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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Opening Address
Living with Climate Change: a national conference on climate change impacts and adaptation
Canberra, 18 December 2002

(Check against delivery)

Grasping the Future - the Challenges and Opportunities of Climate Change for Australia

Thank you Tim, and the Presidents and members of the other Learned Academies supporting this conference on Living with Climate Change. Ladies and gentlemen.

I welcome the opportunity to open this conference today. It is a significant event for Australia in addressing the challenge of climate change, an issue of importance not just to us, today, but to the generations of Australians who will follow.

A first step is a reality check - there is no magic solution to avoiding climate change. There is no doubt that global climate is changing, that human activities are contributing to this change, and that further changes in climate will occur. Science today doesn't give us all the answers, but the directions are clear.

Dealing with climate change will be a key issue for the twenty first century. It will take efforts on many fronts to address because the nature and extent of this change could well be outside anything we have experienced before.

Climate has a profound influence on life on Earth - it underpins our water supply, health, food production, and natural ecosystems. Our lifestyle along with many of our export industries are tailored to the climate we enjoy.

An understanding of projected changes in climate is therefore essential to the future well being of the Australian community and to economic growth.

Adaptation to climate change is a key plank for an integrated approach to climate change. It must complement our efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from Australia and the world which are driving the changes in our climate.

The question now is not an academic hypothetical: will the climate change?, but rather a very real how will it change?, what are the consequences for regions and sectors?, and what do we need to do to adapt?

In August this year I announced with Minister Downer the development of Australia's forward climate change strategy. This strategy will ensure that Australia continues to cut greenhouse emissions even further, while building a strong, competitive economy.

Importantly, the strategy will focus on the longer term, covering not just the next few years but having a 20 to 30 year time horizon. Lets take a moment to digest this - we're not talking 'quick fixes', we're looking for genuine and durable solutions. This forward strategy demonstrates the Commonwealth Government's commitment to both looking after Australia's interests and making a serious contribution to global greenhouse response efforts.

Four elements underpin the development of Australia's forward climate change strategy.

Australians have long experience in grappling with and adapting to variability in our climate. Australia is the driest settled continent. El Nino and La Nina, driven by ocean currents, have long inflicted extremes in climate upon our land. Large year-to-year variation in rainfall is characteristic - as the current ravages of drought demonstrate.

There are many examples of adjustment or adaptation to these characteristics of our climate which we are all familiar with. Most of our population lives within a narrow coastal belt of more moderate climate, the rainfall variability we experience means that the storage capacity of Australian large reservoirs is about 6 times larger than those of comparable European dams. The rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy was done in a way to enable the city to better withstand such events in the future.

Our agricultural systems have been adapting to climate variability for years. We have learned to efficiently use nutrient-poor soils for agricultural production where in many areas it is the one good year in every three that maintains the production system.

The recent announcement by Minister Truss for the next phase of the Climate Variability in Agriculture program is important. Climate variability, particularly drought, is a major issue for Australia's rural communities and natural resource management. The next phase of this program will develop applications for the sustainable management of natural resource, including drought management tools for farmers.

In many cases our history of adapting to climate variability positions us well to the adaptation needed for climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2001 report on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation, identified a range of regions and sectors in Australia vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The economic implications of climate change are also likely to be significant, particularly in the absence of adaptation action.

The breadth of these potential impacts, spanning many regions and sectors across the continent, means that it is essential that all levels of government, industry and the community understand what the likely consequences of climate change will be. An understanding of the unavoidable climate change impacts is clearly a prerequisite to adaptation action.

To help address the need for better information I am very pleased to launch at this conference a booklet that presents an overview of selected potential climate change impacts on Australia. A copy of the booklet is included in your conference materials.

The booklet outlines a range of likely climate change impacts on Australia as they relate to water supply and hydrology; natural ecosystems; agriculture and forestry; ocean productivity and fisheries; settlements and the built environment; tourism and human health.

The booklet also recognises that changes in climate elsewhere on the planet could have impacts on Australia. For example climate change may lead to increased agricultural production elsewhere relative to Australia, which could influence commodity prices and the terms of trade for some commodities.

