The Heat Is Online

Australia Braces for Severe Climate Impacts

Australians face buffeting from climate change
Reuters News Service, Nov. 17, 2004

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Australians are in for a rough ride from global warming and will have to cope with a warmer, drier world swinging wildly between extremes of drought and flood, bushfires and dust storms.

Few people know this better than Tony Coleman, one of the country's top insurance executives.

"Climate change represents a significant threat to our community," said Coleman, chief risk officer and group actuary for Insurance Australia Group. "By increasing the frequency and ferocity of severe weather events, climate change will impact all areas of our lives."

Shifting rainfall patterns and rising farm and other economic losses from natural disasters would be part of the price of global warming, he said.

So, too, will more damage to homes and businesses and health threats from heat waves and the spread of insect-borne diseases such as dengue fever and Ross River fever, debilitating illnesses normally restricted to the warmer, tropical north of the country.

"We can already see evidence of climate change in Australia," he said.

"We are experiencing heavy rainfall events, yet declining rainfall in metropolitan and agricultural regions. The severity of our droughts and bushfires are increasing and we're experiencing more intense cyclones," said Coleman, who is also a member of the Australian Climate Group, which comprises scientists, experts from industry and green groups such as WWF.

UP IN SMOKE

On a per-capita basis, Australia is one of the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and methane from land clearing and farming.

The country is also a major exporter of oil and natural gas as well as a large consumer of coal. Emissions from its 24 coal-fired power stations are equivalent to those from 40 million average cars, a report by WWF Australia says.

Plenty of room then, says the WWF, to wean the country off its heavy dependence on fossil fuels and switch to greater use of non-polluting solar, wind and wave power and greener biofuels.

The Australian government says it is committed to meeting emission targets set under the Kyoto climate change protocol. Canberra signed the pact in 1997 but refuses to ratify it, saying it is bad for industry and fails to include major developing nations such as China and India.

The government's Greenhouse Office says it is pushing energy efficiency and renewable energy to meet the Kyoto targets.

While scientists and green groups welcome the pact, there is strong evidence of climate change across the globe and its impacts are likely to increase as greenhouse gas levels rise.

In Australia, the world's most arid inhabited continent, climate change is being felt across the country from the Great Barrier Reef to farmers, wine growers and city dwellers.

People in Sydney, the nation's largest city with a population of four million, face water restrictions and the main reservoir has fallen to alarming levels because of declining annual rainfall and a long period of drought in the catchment area.

Last month, the New South Wales state government released a plan for the next 25 years looking at water recycling, conservation, piping more water from a major river to the south and building a desalination plant.

Failure to act would mean the city could not meet the needs of another million residents by about 2030 as the climate, overall, became warmer and drier.

Across the country in Perth, capital of Western Australia, the state government has already approved a desalination plant. Declining rainfall since the mid-1970s has starved the city's reservoirs. Ground water levels are also falling.

Ian Foster, climatologist for the Western Australia Department of Agriculture, says Perth, with a population of about 1.2 million, faces a triple-whammy. The main reservoirs aren't replenishing fast enough but the population is growing and so too is per-capita water use.

He says winter rains between May and July have also declined, leading to farms and forests drying out during summer and raising the risk of fires.

"It's really quite scary. If you've had a dry winter, the risk of a runaway fire during summer increases because all the fuel that would normally be wet during the winter is dry and is ready to burn," he said.

REAP WHAT YOU SOW

It's a frightening scenario that also threatens the forested southeast, where the majority of Australians live.

Scientists say the world has already warmed 0.6 degrees Celsius in the past century, sea levels have risen 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 inches) and could rise much further by 2100 through thermal expansion of the oceans and if polar icecaps and glaciers melt rapidly.

Mike Coghlan, head of the National Climate Centre in Melbourne, said a sea level rise of a few centimetres could lead to greater coastal erosion in flat areas because of storm surges. Sea level rises of half a metre (1.6 feet) or more could be disastrous for some cities and low-lying Pacific islands.

Coral expert Terry Hughes said climate change was already affecting the Great Barrier Reef and pointed to unprecedented large-scale bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, when a spike in sea surface temperatures damaged large areas of coral.

Hughes, scientific director for coral reef biodiversity at James Cook University in Queensland state, said warmer sea temperatures won't destroy reefs but will change them dramatically in terms of species composition.

The barrier reef would still survive in 2050, he said, but it would be "a diminished system in terms of diversity".

As for the wine industry, shifting rainfall patterns and drier conditions were likely to change the way vineyards operated, said Tony Devitt, owner of Ashbrook Estate in Western Australia's Margaret River area south of Perth.

This could mean reducing grape production to maintain quality, he said, adding: "It may have impacts on fruit composition which may then impact on wine style."

Tristy Fairfield of the Conservation Council of Western Australia said Australians would have to wake up to the connection between climate change and burning fossil fuels.

Western Australia was a test case, she said. It earned vast wealth from the oil and gas industries, yet the climate change impacts of these industries were likely to be great.

"The idea of the weather in 2050 scares me. There will be storms and surges that will damage the coast and infrastructure and when it is dry it will be like a tinder-box," she said.

"It's a classic case of reap what you sow."