going to "formerly spectacularly beautiful areas." He adds that the impacts "have been more severe under COVID than they were probably from the actual bleaching events." There's also a storytelling element that comes with showing visitors the reality of the situation, says Marsden.

"Our tourism is very well-managed, so you're not going to hurt the reef by visiting it," she says. "Visiting the reef, witnessing the scale of the issue, diving with marine scientists, witnessing how they're restoring and what they can do – coming away, you are a better citizen of the planet because you understand your footprint."

But there is an effect that's intangible, too.

"Australia is a marine nation," Souter says. "Coral reefs are part of our national identity and the rich culture of Australia's coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

That importance of national identity might be what's driving the many restoration efforts that are underway across the country. Harrison leads research that's focused on enhancing coral reproduction, a process that's been referred to as "coral IVF," according to Reuters .

The project tries to mimic the natural sexual production of reef-building corals by capturing just a small amount of the trillions of eggs and sperm that are released during what are called mass spawning events and moving the samples into "floating larval pools" developed by Harrison. The team then tries to "maximize the fertilization" in an effort to "increase the rates at which the larvae are settling onto damaged reef areas, and therefore kick-starting the recovery and the return of corals to dominate the reef," Harrison says.

The research has been successful so far, Harrison adds. He notes that there are about a dozen active experiments on the Great Barrier Reef and the team is "getting very similar responses all the time." Harrison clarifies in an email that this type of restoration can be "applied to other damaged reefs around the world, including the Caribbean."

Elsewhere, the Australian Institute of Marine Science is tackling the problem from numerous angles through its own experiments while also being a major contributor to the Australian Government's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program , which has various partners involved.

"As leaders in reef recovery, adaptation and restoration research, we're looking at understanding the natural capacity of corals and reefs ... to adapt to warming oceans, investigate ways we can enhance corals' ability to resist high temperatures and develop methods to scale up and fast-track coral recovery," Souter says.

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA - 2019/10/17: At Australian Institute of Marine Science, scientist are trying to breed corals that can withstand higher water temperatures. In the quest to save the Great Barrier Reef, researchers, farmers and business owners are looking for ways to reduce the effects of climate change as experts warn that a third mass bleaching has taken place. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In this file photo from Oct. 17, 2019, scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are trying to breed corals that can withstand higher water temperatures.

One project he describes involves scientists collecting wild corals adapted to the warmer sea temperatures of the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef and selectively breeding them with coral from cooler waters to "speed up" adaptation. Another explores making "very small changes" to the clouds above reefs to reduce the periods of high water temperature that cause coral bleaching.

Harrison, however, cautions that projects like his own are "only buying time for corals." And Pratchett says he is "yet to be convinced that we can engineer solutions to restore coral reefs."

"Reducing emissions is the most important action to minimize the impact of climate change on coral reefs," adds Souter. "However, even if we can limit the global temperature rise to below 1.5 or 2.0 degrees, it will take decades for ocean temperatures to reduce. In this context coral reefs will likely continue to decline and new methods to support reefs will be required if we are to sustain them through this period."

What will also be required is "real and effective action on international cooperation," Harrison says, pointing to the ongoing discussions at the U.N. conference in Glasgow. Marsden, of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, hopes the gathered leaders and officials are ambitious, and encourages them to "be brilliant."

Leaders from Australia specifically also need to do more, Pratchett says. The country is facing a dichotomy, where public support for climate change action does not always align with policy, at least in part due to Australia's reliance on fossil fuels. Marsden says the country can be viewed as the "poster child" for climate change because of both its ecosystems and the fact that its "entire economy is generated from digging stuff up."

At the U.N. summit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not join an international agreement to curb global methane emissions by 30% by 2030 – which garnered commitments from more than 100 countries – and also did not strengthen Australia's 2030 target for reducing emissions, according to The New York Times . A May survey from the Lowy Institute found that nearly three-quarters of Australian respondents believe "the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs," while a majority (60%) said the country is doing too little.

"Given Australia is custodian of 16% of the world's coral reefs, they need to take a much more prominent role in reducing emissions, and this includes a much stronger commitment to phase out thermal coal," Pratchett adds. "A lot rests on the commitments arising from COP26, including the global fate of coral reefs."

While the future of the Great Barrier Reef – and reefs around the world, for that matter – could look "really bleak" depending on how countries respond to climate change in the coming years, Harrison says, he insists that giving up is not an option.

"We all feel some form of ecological grief when we swim over a dead reef that was formerly spectacular and beautiful," he says. "But we can't afford to just take too long to reflect on that. We have to continue to find ways of solving this really wicked problem. … Just because it's tough in conservation, it just means we've gotta get tougher."

Marsden agrees, and says when she's asked if her job is depressing, she responds that it isn't because she's surrounded by "remarkable people" that are doing the work.

"The best way to stop feeling depressed about climate change," she adds, "is to lean into it."

GREAT BARRIER REEF, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 10: Qantas flight number QF787, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft flies close to the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland on October 10, 2020 in Great Barrier Reef, Australia. With international and domestic border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt on travel, the Qantas Great Southern Land Scenic flight will take 150 passengers on an aerial tour over iconic Australian destinations. The seven-hour scenic flight on board a Qantas 787 Dreamliner aircraft - usually used for long haul international flights - will perform a loop from Sydney up to locations along the New South Wales and Queensland coasts as well as Uluru in the Northern Territory before landing back in Sydney. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

Photo by James D. Morgan | Getty Images

A Qantas aircraft flies close to the Great Barrier Reef on Oct. 10, 2020, in Queensland, Australia.

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Case studies

Written with Indigenous Desert Alliance

The 10 Deserts Project is an Indigenous-led land management collaboration across Australia’s desert Country. Covering around one-third of the continent, desert Country is highly important, as it has significant biodiversity and continued Indigenous custodianship of the land.

