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No ribbon to cut: climate change adaptation never ends

Besides the recent polarised debates about the carbon tax, another response to climate change is underway in Australia. It’s much quieter, less contested, and it seems to attract support from across the…

As climate change continues to affect our infrastructure and society in unpredictable ways, we’ll just have to keep adapting. Justin Lane EPA

Besides the recent polarised debates about the carbon tax, another response to climate change is underway in Australia. It’s much quieter, less contested, and it seems to attract support from across the political spectrum. Governments, businesses and individuals have begun adapting their planning, operations and services to future climate change.

They do this because they understand that climate change will have social, economic and environmental impacts even if the most stringent greenhouse gas emissions reductions are forced upon society immediately. Over the past five years, we’ve seen a rather quiet, bottom-up movement of community leaders, key businesses and local governments planning for the medium and long-term impacts of climate change. These individuals and organisations have taken climate change seriously and considered its consequences a significant risk for their future viability as communities and organisations and for their ongoing delivery of services to clients and the community.

Climate change adaptation is still in its infancy but growing up quickly. Initially much of this work was creative experimentation or trial and error. It focused on understanding the climate science and collecting evidence to support the business case for spending money on adaptation now. In the public and in the private sector alike, climate change projections have played a major role in building the business case for initial adaptation projects.

What has emerged more recently, however, is an increasing understanding that adaptation is here to stay. If the climate keeps changing for decades to come, adaptation will need to be much more than once-off projects. It’ll have to become a continual process of organisational learning and change, and there will never be a red ribbon to cut to celebrate that “we are now adapted to climate change”.

Local government has started embracing adaptation as a process. The standard project cycle management model of plan-do-implement-evaluate-plan is largely inappropriate for adaptation. Adaptation is much messier than that: it usually has multiple objectives, from reducing vulnerability to climate change impacts, to managing financial risks and ensuring business continuity, to limiting reputational losses associated with inaction on climate change, or raising community awareness and understanding of climate change impacts and risks.

Climate change impacts differ from one organisation, community and even individual to the next. There are many starting points for adaptation within an organisation, and many of the benefits of adaptation lie in the future rather than being tangible at present.

The big question then is: how do you, as an organisation or an individual, make sense of adaptation? If it is all about a gradual process or learning and change, how do you determine where to start and who to involve? Even more fundamentally: what does adaptation mean for you, why exactly are you doing it, and where do you draw the boundaries?

Recently completed research I’ve been involved in, undertaken through the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research shows these questions are critical to organisations embracing adaptation as a process of learning and change. Individuals have to become aware of their different interpretations of adaptation and come to some agreement about what the priorities should be for the organisation. They have to be transparent about their motivations and reservations, to challenge their own assumptions, and to engage with other ways of looking at the problem.

What’s even more difficult is to provide guidance on these matters of adaptation framing, precisely because they are so subjective. They depend on factors such as a person’s interest, knowledge, their professional background and institutional environment.

As part of the project “Framing adaptation in the Victorian context”, I’ve helped develop a process-based framework for conceptualising climate change adaptation. It uses a map metaphor to cut through some of the complexity of the adaptation learning process. A website - the Climate Change Adaptation Navigator - visualises the adaptation process as a journey through a landscape. You can explore at your leisure, coming across knowns and unknowns and discovering new territory along the way.

The Climate Change Adaptation Navigator, although only a proof-of-concept at this stage, is just one example of a new suite of adaptation support products that are desperately needed. Another one is the recently launched Climate Change Adaptation Toolkit, developed by NetBalance, the City of Greater Geelong and RMIT University. It provides a three-step process that helps organisations to integrate adaptation into decision-making, despite complexity and uncertainty. Far from providing a silver bullet for adaptation, such second-generation tools openly acknowledge the complexity of the task of adapting to climate change and allow for flexibility and a healthy degree of experimentation.

If we acknowledge that climate change adaptation is a process of societal proportions, in which we all need to be involved, we need to focus our efforts on fostering organisational cultures of learning and change, which includes allowing for making mistakes. There is no end point of “being adapted”.

Join the conversation

26 Comments sorted by

  1. Comment removed by moderator.

  2. Comment removed by moderator.

  3. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Boys and Girls.

    May I suggest you wade through the RMIT publication, 'Climate Change Adaption Toolkit' as quoted in the article above.

    Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to write this publication. Sadly, I trust it will go the way of the now famous and woefully bad 2020 Stationary Energy Report by the University of Melbourne's Energy Institute.

    That is- absolutely nowhere.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      And the point of this wholly negative, alternative-free comment was..?

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      And what Sir, is the problem with a 'wholly negative' comment on an article. Surely that is the nature of debate. Do you think it better that only positive and supportive comments are allowed.

      The Climate Change Adaption Toolkit is an amateurish effort that appears to be aimed at junior high school level children.

      The alternative is to put the tax payers dollars used to create the toolkit toward something useful, like schools, hospitals or more machine gun ammunition for our soldiers. At least that way we are getting something of value for our taxes.

      Gerard Dean

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  4. Max Finlayson

    Director, Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University

    I think the comment cut from the text of the article and pasted below is worth considering ..... and probably applies to more than climate change. But within the adaptation discussion I see the learning bit as important - not everything we do today will be correct, and could even become to be seen as overly narrow adaptation, or even maladaptation. Having said that it is surely not simply about learning from our mistakes, but also about avoiding the mistakes. And many in our communities do have the knowledge to help us do this.

    "......acknowledge that climate change adaptation is a process of societal proportions, in which we all need to be involved, we need to focus our efforts on fostering organisational cultures of learning and change, which includes allowing for making mistakes. There is no end point of “being adapted."

    Thanks to the RMIT team for bringing this to our attention. Best wishes

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  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    When snow levels started to decline in Australia and some snowfileds started to either become unskiable or have a very short seas an adaptation agenda took off, to groom the slopes and so render even a few centimeters o snow skiable. Slope grooming = removing rocks to provide a fairly smooth surface.

    Well, that's been done and the ribbons were cut on the groomed slopes. But then snow levels decreased more over the next two decades and even with groomed slopes some mountains have lost most of their…

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  7. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    A very useful and timely article, Hartmut. Many thanks. It confirms what people such as Bjorn Lomberg says in his book Cool It, namely, that the reality of our world is climate change and we need to adapt. I've looked at the Toolkit that Gerard Dean is impolite about and found it to be exactly what it claims to be: a toolkit allowing one to apply a process which will explore the possible impacts of climate change and assess the range of adaptation options.
    Now, if our federal government was to restructure the carbon tax so that no compensation was payable to anyone except our exporters who have to compete against companies in countries without a carbon tax, we might be able to 'move forward' on several levels to address climate change.

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Thanks Bernie. The first step to adapting to climate change is to stop adding to the rate of change ie rapid, complete decarbonisation of the technological base of our economy.

      Mind you, criticism of the present carbon tax is reasonable, based as it is on emissions production. Much better, much simpler, would be a consumption tax on fossil fuel. We must

      1) stop adding to the problem; we must cease using (consuming) fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

      To optimally guide and inform the…

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    2. Kim Peart

      Researcher & Writer

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      David Arthur ~

      What if the solution to the problem is a whole lot simpler?

      We have totally failed to keep a safe Earth and now, with the melting of the Arctic, we face being overwhelmed with Nature's greenhouse gas contributions and the spectre of a 6C world, or worse.

      I see that the carbon crisis could have been entirely avoided, if we had run with the cutting edge of human progress and begun building solar power stations in space in the 1970s ('The High Frontier' by Gerard K. O'Neill…

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Lomberg is completely wrong.

      Last year there was a web meeting of climate experts and extension specialists, primarily run by the CSIRO. One of the most interesting pieces of research presented was the idea that adaptation was always too little too late. If you aim to adapt you are waiting for the problem to arise, which means that the problem is not able to be dealt with until after it is already manifest and causing issues. So by the time you are addressing the problem you are behind and thus the problem gets worse than the solution you develop.

      It is an interesting dilemma, as you can't predict arising issues in all circumstances. In this case, a global issue that is complex, I find the idea of adaptation to be silly. It is even more silly when you consider that we could actually avoid much of the climate change coming.

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    4. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Mr Masters,

      I might not agree with you on much at all about climate change, however your observation that exporters such as myself face international competitors who do not have a carbon tax is noted.

      Thank you sir,

      Gerard Dean

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      @Kim Peart, who writes: "what if the solution to the problem is a whole lot simpler?" and then goes on with a whole lot of hand-waving generality about "complex thinking" and "survival thinking".

