Climate change offers Australia a unique opportunity in nation building and infrastructure investment, according to a UNSW researcher.

Professor Michael Pusey from UNSW's School of Social Sciences and International Studies has told a public forum in Canberra that a constructive adaptation to global warming could bring about significant social benefits - in much the same way as World War Two allowed for major change, including the development of infrastructure.

"Economic history teaches us that war transforms the relations between the economy, political culture and the state," he says.

Professor Pusey says World War Two brought changes including the concentration of income tax powers at a national level, mass immigration and infrastructure projects like the Snowy River schemes.

"Facing up to global warming has the potential to focus our national imagination in the same way," he says. "It presents us with challenges that obviously call, not only for incremental changes at the household level, but also for whole-of-government action at the national level."

The challenges posed by the exhaustion of the Murray Darling River system could break up the 'rusted, stalemated framework of current federal-state relations' and could bring rural and urban Australia closer together, Professor Pusey claims.

Other opportunities afforded by climate change include carbon trading markets, huge investments in water conservation, changes in land and forest management and investments in alternative energy.