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Climate: the elephant in the room for developing northern Australia

The north may be pleasant now, but climate change may make it less so. rjcox/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Climate: the elephant in the room for developing northern Australia

The recently released white paper on developing northern Australia ignores an elephant in the room: climate change. While the paper sees a bright future for the north (roads, rail, dams and food), without considering climate change we can’t be sure the north will even be liveable.

The white paper also fails to take into account other environmental constraints such as water and soils.

On Friday morning Prime Minister Tony Abbott, together with his deputy Warren Truss, Trade Minister Andrew Robb and Federal Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, spoke passionately to a packed breakfast in Cairns about his government’s vision for Northern Australia, with Abbott describing the white paper as a landmark report for the north. He promised the audience that the far-reaching report would be actioned and will not sit “mouldering on a shelf in Canberra”.

Other commentators have described the white paper as a game-changer for northern Australia requiring our urgent and immediate action.

Yet the rhetoric behind the development of the north is not new. Since federation the “northern Australia agenda” seems to have been popularised by Australian governments at least every 20 years or so - but with little measurable impact or influence.

Why should it be any different this time? Can the region become the food bowl for Australia and neighbouring Asia as proposed in the report? What about the environmental constraints?

Ignoring basic science

The white paper has not referenced high-quality expert advice prepared by the Northern Australian Land and Water Task Force.

The task force report elaborates a great deal about the environmental limitations for broad acre agriculture and cropping across the north, citing poor and easily damaged soils, highly seasonal and erratic rainfall and complex surface and groundwater hydrology, as major constraints for many areas of the north.

The task force found about 5-14% of northern Australian soils could be used for agriculture. They also state that “factors not considered in their assessment (such as flooding, water availability and nutrient availability) may make agricultural use of the soils unprofitable, practically unfavourable or even impossible”. Large-scale cropping in northern Australia will require special and expensive management.

The white paper ignores reference to sophisticated climate change projections for northern Australia developed by our own CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.

Climate projections for the north this century paint a dire future and bring into question the feasibility and affordability of many of the development policies, plans and projects outlined in the white paper.

The government sees a sunny future for Australia’s north - but it’s not necessarily that simple. AAP Image/WA Government

A new, climate-changed world

The key messages for northern Australia from the Climate Change in Australia report are there is very high confidence that average temperatures will continue to rise in all seasons, and more hot days and warm spells are projected also with very high confidence.

Unlike southern Australia, changes to rainfall in the north are possible but unclear, but it is very likely the intensity of extreme rainfall events will increase.

In coastal areas it is very likely mean sea level will continue to rise and height of extreme sea level events will also increase. Finally it is somewhat likely that the north may expect fewer but more intense tropical cyclones in the future.

These climate projections are the most comprehensive ever released for Australia and should be taken seriously into any policies and planning for the future of northern Australia.

They raise critical questions for the economic, social and environmental integrity and viability of the north. Can we maintain sustainable cropping, grazing and tourism under such profound climate changes? How will changes in climate affect essential ecosystem services and biodiversity across the north? How will increasing heat impact on human communities?

For example, Darwin will become much less desirable as a place to live as global warming increases average temperatures and number of hot days. Darwin currently has an average of 56 days a year where maximum temperatures exceed 35C.

Under a high emission scenario Darwin may expect over 230 days a year above 35C by 2090.

In fact, there is no currently existing place on Earth that represents what Darwin’s climate might look like in 2090. How can you plan for a future with no contemporary comparison?

What can we do about it?

Adaptation to climate change across Northern Australia must engage all of society, including governments, industry sectors, communities and individuals.

If we are to build “pathways” to climate adaptation across northern Australia we need to position our natural resource management sectors, regions and human communities so that they are informed and ready to change if and when the need arises.

This will require local and Indigenous knowledge and tools to build the necessary environmental, social and institutional capacity to adapt to a changing climate and to inform government policy and planning.