In 100 years, lush coastal cities like Wollongong could be unrecognisable – and not in a good way.
The Earth’s rising temperatures and more extreme weather patterns will increase the risk of frequent bushfires with the potential to leave the landscape and vegetation looking more like Broken Hill, predicts University of Wollongong climate change scientist, Professor Ross Bradstock.
“It could be as bad as that based on some projections if we go on more or less the way we’re going at the moment,’’ he says.
As director of UOW’s Centre for Environmental Risk and Management of Bushfires, Prof Bradstock’s research focus is bushfire regimes – the frequency and intensity of fires – and how they will change in the future on a national and global level. He is one of the tens of thousands of scientists worldwide who are analysing climate change disruptions from a myriad of perspectives to formulate mitigation strategies to help life and vegetation adapt to a new reality.
He describes his work as a huge challenge of unravelling climate change effects.
“It’s not just a question of saying: ‘If the temperature goes up it’s going to get drier’. It’s more about the way it will permeate through to natural processes, and the way ecosystems and other things will respond,” he says.
- Find out what UOW alumni are doing to tackle climate change
The United Nations Convention on Climate Change defines it as a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity altering the composition of the global atmosphere. Put simply, certain human activity on a large and individual scale is destabilising the naturally-occurring and finely balanced cycle of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide that have kept the planet at a relatively stable temperature for thousands of years. The link to more extreme weather events is because climate change also warms oceans adding energy that can fuel coastal storms. Also, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture providing fuel for storm systems and heavier rainfall.
It is important to differentiate between weather and climate, the latter of which is the average of weather usually over several decades. Amid what is now considered a consensus among scientists on the need for action, there is a worrying sense that public engagement – an important component of the strategy to mitigate the effects of climate is lagging far behind. In a CSIRO study on Australians’ attitudes to climate, respondents over a period from 2010-2014, rated big-polluting countries, multinational corporations, wealthy countries and government as most responsible for causing climate change. They rated individuals as the least responsible for both causing climate change and responding to it.
“Most people will tell you global warming is bad and we should be doing something about it,” says social marketing researcher Dr Jennifer Algie from UOW’s School of Management, Operations and Marketing. “But then there is what is known as the green gap where what people think and believe is completely different to what they go and do because it requires some effort on their part.”
Dr Jennifer Algie with PhD student Sebastian Isbanner who is studying whether the transition to reusable bags will influence other environmental behaviour.
Dr Algie believes apathy on any social topic of collective importance comes down to perceived barriers in making behavioural change.
“At the moment the barriers are higher than the perceived personal benefits of change,” she says.
Dr Algie says while individuals are constantly confronted by climate change warnings in the media, “message’’ campaigns have had limited success.
“Social marketing was traditionally about the individual’s choice and the need for them to change their behaviour… but evidence is showing that if we bring in not so much laws but drivers for change then results are better,’’ she says.
However, behavioural change takes leadership, says Dr Algie, and that does not necessarily have to involve government. She cites her research on campaigns to reduce the use of plastic bags which is now getting traction among major supermarkets.
“We seem more accepting in instances of issues like plastic bag use of being told ‘this is what is happening’ rather than motivational strategies to go out of our way to do something different.” Dr Algie says rather than expensive national advertising campaigns on climate change mitigation, she suggests funding local government to tailor community initiatives is a far more effective approach.
“There are so many ways to involve people this way… things like stalls outside Bunnings to start conversations with shoppers about climate change and no-drive days at schools that encourage parents to walk rather than drive to school with their kids if possible.”
Another perceived barrier is the notion “climate change won’t affect me in my lifetime”, when in fact is it is impacting on millions of people already, particularly the vulnerable, says UOW’s senior lecturer in accounting, Dr Stephanie Perkiss.
In a recent article published in Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, Dr Perkiss touched on the issue of climate change inequality by highlighting the suffering of whole communities in the Pacific Islands. It formed part of her PhD research using a relatively new thread of analysis known as critical accounting.
“It challenges the traditional idea that accounting is all about financial analysis and the bottom line profit figure. It encourages debate to consider the need for business, government and individual accountability beyond the profit motive,’’ says Dr Perkiss.
Her thesis involved listening to many people who represented their villages on islands such as Tuvalu, Samoa and Kiribati.
“These people live very simple lives with none of the heavy or mining industries of more affluent nations. Yet they are bearing the brunt of excessive greenhouse gas emissions,’’ says Dr Perkiss. “They are watching their communities, shaped by a culture that has been passed down through generations, literally sink into the sea due to rising ocean levels.”
Consequences also include financial hardships caused by loss of livelihoods due to inability to service their tourism economies.
“These people who visit wealthier nations like Australia to raise awareness with their stories are not wanting to attribute blame. But they do want action,’’ says Dr Perkiss. “There is an urgent need to extend our empathy to those already affected… and to address long term sustainability and greater accountability.”
Dr Jennifer Algie
Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) (Marketing & Economics), 1997
Doctor of Philosophy (Marketing), 2006
Dr Stephanie Perkiss
Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) (Accountancy), 2010
Doctor of Philosophy (Commerce), 2015.
Professor Ross Bradstock
Director, Centre for Environmental Risk and Management of Bushfires
Bachelor of Arts, 1986