The project aims to build the capacity of Indigenous people and organisations to ensure healthy Country, healthy people and a strong Indigenous voice for the desert ( IDA 2021b ) . It is a significant example of a large-scale collaborative landscape management model. Launched in Canberra in 2018, the project is now managed by the Indigenous Desert Alliance (IDA), a member-based organisation that is dedicated to empowering desert people to look after their Country.

The 10 Deserts Project focuses on maintaining people’s connection to Country and collaborating across official borders to support the wellbeing of communities and landscapes. This is done through caring for Country, looking after cultural heritage, supporting career development, sharing stories and building relationships. Nyapuru Rose, Nyangumarta Elder and Chair of IDA, says, ‘What matters most is that rangers and the people of the desert are supported through improved opportunities for collaboration and that better outcomes are achieved. We will have an even clearer and stronger united voice for the desert as we come together, making sure people know the desert is on the map’.

Peter Murray, Ngururra Traditional Owner and Chair of the 10 Deserts Project, says, ‘Through sharing our approaches, skills and resources, we can build a strong community of practice. Through regional projects like 10 Deserts we can help to build the capacity of all ranger teams in our sector and provide much-needed resourcing to help groups deliver the highest level of land management services’.

The 10 Deserts Project involves around 60 desert ranger groups. Ownership over the priorities for managing the desert is important to desert rangers. Lindsey Langford, chief executive officer of IDA, says, ‘Indigenous rangers are interested (in) managing desert Country to ensure a series of interrelated regional outcomes are being achieved and that collaboration at scale and from the ground up is key. Rangers view desert Country as a whole, which is why it is so important to be resourcing large-scale and multidimensional projects’ (pers. comm., 30 October 2020). Another key objective is ensuring that women rangers are equally valued and included in the workforce, which started off as male dominated.

Gareth Catt, the 10 Deserts Project Regional Fire Management Coordinator, says, ‘Deserts are broad landscapes that are culturally connected across official boundaries and borders, requiring a holistic approach to management’ (pers. comm., 17 June 2021). For example, the fire management program aims for a coordinated approach across the region, combining traditional practice and contemporary techniques ( IDA 2021a ) . There are ecological, social and cultural benefits when rangers manage fire in the desert, including reducing uncontrolled wildfires, improving habitat, increasing employment, and increasing connection to Country and wellbeing ( IDA 2020 ) . The program includes a seasonal fire calendar to educate the community on the right time of year for burning ( IDA 2019 ) .

Other project activities include the management of invasive animal and plant species such as feral camels and buffel grass. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, feral camels do much damage to remote country, threatening waterholes and cultural landscapes across the deserts. Another area is the management of buffel grass ( Cenchrus ciliaris and Cenchrus pennisetiformis ), a major weed that transforms native grass ecosystems into monocultures of buffel grass ( Desert Support Services 2018 ) . This displaces native plant species and affects the availability of food and shelter for native wildlife ( Desert Support Services 2018 ) .

Above all, the key aim of the project is maintaining connections between people and Country. In desert landscapes, people are part of the place. The 10 Deserts Project is finding ways to support this connection for positive environmental and social outcomes that are ultimately interconnected.

Source: EPSDD (2020)

Canberra Nature Park comprises 39 nature reserves covering approximately 11,400 hectares including the Aranda Bush Nature Reserve and the Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve in the environs of urban Canberra. More than 400,000 Canberrans have easy access to the Canberra Nature Park reserve. Within the area, there are several threatened species, including the superb parrot ( Polytelis swainsonii ).

The ACT Government’s Canberra Nature Park reserve management plan 2021 explicitly recognises the special connection of Indigenous people to land, and how access to Country can benefit Indigenous wellbeing and being actively engaged in managing land maintains Indigenous cultural identity.

The ACT Government acknowledges the Ngunnuwal people as Traditional Custodians and employs Indigenous rangers to care for ACT parks and reserves, including conducting cultural burns.

Canberra Murrumbung ranger Jackson Taylor-Grant explains the positive impact of providing opportunities for Indigenous rangers to work on Country ( Allen 2018 ) :

It is a job that comes with having to have a lot of passion for what you do. And you can see it just bleed out of Aboriginal people when they come into this landscape. We take hold of that passion, and we use it to take care of this landscape. Working as professional rangers for Parks and Conservation is a really good way of capturing that passion and using it to the advantage of the management of these areas.

Authors: Sam Provost (Yuin) and Cassandra Price (Muruwari), Maiam nayri Wingara Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data Sovereignty Collective

The collecting and collating of Indigenous environmental data are relatively new initiatives in Australia. Natural resource management is, and has since colonisation, been the responsibility of the Australian and state governments, and is supported through legislation such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). Often, while the data collected to support these processes include information about Indigenous flora, fauna and landscapes, Indigenous peoples have limited or no access to, or control over, these data. Moreover, where Indigenous environmental data are available, they are often outdated or insufficient for meeting community needs ( Hill et al. 2013 ) .

An example of Indigenous exclusion is found in lutruwita/Tasmania in the management of the short-tailed shearwater ( Ardenna tenuirostris ; yolla in Aboriginal language) whose chicks are subject to annual commercial and recreational harvesting (mutton birding). Harvesting mutton birds is a traditional Palawa practice and Palawa have historically been involved in the mutton bird industry. In contemporary times, Palawa people operate the commercial harvest and this activity is of high social, cultural and economic importance to the Aboriginal community throughout Tasmania ( Skira 1990, Skira et al. 1996 ) . Yet the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE) manage the annual harvest. DPIPWE collects harvest data (the number of chicks harvested annually) from the commercial and recreational harvest to inform management and policy decisions. And while external institutions and organisations can apply to access the data by establishing a data agreement, all these processes proceed without any oversight from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Embedding Indigenous data governance in Palawa mutton birding would ensure the protection of Palawa knowledges while benefitting the industry as a whole. Indigenous data governance is defined as Indigenous peoples’ ‘power and authority over the design, ownership, access to and use of data’ ( Lovett et al. 2019 ) . In the case of the Palawa mutton bird harvest, implementing Indigenous data governance processes would allow for program design, data capture, monitoring and analysis that aligns with Palawa obligations to care for Country in a sustainable way. The development of data governance structures that foreground Palawa sovereignty could ensure that data collected are contextual and relevant, allowing the data to highlight the importance of natural resource management for Palawa futurity.

