Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Meeting Report: Adaptation Conversations

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The following article was written for an online publication but never made it out the door. It describes the recent Victorian Centre of Climate Change Adaptation Research Annual Forum. It seems a pity to waste, so here it is. Co-written with a colleague, Celeste Young.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change started researching adaptation in the early 1990s, the relationship between science and policy was viewed differently to how it is today. The IPCC’s brief was to offer policy-relevant, not policy-prescriptive advice. Policymakers would take scientist’s findings on climate change and impacts and develop adaptation policy to manage those impacts. These findings were contained in a report handed over from the science to the policy community every five years or so.

Times have changed. Adaptation scholars looked at this methodology (automatic download of pdf) and said “IPCC, You’re doin’ it wrong!” Adaptation is a social process. The focus has therefore shifted from getting better predictions out of science to getting a better understanding of decision-making under climate change. Sure, adaptation needs information on how the climate may change but adaptation decisions are made using information from many other sources; such as “what changes are we seeing in markets, policy, society and the environment?” And, most importantly, “what are the goals of people doing adaptation?”

To address this wider agenda, scientists, policy makers and adaptors need to engage in a dialogue to ask another question “What makes good adaptation?” Is it the scientific information that informs adaptation decisions or the process that leads to implementing those decisions? Answering these questions requires collaboration between researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Good collaborations need to start with good conversations where the parties get to know each other, their issues and how they work.

Good conversations were a central focus of the recent Victorian Centre on Climate Change Adaptation Research Annual Forum. Two conversations were by invitation, one a business breakfast with  industry reps and chaired by Anne Barker of City West Water, and the other with indigenous leaders, chaired by Kate Auty.  The role for researchers and policy makers in both conversations was to listen to industry and indigenous leaders’ needs and priorities. This has established the  foundations for a better understanding of the future needs of both groups.

Industry has two main roles: one in managing its own risks to climate change and the other in providing goods and services for adaptation by others. Although many areas of industry, especially small and medium businesses, lack awareness of climate change and adaptation, experience is showing that with targeted R&D very cost-effective solutions can be developed; for example, in building climate-fit housing.

Plenary heard from the water and insurance sectors, the state environment commissioner, a climate services representative and state government policy makers. Karl Sullivan from the Insurance Council of Australia said that most people don’t understand resilience or how to make their primary asset – their home – resilient to a changing climate.  Professor Tony Wong outlined his vision of a water-sensitive development for future cities.  Professor Kate Auty emphasised the importance of the listening to communities and the knowledge they bring to the table, describing these conversations as a central part of sustainability reporting. Professor John Zillman described the history and future direction of climate services as they become more relevant to user needs.

A state government panel described their different policy viewports showing some of the difficulties in integrating these views beyond departmental “silos”.  Other presentations and workshops on the day outlined progress and results from a range of projects covering green infrastructure, legal and regulatory frameworks, water infrastructure, decision-making under uncertainty, the practical use of scenarios, local government  and integrated land management.

During the Municipal Association of Victoria session, practitioners spoke of the different journeys that they had undertaken with their adaptation work and the challenges and opportunities they encountered. The Adaptation Navigator, developed by RMIT University and partners, aims to incorporate such journeys into a tool that provides guidance for others just setting out. Launched by Donna Petrovich MP on the day, The Navigator shows adaptation as a set of different journeys, each informed by a particular process. Set up using real examples from local government, the tool is at a proof of concept stage and will be enriched by further examples over time and modified by ongoing research.

The final event of the day was a hypothetical, focussing on environmental and social justice, convened by the Victorian Environmental Defender’s Office and hosted by Rob Gell. It was set in a fictional suburb in Melbourne’s west in 2032. A pessimistic scenario describing an extension of business-as-usual in 2012 was read to the audience, a panel then responded by recounting what really happened between then and 2032, informed by their own successes  (and failures) in engendering change.

The hypothetical tackled many serious issues, but in a playful manner. The aim was still to create an internally consistent and plausible scenario that proposed various adaptation measures rather than climate problems. It show-cased the benefits of not relying on scenarios of climate change to inform adaptation, but to focus on the process itself using a set of larger than life personalities. Faced with a rich, but less than perfect set of options in 2032, adaptation decisions can potentially be addressed more creatively than can be achieved by relying solely on climate model output.

Adaptation is a long journey and the conversations on how to do it better are just beginning.


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Written by Roger Jones

August 15, 2012 at 7:03 am

Posted in Adaptation, Australia, Conference, Scenarios

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