Planning to help our natural landscapes adapt to climate change

Climate projections for Australia tell us that children born since the millennium can expect anything from 1.7oC to 5.1oC degrees of warming in their lifetimes.

Originally published in Planning News, Volume 42, No 6, July 2016

While 1.7 degrees could mean that many of our rivers, forests, lakes and coastlines survive intact, higher temperatures will create major challenges for Australia’s natural landscapes.

Planners from Australia’s 56 Natural Resource Management (NRM) regions are now grappling with the problem of how to plan for this uncertain future. To do so will require a shift in planning practice. Previous plans have promised to maintain and enhance natural environments – but this is no longer a realistic option.

Working in partnership with climate change adaptation researchers, some NRM regions are starting to apply a new lens to the planning process, by plotting out adaptation pathways for multiple possible futures. This is part of a national, federally-funded program to help decision-makers understand and manage likely climate change impacts in NRM regions across Australia.

One of the NRM managers starting to work with adaptation pathways is Chris Pitfield, strategic planner for the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority (CMA). I met Chris on the shoreline of Swan Bay, a shallow haven for waterbirds at the mouth of Port Phillip Bay. There is a sign on the road calling it ‘Too Special to Spoil!’ Climate change, Chris tells me, may change this region beyond recognition. “By 2090, we’re looking at sea levels rising around parts of the Bellarine Peninsula, bushfire risk increasing in the Otways. Our cool temperate rainforest most likely gone. Many of our wetlands either going saline or dried up. Climate change is a game-changer for us.”

The problem for Corangamite CMA, and for NRM planning across Australia, is how to deal with the uncertainty and complexity of planning for a changing climate. Working out how to integrate climate change into their plans has caused Chris and his colleagues a lot of stress. “Our plans couldn’t address climate change – there was always a paragraph in the document under other threats’ that said climate change will be an issue in the future and we need to start looking at it. Four years later we would do another plan, and put in the same paragraph in there. Everyone was acknowledging it but no one was embracing it. It was parked to the side with worrying about it.”

Research collaboration

The Southern Slopes Climate Change Adaptation Research Partnership (SCARP) is a collaborative project between NRM planners from across south-eastern Australia and researchers from the University of Tasmania, RMIT, Monash University, Melbourne University and the Victorian Government. SCARP was set up in 2013 as part of the national NRM climate change planning program. The goal was to help NRM organisations to include climate change adaptation in their plans. One of the reasons for the project’s success was that – against the expectations of some NRM planners, including Chris – it was a genuine collaboration between researchers and planners.

Chris’s expectation was that the researchers would come with their own agenda. “My experience with researchers is having them approach us and saying ‘you really need information on this, so we need to do research on it.’ And then we have to go and find the funding, and we give them the money, and they do the research and that’s it.”

SCARP researcher Karyn Bosomworth, from RMIT, recalls that the planners were initially reluctant to engage. “In some of the first meetings, the sense we got from the planners was to say ‘right so tell us what to do, how do we write a climate change plan?’ We said ‘You are the experts in natural resource management. What we can help you to do is to think about it from a climate change perspective.”

Karyn says that there was a noticeable shift in attitudes as the planners and researchers got to know each other. At one of the early workshops, they ran an activity where the researchers had to stand next to the planner responsible for their favourite landscape. “When we stood next to them, we could see them go ‘ah, you connect to a landscape, this isn’t just theoretical for you’. And we found out we share a love of hiking, and wild places. We were all motivated to help the environment deal with climate change. Shared values really made the project work.”

The research involved the planners as partners throughout the process. “We showed them drafts, put things on the table and  they went ‘nah, that’s not what we need’,” Karyn tells me. For the researchers, this led to an iterative process of finding the right tools to help the planners, helped by sharing developing documents online. “They could see the draft, they could see it growing and evolving, they could see us working even when we weren’t face to face, and that established trust,” she says.

For Chris, this was a new experience of research. “They listened. They listened right from the start. And they really just adapted to what we needed. Having researchers ride shotgun with you, especially with climate change, is the only way we could have done it. They broke down the science, they spoke to the right people, they brokered a lot of information for us that we could actually understand and apply.”

Adaptation pathways

One of the priorities set by the planners was for the researchers to help them find ways to deal with the new level of change and uncertainty created by climate change. They hit on the ‘adaptation pathways’ approach as a way to plan strategically, rather than reacting to changes as they happen. Adaptation pathways are mapped out as a series of possible routes into the future, taking into account the costs and consequences of each route. This allows planners to keep their options open, as at any given point in time, the community can decide to switch from one route to another. The theory is that this kind of planning helps to build in flexibility, while making the best use of resources.

Karyn sees it as a tool that still needs to be developed for use in NRM planning. “Adaptation pathways made such intuitive conceptual sense that everyone said ‘yeah this is how we do it – right let’s go do it! But how do you do it in NRM?’ Most applications of the pathways approach have been done in problems that are able to be quantified. Sea level rise, dyke height, bridge width, concrete strength – it can all be measured, so you can quite easily identify thresholds you don’t want to reach, and trigger points. In NRM, every time you say, ‘well if you get to this point, this will happen’ the planners say ‘well, it depends’.”

Undaunted, Chris has put adaptation pathways into action in Corangamite. “We struggled with it at first because it was a new way of thinking. But eventually it just made sense. We looked at all the science and management for Swan Bay, for example, and did a climate change vulnerability assessment, and looked at what could happen in that area, and then had a conversation with regional experts. The end result was a pathway of how to manage Swan Bay and to help it to adapt to climate change.” Chris has also used the adaptation pathways approach to look at how the region’s threatened species could be protected into  the future. “A lot of our threatened species, climate change is going to be the final blow for them,” he tells me. “The Corangamite water skink is hanging in there now, but many of the places where it lives will be dried up.”

The Corangamite water skink, a shy but beautiful little lizard adorned with golden and black stripes, lives only in the landlocked wetlands around the region’s inland lake system, and is critically endangered. The climate vulnerability study Chris commissioned shows that almost all its last remaining habitats will dry out over the coming decades. How to enable the skink’s survival is a vexed problem. And it’s not only the Corangamite water skink that faces extinction in a warming climate – the question of how to manage threatened species into the future is one facing land managers across the country. Chris says that this dilemma is ‘the white elephant in the room’ for natural resource management. Using adaptation pathways to look at possible futures for the Corangamite water skink has enabled Chris to have conversations with stakeholders that previously would have been impossible, including the option of translocating it to new habitats.

Using tools like adaptation pathways, the new generation of NRM plans for the Southern region of Australia are able to create frameworks for decision-making, rather than making decisions and prescribing actions. This allows planners to use them to start conversations with stakeholders, and to make collaborative decisions with communities. This is a departure from the previous generation of plans, which tended to be long documents listing fixed goals that would be used as the regional NRM ‘bible’ for five years before being revisited. Now, planners are moving more toward strategic documents and even online plans.

For Chris, the project, and specifically the use of adaptation pathways, has taken the weight of uncertainty off his shoulders. “We tackled it and the end result is that we’re not scared of it any more. I’m hoping that every decision we make now, adapting to climate change is there.”

Chloe Lucas is a journalist and PhD student at the University of Tasmania. She can be contacted at

  • Header image: Image by Cowirrie via Flickr/CC BY-SA 4.0