But the reality is that no matter how successful these mitigation efforts are, all of the Earth's species and ecosystems are faced with the challenge of adapting to climate change. This is because the flow-on effects of higher levels of greenhouse gases take time to work their way though the Earth's complex atmospheric, land and water systems.
One journal paper has estimated that if all human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases were to stop tomorrow, it would take about 1000 years for temperatures to return to their pre-Industrial Revolution range. (1) The implication is that while we need to continue making efforts to tackle the causes of climate change, we also need to understand how humans and other species might adapt (or not) to inevitable climate change impacts.
'It's an important problem that's not been addressed in the past,' says Professor Jean Palutikof, Director of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF). 'The whole of last year was dominated by thinking about mitigation--and not to any great purpose.'
In February, the Federal Government released a position paper that outlined the adaptation challenge for Australia. 'The impacts of climate change will affect almost every facet of Australia's economy, society and environment,' the paper said. 'Adapting to climate change will involve all levels of government, business and the community.'
The document highlights some of the impacts to which Australia and Australians will need to adapt, regardless of the success or failure of global attempts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases--hotter and drier conditions, more heatwaves, more frequent bushfires and rising sea levels.
NCCARF has identified eight priority areas for adaptation research (see box), such as impacts on infrastructure and human settlements, biodiversity, and human health.
The aim is to develop climate change adaptation plans for each of these areas-for example, what does a rise in sea level mean for development and infrastructure in coastal areas? What changes could be made to planning rules to manage the increased risk of flooding? What can industries such as agriculture do to adapt to rising temperatures? How will people's health be affected by increased temperatures? What can hospitals, emergency services and communities do to make services more effective?
Professor Lesley Hughes, of Macquarie University's Department of Biological Sciences, says that it is 'one thing to know that climate change is happening' but another to ask what to actually do about it. Professor Hughes, who has been researching the impacts of climate change on ecosystems for more than 20 years, is concerned about limited adaptation options in the natural world in the event of severe climate change.
'Ultimately it's [about] extinction of lots of species and destruction of ecosystem processes. There will simply be a lot of changes in the way that ecosystems function.
'With terrestrial biodiversity, the adaptation options are limited compared to human systems. In agriculture we could change where we put dams or cattle. Yes, it's expensive, but they are do-able. But with terrestrial biodiversity, your options are far more limited.'
Using wallabies as an example, Professor Hughes explains that animal species in a changing climate could adapt via two mechanisms. The first, assisted migration, involves the physical relocation of a population to an area with a less hostile climate. The second involves the creation of natural migration corridors through protecting critical habitat linkages.
But there is also a third option, according to Professor …