Even the most conservative scenarios predict that Australia’s climate will become hotter and rainfall less reliable. Some parts of Australia are likely to get wetter; others will be drier. Our rural and regional communities will be at the forefront of this change. So what do they make of the threat? How are they responding and what does the future hold?

Story by Amanda Burdon

By late November last year the summer pastures of South Gippsland, in southern Victoria, had been depleted. Denied late winter rains and spring growth, the region’s dairy farmers were anxiously looking to the heavens – and their satellite weather maps – for a sign of a break. Some 900 millimetres of rain usually falls on this lush pocket of Victoria each year, nourishing pastures, some 123,600 dairy cows and the livelihoods of about 515 farming families. But during the last half of 2006 the region received what the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) referred to as “the lowest rainfall on record”. In milking sheds and out in the dry paddocks, dairy farmers were asking the big question: is this the deepening drought or a spectre of worse things to come under climate change?
With an ear to their concerns, the Australian Dairy Conference organising committee took unprecedented action. Just months before welcoming hundreds of delegates to Shepparton, they rewrote the conference program and devoted almost half the schedule to a broad-ranging discussion about climate change. Seemingly overnight, climate change was a hot topic within one of the most conservative of Australian industries.
The threat of climate change wasn’t news to Drs Kevin Hennessy or Richard Eckard, two eminent scientists invited at the last minute to speak at the conference. As principal research scientist with the CSIRO’s Climate Impacts and Risk Group, Kevin has been studying climate change for 18 years, while Richard, Greenhouse in Agriculture project leader with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries and the University of Melbourne, has devoted more than 20 years of his academic career to investigating how the Australian agricultural industry might reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the reception and attitudes of the dairy conference delegates took both men by surprise.
“Even six months ago, no one would have attended the climate- change sessions or the organisers would have been stoned,” says Richard, who is studying, among other things, methane production in dairy cows. “Climate change is now seen as a threat and people are asking what they can do about it. The drought has brought climate change to the forefront and made rural communities aware of their vulnerability.”
“The political agenda has shifted in response to growing community awareness of climate change,” Kevin says. “But some Australian industries are still going through an awareness-raising phase and I think the dairy industry is one of them.”
Conference organising committee chair Wayne Smith says many dairy farmers remain fearful about climate change. “Some farmers don’t believe it’s a real threat but they seem to be in the minority,” he says. “The threat of climate change is changing the way people think, from their cropping techniques to their day-to-day activities, particularly with regard to water use. Whether they believe it’s climate change or simply a climatic glitch, farmers now have to take it more seriously.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #53

Outback Magazine: June/July 2007