Source: Bayliss & Finlayson (2018)

Kakadu National Park is a jointly managed iconic World Heritage-listed site dominated by extensive low-lying freshwater wetlands and coastal floodplain systems. Traditional Owners highly value these biodiverse environments, as they support a range of values and activities that enable continued connection to Country through hunting, fishing, social engagement and as sites of intergenerational transfer of knowledge. The natural and cultural values of Kakadu National Park are highly interconnected, with Traditional Owners playing a central role in their management via a co-management arrangement with the Australian Government. Bininj/Mungguy people, the Traditional Owners of Kakadu National Park, have been acutely aware of environmental change in the area for many decades, and several management actions have been taken by Bininj/Mungguy to protect important cultural sites.

Feral pigs ( Sus scrofa ) and highly invasive weed species, including paragrass ( Urochloa mutica ), threaten the park. Future saltwater inundation because of climate-induced sea level rise and increases in extreme weather events including storm surges and flooding represent a significant risk. Historically, introduced buffalo ( Bubalus bubalis ) caused the destruction of levee banks, allowing salt water to intrude into freshwater systems. More recently, rising sea levels have converted culturally important freshwater billabongs into saline areas – resulting in a loss of habitat and key cultural species of interest to Bininj/Mungguy, including freshwater fish and turtles, magpie geese, and lilies and other freshwater plants.

Coastal communities in northern Australia, like those whose livelihoods depend on the continued integrity of natural and cultural values in Kakadu National Park, will be particularly impacted by climate change–induced sea level rises because they have the potential to exacerbate existing threats to the environment, such as invasive species. Such cumulative impacts risk reducing opportunities for biodiversity conservation and realising the benefits of ecosystem-based livelihoods such as ecotourism.

Provided by Djungan Neal, Samarla Deshong, Hilda Mosby, Kathy McInnes, Julian O’Grady

Djungan Neal, from the Djungan people, Samarla Deshong from the Konjimal people, Hilda Mosby from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and Kathy McInnes and Julian O’Grady from CSIRO shared their knowledge on sea level rise, its impacts and possible solutions, at the National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change held in Cairns in March 2021.

Indigenous peoples have witnessed and recorded many past changes to Country, such as volcanic eruptions and sea level rise, including the rapid rise of seas by around 150 metres in the past 20,000 years. Djungan people have stories about the crisis and how they got together and adopted new kinship and hunting laws, and kept caring for the Country under the sea.

In the coming years when (the places on Country) go back underwater it will still be culturally significant to us. Djungan Neal, Djungan Traditional Owner

Indigenous peoples in Australia have adapted to sea level changes of up to several metres in the past ( Nunn & Reid 2015 ) , demonstrating cultural resilience to significant landscape change.

A yarning circle at the Gathering identified that sea level rise has many impacts, including:

  • loss of culturally important sites, including burial sites in sand dunes and midden sites being washed away
  • saltwater intrusion into mangroves, which affects fish abundance, especially for the culturally significant salmon
  • coral bleaching in Torres Strait from sediments being pushed onto the reef during monsoonal weather
  • migration of fish and birds (e.g. the eels that travel up and down the Coral Sea)
  • decline in food sources and opportunities to hunt
  • higher tides on turtle nests
  • monsoon seasons becoming more intense, which impacts infrastructure (e.g. the Tiwi Islands have had infrastructure destroyed and there are no cyclone shelters)
  • monsoons causing environmental change (e.g. creeks drying out due to climate change, causing loss of species such as freshwater stingray and native fish)
  • the seasonal abundance of animals (seasonal calendars) – for example, sharks, rays and insects are out of step with the usual seasonal changes.

Konjimal people are currently losing vital cultural sites through sea level rise on the Country in the Mackay region. Figure 6 is a photograph from an aerial survey (circa 2006) showing a big fish trap that has since been damaged by erosion and sea level rise.

Photo: Matt Bloor

Six low-lying islands where Torres Strait Islanders live are currently dramatically threatened by sea level rise, as are numerous uninhabited coral cays. Coastal erosion threatens food and fuel delivery, increasing the already high cost of living. Hilda Mosby, Torres Strait Regional Authority, explained the rate of change is increasing: ‘Climate change changes the usual. Changes are happening faster than they have in the past’.

Scientists have measured about 30 centimetres of sea level rise in the past century. This means that king tides and storm surges are having greater impact, and this impact will increase in the future. Parts of Cairns are projected to be covered by a 1-in-100-year storm tide by 2050, and the much greater area projected to be covered by a 1-in-100-year storm tide by 2100 (also see Figure 7):

Many generations are going to be dealing with sea level rise … If we limit (climate change) to 2 degrees then sea rise will be between 0.2 and 0.6 metres, but if it doesn’t stop we can have 5 metres by 2300. Kathy McInnes, CSIRO

Indigenous peoples and scientists identified that disaster resilience plans that provide solutions from both Indigenous and western knowledge systems, based on equity between these knowledge systems, are needed to adequately plan for sea level rise. However, understanding the bigger picture is also vital – how climate change is interacting with impacts from tourism, mining and high carbon emission development. It is vital to provide resources for Indigenous people to be on Country, with governance systems that satisfy lore and involve more people, especially youth, in land management.

Source: CRA (2021)

More information: Morgan et al. (2019) and Morgan-Bulled et al. (2021)

By the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, Tommy Clarke and Ginger Ridgeway

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is the elected and independent body to represent Traditional Owners and Aboriginal people in Victoria on the journey towards treaty. The assembly’s role is to set up the process and the architecture for treaty-making in Victoria.

The assembly uses a model that is democratic and considers cultural practices and needs – a mixture of reserved seating for formally recognised Traditional Owner groups and open seats. A permanent ‘Elders’ voice’ is also being established to ensure that the wisdom and resilience of Elders can guide the assembly’s work.