      You seem to be assuming that every problem is psycho-spiritual, whereas I think many problems are attributable to ignorance. I have set out a perfectly straightforward description of the problem: we have recycled too much carbon to the atmosphere. How much simpler than that do I have to explain the…

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  8. Simon Hasleton

    Psychologist, retired

    I would feel more comfortable with the concept of 'adaptation' if appropriate and sufficient measures were in train for 'mitigation'. I will know we are serious about that when I read that there are iron-clad plans to terminate our contribution to the carbon-based economy within - say - five years.

    We are already locked in to climate change beyond the somewhat illusory 2C level, and much of the world has already tasted drought, flood, food shortage, storm, and the chaotic movement of people in search of asylum.

    How, precisely, will they adapt in Bangladesh? Or in Texas? How will the Siberian tundra or the Greenland icecap adapt?

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  9. Kim Peart

    Researcher & Writer

    Where climate change is taking us is extremely dangerous, whether from a hotter world or ocean acidification.

    The Arctic ice sheet, permafrost and ocean floor methane clathrates are on the melt, diving into a feedback loop with the release of greenhouse gases that will cook us.

    How alarmed are we that ocean acidification is up 30% and set to increase ten-fold?

    I read that the stage is set for monster algal blooms in dying oceans that can release toxic hydrogen sulphide gas that can kill…

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Kim Peart

      Mr Peart

      One instant way we can adapt and, in your words, leave much of the 'fossil fuel in the belly of the Earth' is to stop flying.

      Whereas we all have to use fossil fuels to live and work in our Western style, most flying is done for pleasure. Those passionate about saving the Earth can simply stop flying overseas for their European tour or trek in Nepal knowing they are cutting fossil fuel usage.

      Surely the good of the planet is more important than our pleasure.

      Adaption at work.

      Gerard Dean

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    2. Kim Peart

      Researcher & Writer

      In reply to Kim Peart

      Gerard Dean ~

      Ultimately, I would like to see a transition to a slow Earth society, where people may fly more than at present, but at a more leisurely pace in airships, flying over an ecologically sustainable society living a globally equitable lifestyle.

      To get to this future, I see the need to build a confident survival presence beyond Earth, so that we will be in an industrial position to win back a safe Earth from the ravages of dangerous climate change.

      Sadly, we have totally failed to keep a safe Earth and tiny acts, like not flying, will not turn this total failure around.

      Only a vision for a stellar economy without poverty can begin to get us a future that avoids collapse.

      The stellar vision will inspire action, which is what we need now, if we wish to secure our cosmic survival.

      Kim Peart

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    3. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kim Peart

      I admire Kim Peart's tenacity in his longstanding push for mega engineering solutions to climate change – the building of power stations and cities in space. However, that sort of 'adaptation' is fraught with multiple risks and also can't be done without undertaking the hard cost-benefit mathematics that would be required. And then there is the issue of democratic control, for ventures of that size would inevitably entail the engagement of very large, wealthy corporations.

      I do take Kim's suggestions…

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    4. Kim Peart

      Researcher & Writer

      In reply to Kim Peart

      Chris Harries ~

      I agree that we need a good sound business plan for a safe Earth.

      We could start by considering what the cost would be if our civilization collapsed, which could be the outcome of dangerous climate change.

      A plan that generates hope would be worth its weight in survival.

      If we cannot meet the price of survival, we may be simply suicidal.

      Mega engineering is the name of our game on this planet now.

      The US dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. What if the cost…

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  10. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

    Perhaps the author can clarify how "limiting reputational losses associated with inaction on climate change" is part of adaptation. It sounds more like a recipe for corporate greenwashing to me. If the focus is on reputation, then the response can be more about appearance than reality. Check out the book "Greenwash" by Guy Pearse to see how many corporations are "limiting reputational losses associated with inaction on climate change".

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    1. Hartmut Fuenfgeld

      Acting Director, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Byron, you have a point there. I agree that some organisations are mainly and only driven by reputational risks, leading to a whole lot of greenwash. But the bit you've pulled out needs to be read in context: my point was that, from an organisational perspective, adaptation always has more than one objective, and - whether we like it or not - limiting reputational loss may be one of them. And of course you could argue, as long as the adaptation outcomes are real and ethically sound (and not just about appearance) it doesn't matter too much what the initial driver was... but that's another whole discussion to be had.

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