Dr Andrew Ash leads the Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship which aims to equip Australia with practical and effective adaptation options to climate change and variability. As Flagship Director, Dr Andrew Ash is responsible for deciding research priorities, overseeing a large portfolio of research projects and managing many partnerships and collaborations. Dr Ash has over 20 years' experience in understanding how climate, grazing and fire influence the productivity and health of agriculture and ecosystems in northern Australia.
His research on sustainable grazing practices in the highly variable climate of the Australian rangelands prompted an interest in the techniques of seasonal climate forecasting. This led him to develop and apply ocean-based seasonal forecasting methods for both agricultural and natural resource management. With concerns increasing about the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, Dr Ash worked with colleagues at James Cook University to establish Australia's first Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment (OZFACE) to test the response of tropical savanna ecosystems to elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His most recent work has been on developing ways to more explicitly integrate our understanding of climate science with decision-making in broader contexts. To achieve this outcome Dr Ash has been driving a research approach that integrates biophysical, social and economic sciences and works in partnership with end users. Before taking on the current role of Flagship Director, Dr Ash was Deputy Chief for CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems (now Ecosystem Sciences).
Interview with Dr Andrew Ash
What is climate adaptation?
Adaptation is a means for dealing with the challenges that climate change and variability are bringing. It is how we respond, in natural or human systems, to actual or expected changes in the climate or its effects. Adaptation can either reduce the harm anticipated as a result of climate change impacts or exploit opportunities for benefit.
Examples of adaptation can be as simple as reducing water use by saving and reusing grey water from washing machines for watering gardens or lawns, or harvesting stormwater for watering playing fields and public gardens in local communities. Adaptation could include planning for more severe and intense bushfires as a result of less rainfall and drier conditions. It can be planning coastal developments so that sea level rise, storm surge and coastal erosion do not impact on them. Adaptation is an issue that needs to be considered by all governments, industry and the community now and into the future.
Why do we need to adapt?
Climate variability already has a large impact on the Australian economy and the early impacts of climate change are already noticeable. Even if the world makes a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the time-lag in the climate system means that we are faced with decades of climate change due to the emissions already in the atmosphere. Average temperatures in Australia have already increased by 0.9oC since 1950.
While we don’t yet fully understand the consequences of this warming, we expect to see a significant rainfall decline in southern Australia, an increase in the frequency and severity of events such as droughts and heatwaves, an increase in extreme sea-level events around our coastline, and a major reduction in inflows to our most important river system.
Further impacts are inevitable and we need to begin planning now. Adaptation is a necessary complement to measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By acting early to adapt and prepare for the impacts of climate change we can lessen the negative impacts of climate change and take advantage of any new opportunities that arise. For example, early studies indicate that for Australian agriculture, adaptation measures could reduce the impacts of climate change on productivity by 20 - 50 per cent, and substantially reduce the economic cost to regional communities.
How can adapting now reduce problems later?
Decisions on long-lived infrastructure made by home-builders, town-planners, transport engineers, water managers and others will have consequences far into the future. By taking into account projected likely changes to the future climate, we can ensure that our decisions reduce, rather than compound, the social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change on the next generation.
The work of the Climate Adaptation Flagship tries to identify ‘no-regrets’ options for adaptation – actions that will have net benefits regardless of the exact type or magnitude of climate change that occurs. A good example might be improving the water-use efficiency of irrigation systems. Using less water saves money and helps the environment, and if climate change continues to result in reduced rainfall, efficient irrigators will be better adapted to cope with water shortages.
How will Australia cope with these changes?
Australia is well equipped to prepare for the impacts of climate change.
Australians have a long history of coping with the vagaries of a highly variable climate. The nation enjoys a high standard of living and so we have the capacity to adapt and prepare for some of the impacts of climate change.
However we have to look at options for adaptation now so we can benefit from them in the future. Some of the changes we have to make may be small and incremental while others will require us to completely transform the way we approach certain tasks.
Potential actions to adapt to life in a changing climate include: choosing development sites that will be less affected by extreme weather events; improving building design; reducing water use and developing new water sources; switching to more drought-tolerant crops; improving the resilience of ecosystems threatened by climate change; and assisting our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.
The benefits from changes like these will be far reaching by: protecting lives, livelihoods, and property arising from extreme weather events (flood, fire, coastal inundation, wind damage); improving health risks by better managing heat waves, vector borne diseases and air quality; and reducing environmental damage from climate variation and climate change.
What should I be doing to prepare for climate change?
The nature of climate change is ongoing, pervasive, over the long term future uncertain and requires an integrated effort. Some of the changes we need to make will be very straight forward – like reducing water consumption in response to lower inflows into dams. But decisions we make about our economy; our food and water systems; conservation management; and our cities and coasts – will take an integrated, long term approach from all levels of government, industry, and the community as a whole.