Adaptation concepts


10 years ago the major focus in adaptation work was on a better understanding of impacts and vulnerabilities. This was a legacy of still attempting to make the argument that we should not allow the climate to change as adaptation was going to be too challenging. Since then it has become apparent that, notwithstanding agreements such as that at Paris in December 2015, we have already experienced nearly 1°C of warming, it is very likely that we will have to cope with 2°C and larger amounts are still quite possible and need to be considered in any authentic risk assessment.

Hence today the focus in adaptation research has moved towards:

  1. shifting the focus from problems to solutions (even though one must know something of the problem)
  2. emphasising today’s decisions, not impacts in 2070 or 2100 (even though some of those decisions must take account of condition in 2070, etc)
  3. talking about risk management not uncertainty (as there are plenty of well-understood methods for managing uncertainty and it should not inhibit decisions)
  4. framing adaptation as an economic and social challenge, not (only) and environmental one
  5. recognising the role of values and institutional rules in decision-making, as well as knowledge
  6. stressing emergent, economy-wide impacts and opportunities, rather than only local specific issues which can be managed relatively easily
  7. increasingly considering transformative adaptation, not only incremental adjustments that are more easily handled with modest extensions to business as usual.

Actually climate change is just one example of a whole class of global environmental changes that we need to adapt to, and the same decision support principles and tools apply to most other long-term changes.

Some key points from CSIRO’s Climate book (see Chapter 5) are:

  • The less we reduce emissions, the more we will have to adapt; for warming greater than 2ºc, many Australian sectors will be very vulnerable.
  • The most sensitive sectors in Australia, which will require most early adaptation, are: water, the natural environments, cities and infrastructure, the coastal zone, and agriculture.
  • Adapting in these areas presents significant challenges, but can also create great opportunities; early action will maximise our ability to capture these opportunities.
  • Successful adaptation will depend on developing the knowledge and skills base in the industries and communities most affected, as well as enhancing the adaptive capacity of government agencies to provide the best policy context for adaptation.

A few key sources and concepts are worth highlighting:

  • Interpreted projections of future climates remain an underpinning basis for understanding the risks of climate change: see the Climate Change in Australia website for the authoritative source of these for Australia. There are other sources referred to there that provide more details for some states and regions. The website also contains a guide to navigating the choice of climate scenarios for your planning task. Global information is available through the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – its 5th and most recent assessment report was released in 2014.
  • ‘downscaled information’ – that is, projections that are directed more locally – can be important for some uses: again, some of these can be accessed through the Climate Change in Australia website, and others are the subject of on-going work.
  • Decision-centred approaches to adaptation planning, pioneered by the United Kingdom Climate Impacts Program, are increasingly the norm. A national approach is discussed on the Climate Change in Australia website. Sector specific approaches may be found in various places, such as AdaptNRM for natural resource managers, CoastAdapt (coming soon from NCCARF), and sector specific guides such as for local government or the water industry.
  • Examples of regional or sectors specific adaptation plans are increasingly available, e.g. for the Eyre Peninsula and other South Australian regions.
  • Some key concepts that CSIRO has contributed to developing, such as decision lifetimes, adaptation pathways, the values-rules-knowledge diagnostic, and adaptation services, are outlined in the FAQ pages [coming soon]. These help you to manage risk for changes that run out over a long time period, like climate change. See also the Working paper series.
  • CSIRO has also carried out a variety of studies looking at the costs and benefits of proactive adaptation to climate change.
  • Understanding transformative change has been another focus of CSIRO’s work.

Key on-going work on the principles for adaptation may be accessed through the Evaluating Adaptation Pathways website.