Based on community discussions and input, the assembly has agreed that the treaty-making agenda must include both a statewide treaty for statewide matters and local treaties for individual Traditional Owner groups. It is now working to establish the ground rules and framework that will ensure negotiations can take place on equal footing. For example, discussions with the government are taking place about creating a treaty authority, which will serve as an independent umpire to facilitate negotiations and help resolve any disputes.

The shared journey to treaty is a historic opportunity to right past wrongs and tackle ongoing racism and injustices. But, at its heart, treaty is about securing structural change to improve the lives of Indigenous people in Victoria, to make sure that Indigenous people and Traditional Owners have the freedom and power to influence the decisions that affect community and Country.

The National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change 2021 was part of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub, led by CSIRO.

Traditional Owners from more than 40 Indigenous nations attended the March 2021 event in Cairns. According to Bianca McNeair, Malgana woman and co-chair, Indigenous people are dealing with the impacts of a continuously changing environment. Gavin Singleton, Yirrganydji Traditional Owner from the Cairns region, said, ‘From changing weather patterns, to shifts in natural ecosystems, climate change is a clear and present threat to our people and our culture’ ( CSIRO 2021a ) .

Gimuy Walubara Yidinji Traditional Owner, Gudjugudju, said that Traditional Owners can learn from each other on how to respond to a changing climate. ‘We need to understand and prepare for climate change now and into the future’, Mr Gudjugudju said.

At the conference, Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists agreed on guidelines for ethical and culturally appropriate partnerships, which are necessary for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

We’re learning from the scientists how to plant the seagrass, which was not something that was part of our traditional culture because we never really had to do that – it was managed through other means. We didn’t have this whole global warming, which is raising the temperature of our water. ( Allam 2021b )

Photograph showing 3 dancers, 2 standing – one of which is holding a spear – and 1 moving across the floor.

Source: CSIRO ©CSIRO

Lisa McMurray and Rowan Foley

Indigenous carbon farming is emerging as an opportunity for Indigenous landowners to generate Australian Carbon Credit Units and contribute to reducing climate change by adopting the approved savanna burning methodology .

If carbon farming can demonstrate environmental, social and cultural core benefits, then the voluntary market will purchase the credits for a premium price. As the Indigenous carbon industry grows, the demand will increase for a rigorous independent process of measuring core benefits. This will allow private purchasers to accurately demonstrate their carbon emission offsetting and more clearly identify how they are meeting Sustainable Development Goals through their investment.

The Aboriginal Carbon Foundation supports the development of a Core Benefits Verification Framework, which enables Indigenous ownership of the verification process. This will allow Indigenous people to be the experts in the verification of environmental, social and cultural values associated with community and economic development programs ( AbCF 2021 ) .

The Victorian Traditional Owner native food and botanicals strategy ( FVTOC 2021 ) provides a good example of the potential links between culture, enterprise and economic benefit. The Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations facilitated the development of the strategy to enable Traditional Owner rights and interests regarding biocultural species and their associated knowledge and practices to be embedded in the industry as it develops. The process included engagement and workshops to enable a strong Indigenous-led design process and inclusion of Indigenous data and Indigenous cultural and intellectual property.

The vision is to establish an authentic, vibrant and growing native foods and botanicals industry that respects and recognises the inherent rights of Traditional Owners to enable a culturally appropriate approach to commercialisation and managing Country. The strategy focuses on 3 program areas – provenance, market and practice – that Traditional Owners identified as priorities to create opportunities in the industry. Within each area, there are certain objects, such as:

  • ‘Knowledge Healing’, where Traditional Owners are restoring and reclaiming knowledge, and the knowledge systems associated with native foods and botanicals
  • ‘Embedding Practice’, where embedding industry principles and protocols co-developed by Traditional Owners is an opportunity to improve the health and sustainability of Country, industry practice and operations within a cultural landscape.

Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation collaborated with the University of South Australia to identify plants for commercial use as medicines. David Claudie, a Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju Traditional Owner and Custodian of the northern Kaanju homelands, Northern Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers, and the holder of significant Indigenous ecological knowledge, developed the corporation. The patent for the products is co-owned by the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation and the University, and Claudie is recognised as a co-inventor. This is an innovative approach; in the past, Indigenous knowledge holders were recognised as informants and not inventors.

Survey results: National study of the impact of climate-fuelled disasters on the mental health of Australians

Australians are facing increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather disasters driven by climate change. In December 2022, Climate Council, supported by Beyond Blue, undertook an extensive two-part national study designed to better understand the impact of climate-fuelled disasters on mental health in Australia, and how best to support the wellbeing, recovery and resilience of communities.

The first part of this study was a poll conducted by YouGov with a representative national sample of 2,032 Australians. The second part, conducted in parallel and hereafter referred to as the “community survey”, sought to gain some deeper insights from those in disaster-affected communities, and saw 476 self-selected Australians share their personal experience of climate-fuelled disasters.

This paper provides a snapshot of some of the most significant findings from both of these surveys. A full report with detailed analysis of the results, case studies, and full recommendations, will be published on 28 February 2023.

Key findings from YouGov Survey:

Number of australians who have experienced an extreme weather event:.

  • The majority (80%) of Australians reported experiencing some form of disaster at least once since 2019, of which 63% said heatwaves, 47% flooding, 42% bushfires, 36% drought, 29% destructive storms, and 8% landslides.
  • People living in rural and regional areas are significantly more likely to have experienced flooding at least once since 2019 (61%) than people living in urban areas (38%). Similarly, country residents were more likely to have been affected by a bushfire at least once (49%) than people in urban areas (36%).
  • People in Queensland and New South Wales are the most likely to have experienced multiple disasters since 2019. Specifically, 38% of Queenslanders and 34% of people in New South Wales reported experiencing flooding more than once since 2019 (compared to 13% in Victoria, 5% in Western Australia, 4% in South Australia, and national average of 24%.)

