A Climate Change Scientist Talks Tassie

Interview - Bec Harris

Our personal experiences with climate change are mostly anecdotal, which makes sense because we haven’t all studied ecology or science academically. So who better to ask questions about the future of Tasmania’s climate than someone who actually knows what they’re talking about? Maybe someone who studies conservation management and climate change impacts on natural and human systems? Here’s what I learnt from Bec:


Seeing as Southward is a Tassie based publication, I usually like to start by asking if you’re a Tassie-born resident. Did you grow up down here or move over from the mainland?

I moved from Sydney to Tassie 15 years ago with my partner, John. I was 6 months pregnant and we had an 18-month old daughter. We had been looking for a city that was as beautiful as Sydney, where water and nature were easily accessible, where the city was large enough for us to both find work, and where we could start a new life away from the stress of life in a big city. Quite a big wish-list, and only Hobart fills it. We didn’t know anyone in Tassie, so we decided we’d give it at least 2 years before we committed fully. Within 3 months we knew this was the place for us, we loved it, and we bought a house. We have never regretted it since.

Are there any places where, with the conditions that climate change brings,
we could see an improvement in the standard of living for people? Could we see ecosystems thrive with these changes?

Hhhmm, at the risk of sounding negative, No.

Although Tasmania is one of the few places that could benefit from a bit more warmth for agriculture, the benefits are outweighed by the movement of introduced pests, diseases and weeds, and the loss of cold conditions that are essential for many of the crops that Tassie is famous for, such as stone fruit and premium cool climate wine varieties.

The species that are most likely to thrive are generalists, able to tolerate a broad range of climate conditions and with a wide distribution. In other words, not the special endemic animals and plants that have survived over millennia in refugia within Tasmania, that make Tassie so special.

As species continue to shift, as has been observed around the world and in Tasmania, ecosystems will change in species composition, structure and function. Some may continue to function as they have in the past, but others will not, and will be irreversibly altered.

Most of the climate science that I’ve been exposed to has some pretty startling data. How rapidly are things changing?

Mean temperatures across Tasmania have risen at a rate of 0.1°C per decade since the 1950’s. This is lower than mainland Australia and lower than the global average, but it’s still a rapid increase in temperature, enough to have already caused substantial changes to evaporation and soil moisture, heatwaves and bushfires. Weather patterns and ocean currents are shifting and extreme events are occurring more often and lasting for longer. We’re already seeing changes to natural systems around the state in response to these changes. Alpine species are showing signs of stress, bushfires have threatened populations of fire-sensitive species in the World Heritage Area and species usually found in the north are moving southward.

And the rate of change is getting faster. Global temperatures are currently increasing at 0.2°C per decade due to past and ongoing emissions. By the end of the century, unless global greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced very soon, we could see an increase of up to 3.7°C by the end of the century. And that really would bring with it catastrophic climate change, with massive negative impacts on human and natural systems.

Alipine area in Tasmania

How do you think everyday Australians can influence policy on climate change? Stories or statistics – what’s more effective in convincing people about the importance of addressing the impacts of climate change?

Different people respond to different things, stories or statistics, but we’ve moved beyond that now. People are responding to their experiences of the changing climate – the hottest summers on record, every year, the longest bushfire seasons, with widespread fires threatening their towns and causing smoke issues for weeks at a time, and floods and storms across the state. What used to be extreme is now becoming the new normal, and people are starting to understand that climate change is no longer an issue or concern for the future. It’s with us now, and just getting worse.

We need action from the bottom up and top down. Everyday Australians can demand leadership on climate policy from our politicians. We can insist that decisions be made that acknowledge climate change is the most important issue of our time, and that economically it makes sense to mitigate now rather than continue to try to mop up the problem later. There are so many benefits that would be achieved with serious attempts to reduce our emissions – reductions in air pollution, improved biodiversity outcomes, health benefits of walking and cycling, savings in household energy bills, the list goes on.

There are also many changes we can make in our own lives to drive change from the bottom up. We can get more public transport, drive less, and share lifts when we do have to drive.  can eat less meat, consume less and waste less. We can check where our superannuation is invested and divest from funds that invest in fossil fuels. We can support companies that invest in renewables and are active in climate action - there are a growing number of these companies who have recognised how important immediate climate action is for their survival.

And finally, we can talk about the decisions we’re making and why, because research has shown that each of us affects the behaviour of our circle of friends and family.

What’s your favourite native species (flora or fauna) from Tasmania, and why?

I don’t have a single favourite species – as an ecologist, I love the interconnectedness of ecosystems. Tassie’s cool temperate rainforests are amazing, made up of so many species found only here, reliant on our unique climate and, in some places, lucky to have survived land-use change and logging.

How do you think these species will be affected by the changing climate in the next twenty years?

Alpine and sub-alpine plant and animal communities are already starting to show stress following heatwaves and droughts. These communities will likely start to see more mortality events, which may not have time to regenerate as heatwaves and droughts occur more frequently and last for longer. Alpine species are unable to move to track colder condition because they’re already at the limits of elevation, so within the next 20 years we’ll start to see changes in the composition of these systems with cold-dependent species disappearing and new species starting to move up slope.

To finish, I gave Bec the opportunity to ask herself a question and then answer it. This is what she came up with:

How do you talk to your children about climate change?

I’ve always been honest about the serious state of the climate with my daughters (now 15 and 17 years old), although I’ve also said that in Tasmania we might be buffered from the most extreme impacts for longer compared to other parts of the world. The impacts of climate change will be disproportionately felt by people in developing countries, which means that we have a responsibility to act, to respect refugees and step up as the leaders that we’ll need to navigate our way through the coming climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently estimated that we have about 10 to 12 years to avert catastrophic climate change, so it is my daughters and their peers who have the chance to make the difference.

Dr Rebecca Harris is a scientist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Her principal interests are in the areas of conservation management and climate change impacts on natural and human systems. She does this by integrating climate science with ecological research to contribute to landscape management decisions that are necessary to adapt to climate change impacts. Recent research has focused on the impact of climate variability and extreme events on natural ecosystems and the adaptability of species and humans to change. This research has been applied to conservation management, emergency services (bushfire preparedness), agriculture (biosecurity, viticulture), and adaptation in the ski industry.

Tom Wolff grew up in Lennox Head on the north coast of NSW and after many years of moving around the globe it looks like he’ll probably end up there. After stints in Sydney, Barcelona and Malawi Tom moved to the island of Tasmania to work as a bushwalking guide for a few years. He fell in love with the island at the bottom of the world and while Tom’s no longer there physically, Tassie’s held a piece of his heart. Tom’s relationship with the special island continues through his writing for Southward Journal and through all the wonderful people he knows who still thrive there.

Photos by Phillip Laroche (except portrait)

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