Reflections from the National Adaptation Conference

We attended the Climate Adaptation Conference in Adelaide, and in the midst of some quite challenging talks about the scale of the challenges ahead, we had the opportunity think and talk about how Australia and our region can adapt to more heat, floods, drought, storms and sea level rise over the coming decades.

The theme of the Conference was Act Now, Act Together. Given the fires, floods and heatwaves that we’ve experienced in Australia and witnessed globally in recent years, the growing urgency to adapt now, learn from practice, and share learnings as we go was clear.

Susan Close, Acting Premier, opened the Conference, reflecting on how it is easy to underestimate the complexity of adaptation, particularly in the context of an urgent need to decarbonise our economy and our lives. She outlined three guiding principles for how to approach climate adaptation:

Government must take a leadership role to unlock ingenuity, bringing together scientific expertise along with the corporate sector to increase the scale and scope of funding for adaptation.

We need to do this while taking care of biodiversity, noting that the biodiversity loss crisis is interchangeable with the climate crisis.

This work must be undertaken with justice and democracy at its core, acknowledging that those people most impacted by climate change have often contributed the least and have few opportunities to adapt.

To kick off the Conference, Pep Canadell mapped out the current emissions trajectories, acknowledging that we need to plan our adaptation approaches for 2.5 – 3 degrees warming by the end of this century. Ben Newell shared research that suggests that people interpret climate scenarios using their own beliefs about temperature increases, rather than relying on statistics.

We also heard from the team that delivered New Zealand’s National Climate Risk Assessment, who shared their process and lessons learned. The first national risk assessment brought together more than 400 people from local government, central government, the private sector, primary sector, financial sector, Māori and universities and research institutes. The process included developing Arotakenga Huringa Āhuarangi:A Framework for the National Climate Change Risk Assessment for Aotearoa New Zealand. This framework provides the means to evaluate risks and opportunities in the context of Ta Ao Māori.

Climate justice was a common theme throughout the conference, and that we need to protect people who are going to be impacted the most. The risks and opportunities of climate change are not spread equally, and the need for inclusive processes throughout planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation was reiterated throughout the conference. At the same time, the challenges of enabling community-led adaptation were seen in many presentations that reflected despite wanting to prioritise inclusion and community-led processes, consultation and engagement was often rushed, and not as effective as it was hoped it would be. Genuine community consultation and engagement takes time and resources, and the resourcing is often insufficient for this to happen.

There was widespread acknowledgement that to meet the challenges, we need a whole of society transformation. We are also seeing the impacts of climate change, and it is going to get worse. The time for incremental change has passed.

We need a strategic vision with policy certainty and resources attached, but the fact is the risk and opportunity for people is inherently local. Communities must be at the centre of decision-making, involved in risk assessments, co-design research and programs, and be empowered and resourced to lead.

We heard from Russ Wise, who represents CSIRO on our Steering Committee, who spoke about the adaptation finance gap and the need for substantial are urgent investments in adaptation and resilience. Disasters already cost around $13 billion annually in Australia, and this is projected to reach $73 billion by 2060. Despite this, only 7% of global climate finance in 2019-20 was for adaptation. Public funding is not going to be enough, we need to find ways to mobilise private sector investment, in the same way that has already achieved for net-zero solutions. A pilot project to build a resilience investment case has been underway at Port Adelaide Enfield, bringing together diverse stakeholders who used CSIRO’s Enabling Resilience Investment approach to build an investment case for resilience-building interventions

There is a growing interest and opportunity to invest in adaptation, disaster risk reduction and resilience, and we now have a good understanding of what needs to be done. It is now time to increase the speed and scale of action by providing:

  • Policy and regulatory support
  • Demonstrating the emerging solutions
  • Building coalitions and capabilities to drive change and innovation
  • Doing things differently is difficult, and will need ongoing and collaborative cross-sectoral efforts.

Insurance Council of Australia CEO Andrew Hall shared insights around investing in resilience and the challenges facing the insurance industry. The ICA launched Building Australia’s Resilience, which sets out policy recommendations for how we can build on existing initiatives to create a more resilient Australia, and lessen the impacts of disasters.

There was a lot of information on the scale and scope of the challenges we’re facing, and what this realistically means as we respond and adapt to climate change. Planned relocation and resettlement of at-risk communities is always going to be contentious, but it is set to become more of feature of life in Australia.

Jimmy Scott shared the progress happening at the Queensland Reconstruction Authority as it has developed from a temporary authority established over 10 years ago into a permanent organisation due to the ongoing and increasing instances of extreme weather across the State. They are making positive impacts to build back better, demonstrating that resilient design and proactive investment can avoid future cost and disruptions from disasters. In a traditionally reactive area, QRA is paving the way for proactive investment in resilience, and have been sharing their learnings from practice through their participation in the Resilient Futures Investment Roundtable. We will soon be sharing a detailed case study exploring QRA’s work to understand the broad costs and benefits of investments in betterment, building on the cost-benefit analysis already undertaken and discussed in our short case study.

It was great to hear stories of First Nations people leading the way on adaptation. There was an incredible panel of leaders from the National First Peoples Platform on Climate Change, discussing the need to better integrate Indigenous and Western knowledge systems on adaptation – both locally and nationally. We also heard about the innovative ways that communities are adapting traditional foods and ecosystems to the changing climate.

As well as ensuring that adaptation does not deepen pre-existing inequalities, inclusive approaches that better incorporating traditional knowledge, including from urban Aboriginal communities, can unlock opportunities such as:

  • Improving ecological restoration and sustainable landscape management
  • Developing city-specific mitigation and adaptive strategies or urban climate risk governance
  • Enhancing climate communication
  • Opening up avenues for co-learning and knowledge co-production to strengthen adaptation policy and practice

Despite the wide acknowledgement of the value of Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous peoples and knowledge continue to be marginalised. Adaptation has the potential to uphold colonial structures, or it can create opportunities for Indigenous autonomy. Pathways to achieving this include:

  • Placing self determination at the centre of adaptation planning
  • Government decision-makers learning to trust in community decision making
  • Broadening the boundaries of what is and is not considered adaptation
  • Financial investment in community-led projects
  • Redevelop success matrixes in adaptation planning by community
  • Redesigning community consultation to meet community requirements and timelines.

The Adaptation Conference was a great opportunity to share knowledge, lessons from practice and experience to help strengthen the growing adaptation community in Australia. The goals of the Resilient Futures Investment Roundtable to bring more investment from public and private sources to adaptation and resilience projects was echoed throughout the conference. The need for collaboration, capability building and partnership-working to tackle the complex, systemic challenge of adaptation was clear, and stakeholders around the country are finding ways to increase the speed and scale of action.

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