The climate crisis Australia our children could inherit

The variable origin story of the expression “may you live in interesting times” is something of a metaphor for the climate crisis. There’s some disagreement about where it was started, by whom, and how long it’s been going.

What’s not at issue is that was never meant as a blessing: it’s generally wielded ironically. Better to live in a dull time of peace than an era of trouble.

Like it or not, as the Australian Academy of Science’s new report – The risks to Australia of a 3°C warmer world – makes plain, the future is going to be ‘interesting’. How interesting is up to us – and those we choose to lead our nation.

The climate crisis

In the chilling report, Australia’s top climate experts warn that we must take drastic and immediate action to avoid the devastating costs of the climate crisis.

“Dangerous climate change is here and the impacts are increasing,” says co-author Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, from the University of Queensland. “The last five years have been extraordinary in terms of the size and frequency of catastrophes, such as record fires, floods and bleaching events.”

Australia is warming faster than the rest of the world, rapidly approaching temperatures of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The last decade was our hottest on record, with eight of the 10 warmest years ever recorded occurring between 2010 and 2020.

But the worst could be yet to come.

The report says that the world’s current emissions trajectory has us on track to hit 3°C of global warming by 2100.

The report reviews hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers to outline how this will affect Australia’s people, economy and environment over the coming decades.

“It would be disastrous to vulnerable ecosystems, industries, cities, health and well-being,” says Hoegh-Guldberg.

“We stand to suffer.”

A wide range of impacts are starkly summarised, from deadly heatwaves to increased risk of bushfires to a reduction in food production and security. This paints a grim picture for current and future generations of Australians. A child born today will likely live to the end of the century – and will inherit a vastly more unstable world than the one their parents knew.

By 2040, for example, summer heatwaves in Sydney and Melbourne will reach highs of 50°C; Perth, Adelaide and many regional towns will likely hit this mark sooner.

“Heatwaves are the silent killer in Australia,” says co-author Professor Lesley Hughes, from Macquarie University. “They’re responsible for more deaths than any other climate-related disasters, but they also affect our agricultural productivity, our ecosystems, and pretty much everything else.”

Increasing heat is particularly concerning because our population is aging – by the mid-2050s, a quarter of Australians will be over 65, making them vulnerable to heat stress.

By 2090, the average number of days per year with a maximum temperature above 35°C will have skyrocketed in many places – most dramatically in Darwin, which will see 265 of these days per year (up from just 11 in 1981–2010).

In fact, with 3°C of warming, every day of the year in the NT will be a heat-stress day. It will be difficult for livestock and humans to exist in that environment, let alone work outdoors without overheating.

Warming temperatures will impact other aspects of human health, too, allowing infectious diseases to spread across temperate parts of Australia where they wouldn’t have previously survived. By 2079, cases of Ross River virus are estimated to increase by up to 45% in our southernmost state capital, Hobart.

Hotter, drier conditions will also increase the risk of bushfires. A recent report found that climate change contributed to the Black Summer fires of 2019–20, increasing the risk of an extreme fire season by at least 30%. This report finds that once we hit 1.5°C of warming, extreme fire days will increase by 15–65% – and at 3°C, they will increase by 100–300%.

This means we would see fires as severe and widespread as the Black Summer regularly – possibly every year.

Hotter conditions and decreased rainfall will also lead to longer, more frequent and more severe droughts. Already, the report points out that broadacre crops such as wheat and barley have seen reductions in profitability of up to 22% since 2000. We currently rely on just 4,200 family farms in WA to produce 50% of our wheat – but by 2090, predictions say that shifting rainfall patterns will cause these wheat yields to fall by up to half.

A 3°C rise would also render ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef completely unrecognisable, as well as transforming our oceans.

“This has enormous consequences for marine food webs and for all humans that rely on the marine ecosystem for food,” Hughes says.

And a warming world doesn’t just impact ecosystems – it will have a direct effect on our hip pockets, too. For example, by 2030 estimates predict that one in every 19 property owners will have unaffordable insurance premiums – that is, a person with a home worth $500,000 would have to set aside more than $5,000 every year for extreme weather losses alone, on top of normal insurance.

By 2050 coastal inundation will have become a major threat, with the risk of flooding progressively rising – a big problem for many of the 85% of Australians living in coastal regions. By the end of the century, the sea will have risen by between 0.4 and 0.8 metres, threatening an estimated $226 billion in assets and up to a quarter of a million properties. By 2100, historical 1-in-100-year coastal flooding events will occur annually, and the rate of sea level rise will reach close to 12mm per year.

