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What is climate change?

Climate change has been caused by above-normal emission of greenhouse gasses since the industrial revolution - primarily from burning coal, oil and gas. These gasses create a ‘blanket’ around the earth, trapping heat in. This trapping of heat creates extremes of weather, warming and rising oceans, increasingly severe storms and cyclones, droughts, floods, with many serious flow-on impacts on species and societies.


The Australian Museum and Climate Change

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our times. All life on the planet is being affected by the warming of the atmosphere, driven by human emissions of greenhouse gasses.

The Australian Museum is engaging actively in the issues of climate change. The collections here span both the natural and human worlds, with 21 million items representing the natural and cultural environments of Australia, the Pacific and the broader world. We are perfectly placed to make clear the impacts of human culture on the environment.

Museums around the world are refocusing their efforts to raise awareness around the changing climate. Museums are the most trusted science institutions[JN2] in Australia, so there is a role for us as communicators. We are doing this through public talks and workshops, sessions for schools, web resources, displays, and more. The Australian Museum is helping people to understand and engage more effectively with climate change.

Scientists at the Australian Museum are undertaking research that highlights the impact of climate change on species distribution and biodiversity, coral reef health (at the Lizard Island Research Station) and impact on coastal peoples.


Impacts on Sydney and beyond

In Sydney, 7 of last of the 10 years have been the hottest on record. We are seeing hotter summers – Western Sydney will experience days of 50˚C in 2018-19. Here, as well as across Australia, there are more bushfires, droughts, more intense storms, houses and property being lost to higher seas, coastal erosion and storm surges.

We are seeing that in neighbouring areas, across the Pacific, these impacts are magnified. People on low-lying Pacific islands are already losing their homes to rising seas and losing reefs and marine food sources to warming, acidifying oceans.

Here at the Australian Museum we have been listening to sharing the experiences of people in the Pacific, and the learnings from these ‘canaries in the coal mine’, are important for all of us.


Culture and Climate

Climate change has cultural dimensions – within its causes, impacts and responses. Caused by ‘cultures of consumption’, there are deep cultural impacts of climate change: the loss of ancestral lands, the erosion of access to places, plants, and animals essential to cultural practices, the breakdown of communities through relocation, loss of food security and loss of livelihoods. These foundations are already being lost in many parts of the world; usually within the societies contributing least to emissions. [i]

Effective responses to climate change are also, crucially, cultural. People in the world’s highly consuming cultures need to be thinking differently about responsibility and practices of care. A deep conceptual shift is needed to recognize that the earth is our life support system and it requires our care.

Researchers at the Australian are Museum studying and sharing insights into these dimensions of our changing world.

The AM’s award-winning exhibition, Climate Change: Our future, your choice (2009) was informed by in-house research. The Oceania Rising: Climate Change in our Region program of arts and activism has been an effective partnership with artists, arts centers and communities in Western Sydney in 2018, helping voices from the Pacific ‘front line’ to be heard more effectively in Sydney.

[i] “Addressing Climate Change”, UNESCO, https://en.unesco.org/themes/addressing-climate-change.


Making Changes

The AM is developing its Sustainability Action Plan, encompassing the key steps for achieving Green Star and Carbon Neutrality by 2020.

The AM has already achieved energy savings onsite through mechanical upgrades and will continue its commitments to sustainability through embedding sustainability into all business practices across the Museum.

Climate change presents challenge to the survival of our species. The Australian Museum is working to help people to understand the scope of the challenge and ways of responding effectively though our exhibitions, communication of information and public engagement. Find out more about how the climate is changing, the impacts of climate change and what you can do for the future.

What next?

The Australian Museum is committed to:

  • Expanding AM Education programs on climate change
  • Expanding climate-change-related exhibitions and online content
  • Reducing our carbon footprint.

How can museums respond?

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our times. There is no part of life on the planet that is unaffected by climate change, and all aspects of our work at the Australian Museum are touched by it.

Around the world museums are increasingly taking on roles that will help the public to understand the issues of climate change, and to find ways to deal with the growing challenges.

  • As a museum that holds, studies and represents both the natural and the cultural, the Australian Museum is an ideal place to make clear statements living things and their intimate interconnection.
  • The Australian Museum is working to ensure clear and captivating communication of the phenomenon of climate change.
  • The Museum is also providing support for understanding the key features of the phenomenon that will help people to see ways forward for community and individual choices that will work towards lowering emissions.
  • Scientists at the Australian Museum are undertaking research that highlights the impact of climate change on species distribution and biodiversity, coral reef health (at the Lizard Island Research Station) and impact on coastal peoples.
  • The AM has developed a Sustainability Action Plan, encompassing the key steps for achieving Green Star and Carbon Neutrality by 2020. The AM has already achieved energy savings onsite through mechanical upgrades and will continue its commitments to sustainability through embedding sustainability into all business practices across the AM.