Worries about climate change and extreme weather events in Australia:

  • More than half (51%) of Australians surveyed are “very (25%) or fairly worried (26%)” about climate change and extreme weather events in Australia.
  • Around two in five (42%) are “very or fairly worried” about their community facing further disasters during the current summer. People who are “very worried” about climate change and extreme weather events in Australia are more likely to be women (27%, compared to 23% for men), and to be younger (30% for those aged 18 – 34, compared to 22% for those aged 65+).

Impacts of climate-fuelled disasters on mental health:

  • More than half (51%) of Australians who experienced climate-fuelled disasters since 2019 say their mental health has been somewhat impacted, of which one-in-five (21%) claim that the disaster they went through has had a “major or moderate impact” on their mental health.

Provision of mental health support following disasters:

  • Among those who have experienced at least one climate-fuelled disaster since 2019, more than a third (37%) said there was too little mental health support available for people in the community after the disaster. A similar proportion (36%) said there was just enough support, while only 3% said there was too much support.
  • The number of people saying there was too little support varied slightly between states: Around four in ten in New South Wales (41%) and Victoria (39%), and around a third in South Australia (34%), Queensland (32%) and Western Australia (28%).
  • People living in provincial and rural areas are more likely to say there is too little mental health support following a disaster (41%), compared to those residing in inner and outer metropolitan areas (33%).

case study on climate change in australia

Climate Council and Beyond Blue express their deepest gratitude to the hundreds of individuals who kindly and courageously contributed their stories, experiences and insights to this study.

The National survey data comes from a National YouGov Poll conducted from 2-16 December 2022. The sample covered Australians aged over 18 including representatives of different genders, generations, geographies (states, city/rural, etc.), education levels, income levels, voting habits, and other characteristics.

From 1-16 December, in parallel with the national survey, the Climate Council and Beyond Blue invited Australians to share their experiences of climate-fuelled disasters with a Community Survey. This was by way of an online qualitative survey, advertised through the Climate Council and Beyond Blue respective networks.

Climate Impacts One in three Aussies fear extreme weather will force them to permanently leave their homes

Climate Impacts Survey results: Climate-fueled disasters cause Australians to fear permanent loss of homes

Climate Change Unwanted anniversary: 365 days of record-breaking ocean temperatures, Reef fading to ‘shadow state’

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ScienceDaily

Climate change will see Australia's soil emit CO2 and add to global warming

New Curtin University research has shown the warming climate will turn Australia's soil into a net emitter of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), unless action is taken.

Soil helps to keep the planet cool by absorbing carbon, however as the climate gets warmer its ability to retain carbon decreases -- and in some instances can start to release some carbon back into the air.

A global research team -- led by Professor Raphael Viscarra Rossel from Curtin's School of Molecular and Life Sciences -- predicted the changes in the amount of carbon in Australia's soil between now and the year 2100.

To do so, the team ran simulations using three different paths for society: an eco-focused 'sustainable' scenario, a 'middle-of-the-road' scenario and another which predicted a continued reliance on 'fossil-fuelled development'.

It found Australian soil will be a net emitter and could account for 8.3 per cent of Australia's total current emissions under the 'sustainable' scenario and more than 14 per cent by 2045 under the 'middle-of-the-road' and 'fossil-fuelled' scenarios.

By 2100, soil emissions under both scenarios are predicted to account for an even higher proportion of total emissions, but the predictions are more uncertain.

While some areas with arable farmland could continue to store carbon, the study found it would not be enough to offset the amounts of carbon lost from the soil in areas which are more sensitive to warmer weather, such as coastal regions and Australia's vast rangelands.

Australian soil holds an estimated 28 gigatons of carbon, 70 per cent of which is stored in these rangelands.

"Unless farming methods are further improved so farmland soils can continue to store carbon, any gains and benefit will likely decrease by 2045 and worsen in time, if the Earth continues to warm at its current rate," Professor Viscarra Rossel said.

"This means Australia's soil could release even more carbon into the air instead of storing it, which will in turn make climate change worse.

"If emissions continue at the current rate, the Earth's temperature is expected to reach 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures sometime this century, which is predicted to have dire consequences and

potentially catastrophic impacts for the planet."

Professor Viscarra Rossel said more sustainable pathways and improved management and conservation of soils were essential for Australia to meet its emissions reduction goals.

"Ensuring Australia's rangeland soils can maintain their carbon stocks is imperative: capturing and storing additional carbon will require interdisciplinary science, innovation, cultural awareness and effective policies" Professor Viscarra Rossel said.

"It will be challenging, given the rangelands' drier and more variable climate, its relatively sparse vegetation and other factors such as bushfires -- however, only a slight change over such large areas will make a positive difference.

"Innovative grazing management, cultural burning and regenerating biodiverse, endemic native plant communities, for example, could see rangelands soils absorb and store more water and carbon, reduce erosion and lead to more stable ecosystems -- and ultimately, fewer emissions."

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Story Source:

Materials provided by Curtin University . Original written by Samuel Jeremic. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • R. A. Viscarra Rossel, M. Zhang, T. Behrens, R. Webster. A warming climate will make Australian soil a net emitter of atmospheric CO2 . npj Climate and Atmospheric Science , 2024; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41612-024-00619-z

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case study on climate change in australia

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Records smashed – new WMO climate report confirms 2023 hottest so far

Rising sea levels are causing the regular flooding of homes in Bangladesh.

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Records were once again broken for greenhouse gas levels, surface temperatures, ocean heat and acidification, sea level rise, ice cover and glacier retreat, a new global report issued by the UN weather agency (WMO) on Tuesday shows.

Heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones caused misery and mayhem, upending everyday life for millions and inflicting many billions of dollars in economic losses, according to the WMO State of the Global Climate 2023 report .

“ Sirens are blaring across all major indicators ... Some records aren’t just chart-topping, they’re chart-busting. And changes are speeding up,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a video message for the launch.

