Terms of reference

​​Assessment of the impact of climate change on the nature and frequency of exceptional climatic events


Government assistance for drought events is guided by the current National Drought Policy (NDP). Under the NDP, drought assistance or support is intended to be a short term measure to help farmers prepare for, manage and recover from drought. The objectives of the NDP are to:

  • encourage primary producers and other sections of rural Australia to adopt self-reliant approaches for managing a changing climate
  • maintain and protect Australia’s agricultural and environmental resource base during periods of extreme climate stress; and
  • ensure early recovery of agricultural and rural industries, consistent with long-term sustainable levels.

Although self-reliance is a key objective, the NDP also recognises that there are rare and severe events that are beyond the ability of even the most prudent farmer to manage. The Commonwealth Government provides support to farmers and rural communities under the Exceptional Circumstances (EC) arrangements and other drought programs. The state and territory governments also participate in the NDP and provide support measures of their own.

To be classified as an EC event, the event must be rare, that is, it must not have occurred more than once on average in every 20 to 25 years. Australia is experiencing a drought that has been unprecedented in its geographic extent, length and severity. Some areas have been drought declared for 13 of the last 16 years, leading to some recipients receiving EC assistance since 2002.

Climate change will bring significant challenges for Australian agriculture. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency, severity and length of drought periods in future.

Australian primary industries ministers have agreed that current approaches to drought and EC are no longer the most appropriate in the context of a changing climate. They agreed that drought policy must be improved to create an environment of self-reliance and preparedness and encourage the adoption of appropriate climate change management practices.

To improve drought policy, ministers agreed to consider:

  • relevant social dimensions and policy responses to drought and Exceptional Circumstances
  • the provision of accessible social welfare support, including eligibility criteria
  • the effectiveness of business support payments
  • the effectiveness of financial risk management strategies, including Farm Management Deposits
  • the effectiveness of preparedness policies; and
  • cost-benefit analysis of state and federal drought assistance.

This scientific assessment will be undertaken by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and will examine the effect of climate change on the likely nature and frequency of exceptional climatic events. It will be presented in a form that will enable it to be used in future drought policy discussions, including stakeholder consultation and it will articulate the assumptions made in undertaking the scientific assessment.

This assessment, as part of a review of drought policy, will support:

  • Productivity Commission inquiry into the appropriateness of current government drought business support and income support measures; and
  • an expert panel’s assessment of the social dimensions of the impacts of drought and the extent and range of current government and non-government social support services available to farm families and rural communities.
    This scientific assessment will provide a basis for longer term studies on the impact that climate change will have on the agricultural and environmental resource base.

Scope of the assessment

The BoM and CSIRO are requested, on the basis of current knowledge of climate change science, to assess:

  1. Likely changes to temperature regimes over the next 20-30 years across significantly sized regions (for example, northern Australia), such as consecutive sequences of unusually warm months or seasons.
  2. Likely changes in the nature and frequency of severe rainfall deficiencies over the next 20-30 years, in comparison to severe rainfall deficiencies defined by the available instrument records. Severe rainfall deficiency is defined as an event in the lowest 5th percentile of historical records persisting for prolonged periods and over significantly sized regions.
  3. The likely effect of projected climate changes on integrated measures of drought such as soil moisture, water availability, or an appropriate drought index, such as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, over the next 20-30 years.
  4. The place of past exceptional climatic events in the context of the likely frequency and severity of future climatic events.

Based on this assessment, the BoM and CSIRO are requested to comment on the appropriateness of the current one in 20-25 year EC event trigger based on the historic record.

​BoM and CSIRO are also requested to provide a preliminary assessment of future information needs and areas for more detailed assessment.

Nature of the assessment

BoM and CSIRO will provide a final report to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in June 2008. BoM and CSIRO’s report will be released by the government.