Adapting to climate change: more questions than answers!

Sometimes even the clearest signs of change are ignored. Flickr/baldeaglebluff

With increasing global greenhouse gas emissions, and no clear internationally-agreed path for emission reductions, we are faced with a global climate that will be at least two degrees warmer than today in 70 years’ time.

The need to adapt to climate change is being recognised at different levels of government in Australia, with the Australian Government requesting the Productivity Commission to undertake a review of Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation and the Victorian Government acknowledging the need to focus on adapting to climate risks in their response to the review of the 2010 Climate Change Act.

In the scientific community, a recent international conference held in the USA considered the challenges of adapting to climate change and this week the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research (VCCAR) and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) hosted state and national conferences that will present recent research and discuss how it can improve adaptation policy and practice.

However, these activities in the policy and research spheres are tending to produce more questions than answers, as policy makers consider how to address future climate risks.

At a governance level, a key question is who is primarily responsible for leading on adaptation: government or the private sector and individuals? Economists such as Ross Garnaut have argued that there is no real market failure in adapting to climate change and that it is primarily up to individuals, communities, or private companies to consider potential impacts and take action accordingly. Government has some responsibility to provide information, look after its own assets and to provide for a strong and flexible economy that provides the best environment for adaptation.

This view was largely supported in the Productivity Commission’s draft report released in April. The Commission suggested that Australians have had a long history of adapting to climate variability and change and that there are few systemic barriers to adaptation. Thus, there was a limited role for governments, with some suggested policy changes, largely aimed at removing impediments to the movement of people and capital. Government efforts were best directed at addressing current climate variability and risks from extreme weather events through changes in planning and regulations, improved hazard mapping, emergency management, and addressing distortions in insurance markets.

This raises the question of which level of government should take the lead in these aspects of adaptation? The immediate impacts and the demand to address many climate change issues are being felt at local levels. It’s often said that, in our tripartite system, the Federal Government has the money, state governments have the power and local governments have the problems. The Commission argued that the role of local governments in adaptation should be clarified, but was short on specifics on how this should be done.

If adaptation is primarily a private matter, how should companies respond? With the current political climate and conservative views dominating many boardrooms around the country there is still a degree of scepticism about climate change in senior management. However, some companies with large infrastructure investments that will operate over long time periods are starting to seriously consider and plan for increasing future climate risks. At the Arizona conference, Gareth Johnston pointed out that Board members need to separate their personal beliefs from their fiduciary responsibilities and implement processes to manage climate risks if they are to avoid future legal liabilities. Organisations such as the Carbon Disclosure Project are developing standards to provide a common framework for industry risk assessment and disclosure to investors, and other bodies are aiming to support private sector involvement in adaptation.

A key message from the Arizona conference was that the climate system is complex and that, while scientific understanding is increasing, knowledge of potential future climate conditions at regional and local levels is likely to remain highly uncertain. How do industries, or governments, plan for future conditions where the probabilities of different outcomes are not known? One approach is to use a processed by Shell known as scenario planning. This process provides a way for organisations to consider a range of potential futures and test management approaches and policy options in those different futures. Other economic techniques, such as real options theory, are also being investigated in current research projects.

If governments do have a role in providing information on current and future climate hazards, what kind of information should be provided, at what scale, and how can it be presented in a way that different parts of the community will respond appropriately? These are questions requiring further research.

We also need to consider how to decide on the “best” adaption alternatives. What are the options available and how do we choose between them? Many consider that generating options for adapting to climate change is best done as a shared process between researchers and practitioners. The development of these networks and partnerships at state and national levels, through bodies such as VCCCAR and NCCARF, can lead to new insights and new forms of “co-produced” or “integrated” knowledge. But what forms of knowledge count in this process and how do we best apply this knowledge to bring about change in particular locations, communities or industries?

Indigenous Australians hold a significant body of traditional knowledge that is potential valuable in helping us adapt to the variable and changing climate of this continent. A key challenge is supporting the retention and management of this knowledge in a way that empowers these communities.

Adapting to climate change will be a continually evolving process, requiring new approaches and tools. An example is the Adaptation Navigator, being launched at the VCCCAR Forum.

Research to understand climate impacts, vulnerability and adaptation is an emerging field, with new international partnerships emerging to support this development. Much more needs to be done to determine the range of future climate conditions, how they will impact on communities and ecosystems, the options available to adapt, how and when they happen and who should pay. Investment in research is a critical in responding to these questions and building our capacity to cope with climate change.

Comments welcome below.

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