All of these projects provide a better understanding of changing conditions while raising opportunities to engage with local communities and hear their responses to these changes.

Many of the research findings are presented on the AM’s website and publications.


Hasn't the climate always changed?

There have been ice ages and warmer periods in the Earth's history. The planet has survived, but not without major extinctions. This is the natural way of things.

What is different now is that we are the main cause of the change: a change that could wipe out millions of species.


What are Greenhouse gases?

How are we changing the environment?

Certain gases in the air, called greenhouse gases, act like a blanket for the Earth. Without them the temperature would be -18°C most days. However, you can have too much of a good thing. Many of the things we do in our modern world produce extra greenhouse gases which are making the world gradually warmer.

Where do most greenhouse gases come from?

Most greenhouse gases come from:

  • burning coal, oil and gas mainly to generate electricity
  • burning fuel in cars, trucks and planes
  • deforestation
  • industrial processes like making cement
  • the expulsion of internal wind by cows and sheep
  • fertilisers on farms
  • rotting manure and rubbish at landfill sites

The most important greenhouse gas is water vapour, but humans have very little effect on how much of it is in the air. The main gases we produce are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).


The warming planet

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

  • each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than in any preceding decade since 1850
  • average global land and ocean surface temperatures have warmed by around 0.85 degrees Celsius since 1880
  • global average sea levels have risen by 0.19 metres over the twentieth century
  • atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years
  • the oceans have absorbed about 30 per cent of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing them to become more acidic.

Further reading

IPCC, 2013. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. 5th Assessment Report. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland. Find the report at ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1


Related publications

  • “Assessing our Climate and Earth System”, CSIRO, https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/OandA/Areas/Assessing-our-climate
  • “The Science of Climate Change”, Australian Academy of Science, https://www.science.org.au/learning/general-audience/science-booklets-0/science-climate-change
  • “Fifth Assessment Report”, IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/
  • “Scientific Consensus”, NASA, https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/


Australian species vulnerable to extinction through climate change

Climate change may happen too quickly for some species to adapt and may exacerbate existing threats such as land clearance, farming and pollution. Australian species with biological traits that make them susceptible to change, or with restricted habitats, are particularly vulnerable to extinction.


Frogs

Thornton Peak Nursery Frog, Cophixalus concinnus

Current distribution: Wet Tropics of Queensland
Found only in the Wet Tropics region, it will be unable to colonise any other area if its habitat shrinks from global warming and reduced rainfall. Like other frogs, they are sensitive to climate change as their breeding cycle is linked to temperature and rainfall fluctuations. Warm temperatures also aid in spread of disease-causing organisms such as chytrid fungus.

Southern Corroboree Frog, Pseudophryne corroboree

Current distribution: restricted area of the Australian Alps
Hot dry weather, more common in the Alps since the 1980s, has already impacted on egg and tadpole survival and interfered with the breeding cycle, which is dependent on the extreme weather of the Alps. This species also faces probable loss of its alpine environment if future warming is too great.


Reptiles

Broad-headed Snake, Hoplocephalus bungaroides

Current distribution: Sydney basin and surrounds
This species is at risk of extinction under worst-case climate change scenarios. It faces loss of habitat and interrupted breeding seasons that will reduce its already low population to critical levels.

Pink-tailed Legless Lizard, Aprasia parapulchella

Current distribution: southern New South Wales and northern Victoria
This species is already suffering from loss of its preferred open grassland habitat due to land-clearing and heavy grazing. Climate change could reduce its habitat due to increased fire and drought and the spread of invasive weeds.

Hawksbill Turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata bissa

Current distribution: tropical areas of the Indo-Pacific
Like most other marine turtles species, the Hawksbill is highly vulnerable to climate change. More frequent storms will devastate nesting sites, high sea temperatures will reduce their main food sources of coral and sea grasses, and consistent high temperatures could lead to extreme infant mortality and a high ratio of female hatchlings over males. Population recovery will be difficult due to their slow reproduction rate.


Birds

Hooded Dotterel, Thinornis rubricollis rubricollis

Current distribution: coastal Jervis Bay, New South Wales to Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
Rising sea levels will have a devastating impact on this critically endangered species. The loss of the sandy beaches preferred for nesting and feeding, coupled with low breeding success, could lead to its extinction.

