Key findings

Australia’s climate varies widely

  • Australia’s climate varies widely from season to season, year to year, and region to region. Existing climate patterns, such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole and Southern Annular Mode, affect our environment and communities in regular cycles. However, climate change is likely to exacerbate the impact of such cycles.

Our overall climate is changing

  • Warming of the Australian climate, and associated changes in the climate system, continue unabated, largely driven by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Emissions that have already occurred will drive further changes over the coming decades, regardless of our future emissions pathway, but future emissions will have a major effect on the trajectory of climate change in the second half of the 21st century.
  • Land and ocean temperatures are increasing. Since the early 20th century, average Australian land temperatures have increased by 1.4 °C, similar to the global average rate for land areas, and regional sea surface temperatures by 1.1 °C. Most of the increase has occurred since the 1950s. In a warming climate, it is expected that the frequency of warm extremes (including heatwaves) will increase, and that of cold extremes will decrease.
  • In general, rainfall is declining in the south of Australia and increasing in the north, and snow amounts are decreasing. Droughts and periods of extreme fire weather are expected to become more common, as are more intense rainfall events.

Global greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase

  • Greenhouse gas concentrations globally continue to increase. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are likely to have peaked. Recent declines have been driven largely by the land use, land-use change and forestry sector becoming a net carbon sink rather than a net source, along with the rapidly increasing share of renewables in electricity generation. This increase has been driven both by government policy, particularly at the state and territory level, and by falls in the cost of renewables, driven by technological advances. Australian emissions are not, however, declining at a sufficient rate to achieve benchmarks consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 °C. Short-term emissions reductions in 2020, associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, are expected to be temporary.

Climate change is having a profound impact, and adaptation is vital

  • Climate change will have a profound impact on the environment and human society. Habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity; water systems and resources; industry, crops and agriculture; urban, rural and coastal communities; and Indigenous knowledge and culture will all be affected by rising temperatures and changing climate patterns.
  • Adaptation to climate change is being actively pursued across all levels of government, although the challenges to effective adaptation are formidable. There is an increasing awareness of climate risk, and willingness to address it, across the public and private sectors.
  • Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change in Australia because they use the environment differently, and the impacts are greater on their cultural knowledge and traditional practices. Impacts of climate change can displace them as a people away from their traditional lands, and can ultimately change the way they access and use Country to read climate.
  • Indigenous people read Country to understand climate and predict weather. Natural indicators in the environment tell Indigenous people when the rain is coming or delayed – for example, because a certain flower has not bloomed. When Country changes with climate change, traditional knowledge changes and Indigenous methodologies are forced to adapt. Traditional knowledge can complement non-Indigenous (‘western’) science to provide a deep understanding of climate changes and impacts.
  • It is crucial that Indigenous people are involved in national and international climate forums and decision-making processes. Indigenous people are among the first to experience the direct impacts of climate change, even though they contribute little to greenhouse gas emissions, and Indigenous ways of doing add to global understanding of climate patterns and changes. More can be done to listen to, and include, Indigenous voices in all climate forums, governments and organisations.