Australia has long been known as Dorothea Mackellar’s “land of droughts and flooding rains”. Despite the challenges of that erratic climatic pattern, rural Australians are some of the most resilient, innovative and productive agriculturalists on the planet.
But another challenge has arrived. The severe drought currently gripping large parts of rural and regional Australia has been made worse by climate change. This challenge threatens the health and productivity of our rural sector, and the resilience of ecosystems across the continent.
The Climate Council’s latest report, Deluge and Drought: Australia’s Water Security in a Changing Climate, describes how climate change is influencing Australia’s water cycle, the impacts it’s already having on regional Australia, the agricultural sector, and the bush, and what we might expect in the future.
Southern Australia is already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Cool season rainfall has declined by 15 per cent over the past two or three decades. This decline has had a multiplying effect on streams and rivers. Stream flow in the Murray-Darling Basin has decreased by 41 per cent over the same period.
Southwest Western Australia has also experienced large declines in rainfall – about 19 per cent since the 1970s, with the rate of decline increasing to 25 per cent from the mid-1990s.
Severe droughts, like the Millennium Drought of 1997-2009, have always plagued Australia, but climate change is making them even more severe. Droughts are now occurring in a climate that is hotter than a century ago, increasing the stress on plants, animals and humans. In southern Australia, long-term declines in rainfall, likely driven by climate change, have made droughts even worse.
Greenhouse gas pollution, primarily from the burning of coal, oil and gas, is the driver of these changes, and Australia is one of the world’s worst per capita polluters. In the absence of a credible climate and energy policy, Australia’s pollution levels have risen for three years in a row.
What’s in store for regional Australia? The decrease in cool season rainfall in southern Australia is likely to continue, droughts will occur in hotter conditions, and extreme rainfall may become more frequent. But short-term solutions to these problems will ultimately be futile without rapid action to tackle climate change here in Australia and globally.
Professor Will Steffen is a climate councillor and researcher with the Australian National University (ANU)