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The increasing intensity of extreme weather events, and associated hugely damaging bushfires in Australia, are starting to influence public opinion over climate change issues, a leading ecologist, Prof Lesley Hughes, says.
Prof Hughes, of Macquarie University, Sydney, gave a public lecture on ''Southern hemisphere biodiversity in a changing climate: 2050 and beyond'' at an international conference being staged in Dunedin this week.
More than 300 researchers from about 35 countries are attending the Seventh Southern Connection Congress, a multidisciplinary gathering devoted to natural science research involving the southern hemisphere.
Prof Hughes felt frustrated that despite a high level of agreement among scientists about the big threat which global warming posed to the environment, human life and many plant and animal species, many other people had not fully grasped the urgency of the situation.
By 2050, global temperatures could be expected to rise about 4degC on average and scientists were indicating it was ''fantasy'' that increased temperatures could be confined within a mooted 2degC ''guard-rail'' limit.
Heat waves and fire dangers in parts of Australia would be significantly worse by 2050, and it would, in fact, be hard to maintain human habitation in parts of central Australia at that stage.
New Zealand would not be exempt from the impact of climate change, and rising sea levels would make it harder to protect some coastline assets.
Prof Hughes said a ''silent majority'' of Australians already accepted the reality of man-induced climate change and recent huge bushfires and the prospect of a further drought were likely to eventually make it easier to argue for more political action to counter climate change.
Super-storm Sandy also killed more than 30 people in the United States in October last year and affected about 50 million people, sending a record 4m tidal surge into parts of the New York subway system, and making many people homeless. Prof Hughes said weather-related devastation on that scale was also likely to be influencing public perception of climate change issues in the United States.
President Barack Obama had recently called for stronger action on climate change.
The five-day congress, hosted by the University of Otago, focusing on ''Southern Lands and Southern Oceans: Life on the Edge?'' ended yesterday.