Golden-shouldered Parrot, Psephotus chrysopterygius

Current distribution: Cape York Peninsula, Queensland
This bird will be one of many species that could be affected by the increased temperatures, fires and droughts in the savanna areas of northern Australia. In addition, increased carbon dioxide levels will favour trees and shrubs over grasses, leading to massive habitat reduction.

Noisy Scrub-bird, Atrichornis clamosus

Current distribution: coastal south-west Western Australia
This semi-flightless species will be susceptible to fires that will be more common as droughts increase. Populations will find it hard to recover from these events as this species has a slow reproduction rate - only one egg is laid per season.

Helmeted Honeyeater, Lichenostomus melanops cassidix

Current distribution: areas near Melbourne, Victoria
Victoria's state bird emblem, it is particularly susceptible to the expected increase in droughts and fires that will affect its habitat. It is also likely that it will face increasing competition with the more aggressive Bell Miner.

Golden Bowerbird, Prionodura newtoniana

Current distribution: highlands of the Wet Tropics of Queensland
As with other highland species, the expected higher temperatures and lower rainfall will increasingly shift this bird's suitable habitat to higher altitudes, forcing it to move upwards. If total loss of habitat occurs, the bowerbird will be unable to colonise new areas.

Grey-headed Robin, Heteromyias cinereifrons

Current distribution: highlands of the Wet Tropics of Queensland
This species could suffer the same fate as many other highland bird species endemic to the Wet Tropics. This area may completely disappear if reduced rainfall and consistently high annual average temperatures occur - both conditions are forecast under climate change scenarios.


Invertebrates

Giant Gippsland Earthworm, Megascolides australis

Current distribution: Gippsland, Victoria
This earthworm is already in decline due to land clearing and the use of pesticides. It is particularly susceptible to drought as it requires a specific habitat in moist clay-rich soils, often under stream banks.

Small Alpine Xenica, Oreixenica latialis latialis

Current distribution: tablelands and mountains of Australian Alps
Although common now, populations of this butterfly could be severely affected if its alpine habitat disappears due to likely increased temperatures and reduced snow cover.


Mammals

Mountain Pygmy Possum, Burramys parvus

Current distribution: alpine and sub-alpine zones in Victoria and New South Wales
This tiny possum, one of only a few hibernating marsupials, needs a snow depth of at least one metre to provide adequate insulation during hibernation. Poor snow fall seasons, combined with shrinking habitat and increased predation from foxes and cats, could lead to its extinction.

Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby, Petrogale xanthopus

Current distribution: Flinders, Gawler Ranges South Australia; Gap, Cotarundee Ranges New South Wales; Gowan, Grey, Cheviot and Macedon Ranges Queensland
Higher temperatures and lower humidity could cause permanent changes to the natural habitat, along with increased numbers of introduced plant species and foxes. Severe droughts and bushfires could reduce the habitat range further, causing major population decline.

Lumholtzs Tree Kangaroo, Dendrolagus lumholtzi

Current distribution: Wet Tropics in Queensland
These kangaroos are rare and restricted in range. They rely on the cool, moist environment of high elevation rainforests and the expected higher temperatures and lower rainfall will increasingly reduce their suitable habitat. Populations may also be affected by increased carbon dioxide levels reducing the nitrogen content of leaves, making plants less nutritious.

Herbert River Ringtail Possum, Pseudochirulus herbertensis

Current distribution: Wet Tropics of Queensland
A 2-3°C temperature rise, a highly probable scenario, would devastate the Wet Tropics region and result in an almost total loss of its rainforest by 2050. It currently supports the highest possum diversity in Australia, with five possum species endemic to the region, including the Herbert River Ringtail.

Northern Bettong, Bettongia tropica

Current distribution: western edge of the Wet Tropics of Queensland
This bettong is another of the Wet Tropics animals that could suffer almost complete loss of habitat by 2050 due to rising temperatures and unsuitable fire regimes. Climate change could also lead to a decline in truffles, which are a major part of its diet.

Banded Hare Wallaby, Lagostrophus fasciatus

Current distribution: Bernier and Dorre Islands, Western Australia
Extinct on mainland Australia in the early 1900s due to human activity and drought, this wallaby now survives on only a few small islands. Increased aridity and temperatures, as well as rising sea levels, could cause a loss of habitat and directly impact on this species' breeding cycle.


Others

Seaweed, Schmitzia japonica

Current distribution: intertidal zones of New South Wales coast, especially Batemans Bay. Seaweeds are often regarded as common and widespread. However, some of the more rare and endangered species are vulnerable to warming seas. In fact, the first recorded extinction of a seaweed anywhere in the world was in New South Wales, recorded at the end of the 20th century. Algal species are vulnerable under climate change as some of their life-history stages are intolerant to certain environmental conditions, particularly temperature changes.