Identifying opportunities in a changing climate

By Jenni Metcalfe July 27th, 2016

Planning for climate adaptation means looking at possible solutions to people’s needs rather than focussing on the likely problems.
Hay bales in a field

Maintaining the productivity of farming in the face of warmer and drier conditions will be a key challenge. Image: Flickr/David Clarke

We hear constant stories of devastating storms, sea level rises, floods becoming ever more common, and longer more intense droughts.

Yet focusing more on the opportunities of climate change rather than the problems is more likely to bring about better adaptation planning, according to Brian Foster, a farmer from the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

“Our family farm has been running since 1870 and we have seen changes in rainfall and temperature over that time period,” he says. “But we have had to evolve and adapt to those changes. For example, we now have a no till continuous cropping program, whereas before we used to also run livestock.

“This has meant building up our soil profile and putting the carbon back in. We also have earlier sowing times with better water use efficiency.”

Using adaptation pathways for regional planning

Brian has gone beyond the farm gate to be at the forefront of regional adaptation planning in South Australia, starting in 2004 as the inaugural chair of the Eyre Peninsula Regional Natural Resource Management Board.

It was in this role in 2009 that Brian set in train South Australia’s first Regional Climate Change Sector Agreement.  By 2012 initial attempts at applying adaptation pathways to regional planning were being developed on Eyre Peninsula, an Australian first.

He did this by working with CSIRO scientists, his then executive officer Cecilia Woolford and consultants Dr Mark Siebentritt (Seed Consulting Services) and Nicole Halsey (URPS). Now eight out of 11 of South Australia’s other regions have chosen a similar approach.

“Our success was very much built on existing relationships,” says Brian. “I had been talking to Mark Stafford Smith from CSIRO for several years about adaptation planning, and many of the things he said and showed me just clicked.”

But for Dr Stafford Smith the time he spent working with the Eyre Peninsula group was also a learning experience for him.

“It made it clear to me that we need to focus on the decisions that need to be made rather than the problems,” says Dr Stafford Smith speaking at the recent Climate Adaptation conference in Adelaide.

“It is thinking through the decisions we are making now, even if a few of those decisions about long-lived assets, such as new ports, need to consider possible changes well into the future.

“[ictt-tweet-inline]Sometimes people get fixated on getting more and more information about the problem, instead of getting on with possible solutions.[/ictt-tweet-inline] This can be an impediment to action.”

Eyre Peninsula farmer, Brian Foster, has evolved his farm’s operation to adapt to decreasing rainfall and higher temperatures. Image: Brian Foster

Eyre Peninsula farmer, Brian Foster, has evolved his farm’s operation to adapt to decreasing rainfall and higher temperatures. Image: Brian Foster

Putting the five steps to adaptation planning into three cycles

Dr Stafford Smith spoke at the conference about an analysis he’d done of 24 different guides to planning climate change adaptation. He identified five steps that are found in most guides:

  1. Scoping the goals, decision areas affected, and getting the right people involved
  2. Identifying the risks and opportunities, and possible response measures
  3. Appraising adaptation options and planning to implement chosen options
  4. Implementing agreed actions
  5. Monitoring to share lessons, determine success and work out the next steps

These five steps can be applied at different levels of detail in three cycles of adaptation planning, says Dr Stafford Smith. “It might range from a lightweight scan of risks to an organisation or a region, which can then lead to a closer analysis of a portfolio of the areas of operations at risk, resulting in making more detailed assessments and implementing projects.

“Different regions and organisations may be at different stages in these cycles,” he adds. “For example, a small inland town council may want to simply address the possible effects of having more heatwaves and less rainfall. This won’t require detailed and expensive project plans like a new airport runway at Brisbane might.”

The Eyre Peninsula group identified eight portfolio areas where decisions would need to be made now and into the future to adapt to climate change: agriculture, conservation, fisheries, road infrastructure, coastal development, peri-urban expansion, port and wharf facilities, and water resources.

Listening to community values an essential first step for regional planning

The lead consultant who worked on the Eyre Peninsula adaptation plan, Dr Siebentritt says identifying these portfolios and the critical decisions that needed to be made for each followed very targeted consultation with stakeholders.

“Right from the start Brian and Cecilia did not want to focus just on the region’s vulnerability to climate change,” he says.

“Instead of focussing on the problems of climate change, they wanted to firstly have a discussion with about 30 community leaders.

“So Cecilia and I went on a listening tour to find out the values of these people and what were the major decisions they had to make in their sectors of interest.

“After the listening tour we brought that information together at a workshop with the community leaders.

“By looking at community values we could identify the risks and the priority areas where we needed to make decisions.

“I learnt from this process that it is best to start with the people during that initial scanning phase. Once you have found out what issues are relevant, you can shape your planning around that.

“If you leap too quickly into the detail of a project or the specific climate change projections you may miss what people really need.”

Need to build people’s capacity to make decisions

Dr Siebentritt believes that [ictt-tweet-inline]adaptation planning is really about building people’s capacity to assess options and make decisions[/ictt-tweet-inline].

“Often the success of written action plans are determined by whether they are implemented on time and in budget,” he explains. “But often this misses the skills and ability that people develop during the planning process.

“For example, when people become confident in their own ability to have to make hard decisions at some stage it means there’s been a shift in their capacity.”

Mark Stafford Smith agrees that adaptation planning is very much a learning process: “We need to consider who is learning and what they are learning about.

“For example, on Eyre Peninsula with decreasing rainfall and a rising population, the supply of drinking water is at risk. So a key action for the next 10 years is to look at whether it is better to capture and store more of the rainfall they do get, or to upgrade the water pipeline from the Murray.

“This has priority for different sectors of the community including agriculture, mining and tourism, so it is about coordinating across these sectors.”

Using adaptive governance to make the best of opportunities

Brian Foster who now sits on the Premier’s Climate Change Council in South Australia says the challenge for the Eyre Peninsula is to now update the plan completed in 2014.

“This may mean revisiting community values, and looking for gaps, ” he says. “This is all about credibility and connection and what the community sees as valuable.

“It is ongoing regional adaptive governance. We have to use change to our advantage and seek opportunity, rather than hitting our heads against a brick wall.

“This means preparing for change rather than repairing damage after it has happened.”


Seed Consulting Services and CSIRO launched their six-step, A Users Guide to Applied Adaptation Pathways, at the Climate Adaptation conference.

1 comments

  1. Farming soils need manure.

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