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Climate change is here and now for Australia – so are the opportunities

Alongside stark warnings about climate impacts for communities, economies and the environment, the ARC6 Working Group II (WGII) report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showcases innovative opportunities around data, climate adaptation, and urban resilience.

The report emphasises the importance of data for effective disaster preparedness and response. Opportunities to build and expand climate data intelligence networks – ones that embed adaptation measures as well as reduce disaster recovery costs – are essential for supporting people and environments in a changing climate. 

Rethinking the resilience of our cities through the use of nature-based solutions is also prominent in the report. Options here range from new coastal industries such as seaweed farming which provide economic benefits, while also acting as adaptation buffers along coastlines through to re-greening urban environments. Regreening acts to cool the city, as well as provide biodiversity corridors for nature.

These two measures alone – data and nature-based solutions – would significantly enhance real-time climate preparedness and disaster response and recovery, in Australia and around the world. 

For Australia, the climate impacts are very real, they are here now, and they are getting worse. They include an increased frequency and severity of floods, more dangerous fires, more droughts and heatwaves, higher sea levels, less rain for cities and agriculture, and existential threats to iconic ecosystems that we all love, and many rely upon, such as the Great Barrier Reef. The health and wellbeing of people will also become further stressed.

The health impacts of a changing climate – such as through heatwave events – have cascading and damaging effects on human health and infrastructure. Disease migration, as animals relocate due to changes in weather patterns, is also risky to the health of Australians and to our agricultural sectors. The costs to the Australian economy of responding to these growing threats are substantial.

These wide-ranging and ever more frequent impacts also have a cascading impact across systems – from supply chains to services and more. This places enormous pressure on financial and government sectors in their ability to proactively prepare and adapt to expected changes. Under amplified changing climatic conditions, we can expect supply chain disruptions – somewhat familiar under pandemic conditions – to become normalised. The flow-on effect of this disruption is wide-ranging: it spans economic, social, governance, cultural spheres and shapes outcomes for all sectors and citizens.

Added to this is that the recovery window is shortening – we see more events in close succession with greater severity. The constant recovery cycle means opportunities to properly embed adaptive capacity across the continuum – and across sectors at scale – are missed. Ultimately, this means that taxpayer dollars are used less efficiently. 

The WGII report also calls out the increasing perils facing small island states, including inundation from sea level rise and the loss of the reef ecosystems many rely on to survive. This will place pressure on Australia to increase existing support to neighbours in the Pacific and plan for the very real possibility of climate-related migration. 

In recent years, the Australian Government has created agencies and programs for resilience and improving climate risk information, including the National Recovery and Resilience Agency and the Australian Climate Service. This is a recognition that the Australian Government’s role is to provide the guard rails to help guide other agencies. State and local governments have been active in adaptation planning and implementation, but evaluation remainsscarce.Added to this is that many local government areas have been declared disaster zones numerous times over the past two years in Australia, with the cumulative impact of bringing reduced capacity to strategically respond and forward plan.

The WGII report acknowledges a range of barriers to adaptation in Australia, including a lack of consistent policy direction, competing objectives, divergent risk perceptions and values, and inconsistent information. Many of these barriers link to the lack of a coordinated national view of climate and natural disaster risks, and a set of agreed adaptation priorities.

In the UK and New Zealand, climate mitigation and adaptation policy occurs in a legislated process every five years, helping to establish shared priorities, encourage broader action, and catalyse more investment in adaptation and resilience.There is a major opportunity for the Australian Government to move forward with a similar process, as foreshadowed in the recent update to the National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy.

Finally, the IPCC report highlights clear gaps in emergency management data forewarning systems, in both adequacy and the connectedness of existing data sets. Emergency services agencies require coordinated and real-time data and support to enable them to be proactive in saving lives and livelihoods before, during and after disaster impacts. 

Whereas many other IPCC reports focus on global greenhouse gas emissions and pathways for decarbonisation, the WGII report is about expected consequences for societies, and the ecosystems and infrastructure that support them. Authored by 270 scientists who reviewed over 34,000 peer reviewed scientific publications, it sets out current and future risks, adaptation options and limits to adaptation, and opens pathways for enabling climate resilient development.

Alongside accelerated decarbonisation, there are clear opportunities to enhance and disseminate data intelligence, plan and implement nature-based solutions, and undertake rigorous and thoughtful adaptation planning. If we seize these opportunities, Australia will be well placed to address the climate challenge.

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