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Climate change adaptation

Adapting to climate change is a way to prepare for the future and reduce the likely harm caused to our communities, industries and infrastructure. Adaptation can also maximise the benefits of any opportunities associated with climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines adaptation as ‘the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects’.

Adaptation can be autonomous in response to changes, as has happened in response to short-term climate variability in the past. Alternatively, it can be planned, with strategic, long-term decisions made at an organisation- or government-wide level.

Adaptation can also be incremental, to maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process, or transformational, where changes are made to the fundamental attributes of a system.

Adapting in uncertainty

Climate adaptation decisions need to address the continually unfolding nature of climate change and the uncertainties associated with it, so that plans are flexible, relevant in the near term but forward looking and proactive.

Hence planned adaptation, particularly for transformational change, requires knowledge of climate change, the increasing severity of impacts, and of the uncertainty about rates of change to develop flexible pathways of action.

Such understanding will help avoid ‘maladaptive’ actions that may be effective in the short-term but ultimately make impacts worse (e.g. sea walls, especially where they provide a sense of security that leads to increased investment or failure to enable more sustainable solutions).

Many of the projected impacts due to climate change (such as increased temperatures, reduced water supply and decreased biodiversity) are now happening, so there are already changes in climate that we must adapt to, and there will be further inevitable changes.

The effects of a king tide on Queensland's Gold Coast ©  CSIRO, Bruce Miller

Not just adaptation

Climate adaptation management decisions could reduce the risks of damage caused by climate change; however, the success of adaptation measures declines with increasing climate change.

Adaptation is not an alternative to reducing greenhouse gases (mitigation). We need to adapt to climate change in parallel with mitigation efforts.

Furthermore, there are questions of justice and equity when it comes to the impacts of climate change and how humans respond.

Developing countries have emitted the least amount of greenhouse gases and hence have contributed least to climate change. Industrialised countries represent just 20 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 80 per cent of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions.

But it is the developing countries that appear to be suffering the greatest impacts of climate change.

While people in industrialised countries may be able to adapt, developing country populations are often the least able to combat the change to climate.

Natural adaptation

Many natural ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change and will have difficulty adapting to the rapid rate of climate change that we are experiencing.

Nonetheless, there are hundreds of examples of plants and animals changing their location and behaviour due to climate change, moving polewards and to higher elevations. Leaves are emerging earlier due to higher spring temperatures, insects are appearing earlier, and migrating birds are arriving in Australia sooner and leaving later.

While species will adapt where possible, plants differ from animals in their ability to adapt to climate change because they can’t move quickly.

Their response must be to either evolve to the new conditions or disperse pollen to migrate to a more suitable environment, both of which occur over generations.

Future climate change may occur faster than some plants can respond.

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