Here's What The World's Experts Say Are The New Climate Change Risks For Australia

Storm clouds gather in Gosford, NSW. Tony Feder / Getty Images)

The effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans and the world is ill-prepared for the risks and turmoil this will bring, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued today.

The United Nations-backed body’s report also concludes there are opportunities to respond to such risks, though they be difficult to manage with high levels of warming.

For Australia, the reports notes impacts including birds changing migratory patterns, wine grapes maturing earlier, less snow on the Australian alps, coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, drought in some areas, less water in the river systems, expanding monsoon rain forests and more wetlands in some areas.

The world’s experts — 309 coordinating lead authors, lead authors, and review editors, drawn from 70 countries plus 436 contributing authors and a total of 1,729 expert and government reviewers — produced the report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

The report, the second of three, details the impacts of climate change to date, the future risks from a changing climate and the opportunities for effective action to reduce risks.

The report says:

Planning for sea-level rise, and in southern Australia for reduced water availability, is becoming adopted widely. Planning for sea-level rise has evolved considerably over the past two decades and shows a diversity of approaches, although its implementation remains piecemeal.

And these are the Australasian results, along with the confidence of their relation to human-induced climate change, from the Summary of the IPCC report:

Snow & Ice, Rivers & Lakes, Floods & Drought

  • Significant decline in late-season snow depth at 3 of 4 alpine sites in Australia (1957-2002) (Medium confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Substantial reduction in ice and glacier ice volume in New Zealand (Medium confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Intensification of drought due to regional warming in southeast Australia (Low confidence, Minor contribution from climate change).
  • Reduced inflow in river systems in southwestern Australia (since the mid-1970s) (High confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Responding to climate change, the report says, involves making choices about risks in a changing world. The nature of the risks of climate change is increasingly clear, though climate change will also continue to produce surprises.

Terrestrial Ecosystems

  • Changes in genetics, growth, distribution, & phenology of many species, in particular birds, butterflies, & plants in Australia, beyond fluctuations due to variable local climates, land use, pollution, and invasive species (High confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Expansion of some wetlands and contraction of adjacent woodlands in southeast Australia (Low confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Expansion of monsoon rainforest at expense of savannah and grasslands in northern Australia (Medium confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Migration of glass eels advanced by several weeks in Waikato River, New Zealand (Low confidence, Major contribution from climate change).

Coastal Erosion & Marine Ecosystems

  • Southward shifts in the distribution of marine species near Australia, beyond changes due to short-term environmental fluctuations, fishing, nd pollution (Medium confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Change in timing of migration of seabirds in Australia (Low confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Increased coral bleaching in Great Barrier Reef & western Australian reefs, beyond effects from pollution & physical disturbance (High confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Changed coral disease patterns at Great Barrier Reef, beyond effects from pollution (Medium confidence, Major contribution from climate change)

Food Production & Livelihoods

  • Advanced timing of wine-grape maturation in recent decades, beyond advance due to improved management (Medium confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Shift in winter vs. summer human mortality in Australia, beyond changes due to exposure & health care (Low confidence, Major contribution from climate change).
  • Relocation or diversification of agricultural activities in Australia, beyond changes due to policy, markets, and short-term climate variability (Low confidence, Minor contribution from climate change)

The report identifies vulnerable people, industries, and ecosystems around the world. It finds that risk from a changing climate comes from vulnerability (lack of preparedness) and exposure (people or assets in harm’s way) overlapping with hazards (triggering climate events or trends). Each of these three components can be a target for smart actions to decrease risk.

“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Vicente Barros, Co-Chair of Working Group II.

“In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”

Adaptation to reduce the risks from a changing climate is now starting to occur but with a stronger focus on reacting to past events than on preparing for a changing future, according to Chris Field, Co-Chair of Working Group II.

“Climate change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried. Governments, firms, and communities around the world are building experience with adaptation,” Field said.

“This experience forms a starting point for bolder, more ambitious adaptations that will be important as climate and society continue to change.”

Future risks from a changing climate depend strongly on the amount of future climate change. Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe and pervasive impacts that may be surprising or irreversible.

“With high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions, risks will be challenging to manage, and even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits,” said Field.

Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some people’s livelihoods. The striking feature is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest.

“The report concludes that people, societies and ecosystems are vulnerable around the world, but with different vulnerability in different places. Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk,” Field said.

Adaptation can play a key role in decreasing these risks, Barros said. “Part of the reason adaptation is so important is that the world faces a host of risks from climate change already baked into the climate system, due to past emissions and existing infrastructure,” he said.

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC, said: “The IPCC’s reports are some of the most ambitious scientific undertakings in human history.”

The Working Group I report was released in September 2013, and the Working Group III report will be released in April 2014. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report cycle concludes with the publication of its Synthesis Report in October 2014.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change. It was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

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