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Published: 2009

Building resilience. Adapting to climate impacts

Rachel Sullivan

Organisations and communities each face different challenges in adapting to climate change effects. Experts have differing perspectives on where effort should be focused – distinctions that are part of the complexity of adaptation planning – but they agree that steps to minimise risks need to be taken.

Cape Byron, at Byron Bay, NSW. The Byron Shire Council has one of the country’s most proactive climate adaptation strategies for the future of its coastal community.
Credit: iStockphoto

If climate change mitigation strategies involve reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation strategies focus on building resilience to climate change effects.

While adapting to changing circumstances is at the heart of long-term planning in business, government and natural resource management, planners are confronted with the challenge of having too much data related to climate impact scenarios, but not enough clarity on what actually needs to be done.

‘There is misunderstanding and confusion about climate change and how to deal with it in both business and the wider community,’ believes Sam Mostyn, a member of Australian National University’s Crawford School Advisory Council and Director of Myer-ClimateWorks. ‘People think it’s an event yet to happen; they are waiting for some “big thing” to occur, and then they will react to that.

‘There needs to be far greater transparency of what’s actually changing and how that will impact business and communities,’ she continues. ‘For example, insurance data about the frequency and ferocity of weather events provides good insight into changes in storm patterns, wind speeds, floods, hail storms and bushfires.

‘Understanding where these events are likely to happen will help us make decisions about whether existing infrastructure can tolerate these extreme weather events, or whether residential
and commercial building codes need to
be strengthened – it then becomes a local and state government policy issue.’

Mostyn identifies that there are also a lot of benefits to recognising the potential for change in an area and being the first to take advantage of the opportunities that presents, whether it be, for example, in tourism, agriculture or even construction.

Dr Ben Preston, a research scientist with CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research, is working with stakeholders to understand climate risk and find pathways to adaptation.

‘While there is still a lot of uncertainty about exactly what the effects of climate change will be at a local level, we can face this uncertainty in two ways,’ he says. ‘We can scratch our heads, or we can provide leadership and employ precautionary policies, such as planning for sea-level rise by legislating for increased setbacks in coastal areas.

‘We can’t look at climate projections alone; we have to look at the characteristics of whole systems – whether ecosystems, agricultural production systems or urban communities.

‘Like ecosystems that are threatened by encroachment from development or invasive species, those geographic areas or systems already under pressure for other reasons will fare worst,’ he says.

Lightning strikes during a storm over Sydney.
Credit: iStockphoto

Liam Egerton, senior consultant with sustainability consultancy Net Balance, agrees. His company is developing a framework for resilience that, among other things, focuses on building adaptive capability along with managing risk thresholds, the tipping points that can lead to runaway changes in a system.

‘Risk assessment on climate changes can produce a long list of potential impacts and their likely consequences. It doesn’t say how they’re linked, or detail the dependencies between them,’ he says, ‘but by looking at how a system holds together, rather than just managing risk, we can better understand its ability to withstand shocks.’ In other words, its resilience is considered.

This means the analysis has to go far beyond the biophysical impacts, he says. For example, the military uses scenarios to test how people’s lives are impacted by biophysical changes, and their results have been illuminating. ‘They indicate that climate change is a significant security problem, due to the knock-on effects on the system as a whole.’

Floods inundated Lismore, NSW, during October 2008.
Credit: iStockphoto

Dr Preston believes that social and economic trends will have a larger influence on the future of our communities than climate change and its biophysical impacts. One focus of his research involves working with local government organisations to overlay a map of national climate change vulnerability with data about social and economic trends affecting a community.

‘While it makes sense to focus our efforts on the areas where wealth, economic activity, capability and knowledge are centred, there is an equity issue – we also need to target those areas that are least capable of helping themselves.

‘We are looking at things like population growth, ageing and measures of social disadvantage, because in a protracted heatwave, for example, an area with a large population of impoverished older people will be more sensitive to its effects than a more affluent area.’

This example highlights the opportunity for adaptation and mitigation strategies to work together, he says. ‘By greening urban landscapes and ensuring that buildings are appropriately designed for the climate, the impacts of a heatwave are reduced. There are also much longer term benefits associated with reduced energy consumption for heating and cooling.’

It then becomes a governance issue. ‘Local governments are generally implementing policy decisions handed down by state legislation, so in this sense state government legislation can really inhibit or enhance the ability of communities to adapt to change.’

