At a glance

Our planet is somewhat resilient to increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels because atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. During recent decades, the oceans have taken up approximately 25 per cent of the annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. However, the capacity of the oceans to absorb CO2 appears to be limited, because the absorbed CO2 is making our oceans more acidic, with consequent environmental impacts.

The lag in the system is significant. Modelled projections show that, if CO2 levels are ramped down to pre-industrial concentrations, surface air temperature and sea level change exhibit a substantial timelag relative to atmospheric CO2—in models, even 900 years after CO2 was restored to pre-industrial levels, surface air temperature and sea level were considerably higher than under pre-industrial conditions.

The palaeorecord confirms this modelling. In the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum era (56 million years ago), CO2 was being released to the atmosphere at one-tenth of the rate of today. The era resulted in a rapid onset of 6 °C global warming, followed by a gradual recovery during 150,000 years. Although many species ultimately survived, the perturbations to the environment of this warming persisted for tens of thousands of years.

The interaction between the environment and society means that resilience of the physical environment and human societies must be considered together.

Resilience of a society to climate change is dependent on the sensitivity of the society to change and its capacity to adapt to change. Climate-resilient pathways may involve significant transformations in political, economic and socio-technical systems. The success of climate-resilient pathways is linked to the success of climate change mitigation (i.e. as problems become unmanageable, future options for climate-resilient pathways may be reduced).

Climate change will result in location-specific vulnerabilities, and people who are disadvantaged are most sensitive to climate change. However, some regions may benefit from climate change (e.g. warmer temperatures will result in reduced energy demand for winter heating and reduced winter mortality in cooler climates, including southern Australia).

Within Australia, Indigenous communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, particularly those people who live in remote interior or low-lying coastal areas, or who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. However, adaptation and mitigation to climate change may offer opportunities for Indigenous communities through engagement with environmental management.

It is important that vulnerabilities in social resilience are reflected in national and international policies aimed at adapting to climate change.

Resilience is the capacity of the environment to retain or recover the same structure and functions after experiencing shocks or disturbances. The interaction between the environment and society means that resilience of the physical environment and human societies cannot be considered separately. Hence, in this section, we consider the resilience of our climate system itself, and the resilience of our environment and society to climate change.

Keywood MD, Emmerson KM, Hibberd MF (2016). Climate: Resilience of Australia’s climate 2016. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372