Climate change and Australian science

Summary of Position                                                                                     

Given the risks and costs of not responding to climate change, Australia and the world must build on current commitments to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero. Rapid greenhouse gas emission reductions lessen the scale of the impacts of global warming and can save many lives and livelihoods. This would have significant benefits for human health and species, biodiversity, and present new economic opportunities.

Australia’s involvement in international climate research is necessary to ensure global climate models adequately address conditions in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is a major contributor to southern hemisphere capacity and capability. 

Statement of Principle

Achieving net-zero emissions requires an integrated approach across all sectors of the economy and society. The natural sciences, working together with economics, social science, and the humanities, can provide for Australia an evidence-based plan for net-zero that recognises constraints and trade-offs. This is essential to identify the technologies and actions that are ready for deployment now and those which require development and present challenges for further research.

Science is essential in further understanding the drivers of climate change and informing actions to adapt to its impacts, including bushfires, droughts, and floods, and to alleviate such events.

Statement of Context

Human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests, are rapidly changing Earth’s climate. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen by more than 50% since the pre-industrial period, to levels not seen on Earth for more than 3 million years. Enhanced radiative forcing associated with the increase in greenhouse gases has led to widespread and growing impacts on natural and human systems worldwide.

The Academy’s Position

Climate change impacts are and will continue to be widespread.

Australia is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. Recent events - such as the summer bushfires of 2019–20 or severe coral bleaching events in the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef - demonstrate some of the consequences of a warming planet for Australia’s people, economy, and environment.

Multiple lines of evidence show that the incidence of extreme weather events is increasing as the planet warms. Such events are a natural feature of the climate system, but there is strong evidence that many of them, such as land heatwaves, bushfires, storms, and coastal flooding, have become more frequent and intense in recent times.

These extremes and their associated risks will escalate further as global temperatures continue to rise and our capacity to respond becomes compromised as the frequency increases.

Well designed, planned, and managed climate mitigation and adaptation solutions offer synergies with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These go beyond climate action and include ensuring food and water security, maintaining health, protecting life on land and below water, reducing poverty and inequality, and importantly, ensuring access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy for all, where the cost of carbon is recognised.

To achieve these aims, social understanding and transformation are crucial and must work hand in hand with developments in technology. Reducing and mitigating climate change will require cross-sectoral solutions built on integrated Earth system thinking, that includes the impact of human population trends, inequality, and socioeconomic inequity. 

The Academy:

  1. Declares that human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests, are rapidly changing Earth’s climate
  2. Supports strategies to move rapidly towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and to scale up the development and implementation of next-generation low to zero greenhouse gas technologies; and to meet the challenges of extreme events that are increasing in intensity, frequency, and scale.
  3. Calls for continued improvement in our understanding of global climate change and climate impacts, including tipping points, as well as the compounding effects of multiple stressors at global warming of 2°C or more; and calls to further improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change on domains including human health, food production, water security, marine ecosystems, and coastlines.
  4. Maintains that policies to address the impacts of climate change must be informed by the best available scientific evidence, monitoring and evaluation.

Australia has some of the largest sphere of climate science operations in the Southern Hemisphere in a range of domains.  Australia’s involvement in international climate research is necessary to ensure global climate models adequately address the climate in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Statement of Authorisation

This position paper was subject to expert review by the Australian Academy of Science and was endorsed by the Academy Council at its meeting of 7 October 2021.

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