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By Jenni Metcalfe 28 July 2016 5 min read

Snow is receding from some parts of Australia, which could mean the loss of some species. Image: Creative Commons/

Australia is at the brunt of climate change: “Conditions are becoming drier, hotter, there are more extreme heatwaves, droughts, fires, and storm events,” says CSIRO’s Dr Russell Wise.

This will likely bring transformative changes to the environment and many sectors of society and the economy over the next few decades and into the 21st century.

For example, tropical fish are already being found further south. Reduced extent of snow cover in the Australian Alps may lead to extinction of some species, such as the mountain pygmy possum. If snow melts early, possums will emerge from hibernation and starve because bogong moths, their main food source, are not yet available.

It is preparing for such substantial change that has CSIRO scientists working with governments, natural resource management groups and communities to figure out how to make decisions for the future in an uncertain world.

This process of engagement is not just about finding ways to adapt to changes in the next decade. It is also about preparing for adaptation out to the end-of-century and beyond, where there are very real possibilities of widespread climate change impacts.

Adaptation pathways mean being flexible in making decisions

For many, the uncertainties of climate change lead to inertia in decision-making, as people wait for more information about the nature and extent of change.

But as Russ Wise says, people need to get used to making decisions without complete information, otherwise they will be under-prepared when unpredictable and unprecedented change does happen.

“It’s about having decisions ready for the different futures,” he says. “This means taking a flexible approach for dealing with the unknowns.

“The pathways approach lets you think about some of those uncertainties. It provides a process for making a decision, learning from it, including triggers to re-evaluate a decision and make a new one if need be.”

CSIRO's Dr Michael Dunlop says it is not just about making decisions now: “It's about learning how to adapt and make decisions in the future, which may be different to the decisions we make now.”

CSIRO’s Dr Rachel Williams admits this may seem daunting: “But it starts with identifying which decisions are affected by climate change and which decisions are not. That simplifies things a lot as a first step.”

Adaptation pathways are all about the people

Two men having a discussion over coffee
Michael Dunlop uses sugar sachets to explain adaptation pathways to a colleague in Colombia. Image: Michael Dunlop, CSIRO

The researchers involved in CSIRO’s Enabling Adaptation Pathways Initiative are careful to point out that planning for long-term adaptation is not just about the science.

“People are at the core of it,” says Michael Dunlop. “A limitation of climate adaptation research in the last decade is that it has been orientated around biophysical change rather than focused on people.

“We need to work closely with people to find out what factors help or stop them from making decisions.”

He adds that this makes the science of adaptation an interdisciplinary activity.

Another member of the CSIRO team, Dr Matt Colloff explains: “We consider the decision context for adaptation, and recognise that current values, rules and knowledge can constrain the range of options that are available to decision-makers.

“Values are about people and society, their interests and what they want. Rules include norms and behaviours as well as laws and regulations.  Knowledge may be science-based, experiential or based on history and stories.

“If you just provide people scientific knowledge and its implications do not resonate with their existing sets of values or rules, then the knowledge will tend to be ignored in decision making.

“However, if people recognise that they may need new options in the future that are not available now, they can then start to consider what they could do now to make those future options available when they are needed.

“This may involve obtaining additional scientific information or it may be achieved by including a wider range of people and perspectives.”

Making decisions needs political will and local champions

Effective planning for significant change requires both political will and champions in different sectors of the community, according to Dr Rachel Williams.

South Australia was the first Australian state to legislate to reduce greenhouse emissions in 2007. For the past three years South Australia has embarked on a regional planning process, each region developing pathways for how they might adapt to future changes at local, regional and whole-of-state scales.

“There were local leaders, a policy maker, consultants and CSIRO scientists working together with people from different sectors to make this happen,” says Dr Williams.

Matt Colloff adds that such an approach requires the different people who are involved or affected to come together and look at the possible scenarios.

“They look at how their ecosystems might change and what scenarios might be plausible,” he says. “It is a process that is long term.

“It requires passion and working with people. It is relentless. It connects people with people and people with the environment.”

The pathway to adaptation means ongoing learning

This type of pathway planning is not about developing a roadmap for the future but rather a perspective for the future, adds Dr Michael Dunlop.

“It is a process of ongoing learning. In five years time, you’ll need to have another look at what might be needed. This will be informed by what you’ve learnt in the past.”

Russell Wise explains why using adaption pathways for decision-making is fundamentally different to adaptive management, a concept well known in natural resource management circles.

“It is a complete reframing of the way you think. It’s about how environmental change will drive changes in institutional and government arrangements,” he says. “For example, how farmers derive their livelihoods from the land may need a complete re-think.

“With adaptive management, you implement management actions that reflect clear objectives. But with the unpredictability of climate change, such clarity in objectives may no longer be viable.

“Adaptation is a learning journey that never stops.”

Read more about recent applications of CSIRO’s adaptation pathways approach.

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