Population Distribution, Migration and Climate Change in Australia: An Exploration by Graeme Hugo, University of Adelaide

In Australia the body of knowledge of likely scenarios of climate change impact over the next few decades has increased significantly in both its robustness and level of detail. The Climate Commission’s (2011) report on The Critical Decade: Climate Science, Risks and Responses summarises the evidence and projection scenarios which are based on them and indicates the certainty and urgency of the reality of climate change in Australia. There has been less advance, however, in tracing the complex interrelationships between these scenarios on the one hand and socioeconomic and demographic change at a regional level on the other.It is undeniable that Australia is experiencing long term changes in climate involving higher surface air and sea-surface temperatures, more hot extremes and fewer cold extremes and increased sea levels. While there is some uncertainty about the rate of change, it seems clear that these changes will continue. The effects of climate change are not distributed evenly across the continent and will be felt more in some areas than others. Just as the impact of climate change is felt more by some members in the community than others, there are differences between areas and communities in the extent and nature of climate change. The purpose of this paper is to relate anticipated spatial variations in climate change impacts to the distribution of the Australian population and examine the implications for future patterns of population distribution and internal migration.While there is strong scientific consensus about climate change and a growing body of evidence about its future effects, there remains a degree of uncertainty, not so much about the reality of climate change but rather its precise nature, severity and location.At the outset some comments are made on Australia’s contemporary demography and some of its linkages to environment. It is argued that environmental constraints have historically been an important factor in Australian population growth and distribution. The historical debate on population and environment is briefly summarised. There is an examination of the contemporary population distribution in Australia. It is demonstrated that there has been a great deal of stability in the structure of population distribution over the last century. The processes impinging upon population distribution are then addressed. The evidence on the likely spatial distribution of climate change impacts is then examined. The characteristics of population in areas most likely to experience major impacts from climate change are then analysed. The final sections of the paper discuss some of the potential influences of climate change on national population distribution.

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