How Climate Change Will Be a Disaster for Australia

From bushfires to falling food production and public transport breakdowns, Australia will be one of the most affected countries in the world.

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Jan 30 2015, 12:00am

This week Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology released what they're calling their most comprehensive projections to date on how climate change will effect Australia by the end of the 21st century. Unsurprisingly it's not light reading. Australia is to be hit harder by climate change than any other country, and the CSIRO is "confident" that temperatures will increase, sea levels will rise, oceans will become more acidic, and snow depths will decline.

The most worrying aspect of the report is the prediction that temperatures in Australia could increase by more than five degrees Celsius by 2090, the highest predicted rise of any countries.

Compounding this are two reports there will be "more occurrences of devastating weather events," as well as "more frequent swings of opposite extremes from one year to the next." Dr. Wenju Cai, the chief writer of the report, says will all have "profound socioeconomic consequences."

He predicts that extreme El Nino and La Nina events—which are often associated with bushfires, droughts, and flooding in Australia—will happen once every 13 years rather than the current rate of once of every 23 years. (One example of a La Nina event is the 2011 the Queensland floods that killed 38 people and cost the economy an estimated $30 billion.) "It's a double whammy," Dr. Cai says. "It may be droughts one year, and then the next year there's no relief because there'll be flooding and extreme rain."

Projected increases in temperature and precipitation. Table via.

Professor Will Steffen, a climate change expert and researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, says that these changes to the climate will have "many serious impacts" on health, agriculture, infrastructure, and mining.

More regular heat waves and a gradual increase in temperatures will lead to more cases of heatstroke, and even death in extreme examples, as well as a general loss of workers' productivity. C hanges to the climate could result in "large reductions in crop yield," says professor Steffen, as well as heat stress and animals becoming tired more easily. He points to the loss of 20 to 30 percent of wheat and maize in Europe during the 2003 heat wave, which at the time was the hottest summer since 1540. Steffen warns that similar crop reductions could be seen across the Australian agriculture sector as temperatures begin to rise and heat waves become more common. These temperature increases will have a dire effect on Australian farmers, he says, as "there'll be more stress on plants and animals".

The effect of extreme temperatures on Royal Gala apples. Image via.

These heat waves will also create more dangerous bushfire conditions and "increase the risk of more frequent and intense fires," which will especially impact rural areas. Compounding this, it will rain less often but the rains will be more intense when they do come, which will leave some crops waterlogged. If these dire predictions are correct, there will also be significantly more droughts in the agricultural zones in the south of the country, and as Steffen says, "we all have a very good idea of how farming suffers in prolonged and severe droughts."

Our electricity and transport infrastructure will also struggle in these conditions, with Steffen predicting buckling train lines and the like becoming more regular. As Melbourne's Metro trains are regularly shut down on warm days, this will make a problematic situation even more serious.

Climate change will also have a devastating impact on mining, one of Australia's largest industries. "Extreme heat can affect outdoor workers, reducing their productivity and endangering their health," Steffen explains. "Extreme rainfall can flood mines and close them down for long periods of time." This has already happened in the country, with many Queensland mines shutting down for extended stretches during the floods of 2011 and 2012. Mining makes up an estimated 5.6 percent of Australia's GDP, and the country is the world's largest exporter of coal, iron ore, lead, and diamonds.

Despite all this bad news, professor Steffen says that with quick action these dire consequences might be at least partially avoided. "You can't immediately stop the warming trend, it's going to take a couple of decades," he explains. "We need to stabilize the climate and need to start reducing emissions now. It's important that we get on top of this problem, we can cope with small increases, but it will be much harder to cope with the larger increases."

But with a change this big, it needs to happen at a massive level. "We have to have national policies, such as carbon pricing systems of some type, a renewable energy target and we need a continuity of policies," he says.

Steffen says that despite the seemingly disastrous nature of these reports for Australia, there is widespread acknowledgement that action must be taken, and many are already starting to act. We just better hope it's in time.

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