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Adapting to climate change: the priority for Australia

Understanding the “new normal” to protect people’s livelihoods should be at the core of the next government’s agenda.

The clean up following the Townsville floods in February (Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty)
The clean up following the Townsville floods in February (Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty)

Adaptation to climate change was for a long time considered as an abstract issue for the future, something that would need to be worked out later by someone else. Adaptation, in short, is a process of preparing to live with a changing climate where most of our definitions of typical weather and climatic trends are no longer valid. In Australia in particular we have no shortage of experiences with extreme events, whether that is flooding, heatwaves and drought, and we have developed a range of strategies to deal with these when they occur.

Adaptation, in short, is a process of preparing to live with a changing climate where most of our definitions of typical weather and climatic trends are no longer valid.

Yet, in a world where the climate will continue changing and the “new normal” is likely to be mostly characterised by constant change, we need strategies and management practices in place that reduce harm to our livelihoods and ways of living. Fire seasons, for example, are shifting within the states of Australia, becoming longer and more devastating. Flooding and rainfall events are also increasing, causing widespread damage, such as the recent Townsville floods.

The question is how we make decisions in adapting to such events.

Australia was for a long time a forerunner in climate adaptation globally: we made large-scale investments in developing better and more robust knowledge via the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility through a range of research projects, programs, and plans. At the same time, big investments were made in research, training and capacity building to make sure that we had the best researchers who truly understood adaptation.

Today, however, most of these investments have decreased at the national level, with some making the case that Australia is now well-adapted and that we do not even need basic research into climate change anymore. Both of these arguments are faulty.

Firstly, Australia has only started to grasp the beginnings of what successful and effective climate adaptation looks like, and the kinds of policies and strategies that are needed to support different sectors and communities. The road to learning has only just begun.

Secondly, given how complex the global climate system is, we also need to support basic science. For example, in Antarctica, where Australia has a special vantage point, we need the best available research to feed into such reports as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Building this research capacity nationally is an investment that will give Australia an edge in building better and more realistic policies, as well as understanding the speed and scale of climate change. This knowledge is also crucial for robust climate adaptation.

The aftermath of bushfires in Tathra, NSW, 2018 (Photo: via Flickr)

The policy landscape for adaptation is especially complex. It has been argued that adaptation is a mainly local issue and the responsibility of local governments and communities. However, although the implementation of adaptation activities happens locally, it is best understood as a process of decision-making that involves all levels of government and also the informal and traditional governance structures. Adaptation is a process where investments are being made across local, provincial, state, national and international levels, with the hope of helping to increase overall resilience and adaptability of those systems, along with the livelihoods that people depend upon.

The case for climate action is now more urgent than ever, in both reducing greenhouse gases and also preparing our communities in adapting to change, and the majority of Australians support strong climate action. Yet adaptation is going to have to occur no matter what, given the massive changes already locked in to the climate system. We still need to keep a close eye on emerging trends in these changing conditions, to identify when we have moved to a new normal, where different kinds of actions are warranted.

At Griffith University, we have heavily invested in getting adaptation science on the national and global agenda. We host the National Climate Change Adaptation Facility and also have invested in the Griffith Climate Change Response Program as an Area of Strategic Interest, even during times when politically climate change has been deemed too difficult of an issue. In March this year, we also launched the Adaptation Science Research Theme at Cities Research Institute, which seeks to identify and support emerging leaders who are doing meaningful research on climate adaptation.

All of this work supports the development of a more robust climate adaptation science agenda, one that is of practical relevance to the decision- and policy-makers, communities, and the private sector that are all developing their own strategies and understanding of climate adaptation.

Whichever government comes into power following the election, adaptation should be at the core of their policies. Under the Paris Agreement, each signatory country, including Australia, has committed to produce a national adaptation plan that maps out its key strategies and policies for how to adapt to climate change. But this plan also should indicate as part of the global stocktake how Australia is progressing in adaptation, and report also on implementation, not just a policy direction.

At the national level, we need a more consistent approach to adaptation. Establishing, for example, a National Adaptation Taskforce or Committee, similar to many that have been set up in European countries such as the United Kingdom and Finland, could provide advice on where adaptation finance is most urgently needed. It could become a body for identifying adaptation innovations that can be scaled up across the country leading to real improvements, while also assisting in the drafting of the national adaptation plan as required under the Paris Agreement. We need to put the investments in adaptation to good use and become again a global leader in enabling successful adaptation.

A well-adapted resilient Australia is possible but only if we take climate change seriously and make the necessary investments.

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