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Australia’s warming climate is changing the way we live and work. If you still doubt that, you need only watch the latest episode of Four Corners on the ABC.

Weather Alert shows that for emergency services, many farmers and much of the corporate world, adaptation is now essential — and it’s already underway.

Dr Andy Robertson, Director of Disaster Management with the WA Dept of Health told reporter Michael Brissenden that ‘business as usual’ is simply not an option.

“We’ve gone from a situation where it was just, you know, ‘We’re Perth, we get hot weather, we should be able to deal with it’, through to a recognition that it is a significant hazard for us as emergency management agencies, and that we need to plan and prepare for it because we can get a significant number of people who will end up being very unwell, and that will place a strain on our hospital system.”

Rob Rogers, Deputy Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, also reported a major impact on planning.

“We’ve changed completely the way we fight fires now to more early detection and very rapid response.”

Karl Sullivan, General Manager Risk of the Insurance Council of Australia, said his industry is the canary in the coalmine, warning of imminent risk.

“Some properties are already far more expensive to insure than others simply by the fact that they were exposed to more frequent floods and deeper floods that’s very much a very real and present thing in Australia now. If those scenarios are going to get worse going forward then you will find that insurance prices will rise to match them.”

Businesses are also having to change

Brown Brothers, one of Australia’s leading family-owned wineries, is adapting to cope with shorter and earlier harvests and hotter fruit, factors which affect the quality of their wine. Executive Director Ross Brown says the company is moving much of its Victorian operation to Tasmania.

“We decided that we would do our planning in future on a two degrees increase in our vineyard temperatures and that we would have less water available… Making a strategic decision, has really changed the way we look at our vineyards, and which grapes we grow and what location.” In Perth, rainfall has dropped by 20% but the runoff into the dams is now just a sixth of what it once was. It’s a change that has required a total rethink of the city’s water management. Sue Murphy, CEO of the Water Corporation of WA told Four Corners there are no climate change sceptics in her industry.

“My customers turn on the tap and they want water to come out and that’s our job at the Water Corporation, is to make sure that that happens, so we need to have a supply that will deal with climate change and will also deal with the odd extreme event.”

Boardrooms now have no choice but to respond.

Last year the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority warned that climate change poses a material risk to the entire financial system.

Then, in evidence given to the Federal parliament’s powerful Economics Committee just last month, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia agreed investors need to be given more information on climate risk.

The shareholders of companies, including banks and miners, are also starting to demand action.

Sarah Barker, Special Counsel for Climate Risk at MinterEllison, told Four Corners that Directors have a duty to take climate risk into account as a foreseeable financial risk.

“A failure to do so may expose them to liability for a breach of their duty of due care and diligence, potentially for liability for misleading disclosure to markets,” she said.

“There are always going to be corporations that do have a vested interest in preserving business as usual and preserving the status quo, but there will be change. There will be change and if we’re still applying twentieth century ‘business as usual’ thinking to what is an unprecedented twenty-first century problem, they may find that over a very short space of time that their competitive position is compromised.”

Neuroscience is searching for a new way to break the deadlock

While all these examples demonstrate there is little doubt we are heating up our planet to levels that are becoming unsafe for species habitation and ecological progress, we are also witnessing policy paralysis — indeed antagonism — in response to this challenge. Why is that?

Dr Lynne Reeder, Australia21 Director and founder of our Mindful Futures Network, says one of the answers is the human mind’s inability to effectively deal with long term threats.

“There is enough evidence now to demonstrate that dealing with the complexity of ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change is problematic because the brain has evolved to react to short-term threats,” she says.

“What is missing in the climate change debate is the recognition that humans are not wired for long-term decision-making. Neuroscience has found that when faced with non-immediate threats, the brain produces indifferent or aversion responses.”

Dr Reeder says we need a new framework to help us move forward.

Nearly ten years ago, as the Director of Atmospheric Research at CSIRO, Dr Graeme Pearman clearly understood this challenge. He gave up trying to use the mountain of scientific evidence to convince politicians that climate change was an impending policy problem. Instead of continuing to bang his head against that brick wall, Dr Pearman (an Australia21 Fellow) turned to another science discipline for help: psychology. In conjunction with a psychologist he researched and wrote two journal articles to address that dilemma.

Testing new cognitive modules

Now Dr Pearman is working with Dr Reeder to take this research further.

As an initiative of the Mindful Futures Network, they’ve submitted an application to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research outlining a multi-disciplinary project with Australian and international researchers. It would test whether new cognitive training modules such as those developed by Dr Tania Singer at the Max Planke Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany could make a difference to policy responses to long terms threats.

“Would it make a difference to important outcomes if policy and industry decision makers were given cogitative training? We need to investigate the value of functional domains such as mindfulness-based attention and interoception; socio-affective skills like compassion and prosocial motivation; and socio-cognitive skills including cognitive perspective-taking on the self and others, and metacognition,” says Dr Reeder.

While training programs may seem an inadequate response to problems that appear to defy simple solutions, British Clinical Psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert, in his new book Living Like Crazy, reminds us “randomness alone is not a reliable process for the advancement of humanity. Wise cultivation may be.”

In that context, Australia21 affirms Dr Pearman’s statement that “now is the time to move from a scenario where the only lesson learned in climate change policy, is that evolution has led our behaviour and societal institutions in directions that are unsustainable.” Rather, we say it’s time to work out how to make a conscious evolutionary shift, so that humans can better deal with slow-moving, uncertain problems.

We’ll keep you up to date with developments in this area through the Mindful Futures Network.

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