Our Common Future Under Climate Change

International Scientific Conference 7-10 JULY 2015 Paris, France

Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy

Integrating adaptation into local policy – what does it mean in practice?


By Hartmut Fünfgeld, RMIT University

This year, many of the global debates on climate change are calling policy makers to move from talk to action. Where local climate change adaptation is concerned, one of the key challenges for governments and non-governmental organisations is how to effectively integrate considerations about current and future climate change impacts into their planning and decision-making processes. 

Colleagues from RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research and I have explored the institutional mechanics of embedding adaptation into organisational processes, in collaborative research in Victoria, Australia. 

We first identified suggested strategies for embedding adaptation into local government, based on academic and grey literature. Currently we are in the process of verifying to what extent these strategies are being pursued, and with what outcomes. We are examining these questions both within single organisations and within a regional setting, where six local governments are working towards a regionally integrated adaptation strategy. 

What exactly constitutes ‘integration’ in this case is not straightforward. Some call for changing organisational routines, while others suggest that integrating adaptation ultimately means making climate change socially acceptable and facilitating social transition. Others yet again highlight the need for horizontal and vertical coordination as key to climate change adaptation, e.g. coordinating adaptation across sectors and portfolios within a jurisdiction. 

A common idea among all of these views is that adaptation should not be a separate policy agenda but become connected with established practices and procedures. A goal of such integrative work therefore is to ensure that, soon enough, adaptation to climate change becomes ‘normalised’ rather than remaining an outlier policy issue pushed up the chain of command by environment departments.

Australia adapting?

Local government is structurally weak in Australia, with limited fiscal power and autonomy, yet a large amount of responsibilities in terms of local service delivery. Add in widespread and institutionalised climate change scepticism and you perhaps wonder why it is that many local governments have in fact been at the forefront of responding to climate change, both with mitigation and adaptation actions. 

Adaptation is a big topic for many local governments, not least because south-eastern Australia is a global climate change hot spot. Much of Victoria is majorly exposed to at least one climate-related hazard – to bushfire, heat, drought, coastal inundation or riverine flooding. These events are already increasing in frequency and intensity, hence the need to adapt at the local scale, and with some urgency. 

Despite the pressing need to act, adaptation is still far from becoming core business in most local governments. Horizontal integration is slow and iterative at best, and most organisations continue to focus on short-term emergency management instead of longer term strategic thinking and planning for adaptation. 

Many struggle to make sense of the idea of integrating adaptation, for example because the goals of their adaptation efforts are not clear or not well linked to the organisation’s strategic objectives. 

We are finding that integrating adaptation into organisational processes and systems requires high-quality facilitation – facilitation that fosters wide and deep engagement across the organisation and that connects the abstract idea of adaptation as an ongoing process to the day-to-day responsibilities and tasks of departments and the individuals working there. 

Such engaged forms of tailoring are inevitable if the goal is for adaptation to become understood as an ongoing, never-ending process for which the responsibility is shared across the organisation. 

So, while the idea of ‘adaptation integration’ may not get many takers in bureaucracies already struggling with multiple priorities, working out how your next municipal drainage upgrade project can help save lives and reduce maintenance costs during and after a flash flood may well trigger some excitement among municipal engineers – and maybe even among those sceptical of anthropogenic climate change.

This is part of a blog series profiling climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at Our Common Future. For more follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15 on Twitter.

Share this article

Further Information