This is what climate change looks like

16.09.19 By , , and
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The word “unprecedented” has been in regular use lately. As predictions about climate change increasingly become observations, we are witnessing firsthand the impacts of more frequent and severe weather events. These events are playing havoc with our health, our agricultural systems, our communities and our economy. But they are also having devastating impacts on our natural ecosystems and unique wildlife.  

The Climate Council’s new report, ‘This is What Climate Change Looks Like,’ highlights recent examples of these impacts. In many cases, our ecosystems and species were already under threat from other human-associated causes – like land clearing, over-harvesting, and invasive feral animals and weeds. Climate change is adding to this litany of woes, in some cases providing what might be the last straw for species and systems already under grave stress.


Key Findings:

Australia is home to more than a million species of plants and animals, yet our track record on conservation is woeful; climate change is making it even harder to protect our natural ecosystems and unique wildlife.

  • Our natural ecosystems and unique wildlife are already under grave stress from land clearing, over-harvesting and invasive feral animals and plants; climate change is adding to this litany of woes and is proving to be the last straw for some systems and species.
  • The status of biodiversity in Australia is considered ‘poor and deteriorating’ according to the most recent State of the Environment Report, which also found that the traditional pressures facing the environment are now being exacerbated by climate change.
  • Between 1996 and 2008, Australia was among the top 7 countries responsible for 60% of global biodiversity loss. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks Australia fourth in the world for species extinction and first for loss of mammals.

Australia has one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world and it now holds the first record of a mammalian extinction due to climate change. Other species are in grave danger because of our warming climate.

  • The Bramble Cay melomys was listed as endangered but no active steps were taken to protect the native rodent found on a low-lying atoll in the Torres Strait; storms and rising sea levels led to its extinction.
  • Green turtles are in grave danger because the animals hatching in the northern Great Barrier Reef are 99% female due to warming. The complete ‘feminisation’ of the population may occur in the very near future with disastrous consequences.
  • Bogong moths are in decline in the Australian alps because drought has affected the grass on which the larvae of the moths feed. These moths are a vital part of the food chain for many alpine birds and mammals.

Red river gum die back
Image showing the death of iconic red river gums along the waterways and floodplains of the Murray-Darling River. Credit: Bill Bachman; Amy Toensing.

Droughts, ‘dry’ lightning strikes and heatwaves are transforming many Australian forests.

  • Ignitions from ‘dry’ lightning storms are increasing in frequency because of climate change, sparking many remote bushfires. Thousands of dry lightning strikes in early 2016 caused bushfires that devastated nearly 20,000 hectares in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
  • The Murray-Darling Basin has suffered a long-term drying trend, seriously affecting the magnificent river red gums that line the waterways. Climate change-exacerbated droughts, on top of water mismanagement, are depriving the gums of the flooding they need every few years to remain healthy.
  • The jarrah forests of Western Australia are suffering as a result of long-term rainfall decline, as well as drought and heatwaves.
  • Giant kelp forests that support rich marine biodiversity are declining around the southern mainland coast and Tasmania due to underwater heatwaves and the impacts of changes in the distribution of marine herbivores.

Australia needs to take a far bolder approach to conservation to ensure our species and ecosystems are as resilient as possible to worsening extreme weather. 

  • Australia’s high greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to increasingly severe changes in the climate system, which means further deterioration of our environment is inevitable. 
  • Creating and connecting new habitats and the translocation of some species will be necessary to prevent further extinctions. 
  • Australia must achieve deep and rapid cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to keep temperature rise to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 
  • Australia needs to accelerate the transition to clean, affordable and reliable renewable energy and storage technologies and ramp up other climate solutions in transport, industry, agriculture, land use and other sectors.