Understanding and research


In the 5 years since SoE 2011, international climate science has advanced significantly. The IPCC, operating under the United Nations, is the leading international scientific body for the assessment of climate change. Its role is to review, assess and synthesise the latest information on climate change, based on the most recent peer-reviewed literature. AR5, which cited more than 9200 scientific publications and contained contributions from more than 600 authors (Stocker et al. 2013b), confirms (with between 95 and 100 per cent certainty) that humans have been the dominant cause of warming since the 1950s.

Although it is clear that the climate is warming, the complexity of the climate system means that there are still scientific uncertainties about how much the climate will change in the future. In particular, uncertainty exists about:

  • future emissions and levels of GHGs, which will be influenced by policies, and population and technology changes
  • the precise temperature response to future GHG concentrations, because climate model projections under different GHG emissions scenarios can only estimate temperature increases within a probability range
  • how land and ocean carbon sinks will operate in a warmer climate.

With the long-term global investment in climate science (e.g. the large number of climate observation programs and studies), the increased sophistication of Earth system models and increased understanding of some climate processes, the scientific understanding of climate change impacts has increased substantially since 1990. However, to reduce uncertainty further, this investment must continue, because high-quality information about climate change is a core requirement for good adaptation and mitigation policy (Garnaut 2008).

The National Framework for Climate Change Science (established in 2009) outlined the climate science challenges to be addressed in supporting Australia’s climate change policy, as well as the capabilities required to deliver this science. The plan for implementation of the framework was established in 2012 and set out a series of key policy questions that, when answered, would deliver national benefit. The plan coordinated the science delivered through the Australian Climate Change Science Program, to which the Australian Government committed $15 million per year between 2011 and 2015. A major achievement of the program has been the development of ACCESS (see Box ATM4). In 2015, the 26-year program was replaced with the National Environmental Science Programme’s Earth System and Climate Change Hub ($23.9 million across 5 years).

Box ATM4 Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator

The Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS) was developed jointly by the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO and Australian universities to provide a national capability to model the Earth climate system on timescales from hours to centuries. Development of ACCESS also involved significant international collaboration, particularly with the United Kingdom Met Office.

ACCESS is a global model that includes all elements of the climate system affecting Australia’s weather. It links models of the oceans, atmosphere, sea ice, land surface, global carbon cycle and chemistry, and aerosols to simulate changes in Earth’s climate systems. These models are important in understanding past, present and future weather and climate.

ACCESS has improved weather forecasts so that 3-day forecasts are now as accurate as 2-day forecasts were before 2009. This makes for greater certainty in planning and responding to weather events. ACCESS simulations now provide unprecedented detail about fire-weather danger and real-time conditions to support planning and deployment of fire crews and emergency management.

ACCESS simulations rank in the upper level of international climate model simulations and are particularly skillful over Australia, based on simulations of historical climate (Figure ATM24). ACCESS provided Australia’s major input to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This included simulations of the climate of the 20th century, and projections for the 21st century for a range of future greenhouse gas and aerosol concentration scenarios. ACCESS will also provide Australia’s major input to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC on the world’s climate future.

Development and refinement of ACCESS continue, so that it will meet the climate and weather information needs of government, industry and the community.

For the past decade, CSIRO has worked with other groups in the Australian research community, including the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, to develop substantial capabilities and expertise in climate modelling and observations. This has allowed CSIRO to contribute to the global understanding of climatic trends and processes (e.g. see Box ATM5).

In February 2016, CSIRO announced an intention to reduce resourcing in this area. As a consequence of negative national and international reaction to this announcement, the Australian Government and CSIRO subsequently announced the formation of a new climate science centre to be housed within CSIRO that will have a guaranteed base level of support for 10 years.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science was established in 2011. It is a consortium of 5 Australian universities, and a suite of national and international partners. It will build on and improve existing understanding of the modelling of regional climates to enable enhanced adaptation to, and management of, climate change, particularly in the Australian region. It has strong links with the ACCESS initiative and works in partnership with the National Computational Infrastructure facility.

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), hosted by Griffith University, Queensland, was established in 2008. Its mandate is to carry out research to support decision-makers as they prepare for, and manage the risks of, climate change. During phase 1, the Australian Government committed a further $9 million for 3 years (2014–17) to phase 2 of NCCARF to address the needs of local government adaptation decision-makers and practitioners in the coastal zone. These groups deal with projected impacts such as more frequent and more intense heatwaves, increasing risk of flooding from rivers and the sea, and increasing coastal erosion.

Keywood MD, Emmerson KM, Hibberd MF (2016). Climate: Understanding and research. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/climate/topic/2016/understanding-and-research, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372