BRUCE THOM. The whereabouts of climate change adaptation

Since the late 1980s climate change adaptation has received limited consideration by the Australian Government. Mitigation continues to dominate the national discourse.

Addressing adaptation challenges of the “new normal” climate conditions as foreseen years ago by climate change scientists demands greater national attention. Recent changes to the machinery of government in Canberra does not instil confidence that these challenges will be met by collaborative action to minimise risk and harm to Australian communities and environmental conditions.

The first Prime Minister’s Science Council in October 1989 addressed “Global Climatic Change–Issues for Australia”. It covered both mitigation and adaptation problems. I was privileged to present on coastal matters including future risks associated with sea level rise. The then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, concluded that papers presented provided the basis for improved understanding of the likelihood of global warming due to greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere, and that if this occurs many aspects of our lives will “require considerable changes in accepted patterns of behaviour”. What followed has been a failure at the federal level to address the need to construct a sustained national program in ways to reduce the severity of impacts arising from climate change.

Post 1990 the environment agency maintained a Greenhouse Office, investment continued in climate science in CSIRO and elsewhere, and consideration was given to forming research groups involved with climate change adaptation. However, it was not until the election of the Rudd Government in 2007 that major challenges facing the globe and the nation were really taken seriously. The establishment of a standalone Department of Climate Change was testimony to this interest. Penny Wong and later Greg Combet provided leadership in this portfolio.

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme dominated departmental interest. Adaptation was not forgotten. A dedicated group of staff developed strategies and commissioned research across a wide range of fields dealing with potential threats and how to limit their impacts over decades ahead. An example was work on risk to built and natural assets from sea level rise. Efforts were made to coordinate how different federal agencies address climate change risk. It was during this time that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment led by Jenny George MP, presented 47 recommendations on Managing our Coastal Zone in a Changing Climate: the time to act is now. CSIRO had a climate change flagship, and a university coordinated group (NCCARF or National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility) commenced its endeavours. These were heady times.

Following the return of the Coalition Government in 2013 momentum in the adaptation sphere diminished just as in emission mitigation. It did not die as quickly but by the end of 2017 there was no more NCCARF or CSIRO flagship. Unfortunately staff in the agency were dispersed and expertise and some information on adaptation lost. Research on the science continued and to some extent this has benefited state governments such as NSW. Yet signals persist of a new climate era that causes harm to individuals, businesses and communities and change to environmental conditions. In this context, the recent drought and fires may be seen as the “new normal”.

Climate science has advance enormously since 1989. We were reasonably confident back then, but many of the uncertainties have been addressed. Computer modelling power has improved coupled with more observational evidence of gradual as well as rapid change. A country like Australia given its geography has experienced climate change and climate extremes at various scales in the past. In historic times extremes of drought have been documented by historians such as Michael McKernan (Drought–the red marauder) and fire by Stephen Pyne (Burning Bush–a fire history of Australia). These works highlight the social and economic disruption associated with such events. They both provide examples of government failures in the face of adversity.

But if they were “normal” what will a “new normal” look like under emerging changes in the magnitude and frequency of climate-driven events? Joelle Gergis, from the University of Melbourne and a former Wentworth Group scholar, published a book entitled Sunburnt Country–the history and future of climate change in Australia (2018). It demonstrates our impact on climatic conditions and how such changes are affecting us. The way three key drivers of our climate (ENSO, SAM, IOD) are changing needs to be understood not just by policy makers. In his foreword to the book, Professor David Karoly states that “it is critically important that we become more climate-literate so that we can better manage and adapt to the impacts of future weather and climate extremes”. And I must add to the dreaded three drivers mentioned above, the Bureau of Meteorology is now alerting us to the drying impacts on the Australian continent of “sudden stratospheric warming” over Antarctica (The Conversation, 15/11/19).

How can all this new knowledge be brought together to provide Australians with a clear direction of how we can best cope as a nation with all the challenges from climate change impacts. Yes, we must do what we can to reduce emissions, but that should not stop us making every effort to reduce the severity of adverse impacts. Our medical profession is well aware of what they face in the new climate era, as do coastal managers and insurers and others in business. Sadly when you read the latest Australian Government report on disaster risk you will not find reference to strategies to address climate change risk (publication of the National Resilience Task Force, Profiling Australia’s Vulnerability—the interconnected causes and cascading effects of systemic disaster risk, Department of Home Affairs, 2018).

Fast forward to the last couple of weeks with debates raging over climate change impact on current drought and fires, and also the Prime Minister’s announcements around formation of mega departments. One may think that some coordinated structure may have emerged that will address crises like we are seeing today and will recur in the future in these and other forms (e.g. floods, coastal inundation, coral bleaching, extreme heat waves). But the new machinery of government (MoG) suggests a different story. Matters related directly to climate can be found in three mega departments (Agriculture, Water and Environment or DAWE; Industry, Science, Energy and Resources or DISER; and Home Affairs).

Other departments are also involved such as Foreign Affairs and Health. In each department there are several ministers with portfolio responsibilities, but as pointed out by Paul Barrett no clear lead minister exists at least in the case of DAWE. What this means are matters related to “climate change adaptation strategy and coordination” are in DISER presumably with the Minister for Science; matters related to disasters are administered in Home Affairs, but the responsible Minister is in DAWE! He also deals with water policy and drought issues while his Environment colleague is presumably still oversighting the Bureau of Meteorology which has a very strong science base.

I struggle to understand how all this will be more efficient as the PM is seeking. One can only hope that a cross-sectoral National Adaptation Climate Change Policy will emerge and will involve collaboration across a range of state, local, business, science and community interests. Back in 2009 the Jenny George committee was saying “the time to act is now”; in 1989 , Bob Hawke saw the potential need for behavioural change in the face of impacts on our lives of climate change—the least we can ask for is the Australian Government in 2020 to take adaptation seriously and start to plan a for warmer, dryer and more hazardous future.

Bruce Thom: member, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.


Bruce Thom, former Chair of the National State of Environment Committee 2001, former Vice Chancellor UNE, and Member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

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