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Climate change badly damaging Australia – expert

Australia is already grappling with alarming sea level rises and ocean acidity thanks to climate change, one of the country's leading experts has warned.

Professor William Steffen, addressing the ‘In the Eye of the Storm’ Pacific climate change conference at Victoria University, said Australia "should consider itself more a part of the Pacific”.

It faced many of the same crises as Pacific Island nations. Above-average sea level rise had caused “a threefold increase in coastal flooding” on both Australian coasts. Ocean acidification had significantly damaged the Great Barrier Reef, which was crucial to both Australia's fishing and tourism industries. “This is a livelihood issue for us.”

Steffen, the executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, said the rate of increase for global warming, ocean acidification, and atmospheric carbon were perhaps even more alarming than their actual levels today.

The rate of atmospheric CO2 concentration had increased more than one hundredfold since 2001 and the increase in ocean acidification was unprecedented, Steffen said. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that average temperatures could rise more than six degrees by 2100.

Climate change had already caused catastrophic damage in other parts of the world, Steffen added, citing a recent drought in the Amazon rainforest and melting glaciers in the Arctic and Greenland.

He also argued that current consumption of fossil fuels threatened to end a period of “remarkable stability” for the earth’s climate. The earth had historically cycled between long cold periods and relatively brief warm periods.

Humankind had experienced just two complete cycles – both of them warm, thanks to the influence of the hospitable climate of Africa. It was only during the last ten-thousand-year warm period that humans were able to develop societies and agriculture across the globe, Steffen said.

Looking ahead, there could be a “tipping point” for climate change, he added. While the earth was currently in “a very stable state”, just a few degrees of temperature rise could put an end to this period of stability, with grave consequences for society. Some leading experts believed the “tipping point” had already been reached and that catastrophic climate change was inevitable.

Steffen also discussed “planetary boundaries”, a metric for determining the health of the environment by examining “the interconnected processes of the earth”. These processes included climate change, ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity, and ocean acidification, all of which were crucial for evaluating the health of the planet.

“This is a human-oriented framework,” he said. “This is designed to keep the earth as a whole in a habitable state.” In all nine of these systems, he added, damage was occurring at an alarming rate.

Steffen would like to see greater emphasis placed on reforming society to address climate change in the period when – most experts believe – it can still be stopped. More attention should be given to the politics and economics of climate change, he added: “We say nothing [ordinarily] about what the economic system should be, the political should be.”

Steffen concluded by outlining the parameters for action against climate change, saying: “We shouldn’t be trying to manage the earth systems … our focus should be on managing our relationship to the earth systems.”

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