AUSTRALIA: Worrying evidence of rapid changes

Australia's peanut farmers are on the move and some are relocating nearly 2,400 kilometres away for better access to water; last year 88 people in Victoria died on the way to hospital as a result of the heat wave that preceded the disastrous bushfires in early February; the average temperature across the Australian continent has risen by more than 0.8°C in the past 60 years; the Great Barrier Reef is degrading; and more than 40% of the nation's farmers are seriously worried about the viability of their businesses in the face of climate change.

These are just some of the effects of climate change unveiled by academics, scientists, social scientists and public servants from universities, research institutes and government agencies at a Universities Australia National Policy Forum held at Parliament House in Canberra in March.

The contributors provided unequivocal evidence that climate change was occurring across Australia, that it was accelerating and that its impact on society and the national economy was already apparent.

Universities Australia is the peak industry body representing Australia's 39 universities in the public interest, nationally and internationally. The forum was held at Parliament House to attract the attention of the politicians who, for the most part, have paid little mind to tackling the problems caused by climate change.

Speakers at the forum backed the detailed measurements of climate change presented in a report released just before the forum by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

That report described temperature increases, changes in rainfall, increasing acidification of the ocean and sea level rises. But the speakers at the forum, from a range of universities and research groups, went further and linked those measures directly to the consequences for Australians now and in the near future.

"Climate change is actually dangerous, it kills people," said Associate Professor Keith Dear of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

And not just during Victoria's record-breaking heat wave earlier this year. Dear noted that nearly 15,000 people had died in France directly as a result of a heatwave in August 2003, and more than 35,000 across Europe.

He said high temperatures could also kill indirectly by increasing the risk of bushfires, for example. His data showing the number of days of extreme fire danger was increasing annually were backed by Dr Blair Trewin of the Bureau of Meteorology as well as the chief executive of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, Dr Gary Morgan.

"The information is out on the web," Morgan said. "The fire fighting industry is quite fearful about the future and looking at ways to adapt to it."

Dear discussed predicted rises in infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. The increase in average temperature allowed the range of the mosquito which carries the dengue virus to extend a further 800 kilometres south-east down the coast of Australia from Townsville.

The mental wellbeing of the farming community was already deteriorating measurably, said Dr Anthony Hogan, also of the national centre at the ANU. Hogan's figures show that the breakdown of social structures and the mental insecurity induced by an increasingly unpredictable environment were creating serious anxiety among farmers and their families.

"Sixteen per cent of our farmers are saying they can no longer cope with any more change," Hogan said. "Another third are saying, 'We are wobbling in the balance as to whether we can cope with any more change'."

The people worst hit were the youngest farmers, including the greatest number of women,

That is not surprising. Farmers are among the first to feel the impact of climate change. Already the peanut industry had assessed its future and a part had decided to move, said Professor Graham Baker and Dr Roger Stone from the University of Southern Queensland.

They noted that the cotton industry was also undergoing a consultation process about where it was headed while the rice crop in the Riverina had dropped from a million tonnes a year to less than 50,000. The harvest date for wine growers has been moving a day earlier each year since 1980, according to data accumulated by Professor Snow Barlow of Melbourne University's school of land and environment.
Snow is a professor of horticulture and viticulture and Convener of a primary industries adaptation research network. He said dry-land crops were being sown later and harvested earlier.
This added to the evidence of changes in the timing of the life cycles of flowering plants and birds, according to his colleague, Dr Marie Keatley of the university's department of forest and ecosystems.
"In many places in Australia, such as grain-cropping in the Mallee in northern Victoria, we are getting to the limits of adaptive management where farmers can change what they are doing within their existing system," Barlow said.

"Given the climate data from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, it won't be too long before we have to consider changing our agriculture systems entirely."

But not all the news was bad, said Professor Amanda Lynch from the school of geography and environmental sciences at Monash University in Melbourne: "By an accident of our geography, Australia is a country that is subjected to very large changes over a decadal time scale because of the El Niño phenomenon.

"So we already have an agricultural sector and a water management sector that is used to large swings over long time scales. We are used to pragmatic, messy, contingent approaches."

But the problems facing Australia are immense. Some idea of the scale was provided by Dr Michael Raupach of the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. Raupach showed that the impact of the decline in economic activity brought about by the global financial crisis - the largest impediment to growth since the Great Depression - was a halt of about six weeks in the rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, from the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, discussed the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef which injects 63,000 jobs and activity worth A$6.5 billion (US$5.36 billion) each year into the Australian economy.

The reef was sensitive to increases in temperature and acidity, Hoegh-Guldberg said: "The combination of these factors we are seeing right now is fundamentally different to any other point in the past 700,000 years at least. This has driven recurrent mass coral bleaching and mortality since 1979, and a 15% drop in the ability of reefs to grow and calcify since 1990."

Hoegh-Guldberg reported simulation work from Stanford University in the US on how increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would affect coral reefs. The present level was about 386 parts per million and rising at a rate of about 2 ppm a year.

"By 450 ppm, we are already getting to marginal conditions for coral reefs, conditions that may not have been seen for 20 to 40 million years," he said "Between 450 and 500 ppm, corals are no longer able to compete against other organisms like seaweed and we would end up with the Great Weedy Reef.

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

This could be achieved at a reasonable cost, said Professor John Quiggin, an economist from the University of Queensland.

While it was regularly suggested that greenhouse gas mitigation would have catastrophic impacts on our standard of living, Quiggin said the best estimates were that the cost of stabilising the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would amount to about 2% of gross domestic product, or about one year's economic growth.

Such action would also have a small positive impact on employment, he said. "The GFC had a larger impact in Australia than what we are talking about."

Getting that message across has not been helped by concerted attacks on climate science. The main story of climate change has been well established for decades, said Professor Kevin Judd from the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of Western Australia.

"Unfortunately, the uncertainty of the detail as to how this will play out is being exploited by contrary voices, as is the natural variability of weather. But we should not get bogged down in arguments about the details."

Such attacks on the credibility of the scientific process in unravelling climate change had ramifications for the credibility of science in general, added Professor Ken Baldwin of the ANU Climate Change Institute.

It highlighted a set of obligations on the scientific community to use the peer review process properly to maintain trust and confidence in science; on journalists, to report the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue; and on politicians to accept the consensus point of view and begin to act on it.

* Tim Thwaites is a science journalist and broadcaster. This is an edited version of a report he prepared on the forum organised by Universities Australia and Science in Public.