As a summary of the range of issues relevant to climate change impacts, targeted to a broad audience, I think that this booklet will make an important contribution to raising community awareness of these issues. Awareness is an important first step.

The scientific picture is, however, far from complete. Much of the assessment done to date is based on global models using broad scenarios of change. It provides us with a picture of what may occur at the national scale or for some large regions within the continent.

Identifying likely impacts of climate change for regions and sectors within Australia is far more complex, and our current knowledge is patchy at best.

Further and more detailed analysis is essential as impacts are expected to vary considerably between regions and sectors, and through time. A number of areas, for example, may benefit from productivity gains as a result of climate change. Some of these may benefit in the short to medium term, or where changes occur at the lesser end of the ranges projected. Other areas may suffer losses in productivity or declines in ecosystem health.

However for most sectors and regions we simply do not yet have quantitative information on likely climate change impacts on which adaptation strategies can be based.

There is also a need for further development of economic and social analytic tools to carry out integrated regional assessments of climate change. While a number of specific studies have been undertaken, very few have been integrated across regions or sectors, or inclusive of socio-economic implications.

Developing this information and the tools to support adaptation strategies is clearly a research priority. It will enable communities and industry to incorporate climate change in planning and make informed decisions on adaptation action required.

In recognition of this, the Government in the August announcement on the climate change forward strategy indicated that as a first step research will be undertaken to improve our understanding of likely impacts from climate change, and on adaptation options. This is an imperative.

Adaptation options need to be informed by good science, but driven by risk analysis.

They need to focus on how to minimise likely impacts and maximise potential opportunities and benefits from climate change. One study of the national financial benefit to the wheat industry of a subset of possible adaptations to climate change showed that just two measures (varietal change and alteration of planting windows) could save the industry between $100m and $500m each year.

Action now could also minimise future costs relating to infrastructure damage. Natural disasters - floods, storms, cyclones and bushfires - cost Australia more than $1 billion per annum. With the intensity of extreme events likely to increase due to climate change, these costs will also likely increase.

Importantly adaptation action can better position communities and industry to adjust to longer term climate change impacts.

There may also be industry opportunities as we gain experience with adaptation options, for example in developing countries.

We must also consider how adapting to the impacts of climate change can contribute to our goals of sustainability. Broadly, addressing climate change through effective adaptation can enhance the sustainability of human and natural systems, helping to ensure our present and future prosperity.

I am pleased to be advised that some work is already underway in the assessment of climate change impacts and the identification of potential adaptation options. The Commonwealth Department of Health has supported a study into climate change and risk assessment, Austroads is considering issues relating to road infrastructure and climate change, and a study has been done on possible adaptation options for the agriculture sector.

As I mentioned earlier, adaptation has long been a part of our nations history. In line with this, a number of the adaptations required for responding to climate change are merely extensions of those currently used for managing climate variability. Within the agricultural sector for example, adaptation options include varietal or species change, planting time variation, crop and nutrient management, responsive changes in stocking rates, pest management, seasonal forecasting, targeted research and development and education.

In designing the path forward, collective input is vital. Clearly, much of the expertise essential to the success of effective adaptation is held by those people working in industries and communities most likely to be affected by climate change.

Government leadership is essential, but we need to solicit and cultivate solutions from those individuals, industries and communities directly affected by climate change impacts. It will be they who will ultimately enact any solution. Broad understanding and involvement will be necessary for success.

Effective adaptation will therefore rely on effective partnerships between all levels of government, scientists, industry and regional and local communities.

The consideration by this conference on the issues of climate change impacts, and the needs of industry and communities in developing adaptation strategies, will make an important contribution to defining the way ahead for the climate change forward strategy.

I look forward to being advised of the outcomes of the conference, and encourage you to consider over the next couple of days the practical steps that Australia can take to ameliorate climate change impacts as well as achieve dual benefits for production and natural resource management. Many nations are now focusing more on adaptation - let us not overlook the potential for industry opportunities through proactive adaptation action.

Commonwealth of Australia