Australia fails adaption to climate change

Dr Liz Hanna with yellow sign that reads: 'Climate Action Now'.

Honorary Associate Professor Liz Hanna

Australia’s abject failure to mitigate or adapt to climate change was a key topic at last week’s Global Public Health Week.

Hosted by the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) from 4 – 8 April 2022, the Global Public Health Week initiative was a huge success with participation from all continents on a raft of public health’s pressing local and global issues.

WFPHA Environmental Health Working Group members ran four events:

Remembering the Broad Street pump example, public health action was only spurred when Cholera began to infect the wealthy citizens of London, not ‘just’ the poorer classes.

Climate change is revisiting that message. Although it has been affecting low to middle income countries the most, it is also wreaking havoc among rich countries like Australia. Havoc so catastrophic that Australia is failing its response, leaving thousands to suffer heartache, grief, loss, and a raft of health manifestations. A public health disaster with a long impact tail.

In early 2022, Australia, still reeling from the world’s largest and longest recorded bushfires, experienced exceptional flooding, across multiple states. Before the nation could humanely address homelessness of bushfire victims, the next round of climate disasters began adding thousands more to the list of displaced persons.

A review of Australia’s climate record was in order.

A: Australia is exquisitely vulnerable to climate change. We should avoid it.

  1. We have the world’s most variable rainfall.
  2. We are a hot country, at 7oC warmer than the global sea and land average
  3. Australia has already warmed 1.47oC, since 1910.
  4. Professor Michael E Mann describes Australia as the “poster child for what the rest of the world will be dealing with.”

B: Australia is exacerbating climate change by mining, using, and selling fossil fuels. We are making it worse.

  1. Australia is now the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
  2. Australia is the second-largest exporter of coal.
  3. Globally, 74% of potential energy CO2 reduction comes from reduced use of coal.
  4. Globally, fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion or 6.8 percent of GDP in 2020
  5. In 2021-22, Australian federal and state governments provided $11.6 billion worth of spending and tax breaks to assist fossil fuel industries, more than its spending on public schools, carers or child care.
  6. This is a 12% increase on 2020-2021’s figure and 56 times the budget of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency.
  7. Australia had a Carbon Price. It was working. But the Abbott government repealed it in 2013, and emissions resumed climbing.

C: Australia has clean energy resources in abundance. We don’t need coal & gas.

  1. The Australian continent has the highest solar radiation per square metre of any continent and consequently some of the best solar energy resource in the world.
  2. Australia receives an average of 58 million petajoules (PJ) of solar radiation per year, approximately 10,000 times larger than its total energy consumption, yet solar supplies a mere 0.1 per cent of Australia’s total primary energy consumption.
  3. Australia has one of the best wind energy resources in the world.
  4. One per cent of our geothermal energy shallower than five kilometres and hotter than 150°C could supply Australia’s total energy requirements for 26,000 years.

D: Australia would economically benefit from transition to renewable.  Economic wins from transition.

  1. Australia is the world’s 6th largest country. We are huge.
  2. About a third of the country lies in the tropics, 70% of mainland Australia is classified as desert, arid or semiarid
  3. Our population density is one of the world’s lowest.
  4. Local landowners, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, could well appreciate additional income
  5. Proximity to the Asian markets offers unique export opportunities for our renewable energy resources.
  6. Global economic costs of warming this century could be as high as 51% of global GDP by 2100.
  7. Climate inaction means Australia’s economy will be 6% smaller and have 880,000 fewer jobs by 2070, a $3.4 trillion lost opportunity over the next half a century.
  8. OR – if Australia rises to this challenge, we could gain a $680 billion dividend and 250,000 more jobs.

The IPCC’s 1st Assessment Report warned that climate change would bring more frequent and more intense heat, fires, droughts, floods and storms. All subsequent reports have confirmed this increase is happening.

Australia had a National Climate Change Adaptation Research Network. I convened the Human Health hub at the Australian National University. But it was defunded before we could roll out complete adaptation plans.

How does Australia score on its preparation for climate change? A resounding Fail.

  • Federal support to build and fully equip evacuation centres throughout high-risk areas? Fail. 
  • Providing sufficient mobile housing, ready to relocate to provide local housing options for the residents made homeless post disaster? Fail. 
  • Listening to emergency experts, such as the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change who sought preparing for the 2019-20 bushfires season? Fail. 
  • Listening to the health sector when they launched a National Strategy for Climate, Health and Wellbeing in Parliament House? Fail. The Federal Health Minster failed to attend to listen to Australia’s key health stakeholders talk about Climate Change.

What does Climate Inaction look like?

It looks like Australia.

Inaction delivers the world’s highest rate of extinctions of mammals. Koalas likely to become extinct in NSW. Millions of hectares, homes and businesses burned. More than a billion animals burned alive in a single fire season. Towns repeatedly flooded. Others run out of water. Insurance unaffordable.

All this in a wealthy country. The world’s disadvantaged countries are suffering far more.

Once, Australia was a nation known for its caring, compassionate nature, and for being clever and carefree. We can get back there. But only if we want to.


Honorary Associate Professor Liz Hanna is a member of the PHAA Ecology and Environment Special Interest Group.


Image: Liz Hanna

Further reading

  • In the lead up to the Glasgow IPCC summit, Australia approved three coal mine extensions in a month, even as the Federal Court ruled the government must consider the harm of climate change when approving new mines and extensions. Read more.
  • Some existing resources projects are emitting as much as three to four times their original estimate, or tens of millions of tonnes of additional greenhouse gases. Read more.
  • Planned new gas and coal projects in Australia would result in almost 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions annually – equivalent to building over 200 new coal power stations. Read more.
  • The carbon credit scheme can and should be effective, but lack of governance means the system is working against its objective. Read more.


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