Jack be nimble… climate-ready planning for natural resources

By Chris Gerbing and Veronica DoerrMay 12th, 2015

Stand of thin trees with blackened base of trunk and new growth sprouting from bark

Burnt hardwood forest in north east Victoria. Bushfires might become more frequent as the climate changes. Image: Alison Pouliot, North East Catchment Managment Authority.

What will the future look like in 10, 50 or 100 years? Are our human and ecological systems prepared for the changes to come? What invasive species should we be on the lookout for? These questions are difficult to answer straight up, but thinking about adaptation can help.

Adaptation is about people doing things differently to plan for a better future – one that may undergo rapid change in ways we can’t always predict. Adaptation is frequently talked about in the context of climate change. But the idea of planning for a future we can’t exactly predict is broadly useful for the modern world, which is highly dynamic and involves many types of rapid global changes including climate, urbanisation, and technological innovation.

Natural resources are affected by most types of global change. Yet the way planning is done and the tools traditionally used treat the world as static, rather than constantly dynamic. For example, vegetation maps are a key tool, but they implicitly assume that communities and the species within them will always be found where they are now. This was a useful approach when it seemed like change could only occur on vast time scales – longer than we would need to worry about in our lifetimes. But rapid global change means that is no longer true.

A research team at CSIRO has teamed up with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to develop nationwide tools, datasets and planning approaches aimed at assisting natural resource managers to consider the impact of and plan for global change, particularly climate change. The AdaptNRM project is focused on weeds, biodiversity and the planning process itself.

Climate-ready planning processes

What do we need to do to transition from traditional, static processes of planning to adaptive planning for dynamic futures? The research team has distilled the challenge into four main aims:

  • Consider multiple likely futures to make good decisions regardless of what eventuates
  • Be flexible and incorporate new information when it becomes available
  • Plan for future decisions; not all decisions need to be made now
  • Foster flexible and collaborative individuals and organisations as it is the people who will be adapting
Five circles linked in a bigger circle representing: assessment, strategic planning, Implementation, Monitoring, Reflection

The Adapt NRM project developed a generalised planning framework that represents what most NRM planners go through when producing and implementing a plan. Image: CSIRO

To achieve these aims, there is a need to be practical. Planners should find ways to integrate these new aims into existing planning approaches, gradually making them part of business-as-usual.

Using the framework in the diagram pictured, a checklist was developed for individuals and organisations to ask themselves; are our planning processes capable of achieving these new aims? Do we have the right tools and approaches to adjust all phases of the planning process? What happens when time and money for planning is limited?

For example, in the Assessment phase (taking stock of existing resources, data and knowledge), planners can ask: what values do local people hold high, even when faced with different visions of the future? Are existing natural resource management objectives still appropriate? Should objectives be re-framed to develop a flexible and climate-appropriate vision?

If changes need to be made, tools for assessing values into the future can help. Climate projections are useful tools for considering the range of possible future climates based on different climate change scenarios and time scales. It is then possible to envision the likely changes such future climates will produce, either directly or indirectly (for example through changes in land use). Additional social and economic drivers of regional change can also be included, including population growth and urbanisation, to derive multiple futures to plan for.

A group of people standing in a grassy paddock with hats on

Natural resource managers can use new AdaptNRM tools to incorporate climate adaptation planning into their existing processes. Image: Central West CMA

Supporting weed management adaptation

Under climate change, weed management may need to be different, from identifying the targets to the actual control methods used.

One of the consequences of climate change is that many regions will experience new weed threats to both agriculture and biodiversity. But not all species that move into new areas will pose significant threats. Existing species may also become increasing or even decreasing threats under climate change. In this context, a strategic approach is critical to target control efforts at weeds that will have the greatest negative, transformative impacts.

Unfortunately, climate change may also alter the effectiveness of some control methods. For example, weeds may become more resistant to herbicides if there is more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Increased monitoring may therefore be essential to provide early detection of emerging impacts and failing control methods, allowing for timely management decisions. Involving the broader community through citizen science projects may be an ideal way to expand monitoring effort, particularly where early warning signs are detectable or where connectivity of ecosystems is important.

Re-envisioning biodiversity conservation

Biodiversity will experience a high pressure to change across many parts of Australia under future climates. It’s difficult to plan for this change by thinking about one species at a time.

Fortunately, there are new ways to measure likely change in biodiversity as a whole that help to reveal the potential amount and nature of ecological change. Information available includes which environments are likely to disappear entirely from our continent and where environments are likely to arise that are unlike anything we currently experience.

Green birds flying past a windmill

Climate change will have implications for many Australian species. Image: Northern Agricultural Catchments Council.

Change isn’t necessarily something that should (or can) be prevented – much of it will occur as a result of species using natural processes to adapt to changes in their environments. However, the principles underlying conservation may therefore need to shift from a focus on preserving species at each location, to supporting the capacity of ecosystems to continue to evolve and adapt.

New principles for biodiversity conservation in a dynamic world could focus on optimising ecological processes (particularly those that allow nature to take its course). New principles could also involve maintaining a unique regional and national character in our biodiversity by minimising (though not eliminating) loss of native biodiversity at a national scale.

Some specific strategies to manage biodiversity in line with these new principles include:

  • Promoting genetic diversity in plantings through seed sourced more widely across a species’ range;
  • Protecting and managing climate ‘refugia’ – places where species retreat to and persist in under changing climatic conditions;
  • Managing and restoring connective corridors to enable migration and range-shifts; and
  • Assisting species to move into new suitable habitats where movements are unlikely to happen naturally.

Managing biodiversity under climate change will often be about facilitating nature’s response where possible. While some change and loss are inevitable, it is possible to influence trajectories of change through on-ground actions aligned with new principles and goals that recognise the inherent dynamism of our natural systems. Many of the actions to achieve new goals will be new or will need to occur in new locations, so resources are also available to help managers decide where and how to implement new actions.

Challenge or opportunity?

Ultimately, climate change is a reminder that we live in a dynamic world and we need to plan for the long-term sustainability of our natural resources regardless of what the future may hold. Mitigation will still be essential to reduce the impacts of climate change. Yet adaptation presents a significant opportunity to improve natural resource planning, not only to address climate change but to meet the broader challenge of rapid global change.

To achieve the most desirable outcomes, it will be important to identify goals that target the essence of what Australians value in their natural resources, and shape actions to maintain these values. Through projects like AdaptNRM, we can develop the strategic thinking, planning tools, and information to do just that. If we are nimble, and we are quick, we can jump over the candlestick and plan for futures that best support our natural resources.


AdaptNRM climate change adaption tools and resources:

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