Adapting to climate change – just doing it

The Climate Adaptation in Action 2012 Conference, organised by NCCARF and CSIRO, wrapped up this evening after three days of engaged discussion. With 600 people and up to seven parallel sessions, everyone’s pathway through the conference was different. (Although they were all pretty seamless, thanks to excellent organisation.) Here are some of my impressions.

Local, bottom up, multiple
The conference didn’t waste too much time bemoaning the failure of national governments to have got anywhere at Rio+20. As Mark Stafford Smith put it in an excellent overview, we can’t depend any more on the utopian fantasy of planetary agreements. In the closing plenary, several speakers noted this conference as a moment when the research community admitted to itself that mitigation is not going to happen.

So people are getting on with things in a variety of ways: at the local government level, in NGOs, in businesses and in community groups. There were many examples of such initiatives presented at the conference. Rather than having a scattergun approach where people just hunker down and do what they can, Mark suggested this could be a strategic approach of consolidation for the next couple of years. Drawing on the work of recently deceased Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, and presumably anticipating an Australian political context that will get more rather than less hostile to climate change initiatives, he envisaged solutions at multiple intersecting scales of governance. (There has been much discussion of this in the geography literature – Chris Gibson and I drew on some in our recent paper ‘Becoming differently modern’). Stafford Smith cautioned that, while localised bottom up processes may have to be the main focus for a while, we should beware of complacency and watch out for ‘creeping thresholds’.

Vulnerability as asset?
In the session in which I presented some of AUSCCER’s work on households (see Chris Gibson’s post below for further details), convergences between the papers were encapsulated by a comment from the floor that ‘vulnerability is an asset’. This is a risky idea to frame because it could potentially be used to reinforce existing disadvantage. And as Jon Barnett argued so well in the closing plenary, the social changes associated with climate change are already undermining fairness (more on this below). However, numerous examples emerged in different parts of the conference. Vulnerability can be an asset because of the way that it mobilises existing cultural capacities, adaptive behaviours and social capital. Poor people, elderly people, rural communities and people in the global south all have strong cultural capacities. Perhaps the wealthy are most vulnerable because they don’t acknowledge their own vulnerability?


Maybe I was just attuned to it but, gratifyingly for AUSCCER types who like a bit of big picture conceptual stuff with their empirical material, narrative got quite a guernsey. On day 1 Steve Dovers gave us a lecture on Policy 101, arguing that big policy changes come not from detailed prescriptions, but from the power of narrative and political argument. And on the second day ecologist Mike Dunlop argued – in the face of some pretty scary spatial modelling about future temperature extremes – that we need to shift the biodiversity narrative from stability to dynamism. Species will need to shift. (How they might do that across complex land-use practices and tenures was not discussed, at least not in the sessions I was in.) Theoretically the ‘new ecology’ has been stimulating the dynamism narrative for thirty years or more, but as Mike and I discussed later, the political narrative that built our present protected area system was framed around implicit references to a past state of being – protection, conservation, hanging on to things. For examples of that modelling, have a look at what the JCU people are doing.
Thought for later: do water people – attuned to the extremes of drought and flood – have less trouble envisaging a very different narrative than ecosystems people, who have fought long and hard for preservation?

The state as a social contract
Geographer Jon Barnett made a landmark statement in his closing plenary. I won’t try and summarise it all, as I hope he writes it up, but it was a manifesto for fairness in Australian society, and for a renewal of the contract between the state and society to protect public goods. Indeed, he argued, the state is a social contract between the community and the government we accept. (One of his specific recommendations was for local government to be recognised in the Constitution, given the burden it will bear in adapting to climate change.) Jon’s intervention was refreshing for me because it lifted the conversation above what he called ‘fiddling with the technicalities of adaptation’. At times during the conference the assumed instrumental pathway from scientific knowledge to adaptive practice too smoothly ignored several decades of social and cultural research. And people were surprised when the path was rougher than expected! As Jon also argued, the path is inherently messy, rough and long.


Perhaps surprisingly, the least examined concept in the conference was adaptation itself. I didn’t hear one person engage with it. Now that’s fine, if what you mean is intentional change and flexibility in the face of a warmer, drier and less predictable future. (Or as someone in the closing plenary said, ‘adaptation = dealing with change’.) We can all relate to that, and the community can imagine the relevance of that.

Things get a bit more slippery however when constant repetition of the term, in a discussion where everyone is hammering the importance of science, confers an association with an evolutionary understanding of adaptation. (I have written on this theme elsewhere.) I was surprised how often I heard a speaker argue that, for example, installing an airconditioner to combat projected increases in heat stress, is a maladaptive decision. It might be a bad decision for us as a community to encourage, because it will only make things worse, but, in enhancing the chance of that person’s reproductive success, it is potentially highly adaptive.

Further, for scholars who are trying to encourage the community to prepare for increases in surprise and nonlinear change, some seemed unduly sure about exactly which decisions will be right in the long run. Evolution doesn’t have foresight, it works incrementally through many generations, and we cannot know in advance which of our choices will be adaptive in this sense. Diversity, flexibility and making mistakes need to be part of the package.

Dilemmas of conference sustainability

Finally, a few thoughts on the fraught question of conference sustainability. Having organised the Institute of Australian Geographers conference at Wollongong in 2011, we in AUSCCER know how hard it is to do things more sustainably while being hospitable and generous. By and large, the organisers of this conference did a great job on this (and they had three times as many people as us). The conference dinner, however, probably met our protein requirements for a week! I’ll leave the final word on this to my new twitter friend @philipwallis, who shared this challenging blog on academic mobility.

This was my first experience of tweeting at a conference, using the instructed hashtag #adapt2012. I found it great fun, and a good way to have parallel conversations within a big group of people with limited discussion time. Unfortunately I didn’t find them all in person, but maybe next time.

Lesley Head is a geographer and Director of AUSCCER.She can be followed on twitter @ProfLesleyHead

4 thoughts on “Adapting to climate change – just doing it

  1. Thanks for your wrap up post on the conference. I personally found it hit and miss. I found that ‘adaptation’ was often poorly addressed or barely alluded to in some talks, or frequently mentioned, but poorly defined in others. I guess I was hoping for more talks that communicated how research lead to implementation of some kind of adaptation activity on the ground. Alas, most did not. There were a few great talks but it was a little preaching to the converted rather than “carrying the converted into action” as Lesley Hughes put it (or words to that effect).

  2. I was impressed with the breadth of the conference. It gave me access to a range of communities focused on adaptation answers from health and cities to ecosystems and social systems. I only had time for one of the side events but it was good to see systems thinking highlighted. My big disappointment was the small amount of coverage in the public media. Climate impacts were no match for resigning editors and sinking ships…

  3. Pingback: Climate Adaptation Conference 2012 | Fresh Water Governance

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