Australians will have to manage serious and pervasive risks from climate change impacts, even if significant
greenhouse reduction is achieved, according to the Australian Government's position paper 'Adapting to Climate
Change in Australia'.
"Already Australia faces a stark fact - the opportunity to avoid climate change altogether has passed. ...
Adapting to the impacts of unavoidable climate change is critical to any effective climate change response." (1)
In making decisions responding to at-risk situations - those that are most in need of adaptation - there are two
• The degree of risk arising from physical vulnerability and exposure; the need to adapt. For example:
will it blow down in a storm?; will the building be damaged by a flood?; will the crops fail if rainfall is
less than/temperature is greater than a certain amount?; will power lines/rail lines cope with a
particular temperature extreme?; will human health be affected by heat stress?
• The capacity to adapt. Does a community have the information, attitude and resources to change its
response to one that is sustainable given the changed conditions? This is largely driven by social issues
and governance but also includes the economic capacity to adapt.
Adaptive capacity includes the concept of changing a process or an asset (new crop, new types/ specifications
of infrastructure or assets) with the objective of being less vulnerable to extremes or expected changed long
term trends or conditions. Adaptation may seek to achieve essentially the same outcome - for instance a viable
farm enterprise, sufficient infrastructure and services to support an existing or expected population, or no undue
disruption to services and amenity. Alternatively, it may seek to change the outcome to something acceptable
but can be sustained under the new conditions - such as change from farming to some other source of income,
seek to encourage the population to move from areas where it is very difficult to sustain services or that are highly
subject to hazards, to areas that are less stressed.
Vulnerability, the need to adapt, and information
A fundamental part of capacity to adapt will be access to information about risks, uncertainties and options.
Determining the degree of risk arising from vulnerability is largely technical in character. For example, in
relation to buildings and infrastructure, it would relate to engineering factors: resistance to wind, inundation,
water supply options and capacity, coastal risk assessments, etc. The extent of physical vulnerability and
exposure needs to be understood in order to assess the need for and likely effectiveness of adaptations that
reduce vulnerability. In effect, this requires a risk assessment of all activities and locations expected to be
impacted by change, effectively starting with present day risk and then estimating the expected rates of
change (2) and impacts of these on risks.
For many risks, the level of present day risk has not been well quantified, particularly for private assets
such as homes. Often, where present day risk has been quantified, the results are not widely known by the
community. This is true for most coastal areas, for risks associated with the sea. Bush fire risks may be
identified in broad terms, but often not quantified effectively. Ecological risks are also poorly specified and
documented. Health statistics help identify risk from historical patterns but these may or may not prove to
be reliable forecasters under changed demographic, general population health and climatic conditions.
Recognising this, a great deal of effort is being made to assess these risks and provide relevant information.
The National Climate Change Science Framework focuses science expertise on agreed national priorities,
and identifies the resources required to address and deliver them. The Government has identified initial
national priorities for adaptation action. They are coastal management; water; infrastructure; natural systems
of national significance; prevention, preparedness, response and recovery with regard to natural disasters;
The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and associated research networks have been
tasked with generating the information decision makers need to manage the risks of climate change impacts
in critical areas. National adaptation research plans are being developed. CSIRO's Climate Adaptation Flagship
is developing information about adaptation responses. Geoscience Australia has compiled maps and data sets
on floods, earthquakes and landslides, and has compiled data on the amount and characteristics of residential
property by LGA - although coverage is far from complete. Present day risks associated with larger private,
and public buildings and engineering works (services infrastructure) are generally better quantified, although
still subject to some limitations. There are additional processes under way to better assess both present day
risk (e.g. in coastal areas) and to make changes to standards.
The capacity to adapt
Good, detailed knowledge of risks, current and potential is desirable if adaptation that can minimise future
adverse impacts is to take place in advance. But even with this information, some risks will be unavoidable,
or the benefits too small to make changes in advance that substantially reduce risk. Risk can never be eliminated.
Communities will therefore adapt in anticipation to some extent, but will also be called upon to adapt ‘after the
event' where risks either were not anticipated or could not be avoided entirely and changed conditions or
extreme events resulted in an impact on the community. Several characteristics are likely to determine a
community's adaptability and resilience, or make it vulnerable, in their absence.
Access to information about risks and options:
Not only is the availability of the information (as described in the previous section) important, but also a
community's ability to understand it.
Responsiveness: A community's willingness and ability to assess validity of risk information and put it in
context. That is, make a realistic assessment rather than either an unduly sceptical or alarmist interpretation
of the information. It also includes willingness to take responsibility for their own actions - to accept the
consequences of their own decisions when made with the best available information about risks that is
available, understood and accepted as valid.
Attitude and expectations: Attitudes to the need for changes from the status quo of amenity and lifestyle -
for example, preparedness to accept protective sand dunes and vegetation that may affect the sea view.
Attitudes about the need for flexibility, willingness to accept change if the need is recognised, and that the
status quo may not be sustainable. Acknowledging limits on available adjustment assistance after an extreme
event; that government assistance may not be available to restore the status quo, and that assistance may be
directed to change to reduce future impacts, rather than to restoring the previous conditions.
Financial: Sufficient resources to make a transition to adapt in anticipation, or sufficient assets or income to
rebuild or change after climate change effects or extreme events.
Health: The need for support if infirmity/disability limits ability to act, or limits resilience to stress.
Avoidance of injury from extreme events, e.g. through emergency management planning.
Social ties and supports: Support of family and friends, maintaining a viable community or obtaining aid from
others, including from out of area/less affected areas.
Concensus: A degree of social consensus on the need to act, and on what actions are appropriate and/or
strong leadership. This makes taking action far easier, especially in smaller communities.
Emergency planning: Emergency planning and provision, the willingness to prepare for extreme but low
probability events that may have short periods of warning.
Governance mechanisms: A community which has or can develop governance mechanisms to reconcile
or resolve to act particularly when there are diverging objectives. These can occur in relation to:
• managing conflicts of interests, for instance over scarce resources like water
• preservation of built assets (e.g. waterfront private property) vs. natural assets (e.g. beaches, wetlands)
• attempting to maintain the status quo vs. making more radical changes to adapt to climate change
• impacts of adaptation options on different economic interests like tourism, fishing, port activities,
farming, and real estate/development, that may have conflicting requirements.
A great deal of adaptability and vulnerability is tied up with expectations, agreement on roles and responsibilities,
trust, and ensuring that the consequences of actions (including risks and costs) are borne by those who made
the choices. Clarity and agreement about legal and governance structures is also essential. Changes in
perceptions of these factors, almost as much as the actual facts, are critical.
Polarised communities, intolerant communities, highly conservative communities - not in the political sense
but in the sense of being unprepared to contemplate or accept change, - poorly informed and skilled, and very
poor communities can all be expected to have a low adaptive capacity. Where communities lack the conditions
to adapt on their own initiative, more interventionist requirements to actively manage risk may be needed.
1. Department of Climate Change, 2010, 'Adapting to Climate Change in Australia: An Australian Government
Position Paper', Commonwealth of Australia, ACT, p1
2. Present practice has been to identify the degree of change by a given date. For some processes that may
continue for long periods, the rate of change is likely to become the more significant issue rather than the
absolute level at any given time, which will remain uncertain.