Outlook and impacts


Australia’s climate is changing. Temperatures have risen during the past 100 years and have reached levels in recent years that are unprecedented in instrumental records. This is consistent with global findings that recent years have been warmer than any multiyear period in at least the past 2,000 years. Temperatures averaged over Australia have increased 1.4 °C since 1910, a rate typical of global land areas generally (IPCC 2021).

There have also been substantial changes in many other parts of the climate system, including rainfall and sea level. Extremes of temperature and fire weather well outside the range of previous historical records have occurred in recent years, and these have had major impacts on human wellbeing and the environment. Many natural systems are facing major challenges in adaptation, with species and ecosystems forced to move, adapt or die out.

Human activity, particularly global emissions of greenhouse gases, has been the main driver of global temperature increases.

The climate will continue to warm, and associated changes in the broader climate system will continue to occur, over the next 20–30 years, largely irrespective of our emissions trajectory. Resultant climate extremes will be further amplified by natural patterns of climate variability such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Major changes that have already been observed, and are expected to continue, include increased frequency and intensity of heat extremes (on land and in the ocean); rising sea levels; increased occurrence of dangerous fire weather in southern and eastern Australia; and decreasing cool-season rainfall in southern Australia, particularly the south-west of Western Australia. Warming averaged over Australia is expected to occur at similar rates to global averages, with inland areas generally warming faster than the coast (IPCC 2021). Climate change will hence remain a major pressure on many aspects of the Australian environment over the next few decades.

Whether our climate will stabilise or continue to change in the second half of the 21st century will be decided by global emissions over the next 20–30 years. Under the Paris Agreement, signatory countries agreed to a goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C.

If we want global warming to have a high chance of stabilising at or near 1.5 °C, it is critical that global emissions fall to net zero by mid-century at the latest.

Australia contributes approximately 1.2% of global emissions of greenhouse gases. This places us among the top 15 total emitters, and we are among the world’s largest per-person emitters (Friedlingstein et al. 2020). There is no indication that our current emissions trajectory would allow net zero emissions to be achieved by mid-century.

Australian greenhouse gas emissions have fallen substantially since 2007, although the rate of change has decreased since 2013 (except for large falls in 2020 that are partly due to reductions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which are likely to be temporary). Overall, emissions have decreased 20% since 2005, but it is uncertain whether we will meet Australia’s current nationally determined contribution of a 26–28% decrease by 2030.

The largest contributor to the decrease has been the change in the land use, land-use change and forestry sector from being a net source to a net sink; the increasing proportion of Australian electricity generated from renewable sources has also contributed to the decrease. But emissions from some other sectors continue to increase.

Policy measures will be influential in future emissions reductions, as will new technologies and further advances (and improved cost-competitiveness) in developing technologies. Low- or zero-emissions sources are already highly cost-competitive in electricity generation and have the potential to become so in other sectors in the future. Private sector action (over and above that required by government policy) is also becoming increasingly important.

As further climate change over the next 20–30 years is inevitable, adaptation to climate change will continue to be important. All 3 levels of government need to play a role in climate change adaptation, with many key responsibilities falling to state and local governments. The private sector’s treatment of climate risk will also become increasingly important, and climate change will become a significant element of market disclosure and prudential requirements. Whereas some forms of adaptation will be relatively straightforward, others could potentially have a very high cost (especially those requiring large-scale retrofitting or relocation of existing infrastructure) and/or be extremely difficult in practice.

Indigenous outlook

Indigenous people are dealing with a changing climate. Australia’s climatic changes, along with the impacts of human activities and clearing of vegetation, all influence the way Indigenous people read Country for climate. Natural indicators of climate and environmental patterns are being overlaid by rising temperatures, sea level rise and ocean warming, shifting or delayed rainfall patterns, extreme weather, too much rain, and drier periods. The Indigenous seasons are changing or are being delayed because Earth’s processes are being affected. In addition, a reduced frequency of cultural burning means that Country does not have the ability to regenerate and heal for the next season.

These changes will continue to impact Indigenous people’s traditional knowledge systems, which have been in place for thousands of years. The ways in which Indigenous people read and predict weather and climate systems are based on their knowledge about Country, and the information has been passed down. If natural indicators continue to undergo extreme change and shift the cultural baseline, we will see Indigenous people’s knowledge at risk of loss or transforming to a new norm. Indigenous people will need to prepare, and adjust their knowledge systems, for the effects of changing climatic processes and climate change. The outlook depends on Indigenous voices, and their ability to be heard by climate policy-makers and to be active agents of change.

Indigenous voices in climate change

Indigenous voices and knowledge must be included to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and written into policy to work with mainstream science to solve climate problems together. Indigenous knowledge welcomes science to complement Indigenous people’s vast cultural knowledge and methods, and vice versa. A learning exchange can occur between Indigenous science and mainstream science that will benefit both.

There is emerging evidence of the role that Indigenous knowledge plays and can play in a changing environment, changing climate and climate change adaptation.

Understanding Indigenous climate knowledge systems and the Indigenous relationship with the state of the climate requires understanding of the use and application of Indigenous knowledge within traditional boundaries. Indigenous knowledge is traditional ecological knowledge that exists in a cultural framework in which Indigenous people have a deep connection with their Country, water and air. The word ‘traditional’ refers to the act of passing on through intergenerational systems.

Mainstream science frameworks do not always acknowledge Indigenous ways of describing climate in the environment. But Indigenous people are practitioners in their own right, and their specific knowledge frameworks are diverse sets of cultural interpretations based on local Indigenous knowledge.

