Adaptation for people and planet – Are we thinking about adapting to a new climate, or resisting the change?

cropped-dsc_39761.jpgBy Dr Wade Hadwen

Australian Rivers Institute and Griffith Climate Change Response Program

Anthropogenically-forced climate change represents a major challenge to both the human and natural world. Given the rate of change and the inertia in the global climate system, there is a pressing need to address the major challenges that climate change poses – in other words, we need to think now about how we can adapt to climate change. The aim of climate change adaptation is to recognise, understand and respond to the impacts of climate change on the particular subject in question, whether that is a species, an individual, a household, a community, an industry or a nation.

Ideally, adaptation strategies should reduce the vulnerability of the subject in question to the climate change impact of concern, but this is not always the case and it really depends on the approach and actions taken to adapt. Indeed, there are a variety of pathways to take when adapting to climate change and depending on the approach selected, the goals and outcomes of the endeavour can be quite different. In general terms, and depending on the system, we tend to opt for adaptation approaches that either build adaptive capacity or build resilience. Building adaptive capacity suggests that we can do things to improve the adaptive potential of subjects, whether they are human subjects or other species. The IPCC defines adaptive capacity as “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes), to moderate the potential damage from it, to take advantage of its opportunities, or to cope with its consequences”. An example of this building capacity approach lies in the local ‘water grid’ solution to securing water security for southeast Queensland, whereby water engineers and managers have optimised the connections within the water storage system to climate-proof the region in terms of water supply. Importantly, especially in the context of what climate change will do to sea level and the water cycle, this approach to building adaptive capacity actually makes it ‘harder to move’, because very significant investments and commitments are involved, where moving can be both a physical activity or a change in behaviour away from the current normal condition. In simple terms, focusing on adaptive capacity enables us to consider adjustments which enable us to continue living our lives as we do currently, rather than looking for opportunities and embracing change.

Dam’s build our capacity to withstand water shortages and droughts, but they do not build our resilience to all climate stresses.

In contrast, building resilience refers to a deeper goal of strengthening and empowering subjects (or systems) to withstand and bounce back following particular climate stressors, especially extreme events. The focus here is on enabling the subjects in question to cope with change and embrace the opportunities that that change will bring. Here we openly recognise that things change and that the system is dynamic. Indeed, enabling the dynamism of a natural system, rather than constraining it to a single state in time and space, sits at the very core of the building resilience approach to climate change adaptation.  In essence, the building resilience approach applied in ecosystem-based adaptation gives species and ecosystems ‘room to move’. An example of a ‘building resilience’ strategy is the current management of all Great Barrier Reef lagoon catchments, where strict targets for sediment and nutrient reductions are set with the sole purpose of taking some of the non-climatic pressures off the reef, to enable it to respond to and adapt to climate change pressures.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
The building resilience or ecosystem-based approach to climate change adaptation focuses on removing non-climatic stresses and enabling species to adapt to a new climate.

Whilst both of these adaptation approaches can be applied in natural and human systems, our approaches tend to diverge when we are adapting specifically for human systems or species/ecosystems. Put simply, we typically aim to build capacity in human systems (and this is also a central plank of sustainable development initiatives), whereas we aim to build resilience in natural ecosystems. These goals are quite different and it should, therefore, come as no surprise that the outcomes of these approaches are also different. So why do we adopt different strategies in our approach to climate change adaptation for ecosystems and human communities? And what might the outcomes of these different approaches be for the subjects of the adaptation interventions?

In natural systems, the building resilience approaches are built around the premise that many species already have high levels of adaptive capacity and the factors limiting the expression of that capacity are the other (non-climatic) stresses in the environment. To this end, the ecosystem-based approach to adaptation, which typically aims to build species and ecosystem resilience by reducing the non-climatic threats in the system, is often promoted as the best adaptation approach as it will enable natural processes, species and entire ecosystems to adapt to the climate change threat. In short, these approaches enable species to adapt by giving them ‘room to move’ in evolutionary, physical and physiological senses.

In human systems, adaptation approaches focus on building adaptive capacity in order to optimise the conditions of a particular component of the system (ie ensuring water security). The approach to building capacity infers that unlike other species (which are considered to have high levels of inherent capacity to adapt), humans need assistance in building their capacity to cope with and respond to climate change impacts. Whether this is true or not is up for debate (although there is plenty of evidence that we are a very adaptable species!); the critical difference in approaches taken for human and natural system adaptation is that in natural systems we seek to reduce the level of human intervention (build resilience) and in human systems we seek to increase the level of human intervention, by way of adjusting to the threats through changing management, infrastructure, behaviours and so on.

What we need to do now, rather urgently as our climate continues to heat up, is consider whether an adaptation philosophy which focuses on building system resilience is likely to be a superior approach over one which enhances, or optimises, capacity for just some elements of the system. Should we be understanding, accepting and enabling change, or resisting it and holding our line in the sand in the face of unprecedented global change? If we can answer this question openly and honestly, together for both natural and human systems, we have the best chance of ensuring that the necessary transformations that will come in response to climate change are opportunities rather than catastrophic challenges.

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