Based on data from multiple agencies, the study confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year on record, with the global average near-surface temperature at 1.45°C above the pre-industrial baseline. It crowned the warmest ten-year period on record.

Dr Celeste Saulo (centre), Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) at the launch of the State of the Global Climate 2023 report

“The scientific knowledge about climate change has existed for more than five decades, and yet we missed an entire generation of opportunity ,” WMO Secretary-General Celeste Saulo said presenting the report to the media in Geneva. She urged the climate change response to be governed by the “welfare of future generations, but not the short-term economic interests”.  

“As Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, I am now sounding the red alert about the state of the global climate,” she emphasised. 

World in disarray 

However, climate change is about much more than air temperatures, the WMO experts explain. The unprecedented ocean warmth and sea level rise, glacier retreat and Antarctic sea ice loss, are also part of the grim picture. 

On an average day in 2023, nearly one third of the ocean surface was gripped by a marine heatwave, harming vital ecosystems and food systems, the report found. 

The glaciers observed suffered the largest loss of ice on record – since 1950 – with extreme melt in both western North America and Europe, according to preliminary data. 

Alpine ice caps experienced an extreme melting season, for instance, with those in Switzerland loosing around 10 per cent of their remaining volume in the past two years. 

The Antarctic sea ice loss was by far the lowest on record – at one million square kilometres below the previous record year – equivalent to the size of France and Germany combined .

Observed concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – reached record levels in 2022 and continued increase in 2023, preliminary data shows. 

Global repercussions

According to the report, weather and climate extremes are either the root cause or serious aggravating factors that in 2023 triggered displacement, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, health issues and more.

The report, for example, cites figures that the number of people who are acutely food insecure worldwide has more than doubled, from 149 million before the COVID-19 pandemic to 333 million in 2023 in 78 countries monitored by the World Food Programme ( WFP ).

“The climate crisis is the defining challenge that humanity faces. It is closely intertwined with the inequality crisis – as witnessed by growing food insecurity and population displacement, and biodiversity loss,” said Ms. Saulo.

A glimmer of hope

The WMO report not only raises alarm but also offers reasons for optimism. In 2023, renewable capacity additions soared by almost 50 per cent, totalling 510 gigawatts (GW) - the highest observed rate in two decades. 

The surge in renewable energy generation, primarily fuelled by solar radiation, wind, and the water cycle, has positioned it as a leading force in climate action for achieving decarbonization goals.

Effective multi-hazard early warning systems are crucial for mitigating the impact of disasters. The  Early Warnings for All initiative aims to ensure universal protection through early warning systems by 2027. 

Since the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction , there has been an increase in the development and implementation of local disaster risk reduction strategies.

From 2021 to 2022, global climate-related finance flows nearly doubled compared to 2019-2020 levels, reaching nearly $1.3 trillion . 

However, this amounts to only about one percent of global GDP, underscoring a significant financing gap. To achieve the objectives of a 1.5°C pathway, annual climate finance investments must increase more than sixfold, reaching almost $9 trillion by 2030, with an additional $10 trillion needed by 2050.

Cost of inaction

The cost of inaction is staggering, the report warns. Between 2025 and 2100, it may reach $1,266 trillion , representing the difference in losses between a business-as-usual scenario and a 1.5° C pathway. Noting that this figure is likely a significant underestimate, the UN weather experts call for immediate climate action. 

The report is launched ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Ministerial meeting, where climate leaders and ministers from around the world will gather for the first time since  COP28 in Dubai to push for accelerated climate action, including delivering an ambitious agreement on financing at COP29 in Baku later this year – to turn national plans into action.

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Published papers, submitted manuscripts.

The ESCI project is underpinned by leading science. New national climate data projections have been produced and evaluated, and the work that contributes to the case studies has advanced the understanding of how climate science affects infrastructure. This work has resulted in a number of academic publications during the life of the project and is expected to continue to be published.

Publications / Peer Reviewed Papers

Severe Convective Wind Environments and Future Projected Changes in Australia

Brown A and Dowdy A (2021) Severe Convective Wind Environments and Future Projected Changes in Australia. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 126(16), e2021JD034633. https://doi.org/10.1029/2021JD034633

Thunderstorms can produce severe convective winds (SCWs) that damage buildings and other infrastructure such as electricity transmission towers. Understanding the climatology of SCWs is therefore important for planning and risk management. An archive of observed SCWs is used to examine a diverse set of diagnostics for indicating SCW environments based on reanalysis data. These diagnostics are then applied to climate model data to examine projections of future climate change for Australia. A diagnostic based on logistic regression is found to provide a better representation of observed SCW occurrences than other diagnostics. Projections for the future based on that diagnostic indicate increases and decreases between −16% and 34% in the occurrence frequency of regionally averaged SCW environments, based on the 10th and 90th percentile estimates of annual mean changes from a 12-member ensemble of global climate models. Projections based on other severe weather diagnostics indicate a wider range of future changes, including increases and decreases of up to 50% in magnitude, with regional and seasonal variations through Australia. Changes in the frequency of SCW environments appears to be largely driven by increased low level moisture concentrations which can lead to increased convective available potential energy, countered in some cases by a stabilization of the mid-troposphere temperature lapse rate. These results represent the most comprehensive estimate to date for constraining the range of uncertainty in projected future changes in convective environments for Australia, including severe thunderstorms and associated SCWs, noting that this has significant implications for risk management and climate adaptation purposes.

Severe convection-related winds in Australia and their associated environments.

Brown A and Dowdy A (2021) Severe convection-related winds in Australia and their associated environments. Journal of Southern Hemisphere Earth Systems Science 71, 30-52.

