Feeling the effects
Australia is already feeling the effects of climate change, through extra stresses on water supplies, an unusually severe drought and changing ecosystems.
That is the unofficial verdict of the world's leading scientists, who have spent the past six years re-examining the science behind climate changes. On Friday, the first part of that work will be made public in Paris, with the release of a summary of scientific findings.
Some of the key findings on climate impacts and adaptation strategies will be next to come out in April, although the full 20-chapter report on which it is based will not be published until November.
The Age has obtained a draft of that full report on global climate impacts. What it shows is that Australians from all walks of life will have no choice but to adapt to life in a warmer world.
GREAT BARRIER REEF TOURIST OPERATOR
Peter Gash, Lady Elliot Island
Flying over the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef in his light plane back in the early 1990s, pilot Peter Gash was more intrigued than worried when he first noticed patches of the coral below him had turned white.
But most of the coral soon regained its vivid colours and he thought nothing more of it.
So when people started warning that the vast coral reef system was in danger of being wiped out by warmer seas from climate change, he was the first to dismiss it all as alarmist rubbish.
"To be honest, I thought it was bullshit," says the 47-year-old, who moved north from Rosebud after falling in love with the reef as a young tourist.
"Even a year ago I was very cynical about it. My business went through the Y2K nonsense, which was like the boy who cried wolf where the government put all sorts of pressure on us to do things or they'd put you in jail, and then nothing happened. So I used to think climate change was the same thing happening again."
He doesn't think that any more. Coral bleaching happens when microscopic plants called zooxanthellae, which nourish the corals and give them their colour, are expelled by warmer-than-normal water temperatures, leaving the corals white as if bleached.
If the water stays warm long enough, the zooxanthellae don't return and the corals die, along with fish and other dependent organisms. Large parts of the reef are now bleaching more regularly, particularly in the north.
If present rates of global warming continue unchecked, the draft Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate impacts warns that the Great Barrier Reef will be one of several major reef systems around the world that will become "functionally extinct" within decades.
After spending time with researchers from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Gash has changed his views about the threat to the reef.
"I hate to say it, but unless we do something soon I think they're right, the reef is in deep trouble."
Gash part-owns a small, self-sufficient holiday resort on Lady Elliot Island, a tiny coral cay 80 kilometres from Hervey Bay. He is now part of a climate action group, hoping to persuade others to join him in campaigning to slow the pace of climate change.
"If everyone does their part, I think it is retrievable, that we can save the reef. But the most important thing we can do as individuals is put pressure on the Government to take this seriously and look at things like how much coal we're burning. So I'm not having a swipe at John Howard, it's just a statement of fact: if he doesn't act he'll be letting down future generations.
"I've got two daughters who are nine and 14. But I'm only 47. I'm going be seeing dramatic changes before I'm dead. So we need to be acting not just for the sake of our kids, but for ourselves too."
Veronika Frank, Prahran
There have been times when Veronika Frank has spent all day in the office then all night in a storm pulling trees off roofs, finally making it home in the early morning - only to have her first bite of supper interrupted by her State Emergency Service pager, beeping her back into action.
"Yeah, that's not much fun," says the 27-year-old. "But most of the time I absolutely love it. We mainly respond to storm damage and we get a lot of calls from elderly people who have had a tree fall on their house or driveway and they can't move it, so it's great being able to help them out."
It's just as well Frank loves her emergency work, because Melbourne's notoriously temperamental weather is set to get even wilder. The draft IPCC chapter on Australian climate impacts warns that in coming decades "risks to major infrastructure are likely to increase ... (including failure of) urban drainage/sewage, increased storm and fire damage in major cities, and more heatwaves causing higher mortality and higher peaks in summer energy demand leading to the risk of black-outs".
It adds that "economic damage from extreme weather is very likely to increase". The average damage bill from weather-related disasters in Australia already tops $US719 million ($A931 million) a year, mainly from floods, storms and cyclones, and is now set to rise even further.
That means that in some areas, insurance is either going to cost more, or may be hard to get at all. Frank sees the aftermath of big storms up close, as one of 30 volunteers with the Malvern SES unit.
One of her main concerns about climate change is how it is already contributing to water shortages, something she hears about regularly in her day job managing a computer database at Melbourne Water. Last month she was shocked to see how low the city's main water supply had fallen, while fighting fires on the edge of the Thomson Dam with other Melbourne Water staff.
Many fellow SES volunteers have spent part of their summer helping out with the bushfire effort, a trend Frank thinks is "definitely on the rise" and which could add to the strain on voluntary emergency services, particularly if the IPCC's warning of greater fire risks in south-east Australia bears out.
But like many Australians, Frank still finds it hard to imagine how warnings of water shortages, rising sea levels and more natural disasters will actually affect her life.
"I haven't bought a house yet, so I guess the possibility of flooding and rising sea levels could be another consideration as to where you buy. But I've heard those predictions before and it is hard to actually picture them happening in my lifetime. It's only begun to hit home recently."
John Pettigrew, Bunbartha
Less water. Less viable farming land in the nation's key "food bowl". More severe droughts. More widespread fruit fly infestations.
