Australia: Climate Change Impacts

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Australia: Climate Change Impacts


Australia, the smallest continent, is the only one completely occupied by a single nation-state, the Commonwealth of Australia. In discussions of global climate, the island nation of New Zealand, about 1,250 mi (2,000 km) to the southeast, is sometimes grouped with Australia. Effects of human-caused climate change have been observed in Australia and New Zealand, including more heat, less cold, less rain, rising sea level, and damage to coral reefs, with larger changes in the future predicted by climate scientists.

Both natural and human systems are seeking to adapt to the ongoing changes. Human systems in this region, which is industrialized and technologically advanced, are relatively adaptable, but natural systems have limited capacity to adapt. Forecast climate changes are more than 90% likely to exceed the adaptive ability of many species, and may cause a number of these species to become extinct. The world's largest reef system, the Great Barrier Reef, 1,300 mi (2,100 km) long, is located along the northeastern coast of Australia and will likely be severely damaged by global warming.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

About 96 million years ago, Australia's continental plate separated from Antarctica and began to drift toward its present position. Surrounded by wide expanses of ocean, its land-dwelling animals, plants, and many of its birds have been isolated from other populations ever since. This has led to the evolution of thousands of unique Australian species, including such famous animals as koalas and kangaroos. Australia has also been inhabited by human beings, the peoples known as the Aborigines, for about 42,000 years. The continent was settled by Europeans starting in the late 1700s, leading to the extinction of at least 140 plant and animal species.

The climate of Australia is dry in the interior, with lush or semi-arid regions around much of the coast. Half the continent receives less than 11 in (300 mm) of rain per year. This makes Australian agriculture marginal in many places and particularly vulnerable to drought caused by climate change. Most of the human population lives near the southern and eastern coasts.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the report of its Working Group II, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. The report noted the following points, among others, about the impacts of climate change on Australia and New Zealand:

  • Regional climate change has already begun (stated by the IPCC with “very high confidence”). There has been 0.29–1.26°F (0.4–0.7°C) warming in the region. Australian droughts are more intense. There is less rain in southern and eastern Australia and northeastern New Zealand. There are more heat waves and fewer frosts.
  • Impacts from climate change are already occurring. These include stressed water supplies and agriculture, reduced seasonal snow cover, shrinking glaciers, and changes in ecosystems.
  • In the twenty-first century, Australia's climate is virtually certain to be warmer. There will be more fires, heat waves, floods, landslides, droughts, and storm surges. Western New Zealand is likely to receive more rain.
  • Significant loss of biodiversity (number of species) is likely in the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland Wet Tropics, and other ecologically rich areas.

Impacts and Issues

In the early 2000s, Australia experienced a six-year drought that imperiled water supplies and Australian agriculture, prompting the country's prime minister to announce in early 2007 that irrigation water for farms might be cut off to preserve drinking-water supplies for

cities. The official suggested that people begin to pray for rain.

Rivers dried up in the large Murray-Darling basin, where much Australian agriculture is located, causing the country to consider importing food for the first time in its history. Some Australian climatologists, while warning that individual weather events can never be linked definitively to global climate change, said that there was a high chance that the drought did reflect global warming. Wayne Meyer, professor of natural resources science at Adelaide University, said that “on the balance of evidence from southern Australia, rainfall patterns appear to have shifted …. There's no question about the evidence in terms of increased temperature. We have seen this persistent increase in temperature over the last 30 or 50 years. All the projections are that that will continue.” Meyer also said that Australia's geography, including warm climate, deserts, and flatness, made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. “We are the ones that are going to be at the forefront because we're less buffered.”

Australian public opinion in favor of the reality and dangerousness of global climate change runs higher than in any other country. About 69% of Australians believe that global warming is a critical problem, compared to 46% in the United States, according to a 2007 poll of 17 countries by the Chicago Council on Public Affairs and

Primary Source Connection

This extract from a publication of the Australian government shows the Australian government's official view on some of the impacts of climate change on Australia's ecosystems. Although this report acknowledges these likely impacts, the Australian government was initially one of the most reluctant industrialized nations to take action to reduce greenhouse emissions. In December 2007, Kevin Rudd, the newly elected prime minister of Australia, signed the paperwork to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in his first official act as prime minister.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.


The Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is part of an international treaty on climate change. The Kyoto Protocol (or Kyoto Amendment) binds participating nations to reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions or limit emission growth. At that time the protocol entered into force, the United States and Australia were the two largest, developed nations that did not ratify it. Australia made a commitment to lower greenhouse-gas emissions at the Kyoto conference, but originally declined to be bound by the treaty amendment.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia was to cut its greenhousegas emission growth to 108% of its stated 1990 levels. Australian delegates successfully negotiated for Australia to be permitted an increase in emissions, arguing that the nation occupies a large, isolated land area. Furthermore, unlike the European Unioncountries, Australia did not have partner nations with which it could finance and share its reduction burden.

Australia remains one of the largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. The UNFCCC reports that Australia's greenhouse-gas emissions in 2004 were 125% of their 1990 levels. However, Australian government and several independent environmental watch groups assert that changes in pollution laws and new emissions trading schemes will help lower Australia's greenhousegas emissions by 2012.

When Australia's new government took office in December 2007, one of the first acts of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was to adopt the Kyoto Protocol. Australia's shift in policy and ratification comes nearly three years after the protocol entered into force, but Australia is committed to meeting the protocol's 2012 emissions reduction targets.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

See Also Africa: Climate Change Impacts; Arctic People: Climate Change Impacts; Asia: Climate Change Impacts; Europe: Climate Change Impacts; North America: Climate Change Impacts; Small Islands: Climate Change Impacts; South America: Climate Change Impacts.



Parry, M. L., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Noticewala, Sonal. “At Australia's Bunny Fence, Variable Cloudiness Prompts Climate Study.” New York Times, August 14, 2007.

Web Sites

“Climate Change—An Australian Guide to the Science and Potential Impacts.” Australian Greenhouse Office, 2003. <> (accessed September 16, 2007).

Coorey, Madeleine. “Australian Drought Linked to Global Warming.” TerraDaily, April 20, 2007. <> (accessed September 16, 2007).

Larry Gilman

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Australia: Climate Change Impacts

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Australia: Climate Change Impacts