Severe surface wind gusts produced by thunderstorms have the potential to damage infrastructure and are a major hazard for society. Wind gust data are examined from 35 observing stations around Australia, with lightning observations used to indicate the occurrence of deep convective processes in the vicinity of the observed wind gusts. A collation of severe thunderstorm reports is also used to complement the station wind gust data. Atmospheric reanalysis data are used to systematically examine large-scale environmental measures associated with severe convective winds. We find that methods based on environmental measures provide a better indication of the observed severe convective winds than the simulated model wind gusts from the reanalysis data, noting that the spatial scales on which these events occur are typically smaller than the reanalysis grid cells. Consistent with previous studies in other regions and idealised modelling, the majority of severe convective wind events are found to occur in environments with steep mid-level tropospheric lapse rates, moderate convective instability and strong background wind speeds. A large proportion of events from measured station data occur with relatively dry environmental air at low levels, although it is unknown to what extent this type of environment is representative of other severe wind-producing convective modes in Australia. The occurrence of severe convective winds is found to be well represented by a number of indices used previously for forecasting applications, such as the weighted product of convective available potential energy (CAPE) and vertical wind shear, the derecho composite parameter and the total totals index, as well as by logistic regression methods applied to environmental variables. Based on the systematic approach used in this study, our findings provide new insight on spatio-temporal variations in the risk of damaging winds occurring, including the environmental factors associated with their occurrence.

Temperature impacts on utility-scale solar photovoltaic and wind power generation output over Australia under RCP 8.5

Huang J, Jones B, Thatcher M, Landsberg J (2020) Temperature impacts on utility-scale solar photovoltaic and wind power generation output over Australia under RCP 8.5. Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy 12:046501

Climate change has the potential to impact the generation of renewable energy significantly subject to location and equipment specifications. As the penetration of renewable energy in the energy systems keeps increasing, this impact needs be systematically assessed so that investment and reliability information is accurate. Australia represents an ideal study case characterized by its frequency of extreme weather events and the recent and planned growth in the renewable energy sector. In this study, we model and quantify the long-term temperature de-rating impact of utility-scale solar photovoltaic and wind power generation over Australia. Using climate projections simulated by six Global Circulation Models and the CSIRO's Cubic Conformal Atmospheric Model, we analyze half-hourly time series of key weather variables such as temperature, surface solar irradiance, and wind speed for 1980–2060 at two sites where variable renewable generators are located, or are likely to be located in the future based on the current Integrated System Plan by the Australian Energy Market Operator. We also built power conversion models for the temperature de-rating of solar and wind power with added focus on high temperature scenarios. We found that the general temporal trends in annual solar and wind power generation due to climate change are small, being at the order of 0.1% of their average production per decade. However, for peak temperature events, which coincide with the peak power demand and, generally, high prices, the temperature de-rating impact can be much more substantial and disruptive.

Australian Rainfall Anomalies in 2018–2019 Linked to Indo-Pacific Driver Indices Using ERA5 Reanalyses

Watterson IG (2020) Australian Rainfall Anomalies in 2018–2019 Linked to Indo-Pacific Driver Indices Using ERA5 Reanalyses. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 125:e2020JD033041

Abstract The 2019 and 2018–2019 periods had record low All-Australia rainfall in both observations and the ECMWF's Reanalysis 5, or ERA5, data set over 1979–2019. An analysis of the relationships between interannual variability of rainfall and atmospheric circulation, vertically integrated moisture flux, and temperature anomalies using ERA5 alone is undertaken. Both standard driver indices and those that combine the Pacific and Indian Ocean influences are used. Regression fields for low annual Australian rainfall show a widespread negative rainfall anomaly extending into the east Indian Ocean or IND region and a positive anomaly in the western Pacific PAC region. A moisture flux anomaly takes moisture eastwards toward PAC. This pattern largely persists in the four seasons. In March–May 2019 it can be partially linked to a positive Niño 3.4 anomaly and in June–August to a positive Indian Ocean Dipole. For the annual case, the detrended Niño 4 index explains 24% of the 2019 ERA5 Australian rainfall deficit. This rises to 38% for the 2018–2019 deficit (46% for observations), for the Pacific-Indian Dipole index that combines the PAC and IND regions, whose sea surface temperature anomalies have opposite effects. The correlation of the index with 2-year rainfall is −0.7. There is much variability, in the Australian monsoon rainfall especially, that is not linked to simple indices, although rainfall is well matched with moisture flux convergence. This extends to the equatorial zone where the climate of the Maritime Continent can be better examined with ERA5's 0.25° data.

Publications / Submitted Manuscripts

Towards ACCESS-based regional climate projections for Australia

Su C-H, Ye H, Dowdy A, et al. (submitted). ‘Towards ACCESS-based regional climate projections for Australia’ Geoscientific Model Development (submitted February 2021).

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  1. Case studies

    Case Study The 2019−20 Australian bushfire season. Case Study COVID-19, greenhouse gas emissions and climate. Case Study 2021 First Nation Peoples Statement on Climate Change. Case Study Talking in Arrernte about climate change. In climate, search case studies in the State of the Environment report website.

  2. Case Studies

    Climate Change in Australia. Climate information, projections, tools and data. Overview. About this site. Guiding principles; International modelling collaboration; ... Case Studies. A range of case studies have been developed that provide examples of the climate projections information into practice.

  3. Biodiversity case study

    Case study description: A hypothetical state and federal government joint initiative is formulating a land management plan for "Region B", which has a diverse regional climate including a gradient from the coast to mountain ranges. Rather than manage a particular flagship species, the initiative will manage overall biodiversity and ...

  4. Case studies

    Case Study Australian sandalwood - native forest product or threatened species? Richard McLellan, Charles Sturt University. The Australian sandalwood ... Australian philanthropists are pledging tens of millions of dollars to fight climate change - for example, Norman Pater and Gita Sonnenberg are aiming to restore 1 million hectares and ...

  5. Case studies

    Climate change and extreme events. Greenhouse gas emissions; Climate shifts; ... The establishment of the Australian Biological Resources Study in 1972 saw an increase in rate until a plateau was reached in the 1990s. Since 2000, the annual rate of naming of new species has declined, likely due to a reduction in investment in taxonomy in real ...

  6. Climate warriors down under: Contextualising Australia's youth climate

    The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly implies that in cases where there are concerns that societal issues that have a direct impact on the child, in this case, climate change, the ...

