A severe drought is crippling farmers and regional communities across the eastern state, where in some parts less than 10mm of rain fell in July, according to Bureau of Meteorology figures.

Image: Australia Government Bureau of Meteorology

New South Wales is now officially listed as “100% in drought” with 23% of the area classified as experiencing “extreme drought” condition. State and federal governments are providing emergency relief funding to producers responsible for approximately one-quarter of national agricultural output.

Farming impact

Sheep and cattle farmers are struggling to feed livestock as supplies of animal feed run out and dwindling stocks of hay, barley and other animal foodstuffs are commanding higher and higher prices.

As dams run dry due to the lack of rain, farmers are faced with the need to reluctantly sell livestock they can no longer take care of or cull their herds, actions which have serious long-term consequences.

Government figures show 659,000 head of cattle were slaughtered across Australia in June, the largest monthly total for three years.

The excess meat is being absorbed largely by the US market, but once America’s surplus storage capacity is saturated livestock prices and trade could be severely affected.

Australia is the fourth-largest wheat exporter, but the drought is causing crop failures, low yields and poor quality produce, which is affecting global wheat prices.

The drought conditions are spilling into other states, too. Queensland is suffering similar drought conditions, South Australia has just endured its second-driest autumn on record and dry conditions have also been experienced in Victoria.

But what some have described as the worst drought in living memory, actually isn’t - so far at least. The drought that ravaged almost half of Australia’s agricultural land between 1997-2005 is cited as being the most devastating.

The hottest year on record

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration point to the fact that the Earth is heating up, declaring 2016 the hottest year since records began 137 years earlier, breaking the record for the third year in a row.

According to the Economist, the global number of natural disasters is increasing.

Among the five risks with the biggest likelihood of impacting the world in the coming 10 years, the Global Risk Report 2018 lists three environmental threats. Extreme weather, natural disasters and failure to combat the effects of climate change quickly enough, sit beneath weapons of mass destruction as the number one danger facing humanity.

Planet earth is now 1.1℃ hotter than pre-industrial levels. G20 Financial Stability Board chairman, Mark Carney states, “Once climate change becomes a clear and present danger to financial stability it may already be too late to stabilize the atmosphere at two degrees.”

Accelerating change

Some observers believe that the human response to climate change needs more dynamism. Johan Rockström, executive director of Stockholm Resilience Centre, calls for our approach to move from taking incremental steps to demonstrating exponential action.

"Staying below 2°C above pre-industrial levels means halving emissions of greenhouse gases every decade if we want a high probability of success," Rockström says. "We call this exponential pathway the Global Carbon Law, inspired by Moore’s Law in the IT industry – the observation that computers double in speed about every two years.”

This approach takes the distant aim of achieving carbon neutrality by a 2050 deadline, and turns it into a short-term focus for the coming decade: A timescale more relevant for businesses, organizations and countries to focus on and deal with the urgency of climate change.

It also makes the task of cutting greenhouse gases achievable. Most businesses are capable of halving their emissions decade by decade. Companies like Google, Apple and Intel are reducing their emissions at a faster rate.

The future impact of climate change can often be difficult to conceptualise - but if the current trend of rising temperatures continues, farmers in New South Wales will almost certainly find droughts like the one affecting them this year become increasingly common.

As Emily Farnworth, Head of Climate Change Initiatives at the World Economic Forum explains:

“The extreme climatic conditions we’ve seen across the planet in 2017 and also in 2018 are consistent with the trends forecast by climate scientists. While there will still be fluctuations, they provide a glimpse of what our ‘new normal’ could look like and a warning that governments and businesses need to urgently step up their level of climate action. The best way to do that is to work together.”