Australia's Biodiversity and Climate Change

Australia's Biodiversity and Climate Change

Australia's unique biodiversity is under threat from a rapidly changing climate. The effects of climate change are already discernible at all levels of biodiversity – genes, species, communities and ecosystems. Many of Australia's most valued and iconic natural areas – the Great Barrier Reef, south-western Australia, the Kakadu wetlands and the Australian Alps – are among the most vulnerable. But much more is at stake than saving iconic species or ecosystems. Australia's biodiversity is fundamental to the country's national identity, economy and quality of life.

In the face of uncertainty about specific climate scenarios, ecological and management principles provide a sound basis for maximising opportunities for species to adapt, communities to reorganise and ecosystems to transform while maintaining basic functions critical to human society. This innovative approach to biodiversity conservation under a changing climate leads to new challenges for management, policy development and institutional design. This book explores these challenges, building on a detailed analysis of the interactions between a changing climate and Australia's rich but threatened biodiversity.

Australia's Biodiversity and Climate Change is an important reference for policy makers, researchers, educators, students, journalists, environmental and conservation NGOs, NRM managers, and private landholders with an interest in biodiversity conservation in a rapidly changing world.

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    This assessment of the vulnerability of Australia’s biodiversity to climate change was begun in early 2007 in response to a request from the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council. This introductory chapter outlines the scope of the assessment and the approach to it taken by the Expert Advisory Group (EAG). The structure of the assessment is then presented in the form of a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, which lays out the flow of logic in the assessment and the major topics addressed by the EAG. Finally, the chapter describes the aims and characteristics of the assessment’s key messages and policy directions.

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    This chapter outlines why Australia is so species-rich, why so many species occur on this continent and nowhere else, and why the conservation of biodiversity is important. The chapter is a prelude to Chapter 3, which deals with the significant changes that have occurred in Australia’s biodiversity since European settlement in 1788. This review also sets the scene for the commentary in Chapters 4 and 5 that discusses how climate change may further affect biodiversity in Australia, and for Chapters 6 and 7, which discuss current management strategies for biodiversity conservation and how these may need to change to enhance the resilience of Australian biodiversity in a changing climate.

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    This chapter reviews the state of Australia’s biodiversity at the present time and the changes that have occurred over the last 220 years. Ten key ecological principles are introduced, which are relevant for interpreting past and future changes in biodiversity from the population to the landscape levels. This chapter identifies key stressors, other than climate change, which have operated and continue to operate to produce the biodiversity and landscapes that we experience today. Proximate stressors – such as direct exploitation, land clearing, water and fire management, and exotic species – reflect ultimate drivers such as human population size, individual ecological footprints, agriculture, urbanisation, mining and ‘perverse’ incentives. Global drivers, such as globalisation and climate change, are superimposed upon and exacerbate the continental-level pressures.

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    This chapter summarises climatic trends observed over the past few decades, both globally and in Australia, and describes the rate and magnitude of potential change over the next century.

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    This chapter outlines the ways in which climate change has already affected Australia’s biodiversity and will potentially affect it in the future. The threats to biodiversity from climate changes are threats arising from changes in the basic physical and chemical environment underpinning all life, especially CO2 concentrations, temperature, precipitation and acidity. Species will be affected individualistically by these changes, leading to flow-on effects on the structure and composition of present-day communities, and then potentially to changes in ecosystem functioning. Species, communities and ecosystems will also be affected indirectly, as climate changes affect important processes such as fire and disease. The chapter also outlines key information gaps and research questions for the future. While the chapter has attempted to present a broad overview across all sectors, there is a predominance of examples from terrestrial systems. This reflects firstly the paucity of knowledge about climate change and freshwater systems, and secondly the acknowledgment that climate change impacts on marine systems have been reviewed by Hobday et al. (2007).

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    This chapter provides an overview and discussion of existing biodiversity planning and management mechanisms, and considers their strengths and weaknesses under a changing climate. It firstly examines the principles that underpin current approaches to biodiversity conservation, the policies that are based on these principles and the governance structures that deliver them. The chapter then discusses management strategies and tools that are used to implement current policies. Limitations of the current policies and practices in the context of climate change are then outlined. The chapter concludes by exploring those aspects of current management practices that could provide a platform for adaptation to climate change.

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    This chapter provides an overview and discussion of ways to secure Australia’s biotic future. It focuses on the responses required to adapt natural ecosystems to enhance their resilience to climate change, discusses the implications of previous chapters and formulates recommendations. The chapter outlines the broad changes that are occurring in climate, as well as major socio-economic trends over the coming decades. It discusses management strategies and tools appropriate for biodiversity conservation under a changing climate, and proposes a substantially revamped institutional architecture based on the concepts of subsidiarity and polycentricity. As an innovative step towards implementation, the chapter proposes a systematic regional approach for biodiversity conservation – tailored to the characteristics and trends in particular regions – and builds towards an integrated response package encompassing management, education and governance. The chapter concludes by describing a set of challenges for resourcing the future.

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    Climate change will have an increasingly severe impact on Australia’s biodiversity, the degree of impact depending on the rate and magnitude of temperature increases and other climatic changes. This chapter briefly summarises the key messages in this report and provides policy directions to assist the nation deal with the climate change challenge. The major outcomes of the assessment are presented within a framework of five key messages.

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