Adaptation pathways: meeting the challenges of global change

We are developing new approaches to help decision makers plan for, and respond to, the impacts of global changes.

The Challenge

Adapting to global changes

Global changes, such as climate change, pose new challenges to communities, businesses and all levels of government as they plan for the future. Many of these changes will lead to shifts in natural and human systems, radically altering what they look like and how they function.

Planning for major changes, such as sea level rise and king tides, requires coordinated responses across many jurisdictions. © CSIRO, Dr Bruce Webber

This will create new stresses and shocks to human activities that depend on them. The rapid, widespread and uncertain nature of many of these impacts complicates how best to respond to these long-term changes.

Managing the impacts of rising sea levels and increasing frequencies and intensities of storm events on coastal communities is an example of the challenges posed by these changes.

Building a sea wall to protect private property, for example, has negative consequences for neighbouring properties who don't build walls and for beaches, dunes and estuaries. Sea walls displace and magnify the power of waves or tidal flows, enhancing erosion and the impact of rising sea levels.

Real-estate markets, insurance markets, and local government planning and decision-making processes all rely on rules for development and conservation planning along the coast; however, these rules have not evolved to accommodate the extreme, cross-scale and sometimes highly contested risks associated with sea level rise.

These risks are also often unprecedented (at least locally) in many areas and so communities are not aware of what is at risk of being lost. This means that adaptation decisions are either not recognised as being needed, purposefully delayed, focused on managing short-term considerations, or continue to be influenced by the vested interests of property owners or developers resulting in the ‘hardening’ of coastlines at the expense of beaches, dunes and estuaries.

It is important that essential services continue to be provided while the impacts are being addressed. Planning for major changes, such as sea level rise or increasingly severe and extreme flooding and inundation, requires coordinated and systematic responses of many stakeholders across jurisdictions and levels of government.

Existing decision-making processes and tools are limited in their ability to help these stakeholders understand such problems and to deliberate over the when, where and how of responses to such global changes and impacts. This is particularly the case where choices involve some stakeholders winning and some losing (over space and time), or where private interests (e.g. beachfront properties) conflict with broader community and environmental values (e.g. continued existence of beaches and dunes).

Our Response

Enabling Adaptation Pathways

Our researchers are examining the use of adaptation pathways, a new conceptual and analytical framework for enabling adaptation planning and decision making in response to long-term change.

Enabling adaptation pathways have been used to develop climate compatible development strategies in Papua New Guinea.

This approach identifies adaptation challenges, and examines the differing adaptation outcomes based on what interventions are applied and when. Understanding the types of decisions that need to be made, the lifetimes and flexibility of these decisions, and the need to address near-term issues while strategically creating options for the long-term future is at the heart of this approach.

Through our Enabling Adaptation Pathways initiative, we have developed decision-support tools and processes to help stakeholders in a diverse range of circumstances plan for the future. These tools and processes allow stakeholders and researchers to diagnose adaptation problems and deliberate over the social, environmental and economic costs and benefits of a range of adaptation initiatives.

These deliberations inform decisions about the priority and timing of different adaptation activities. The initiated choices are then monitored and evaluated, further informing the adaptive learning and management required of flexible adaptation pathways.

The Results

Better tools for decision making and climate compatible development

Over the past few years we've applied our Enabling Adaptation Pathways approach to:

New adaptation options for vulnerable seabirds, such as the shy albatross, have been developed using Enabling Adaptation Pathways.

  • develop new adaptation options and pathways for vulnerable seabirds (e.g. the shy albatross) threatened by climate change impacts, and then test options such as increasing chick survival by reducing parasite loads. (In this case chick survival increased by 10 per cent.)
  • build capacity of government, industry and communities, both in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, to work together in generating climate compatible development strategies that sustain livelihoods in the face increasing economic, population and climate pressures
  • build the understanding of conservation policy makers and managers of the need to change existing conservation objectives and practices to be climate change compatible and account for the increasingly dynamic nature of species and habitats
  • develop guidelines for incorporating adaptation pathways approaches in the planning and implementation of large development (e.g. food security) projects eligible for funding from the Global Environment Facility
  • establish an international community of practice for transformative adaptation research and practice, with 26 members in 10 countries
  • structure systemic response agendas for building disaster resilience in Australia, such as the disaster risk mitigation project with the Attorney General's Department
  • develop integrated regional adaptation plans that account for diverse interests, values, impacts and levels of response.

As a result, we have developed a unique combination of capabilities, tools and processes that can help diverse stakeholders implement development strategies. We do this by building stakeholders' capacity to:

  • diagnose difficult problems caused by interacting uncertain and substantial economic, population, climate and ecosystem changes
  • engage and negotiate around contested values and conflicting interests
  • learn and be adaptive
  • recognise the need for, and begin initiating, changes to the systems of rules, values and knowledge that currently constrain their options.

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