It’s important to note that it’s challenging to calculate exactly how exactly Australia will be affected and when specific changes will come about.

Predicting such impacts is a “fine art”, according to Hoegh-Guldberg. Even highly sophisticated climate models have different outcomes in different situations, because their input is inherently variable. There are uncertainties in the Earth’s system as well as in the political system, which is influenced by complex factors including population, technology, policy, consumption patterns and more.

But although we may not be able to pinpoint specific dates for changes, the science points to “very strong directional changes”, notes co-author Mark Howden from the Australian National University. We can clearly see the trajectory we are on – and therefore consequences that we will face if we do nothing.

The hope

So how do we get ourselves off this trajectory?

It’s not too late to avoid 3°C, according to Hughes.

“We should still be aiming for a stable global temperature below 2°C but to get to that point, we must reduce emissions very rapidly — in particular accelerating the energy transition in the next decade,” she says. “This must be one of the most urgent national and international priorities.”

The report urges the federal government to act as fast as practically possible to make deep emissions cuts. At the very minimum, it says, we must hit net zero emissions by 2050 – but recommends that we accelerate this transition over the next 10 to 20 years.

“This is the absolute critical, most necessary, transformational decade that the human race has probably ever faced,” says Hughes.

“It will determine what happens in the second half of the century and will absolutely determine the nature of climate change as an existential threat to humanity.”

To some extent, the near future is already locked in: lags in the climate system mean we are yet to feel the full effects of the carbon dioxide we have already emitted. Even if net zero is quickly achieved, glaciers and ice sheets will go on melting, and temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise.

But acting today directly shapes the kind of life the next generations are going to live.

The report outlines 10 major recommendations to prevent more dire outcomes, beginning with rapid decarbonisation and emissions cuts.

“The costs of achieving very deep emission reductions are far lower than the costs that that climate change would impose,” Hoegh-Guldberg says. “In fact, reducing emissions is possible without compromising future economic growth opportunities.”

This means, of course, a fast switch to renewables – including accelerated investments in wind and solar, as well as energy storage and transmission.

“Greater commitment is required to implement zero to low emissions technologies and the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels by mid-century,” the report says.

It highlights areas of particular opportunity including “renewable energy, green hydrogen fuels, minerals for low GHG [greenhouse gas] emission technologies, mass-scale storage, embedded renewable energy, and more efficient and low-GHG emission transport systems for aviation, shipping, road and rail transport”.

The transport system is particularly key as it constitutes 19% of the country’s GHG emissions and so would benefit from being electrified. In addition, the report recommends that increased energy efficiency standards would prompt emissions cuts in industry and infrastructure.

It is crucial to plan and actively implement the transition to these technologies, Hoegh-Guldberg says, because a planned transition is far preferable to the “disorderly collapse” of older, emissions-intensive industries. Such a collapse would severely impact workers in fossil fuel industries and their communities.

These changes to curtail emissions, he notes, must be made as soon as is practically impossible. “Many of the threats we face are irreversible, making further growth in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere extremely dangerous,” he says.

The report recommends we must also develop strategies to face the challenges of extreme events, because even with current levels of warming Australian lives and livelihoods are at risk.

Howden says that we are already starting to adapt our systems to a changing climate, citing food production as a critical example.

“Climate change has been driving down the productivity and profitability of agriculture, even though at the same time as technology improvements and management improvements have been pushing it up,” he explains. “So there’s a battle between climate change and our ability to manage our agricultural systems which is ongoing.”

The report further recommends that Australia “prepares for potential interruptions to its food import and export systems driven by global environmental, social and economic changes”.

We must also think about how our systems contribute to the climate crisis, Howden says.

“For example, our hospitals produce around about 7% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions,” he explains. “But they’re also significant responders to climate-change stress, so when people are sick or when people have heat exhaustion – and so we need to be designing our hospitals for the future, not for the past.”

But right now, Howden says, we are not doing enough. Australia is falling short of even the most basic requirements to prevent the situation worsening – we are not even on track to stabilise our emissions.

However, he and the other expert authors draw hope from increasing action around the world, from European countries beginning to implement stronger climate policies, to the Biden administration in the US mapping out a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050.

Now, the Australian government needs to rise to the challenge.

“What we’ve seen from our federal government is extreme reluctance to act,” Hughes says. “Delay is as damaging as denial.”

Since Australia is so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we have a great incentive to act fast and lead the world in emissions reductions, according to Hoegh-Guldberg.

“We can’t stand on the sidelines and let this happen,” he says. “We have so much to lose.”

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