With forecasts like that, peach grower John Pettigrew suspects he is probably getting ready to retire at the right time. It's harvest time on Pettigrew's 120-hectare property in Bunbartha, tucked along a secondary highway between Shepparton and the Murray River.
The 60-year-old is the first to admit that much of his property "looks terrible" because of the long drought, which he partly attributes to climate change.
But his 10-hectare orchard is looking lush and many of the trees are laden with peaches, ready to be picked and sold onto SPC Ardmona for canning.
Even after a tough year, Pettigrew says he has been relatively lucky for a long time.
"I've had it pretty easy because up until now we've had all the water we needed. So I think I've had a good run over almost 50 years. Australians have taken water for granted. I believe the second 50 years of the last century were an abnormally wet 50 years, and that's shaped all our thinking and the current generations have tended to assume that will continue.
"But we've really got some rethinking to do, particularly now with climate change."
That's a view shared by leading scientists in the draft IPCC report on global climate impacts. Based on present trends, climate models indicate that the flow of water along streams in the Murray-Darling Basin - home to more than two-thirds of the country's irrigated crops and pastures - will fall by 10 to 25 per cent by 2050.
Combined with a greater chance of salinity problems, the report estimates the cost to agriculture in the region at between $US0.6 billion and $0.9 billion ($A0.78 billion to $1.17 billion). The Murray-Darling Basin is one of several areas of Australia identified as being "key hotspots" for climate vulnerability, including Kakadu National Park's wetlands and alpine areas in southern Australia.
Pettigrew backs another of the report's conclusions that growing fruit and nuts could become harder as temperatures keep rising, not only because there will be fewer cold winter nights needed for certain varieties, but also because warmer weather could expand the range of fruit flies into Victoria, which is largely free of the pests.
But he remains hopeful that the next generation of farmers have woken up to the seriousness of climate change and have already started adapting to what will be increasingly hot and dry conditions.
"I see some very handy characters around, who are doing all the right things to deal with the water shortages by using things like the water market and more flexible management of their cropping. They'll have to be a lot smarter about the way they do things, but if they are I can see a bright future for them."
COAST AND COUNTRY
Ankia, Richard and Aaliyah Henwood, Venus Bay
Venus Bay is a water-lover's paradise, lying on a narrow spit of land in Gippsland between the swells of the Bass Strait and the calm expanse of Anderson Inlet. But over the past year, water has been the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons.
"Everyone down here is on tank water, so we're all governed by the rain. That's the conversation every day: 'How's your tank holding up?'," says Richard Henwood, a carpenter and keen surfer, who left Melbourne 10 years ago wanting a more relaxed pace to life.
"This year was the first time we've had to buy water. I got 18,000 litres and it cost $270. But I reckon water will eventually be worth more than petrol because of climate change, it's going to be a huge problem. If you've got no water, you've got nothing."
Water is among the key issues covered in the draft IPCC chapter on Australian climate impacts, which concludes there is now evidence that climate change is adding to existing stresses on water supplies.
It also warns that water availability problems are very likely to get worse in many parts of the country, including large areas of southern and eastern Australia.
Yet it wasn't so long ago that Venus Bay residents were awash with water. In 2001, the single road that meanders into the small town alongside the Tarwin River was swamped for days when heavy rain flooded the river's low banks, stopping Richard's wife, Ankia, from getting to her teaching job out of town.
Coastal areas of Australia are identified as being particularly vulnerable to climate change in the draft IPCC report. Although Gippsland is not named as one of those areas, separate climate modelling by the CSIRO has shown that parts of the region including Venus Bay are likely to be at growing risk of flooding from storm surges in decades ahead.
Richard Henwood remembers the 2001 flood well, because he says it was the last time there was any decent rain.
"I was building a house in Venus Bay overlooking the paddocks and we watched as it rained and rained, until the cows were up to knee-deep in water. It was crazy. My boss and I went down to near the golf course in Tarwin Lower and the road was like a rapid, you couldn't cross it."
The couple have no concerns about future flooding affecting their home, because it sits high above their paddocks.
"The road's at river level, so once the water rises again we'll be getting a jet ski or a boat," jokes Richard Henwood. "I'll be on an island of my own."
Adds Ankia: "It'd be good if there was some kind of community education about what we can all do about climate change.
"Everyone has busy lives and it's not really going to be a priority for a lot of people until they see start seeing drastic changes."
AUSTRALIA UNDER THREAT
Key hot spots most vulnerable to climate change
Saltwater intrusion due to rising sea level, displacement of freshwater wetlands by mangroves. Changed species mix.
Drying and water shortages. Range reductions and fragmentation for many plants and crops.
Reduced water supply for irrigation, cities, industry and environmental flows. Threat to freshwater wetlands such as the Macquarie Marshes. Reduced habitat for migratory birds.
QUEENSLAND WET TROPICS
"Catastrophic" species extinctions predicted for upland endemic vertebrates. Loss of coral reefs. Large losses to built environment from flooding, sea-level rise and cyclone storm surges.
Large losses to built environment from rising sea level, storm surges and flooding.
Loss of plant and animal species, increase in shrubs at expense of herb fields. Reduction in snow cover. Threats to built environment from increased flooding, mass movement and slope failure.