Climate change and regions

This is the first in a series of posts by AUSCCER’s Chris Gibson on climate change and regions, building on papers presented in recent weeks at the 4th International Conference on Sustainability Transitions at ETH Zurich, the annual Institute of Australian Geographers conference at the University of Western Australia, and the 2013 National Climate Change Adaptation (NCCARF) conference in Sydney.

How should we transform regions to respond to climate change and to deal with heightened uncertainty?

The issue is wide-ranging and eclectic, encompassing planning, management, policy, health, engineering, design and environmental science – but also importantly social and cultural research. In my new role as Director of UOW’s Global Challenges Program, I am excited by the scope for interdisciplinary research to address complex, interdependent and interrelated problems facing regions, including climate change.

At the outset is a classic question of geographical scale. The focus here is on regions. By this I mean sub-national, usually sub-state regions, in the sense familiar to us in Australia. Such a focus is not, I hasten to emphasise, necessarily the paramount way to consider climate change response in terms of geographical scale. Indeed, as geographers have previously argued, there are dangers in assuming that responsibilities for climate change response unilaterally cascade from the national ‘down’ to regional scales as a matter of course. The issue is much bigger, much less linear, and engulfs all places and scales. Adaptation will be prompted by forced external processes rather than only those over which humans have control.

My focus on regions instead stems from two pragmatic interests: the first is linked to my university’s role as a civic leader in a mid-sized Australian city facing considerable pressures of economic restructuring and demographic change. In this context UOW’s Global Challenges Program is united by the goal to Transform Lives and Regions. This program hopes to decouple researchers from their disciplinary specialisms to have broader conversations with colleagues in different faculties, universities, and external organisations, about what constitutes transformation at the regional scale. It is my view that the university must play a leading role in conversations about transformation and adaptation: research as a means to reimagine regional futures – about what kind of region we want to become, and how we might mobilise collective research capacity, sooner rather than later, to confront seemingly intractable problems.

My second interest in regions stems from the simple fact that this geographical scale catalyses debate. Relational urbanists might quite correctly contest ontologies of cities and regions based on assumptions of contained area or defined physical limits (emphasising instead flows, networks and exchanges across, between and through urban places). Cities and regions are nevertheless knowable spatial units within which the climate change assemblage is manifest materially – whether in the confronting presence of extreme weather events, floods, droughts or sea level rise, or in physical reminders of greenhouse gas emissions. As argued elsewhere previously, such reminders are everywhere in a place like Wollongong, with its steelworks (which dominates the skyline); its international port (through which coal, steel and other exports flow); the coal trucks that fly down freeways at night behind the backyards of its households. The region is a lively discursive and material construct through which climate change is encountered.

This argument underpinned Gordon Waitt and Carol Farbotko’s analysis of climate change reporting in our regional newspaper, the Illawarra Mercury. In that case, everyday regionalism was reinforced through climate change reporting: new stories about climate change both reinforced a sense of the region’s identity and boundedness, and positioned the Illawarra as subject to particular external national and global forces of climate change and climate change policy-making. Regional climate change reporting was primarily focussed on the implications of renewable energy targets and carbon pollution reduction schemes for Wollongong businesses, workers and households, but most particularly for the Port Kembla Steelworks. Readers were also presented with stories about future sea level rise, threats to local beaches, and increased intensity of bushfires and floods in their region.

Wollongong, with Port Kembla in the foreground and the escarpment in the distance. Photo: Gordon Waitt

Regional industrial cities such as Wollongong face distinct challenges too; they are being materially and discursively reshaped as attention turns to transitioning away from carbon-intensive activities. Industries such as steel and coal are ambiguously positioned as continuing sources of local prosperity and global risk. Industrial regions are brought into focus as centres of greenhouse gas emissions as well as potential incubators of ostensible climate change solutions such as ‘green jobs’ and the oxymoronic ‘green coal’. Employed in coal mines, steelworks and associated industries, residents in industrial regions are implicated as producers of emissions as well as consumers.

There is, then, an understandable emotional reflex to feel threatened by climate change policy-making, a sense of embattlement amplified by continued doubts over the future of manufacturing in regions such as the Illawarra. Arguments about science, a global environmental ethic and local biophysical impacts become further entangled with regional anxieties around industrial restructuring.

Climate change is thus reframed regionally, and is encountered by people in the context of regional politics, and the rhythms and movements of everyday life and work. The emotional geographies of climate change play out through shared experiences and concerns about regional identities and exposures.

Elsewhere in Australia too, regions are the prime setting where the catastrophic consequences of extreme weather and climatic events are felt within, talked about, and ultimately coped with. At last month’s IAG conference Steve Turton from James Cook University described the precarity of sensitive rainforest tourism regions – far north Queensland and Tasmania in particular – under climate change. There, climate change threatens the ecological integrity of the world heritage sites upon which regionally specific tourism industries depend. In Adelaide, coastal councils are confronting painful decisions over which beaches, dunes and even whole streets to ‘defend’ (through such things as sea-walls) or to leave exposed to the vagaries of dynamic biophysical processes. Questions of how humans can and should be proactive jostle with regional interpretations of climate science, with local maps, modelling predictions and forecasting, and with volatile acts of the biophysical world, experienced regionally.

The flipside of this same coin is that regions also appear a tangible scale for grasping what effective climate change mitigation and adaptation activities will look like. At last month’s NCCARF conference, Jonathon Overpeck described the growth, maturation and consolidation of significant and increasingly sophisticated interdisciplinary, inter-agency networks of actors, programs and projects in the Southwest United States. Such networks include universities, government environmental monitoring facilities and community groups, providing another model of a what regional climate change responses might look like – a loosely distributed effort without a central ‘brain’ or command centre, characterised by accumulated relationships of trust, tacit knowledge, iterative feedback loops encompassing research, advocacy, policy dialogue and partnerships, and a shared sense of urgency.

Here in Wollongong, there is much work to be done to build such networks or coalitions across interest groups and across university research disciplines. In our household sustainability work, and through collaborations with the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, we have posed the provocative question that this region, ‘carbon central’, might be an ideal place to start contemplating what a post-coal economy might look like, or what radical decarbonisation might require. Corollary to this is how we might more equitably distribute necessary burdens and painful experiences of carbon reduction. News over the weekend of the victory by UOW’s Illawarra Flame team in the Solar Decathlon China 2013 (where students presented an energy-neutral, retrofitted ‘fibro’ house, tailored for a low-income aged family in the Wollongong area) provides hope for what is possible, starting here in our own region.

You can follow Professor Chris Gibson on Twitter @profcgibson

2 thoughts on “Climate change and regions

  1. Pingback: Back to the future: climate change and regional inheritances | Conversations with AUSCCER

  2. Pingback: Transition, adaptation, metamorphosis: framing climate change and regional response | Conversations with AUSCCER

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