Climate change impacts: the next decade

Projecting the future, even only a decade ahead, can be achieved by extrapolating current trends and/or using insight concerning the fundamental processes of the involved systems. Either way, uncertainties will exist.

This is certainly true with climate change and the likely emerging impacts of that change. Nevertheless, foresight has enormous potential benefits for seizing opportunities and avoiding pitfalls. In the end, it is about the management of risk, albeit recognising that in some cases anticipation of outcomes will turn out to be useful, if not essential, while in others, in the light of experience, it may be seen as having been a waste of effort.

Both the changes that have occurred to the global and regional climate over recent decades and our theoretical understanding of the climate system make it likely that for the next decade the trend towards warmer global average temperatures will continue. There will be year-to-year variations in average temperatures and even more so in climatic parameters at the regional level. The natural climate system is variable and that variability will continue.

The challenge through this coming decade will be to cope with both the variability and the change with as little impact on human and natural systems as possible.

The past century has already seen an inexorable increase in the pressure of the high pressure ridge that lies over the southern half of Australia. There is growing observational evidence that this reflects a strengthening of the Hadley circulation, the movement of warm tropical air pole-wards in the upper atmosphere to the mid latitudes where it descends and is responsible for the aridity across these latitudes in both hemispheres.

These observations agree with many theoretical models of the climate, and are implicated in the long string of low rainfall years in the south west of Western Australia since the 1970s and in the Murray Darling and Victoria over the past decade or so. It is probable that this trend will continue with concomitant impacts on water supplies, power generation, potable water use, agricultural production and natural ecosystems.

In this regard, conflict over the use of a diminishing resource, as already apparent in the Murray Darling Basin, is likely to only grow.

Through this next decade we may also see some of the first signs of other climate impacts in Australia, including more extreme sea-levels events associated with both higher sea levels and also more intense storms. Exposures around the national coastline including sandy beaches and in the major cities will occur with little predictability in terms of exact timing, but consistent with a steadily changing frequency of such events. Similarly it is likely there will be a change to the frequency of those occasions conducive to bush fires.

Lower water availability will demand engineering responses: pipelines, desalination, dams, and ground-water options. These options will likely expose sectoral differences and needs across the economy and conflicting purposes. In addition there will be a need for ongoing improvement for reduced human demand for water. It is likely this will evoke serious rethinking of long-held views about such things as regional development, the role and nature of agriculture in the economy, trading as a market force in managing diminishing resources, and ownership over natural resources including water – as well as natural ecosystems and their component species.

At all times knowledge will be accumulating in terms of our theoretical understanding of the climate system and the systems dependent on the state of the climate. Part of this will be observed impacts across the world with a likely ongoing loss of water from the major glaciers (currently contributing around a millimeter of sea-level rise per year), a non-zero chance of the entire loss of sea ice in the Arctic during the summer and the concomitant efforts by nations of that region to claim ownership of resources that become more readily accessible – already involving Canada, China, Norway, Russia and the United States.

It is likely that such pressure on international relationships and national security will not be confined to the polar regions. There will be ongoing evidence of change to ecosystems in migration, plant and animal behaviour, breeding times, etc. The impact on island nations of our region will grow in profile. Together, these observations will provide local stimuli for both adaptive and mitigative responses.

A consequence of both the observation of change and theoretical understanding may be that the magnitude of the risks associated with climate change will become more apparent, demanding stronger actions. For example a warming target of 2oC may become viewed as unacceptable risk, albeit perceived differently by different countries and sectors of the economy, heightening efforts to pursue a 350 ppm global concentration target.

While this may be driven by the falling water availability in some countries, it is possible that the poorly appreciated risk to the natural ecosystems that currently exists will become more apparent both from an ecosystem services and a planetary stewardship point of view.

Land management

This perspective may highlight the need for addressing methodologies for not only limiting the emissions of carbon, but tackling the task of removing greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere through land management technologies.

It will raise serious consideration of the possible need for geo-engineering of the climate system itself. Companies already exist around the world to invest in such technologies and reap the benefits of a future price on carbon. Such technologies vary from relatively small-scale land management projects, to global-scale engineering efforts to modify the energy budget of the planet.

The essential development over the next decade will be the formulation of a shared global view on appropriate research protocols and national actions in geo-engineering that truly reflect the very serious potential danger of some of these technologies – and the potential dangers of narrowly focussed researchers or nations acting according to their own interests rather than those of the wider global community.

A consequence of a drive towards a low-carbon future has ramifications for energy sourcing, production and infrastructure – and investment in existing energy generation methods. But it will open up enormous opportunities for new businesses in low-carbon emission and energy-efficiency technologies.

This transition has begun, but this next decade will see this intensify. Australia may have missed some of these opportunities, but many are still available for relatively early movers. The changes will be seen in a revolutionary move towards electric-drive vehicles, decentralisation of power supplies, diversification of electricity generation options such as geothermal, solar, wind, the development and deployment of energy storage systems, smart grids and energy management systems.

Huge improvements

Above all we will see huge improvements in energy efficiency of homes, commercial buildings and industrial processes and transport. This will create issues that will need resolution – such as the impact on disadvantaged members of the community of inevitably higher energy costs, disadvantaged companies and industrial sectors and the role of more controversial energy sources such as nuclear.

The climate change issue is about more than just whether the climate is changing and how it may physically impact on our societies. It is also about why the issue exists and why it is that managing the issue has, so far, been difficult. The connection to the drivers of change – human behaviour and societal institutions – has yet to be seriously explored (despite some early signs in the literature). This is likely to change through this decade.

Climate change results from the way we source and use energy and this in turn reflects our affluence, what we perceive as success and progress, livability, acceptable lifestyles and our cultures. It reflects our population size, our attitudes to immigration, and the nature of the way we build cities and communities and manage the land. It highlights the diverse methods we have for dealing with threats, such as avoidance, denial, resignation – to name a few “coping” mechanisms – and the barriers that exist for the incorporation of expert advice from all manner of experts into policy formulation.

In particular it highlights the sectoralisation of our communities, through the disciplinary base of knowledge generation, the targeted efforts of companies and the departmentalisation of governments, each tending to work against holistic considerations in policy formation and decision making. It stems from the way social institutions have evolved and how these, including our governance, financial, economic, and cultural systems, have countenanced the underpinning causes of climate change.

Climate change may indeed be illustrative of the non-strategic nature of social evolution – its development in largely incremental steps with little control imposed from longer-term strategic aspirations and needs especially from a society-wide perspective.

Through this decade we may find that the climate change issue becomes much more of a reflection on where this relatively directionless evolution has led us, it strengths and its non-sustainable weaknesses.

This will challenge our notions of the rationality of our decisions, the largely unconscious drivers of our aspirations and needs – and how fundamental to dealing with all issues of sustainability is a new focus on where we are directed.

Editor's Note: An opinion piece published with the permission of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). Permission must be sought to republish it or any other articles from ATSE Focus.