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Australia: A Climate Change Bellwether?

NEO_lake_eyre_bigA 2012 report, Climate Change & International Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether, from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), proposed that climatic and geopolitical trends in the Arctic region might be a signal of what is to come for the rest of the globe.

A recent article by Matt Siegel, Is Australia the Face of Climate Change to Come?, offers up a similar set of questions as the C2ES report, but for a very different geography.  Instead of melting ice caps, Siegel points out the emerging trends in Australia for excruciating heat waves and devastating floods.  Siegel quotes Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute:

He believes Australia is a unique environment in which to watch the change because it is already such a naturally extreme place. “We have such a range of different types of extreme events and climatic patterns that affect people,” Steffen said. “Examples being obviously sea-level rise, because we’re a coastal country; high-temperature events; bush fires; droughts and floods all at the same time. “So you’ve got the basket of the worst types of extreme weather events all being fairly prominent in Australia.”…Roughly 80 percent of Australians live within 30 miles of the coast, which means that all its major population centers are susceptible to sea-level rise, powerful storms, and flooding.

Historically, Australia has been ranked one of the least vulnerable to climate change, primarily due to its adaptive capacity. However, Siegel suggests that even for a nation used to extreme weather events, the ones Australia is starting to experience are extreme even for them.

Furthermore, Australia sits within an Asia-Pacific region that is home to some of the most climate vulnerable nations. As Australia begins to navigate its way through these climate extremes, it’s worth considering how its national adaptation strategies could be extended to regional cooperation efforts. In this context, though climate change was included in Australia’s new National Security Strategy, some have argued that the Australian Defense Force could go further in incorporating climatic risks into its strategic planning and operations – particularly given its climate-vulnerable backyard.

As Siegel suggests, Australia, and not just he Arctic, may be a climatic bellwether. Though it is certainly not the most vulnerable nation in the region, the shared burden of climate change presents Australia with an unprecedented leadership opportunity to use its strengths – economic, financial, political and military – to advance climate adaptation efforts throughout the Asia-Pacific.


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