Report warns of “hothouse” climate, fears for homelands swallowed by sea

Low lying islands in the Torres Strait are vulnerable to king waves and tides

Aboriginal climate change activists say warnings that the earth could become a hothouse with sea level rises of 60 metres would have a catastrophic effect on Indigenous communities and traditional ways of life.

In the Torres Strait, where rising sea levels are leaving low lying islands vulnerable to king waves and tides, the mayor says he’s dismayed that the federal government seems to be leaving islanders to “sink or swim”.

The warnings come with the recent release of an international report ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene’, which has added fuel to the climate change debate, painting a dire picture of where the world could be headed.

The study, led by Australian National University professor Will Steffen, found the earth was at risk of entering a “hothouse climate” that could lead to global average temperatures of up to five degrees Celsius higher.

Long-term rises in the sea level could reach between 10 and 60 metres, it said.

Garawa woman Nicole Hutton, of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were already suffering from the impacts of climate change.

She said heat waves, water shortages and coastal flooding had become facts of life for many communities.

Ms Hutton said changes in the seasons were also having an impact on the traditional way of life which governed when to hunt, fish and find plants.

She said the scenario outlined in the new report would be catastrophic and would see her traditional homelands in the south-west of the Gulf of Carpenteria swallowed up by water.

“Under the terrifying scenario of sea levels rising 60 metres, we’re all screwed,” Ms Hutton said. “No matter what the colour of your skin.”

Torres Strait Islands’ mayor Fred Gela has called for the Federal government to match $20 million being provided by the Queensland Palaszczuk government to help combat the effects of climate change in the Torres Strait.

He said the islands had been working on a sea level increase of about a metre.

“If there is new evidence that is saying it is going to be much higher than what’s predicted then … we will have to go back to the drawing board on how it will impact our communities,” he said.

“There is a lot of different information out there.”

Meanwhile, Professor Steffen said even if targets to cap global warming were met, it may already be too late.

“Human emissions of greenhouse gas are not the sole cause of temperature changes on earth,” he said.

“Our study indicates that human-caused global warming of two degrees Celsius may trigger other earth system processes, often called feedbacks, that can trigger further warming – even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases.”

Professor Steffen said nations needed to work together to accelerate the transition towards an emission-free world economy.

Researchers from Australia, Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands contributed to the study, which was published in the prestigious international journal PNAS.

Wendy Caccetta

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