Climate Change Adaptation in Australia - A Loss of Momentum

Main Image

Over the past 10 years there have been a range of initiatives by federal and state governments that aim to improve the nation’s capacity to meet the challenges of climate change. Considerable attention has been directed at reducing emissions, or climate change mitigation, especially at a federal level. Efforts to respond to impacts of climate change, or climate change adaptation, have been the subject of less public debate although the focus of research and planning by governments, academic institutions and some businesses. It appears that the appetite for continuing such efforts is dwindling. This does not bode well for the nation’s future.

Towards the end of the Howard Government period, there was a growing interest in resourcing endeavours to meet the challenges of potential adverse impacts of climate change at local, regional and state scales. This was not new as some states had already recognised that properties and infrastructure were at risk from phenomena such as sea level rise, but there was a need for a better understanding of the levels of risk facing the nation as a whole.

In 2008, under the Rudd Government, a number of steps were taken especially with the establishment of a federal Department of Climate Change (DCC). Funds were made available to support the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) and other programs such as by CSIRO Flagships, Geoscience Australia and other organisations. While the adaptation component of DCC was clearly the little brother to the mitigation program, nonetheless it offered a range of initiatives to improve our resilience and capacity to maintain community and economic well-being in the face of a new climate era.

In 2008, a Standing Committee of the House of Representatives, chaired by Jenny George MP, commenced hearings on the impact of climate change on coastal Australia. This committee reported to Parliament in 2009 with a set of recommendations some of which were taken up by the Gillard Government. In that year, DCC released a report on a first pass assessment of coastal risks to climate change with a supplementary report in 2011. DCC sponsored a series of other studies which fed into the two reports of the Productivity Commission related to climate change adaptation (2013) and disaster risk reduction (2014). Between 2008 and 2014 NCCARF produced a range of studies based on extensive consultation. In 2014 Minister Greg Hunt funded NCCARF to undertake additional work including the development of a tool termed CoastAdapt to assist local councils. That program has now ceased. These are just some of the things that required considerable financial investment and intellectual energy on behalf of the Australian Government to help improve our national capacity not just to cope with extreme weather events but also prepare for the effects of more gradual climate change.

It now appears that the present Australian Government is placing much less emphasis on climate change adaptation. The release in 2013 of the Climate Adaptation Outlook report, a proposal for a national adaptation assessment framework, has gone nowhere. It called for comments and indicated that a final assessment report would be released in 2014, but in the meantime there was a new federal government. The Abbott Government showed little interest in pursuing the objective of the Outlook Report “for continuing the process of assessing Australia’s progress in managing the impacts of unavoidable climate change”. It even abolished a COAG process that was fostering discussions on a national approach to climate change adaptation. I understand that funding for NCCARF will cease this year and that many of the relevant recommendations of the two Productivity Commission reports will not be supported. I doubt whether there is any appetite in the current Standing Committee of the House of Representatives to pursue any of the recommendations of the George report from 2009 although there continues to be some activity in the Senate. So is there any possibility that the current Turnbull Government will promote policies that will build on efforts of the past decade? As recently shown in a report of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, there is little evidence of appreciating risk associated with water availability under changing climatic conditions in the Basin.

On the bright side, I am aware of the growing interest of organisations such as APRA on climate change risks in the finance industry. An initiative by Greg Hunt when he was Environment Minister was the establishment of a Disaster and Climate Resilience Reference Group to help integrate risk and resilience considerations into planning, policies and programs of federal agencies. Incidentally, this was one of the recommendations of the former Coasts and Climate Change Council in 2011. CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology continue to undertake studies relevant to climate change as does the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. However, it is not clear how much of the work of the Emergency Management Authority, recently re-located from Attorney-General’s Department to Department of Home Affairs, and the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, is concerned with long-term risk issues linked to climate change projections. Yet it is pleasing to see one state, NSW, recently embed into law through the Coastal Management Act, 2016, a clear need to examine risk associated with extreme weather events and uncertainty associated with climate change.

The need to adopt a national approach to climate change adaptation will not go away. The George parliamentary report of 2009 highlighted the need, and many policy reforms and actions were contained in the Productivity Commission reports of 2012 and 2014. They should not be ignored or left to state governments to deliver in diverse and ad hoc ways. A useful first step would be to undertake another Climate Adaptation Outlook report and, in particular, examine one of the key actions in the 2012 PC report to “conduct a public review, sponsored by the Council of Australian Governments, to develop appropriate adaptive responses to existing settlements that face significant climate change risks”. If other nations can do it, then so can we.


Professor Bruce Thom AM, Member, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and former Chair National Coasts and Climate Change Council.


Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 27 February 2018, for correspondence about this blog post please email