  7. PDF Case Study Climate Change Adaptation

    As discussed previously at Section 5, according to the 2015 OECD report The Economic Consequences of Climate Change: The damages from selected climate change impacts to 206029, damages from selected climate change impacts are likely to reduce Australia's GDP by approximately 0.9 per cent in 2060.

  8. New IPCC report shows Australia is at real risk from climate change

    These findings are from our work as co-authors of the new Australia and New Zealand chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment Report on Impacts, Vulnerability and ...

  9. Australia's wildfires have now been linked to climate change

    March 4, 2020 at 12:39 pm. Human-caused climate change made southeastern Australia's devastating wildfires during 2019-2020 at least 30 percent more likely to occur, researchers report in a ...

  10. Australian case study report on piloting the Taskforce on Nature

    This includes the case study report and 5 value chain deep-dive guidance documents. Organisations can use the package to assess their nature-related risks and opportunities. ... Stronger action on climate change. See how the Australian Government is committed to taking more ambitious action on climate change. Find out more. Energy Toggle menu.

  11. Case Studies

    The case studies provide instructive examples of how to use the relevant climate information to explore different hazards. Each case study has a short summary available online, and most have a longer technical report attached which describes the risk assessment process in more detail. Every location, business and asset combination is different.

  12. Apocalypse now: Australian bushfires and the future of urban

    The Australian bushfires brought in the 2020s with a global sense of apocalypse. The extent, timing and intensity of the fires dramatically demonstrated how climate change is already driving ...

  13. How Australia Is Trying to Save Coral Reefs From Climate Change

    The findings from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, released in October, show that 14% of the world's coral was lost between 2009 and 2018 alone. Australia, South Asia and the Pacific were ...

  14. Case Study: Streamflow & Hydro-generation

    Hydropower has traditionally been the largest source of renewable energy in Australia, accounting around 26% of the renewable energy generated in 2019. 1 Hydropower offers both dispatchable power generation and long-term energy storage. Pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) delivers system benefits by time-shifting energy supply and demand to ...

  15. PDF Case study 1 Climate change and the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders

    Case study 1 Climate change and the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders Imagine the sea rising around you as your country literally disappears beneath your feet, where the food you grow and the water you drink is being ... 12 The Independent, 'Sinking without a trace: Australia's climate change victims', The Independent, 5 May

  16. Climate change in Australia

    Australia's annual average temperatures are projected to increase 0.4-2.0 °C above 1990 levels by the year 2030, and 1-6 °C by 2070. Average precipitation in the southwest and southeast Australia is projected to decline during this time, while regions such as the northwest may experience increases in rainfall.

  17. Case studies

    Case Study Indigenous people and scientists connect to find solutions to climate change The National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change 2021 was part of the Australian Government's National Environmental Science Program Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub, led by CSIRO.

  18. Survey results: National study of the impact of climate-fuelled

    Australians are facing increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather disasters driven by climate change. In December 2022, Climate Council, supported by Beyond Blue, undertook an extensive two-part national study designed to better understand the impact of climate-fuelled disasters on mental health in Australia, and how best to support the wellbeing, recovery and resilience of communities.

  19. Climate change will see Australia's soil emit CO2 and add to global

    A warming climate will make Australian soil a net emitter of atmospheric CO2. npj Climate and Atmospheric Science , 2024; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41612-024-00619-z Cite This Page :

  20. PDF Australia : Case Study

    The underlying system is changing due to climate change. In Australia, we have observed: 1) Step reductions in growing season rainfall in southern Australia particularly WA, SA ... Physical and Socio-economic Characteristics of the Case Study . Australia is a small country on the smallest continent with a low average population

  21. Climate change study: Australia is in the crucible of slower ...

    Climate change is making giant heat waves crawl slower across the globe and last longer, with Australia and North America recording the biggest increases in magnitude, a study has found. Since ...

  22. The role of iconic places, collective efficacy, and negative emotions

    Communication strategies designed to strengthen individual and community climate action play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting worst-case climate scenarios. However, communicating climate change in a way that motivates action remains a significant challenge. Through two experimental surveys with representative samples of Australian residents (n<SUB>1</SUB> =723, n ...

  23. Hydrology case study

    The catchments affecting City A (in southeast Australia) are known to have quite a large "inflation factor" between rainfall and runoff. For this example we assume the round number of 2 (e.g. an ongoing reduction of 10% in rainfall may lead to a reduction of 20% in runoff). A general projection for southern Australia is reduced annual rainfall.

  24. new WMO climate report confirms 2023 hottest so far

    Red alert. Based on data from multiple agencies, the study confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year on record, with the global average near-surface temperature at 1.45°C above the pre-industrial baseline. It crowned the warmest ten-year period on record. UN News/Anton Uspensky. Dr Celeste Saulo (centre), Secretary-General of the World ...

  25. The Effects of Climate Change

    Global climate change is not a future problem. Changes to Earth's climate driven by increased human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are already having widespread effects on the environment: glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking, river and lake ice is breaking up earlier, plant and animal geographic ranges are shifting, and plants and trees are blooming sooner.

  26. PDF The impact of climate change on tourism in Australia

    The impact of climate change on tourism in Australia - a case study relating to bushfires… 99 the natural environment and life on Earth [AR5 Synthesis Report… 2014]. The greenhouse effect is intensifying because there is more and more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 2015 in Paris, 195 countries

  27. Peer Reviewed Papers

    Peer Reviewed Publications. Published Papers. Submitted Manuscripts. The ESCI project is underpinned by leading science. New national climate data projections have been produced and evaluated, and the work that contributes to the case studies has advanced the understanding of how climate science affects infrastructure.

  28. មន្ត្រីជាន់ខ្ពស់អាមេរិកព្រមានអ៊ីស្រាអែលពីការវាយលុកតាមជើងគោកចូលក្រុង Rafah

    មន្ត្រីជាន់ខ្ពស់រដ្ឋបាលលោក Biden ...