Indigenous voices from all corners of Australia have been coming together to discuss the impacts of climate change since 2012. International delegates from all over the world were invited to Yorta Yorta Country on 14 and 15 November 2012 to attend an international conference about Indigenous research into climate change. The results from the conference were astounding: all Indigenous people were suffering the same climatic impacts upon their knowledge; their knowledge systems were at risk of change or loss; and healthy living off the land no longer occurs in some Indigenous groups because the way in which they interact with their country has changed post-settlement. Most importantly, the conference found that Indigenous voices were not being incorporated into climate policy and decision-making processes that affect their communities.

These gatherings give opportunities for Indigenous people to discuss and share with each other their experiences of climate change. This event welcomed scientific information about the drivers of climate change, and its impact on water and Country. It identified policy options for responding to the drivers of climate change and impacts, based on a common understanding of the evidence presented from both Indigenous people and scientists.

The climate dialogue continued, with a National Indigenous Dialogue on Climate Change taking place in 2018 in Yorta Yorta Country in Barmah National Park, where a statement on climate impact was developed. In March 2021, the same climate dialogue conference took place in Cairns, Queensland, with 120 Traditional Owners from all around Australia attending, representing 40 Indigenous nations.


Climate change is affecting the environment, economy, individuals and communities.

Impact on the environment and economy

Climate change is a major pressure on most aspects of the environment. Specific impacts are covered in more depth in the other chapters of this report. For example, biodiversity loss and species extinctions are accelerating globally as a result of climate change and other principal causes such as pollution; this is covered in more depth in the Biodiversity chapter (see the Biodiversity chapter).

For Indigenous people, some species are used for food and fibre, and others have healing properties. The loss of environment will have detrimental impacts on the availability of these plant and animal species, once rich in diversity, including the risk of extinction of some species.

With an increase in biodiversity loss and species extinction in Australia, Indigenous people’s connection to their traditional lands and their knowledge systems are at risk of extreme change and cultural loss. These climatic impacts force Indigenous people to adapt as a people. The ability to read Country for climate is changing, and traditional seasonal calendars are also being subjected to change and are delayed as a direct result of climate change.

Environmental management has a long way to go to recognise and understand the way Indigenous people connect to Country. Maintaining the ability to care for Country is not always an option for Indigenous people because they do not own their traditional lands, which are managed under local, state and national environmental plans and legislation. These environmental plans do not always include Indigenous ways of doing and caring for Country. Indigenous people should have the right to make decisions on matters that affect them as a people and their cultural environment.

Flora species are disappearing and are at risk of extinction, and invasive species are specialising in areas where native species should be. Landscapes are changing with water management, superimposed environmental rules and climate change.

Fauna species are forced to leave their habitats, which in turn places stresses on the ecosystems they migrate to. The sophisticated intelligence of Indigenous people means that they can read the environment and know what is not meant to be there. Their way of looking at Country can provide crucial knowledge on species movement and changes in climatic patterns. These observations can be used to mitigate the impacts of climate change and develop new adaptive measures to protect cultural resources.

Global and Australian economies continue to be impacted by biodiversity loss and species decline. The economies of Indigenous people in Australia have been eroded by western economies, policies and now climate change. Some Indigenous people in Australia can no longer maintain an economy in a traditional setting with their traditional ways of doing, because those economies have been eroded by colonialisation and western ways of doing. Successive government policies that hinder Indigenous practice mean that the foods and fibres they relied on naturally in the environment for their own economies are no longer there. This means that, in today’s economies, Indigenous people need to travel further to source materials for food and fibre; this is due to land clearing and policies, as well as a changing climate. Indigenous people sometimes travel large distances by car to source weaving materials for traditional practices, as well as food and fibre. Traditional materials are not necessarily recognised as valuable by non-Indigenous peoples, as cultural values and a cultural economy is quite different to a western economy.

With further impacts on the cultural environment and Indigenous economies, Indigenous people's knowledge and knowledge systems are at further risk of destruction.

Impact on wellbeing

Climate change and other stressors will have major impacts on human wellbeing, affecting social and environmental determinants of health such as air quality, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter, according to the World Health Organization (WHO 2018).

A specific aspect of wellbeing is the impact of extreme heat on human health, which is considered in more detail in the Urban chapter (see the Urban chapter). Since European settlement, there have been more deaths as a result of heatwaves in Australia than from any other natural hazard.

When Indigenous people look at Country, they can tell when Country is sick – they can feel that sickness, and they become ill. Additionally, when the ability of Indigenous people to look after Country and care for what has belonged to them for long periods is taken away, their trauma increases and grief sets in. Their wellbeing is affected by trauma and grief because they no longer see what was healthy and they do not always have the ability to save it. Over time, these traumas increase; climate change impacts lives daily.

When Indigenous people no longer have access to Country and live off or away from Country, feelings of shame can result, and anxieties in not having the same access as other Indigenous people to materials in their traditional lands.

Indigenous people are forced to either move to a cooler climate or invest in community infrastructure because of heat extremes. These extremes affect not only their wellbeing but the immediate environment in which they live. Policies have forced Indigenous people to migrate closer to water availability for health reasons; climate is still having a major impact on water availability, affecting plant and animal species and changing soils. There are fewer storms; hayfever is appearing at the wrong times of the year and with intensity during extreme storm events; and higher concentrations of airborne pollen affect the wellbeing of people, creating allergies and asthma (Allam & Evershed 2019).