He says local governments also have an important role in communicating with and educating their constituents, building their capacity to respond. Early warning systems for heatwaves, floods and bushfires will also help reduce impacts of extreme events.

‘Adaptive management is simply good management,’ says economist Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, Theme Leader – Sustainable Regional Development at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems. He is not concerned about business adaptation, arguing that there is already a huge amount of adaptation in the marketplace. He cites reduced energy and water consumption, changed insurance premiums and the abandonment of unfeasible agricultural practices as examples of market force-driven climate change adaptation.

‘The economy is already adapting where it needs to. We need to look at where we’re failing.’ He is focusing on how to target scarce resources to protect environmental assets, and says we face some tough decisions.

‘We need to have some sense of what we want to protect before climate change gets any worse,’ he says. ‘We are going to have to take a triage approach and give up some assets to protect others. If we don’t face that now we won’t have the resources to protect what matters most.

‘Science provides an evidence-based approach for making decisions, but at the end of the day, it is the Australian people who need to decide whether they want to protect the Great Barrier Reef or whether they want to divide that same purse of resources across many more smaller projects.

‘Whatever decision is made, there will be consequences; for tourism, jobs, whole communities and the economy. It’s the elephant in the room, but we need to start a dialogue about prioritising the best use of scarce resources.’

Ben Preston concurs. ‘The best approach to climate change adaptation is to take the knowledge that we already have and translate that to real action.’

More information:

Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship,

Published: 2009

Northern water assessment informs development capacity

Helen Beringen

It either doesn’t rain or it pours up north. Such variability is one of the challenges identified in the first consistent, analytical water assessment of northern Australia released from CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship. The work is informing thinking about the development capacity of the region.

Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Credit: CSIRO

Rainfall and runoff variability are just two components of a comprehensive review of water resources for water policy decisions which form part of the assessments undertaken by the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.

Released by Parliamentary Secretary for Water, Dr Mike Kelly, at the RiverSymposium in Brisbane on 21 September, the study resulted from a March 2008 agreement by Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to extend the CSIRO work on sustainable water yields and availability that had been completed in the catchments of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Dr Kelly said the research would be a valuable resource to inform decisions about the conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources.

‘From Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland, the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields (NASY) reports provide important information on current and likely future water availability in northern Australia,’ he said.

Despite popular perceptions that northern Australia has a surplus of water, the research found the extremely seasonal climate with continuously high temperatures meant that the landscape was annually water-limited, with little or no rain for three to six months every year, and very high potential evapotranspiration rates.

‘Northern Australia experiences high rainfall during the wet season, with most falling near the coast and with year to year amounts that are highly variable,’ said project leader Dr Richard Cresswell.

‘Runoff follows a similar pattern to rainfall, with most surface flow approaching the estuaries, with potential inland dam sites receiving less and quite variable amounts of water and suffering very high evaporation rates.

‘The very few river reaches that flow year-round are mostly sustained by localised groundwater discharge and have high cultural, social, ecological and developmental value,’ he said.

‘Groundwater may offer potential for increased extractions for development, though the highly dynamic nature of shallow aquifers, which rapidly fill during the wet season and drain through the dry season, means there is little opportunity to increase this groundwater storage and careful management is required where these groundwaters also provide sources for the few perennial rivers.’

Dr Cresswell said future climate predictions for the north suggest that evapotranspiration was likely to increase while rainfall was likely to be similar to historical levels, which were lower than the last decade, particularly in the west.

Speaking to ABC Rural, Joe Ross, Chair of the federal government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (charged with finding new development opportunities in Northern Australia), said the CSIRO report confirmed that expectations for food production in the north have been ‘over the top’, and that there would be limited opportunity for broad-scale agriculture in the tropics.

The Taskforce’s submission to the government later this year will take into account the central findings of the CSIRO teams’ work. ‘It covers not only the amounts of water in northern Australia, but also what impact there’ll be on the livelihoods of the community of northern Australia, in particular, one of the main constituents being Indigenous Australians,’ Mr Ross said.

The Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project is part of the Australian Government’s Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA), a five-year program to develop an enduring knowledge base to inform decisions about conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources, so that any development proceeds in an ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable manner.

More information:

Dr Richard Cresswell:

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