1 December 2011 – A Climate Commission report released on Wednesday predicts that without rapid action climate change will undermine society’s prosperity, health, stability and way of life and to minimise this risk the economy should move to clean energy sources by 2050. That means carbon emissions must peak within the next few years and then strongly decline.

The main messages in the report, The Critical Decade:Climate Change and Health are:

  • There is no doubt that the climate is changing. The evidence is overwhelming and clear.
  • The atmosphere is warming, the ocean is warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps and sea levels are rising. The biological world is changing in response to a warming world.
  • Global surface temperature is rising fast; the last decade was the hottest on record.
  • We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental impacts of a changing climate. With less than 1 degree of warming globally the impacts are already being felt in Australia.
  • In the last 50 years the number of record hot days in Australia has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwaves and associated deaths, as well as extreme bush fire weather in South Eastern and South Western Australia.
  • Sea level has risen by 20 cm globally since the late 1800s, impacting many coastal communities. Another 20 cm increase by 2050, which is feasible at current projections, would more than double the risk of coastal flooding.
  • The Great Barrier Reef has suffered from nine bleaching events in the past 31 years. This iconic natural ecosystem, and the economy that depends upon it, face serious risks from climate change.
  • It is beyond reasonable doubt that the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are triggering the changes we are witnessing in the global climate.A very large body of observations, experiments, analyses, and physical theory points to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – with carbon dioxide being the most important – as the primary cause of the observed warming.
  • Increasing carbon dioxide emissions are primarily produced by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, as well as deforestation.
  • Natural factors, like changes in the Earth’s orbit or solar activity, cannot explain the world-wide warming trend
  • This is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience.

The report says natural factors, like changes in the Earth’s orbit or solar activity, cannot explain the world-wide warming trend.

Climate change related injury, disease and deaths will continue to grow in decades to come unless sustained action is taken.

Climbing temperatures will lead to more natural disasters and changing rainfall patterns, which will have an impact on people’s health as much as on the environment.

It includes a worst-case scenario where deaths from hotter temperatures in Queensland and the Northern Territory could multiply tenfold by 2100.

Key messages are:

The biological world is changing in response to a warming world.

There is no doubt that the climate is changing. The evidence is overwhelming and clear. The atmosphere is warming, the ocean is warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps and sea levels are rising. Global surface temperature is rising fast; the last decade was the hottest on record.

We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental impacts of a changing climate.

With less than 1 degree of warming globally the impacts are already being felt in Australia. In the last 50 years the number of record hot days in Australia has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwaves and associated deaths, as well as extreme bush fire weather in South Eastern and South Western Australia.

Sea level has risen by 20 centimetres globally since the late 1800s, impacting many coastal communities.

Another 20 cm increase by 2050, which is feasible at current projections, would more than double the risk of coastal flooding.

The Great Barrier Reef has suffered from nine bleaching events in the past 31 years. This natural ecosystem, and the economy that depends upon it, face serious risks from climate change.

An ABC online news report quotes co-author Professor Lesley Hughes saying that  even a small rise in temperature can be detrimental to people’s health.

“A small rise in average temperature actually means a fairly large rise in the number of days, for example, over 35 degrees [Celsius] every year,” he said.

“So as average temperatures go up, the number of extremely hot days go up in a disproportionate way. So what we’re concerned about with climate change, amongst other impacts, is the impact on heatwaves.”

Professor Hughes concedes Australia already experiences killer heatwaves.

“In Melbourne for example, in 2009, in the weeks before the Black Saturday bushfires, there was an increase of 62 per cent on the normal death rate for that period when temperatures reached record levels in the mid-40s.

Professor Hughes says all climate models are showing there will be rises in the frequency and or intensity of many extreme events that have detrimental impacts on health.

“Climate change will have both direct and indirect impacts on health,” Professor Hughes said.

“[It will] potentially affect the distribution of mosquitoes that carry diseases like dengue fever, maybe exposing many more people to the impacts of that disease.

“Climate change will also disproportionately affect those people in our society that are already more vulnerable.

“So the elderly, those with existing heart and kidney disease, children, people in remote communities and especially Indigenous communities.

“One of the aspects of climate change will be an economic impact via the impact on workers that will potentially have to cease working for more of the day than they do currently … I think miners, like any outdoor workers, will be increasingly subject to longer periods of hotter weather during their working days, and that will have an impact.”

The report was released as the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation which gave figures showing that 13 of the warmest years on record have occurred within the last decade and a half.

The year 2011 caps a decade that ties the record as the hottest ever measured, the WMO said in its annual report on climate trends and extreme weather events, unveiled at UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

“Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities,” WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud said in a statement, urging policy makers should take note of the findings.

  • See an ABC report https://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-11-30/climate-change-to-kill-australians2c-report-says/3703062

Impact on certain regions

Western Australia

Western Australia, particularly the south-west, is vulnerable to climate change

  • Rainfall patterns in Western Australia have changed over the last 40 years. There is significant evidence that climate change has contributed to the marked drying trend in the southwest of the state. This has had serious implications for urban water supplies and agriculture.
  • Sea levels along the west coast of Australia have been rising at more than double the global average. With significant part of the population living in coastal cities and towns, rising sea levels pose significant risks to WA’s coastal infrastructure and beaches.
  • WA is home to internationally recognised biodiversity, already stressed by habitat fragmentation and further threatened by a changing climate.
  • Suitable habitat for a range of species including the quokka, Carnaby’s cockatoo and the tingle tree is likely to be substantially reduced as the climate changes.
  • The world famous Ningaloo Reef, like other coral reefs, is highly sensitive to a changing climate. The reef, and the multi-million dollar tourism industry it supports, faces significant long-term risks from a changing climate.

See Western Australia climate change impacts report

The Illawarra region of NSW

  • Higher temperatures will increase the likelihood of large and intense fires
  • Rising sea levels will exacerbate existing vulnerability of coastal towns and infrastructure in the Illawarra/ NSW south coast region
  • Changing rainfall patterns and the risk of more intense rainfall events pose challenges for low-lying urban centres in the Illawarra/NSW south coast
  • Biodiversity will be at risk.

See climate change impacts for the Illawarra/NSW south coast

New England area, NSW

  • A hotter climate will affect agriculture and natural ecosystems
  • Changing rainfall patterns and the risk of more intense rainfall events pose challenges for land management in the New England/Northwest NSW region
  • Storing carbon in land systems offers a rapid, but short term, way to reduce
  • emissions with significant co-benefits.

See climate change impacts for New England/Northwest NSW

South Australia

Rising temperatures will affect health.

  • Changing rainfall patterns, combined with higher temperatures, pose significant risks to South Australia’s agricultural areas and urban water supplies.
  • Rising sea levels will exacerbate existing vulnerability in South Australia’s coastal towns and infrastructure.

See key impacts for South Australia