Living in a variable climate

Integrative commentary
Dr Greg McKeon, CRC for Greenhouse Accounting, Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006


This commentary concludes that the future success of 'living in a variable climate' will depend on developing an understanding of Australia's changing climate.  This commentary has reviewed some of the uncertainties associated with climate change science. Scientific uncertainty is not particularly useful for decision makers who cannot (should not) delay their long-term planning or their responses to immediate and emerging climate impacts. To some extent, the formulation of risk management strategies in response to uncertain (probabilistic) climate change information could draw on the experience gained in the current use of probabilistic climate forecasts based on ENSO development. Successful management strategies such as the 'precautionary principle' or 'just in time' have been developed. The state of environment reporting process, in monitoring climate variability and trends, provides a powerful objective and scientific base to support decision-making in an uncertain climate future. The three boxes provide examples of past and current responses to climate variability and expected climate change.

The history of agriculture and pastoralism in Australia provides a successful case study in terms of adapting agricultural practices and technologies to better manage for a variable and dry climate in a semi-arid land (Pestana 1993, Burroughs 2003, p. 152). Evolving agricultural technologies have contributed to national wealth. Crop production has been improved through plant breeding, and better crop and water management. Livestock enterprises have developed better-adapted animal breeds, improved pasture species and animal husbandry, and improved drought management. However, the use of these technologies has in some cases also resulted in resource damage, as documented in previous state of the environment reports (for example, increased rate of soil erosion with loss of soil protection, increased salinity risk with loss of perennial plants). The knowledge gained from the successes and failures of the last 200 years, in combination with agricultural and climate sciences, is now being used to underpin government initiatives for better climate risk management, drought preparedness and adaptation to the future impact of climate change.

Urban Australia is similarly being challenged to conserve its limited water resources and invest in alternative water sources, especially where increasing demand is outstripping supply. Thus both rural and urban communities are responding to an increased sensitivity to, and awareness of, climate variability and change.

Examples (Boxes 1, 2 and 3) of current policy and science responses to climate variability provide some practical guidance for how the challenge of uncertain climate change may continue to be addressed in the future. The key components are: (1) the informed debate on community expectations of natural resource use and an improving 'climate literacy'; (2) improved understanding of the behaviour of the complex global and regional climate systems; and (3) the monitoring of climate variability and trends with management responses guided by objective, if uncertain, climate change projections. With this approach, the community may build upon the success of past generations, avoid their mistakes, and safeguard the nation's natural resources for future generations.