Introduction to climate and adaptation

Australians are superb adapters. Indeed our entire history on this continent, both Aboriginal and European, is one of constantly adapting to its challenging climates, resources, and natural conditions – from bountiful seasons and baking summers to frost, fire, storms, flood, and drought. It is clear that the observed and predicted trends in our climate will confront us with a further need to adapt and, indeed, with fresh opportunities that will make adaptation both worthwhile and profitable, as well as essential.

Adaptation is about coping with the changes that are already happening or that appear unavoidable in the future. Just as early settlers progressively adapted European farming systems to Australian landscapes and conditions or built their homes with wide verandas to suit our long, hot summers, so now we will need to change many of our society’s activities, systems, and habits to make allowance for warmer, more variable, and extreme climatic conditions, as well as rising sea levels and other global environmental changes.

Adaptation and mitigation (that is, reducing the amount of climate change that occurs – see chapters 8, 9 in CSIRO’s Climate Book) are closely linked: the less we mitigate, the more we will be forced to adapt to inevitable changes in the climate, and the bigger the adaptations will have to be. Conversely, success in mitigation through early and deep cuts to greenhouse emissions will necessitate fewer, less extreme adaptations in the long run.

There is now wide scientific agreement that the world is heading for at least 2ºC warming, and possibly 4ºC, by 2070; even in the light of the Paris agreements in Dec 2015, 3ºC warming remains likely. Hence adaptation to the changed conditions that this implies has become a vital concern. As the increase in average temperature begins to rise above 2ºC, the challenges faced by societies will become increasingly significant; planned adaptation will help, but, even so, disruptions to economies, livelihoods, and lifestyles are likely.

There is no doubt that Australia is vulnerable to climate change. Some sectors are more sensitive than others in Australia – notably water, coastal communities, natural ecosystems, and, to some extent, agriculture come under stress by 2ºC global warming; almost all sectors are affected above 3ºC. At a global mean temperature rise above 4ºC, life becomes far more difficult and our society increasingly vulnerable.

So adaptation is a vital strategy for the extent of climate change that is now expected to occur by the latter part of the 21st century. No part of society, no industry, and no individual will remain untouched by it or be able to avoid it. Indeed, our natural ecosystems, water resources, farm sector, and coastal communities are already feeling the pinch.

So Australians cannot avoid having to adapt. Even with 2ºC of global mean temperature rise we will have to cope with changed conditions such as sea-level rise, increased frequency and intensity of bushfires and tropical storms, more frequent heatwaves, droughts and water scarcity, and year-round higher temperatures. These new conditions may involve changes as far-reaching as the progressive relocation of farming industries to more favourable climatic regions, or the imposition of planning controls in coastal shires to prevent people building in areas at risk from flooding, storm surges, and shoreline erosion. However, not all of these adaptations need to happen at the same time or immediately: many can be achieved progressively over time; many will also lead to fresh opportunities, new markets, and more sustainable technologies. In other words, with good preparation, adaptation can be win–win.

See Why should we all adapt? for further discussion. For more about how to plan adaptation, see Adaptation concepts. The text above draws on Chapter 5 in CSIRO’s Climate book.