The ongoing and context-specific nature of adaptation means that it must be part of the work of anyone who manages the natural environment.

Across the world, adaptation efforts are mainly focused on incremental adaptation, which is about maintaining the essence of existing systems while making small adjustments in response to climate change. This approach is best suited to gradual changes.

Graph demonstrating the increase in change over time
Without adjustments to current and predicted conditions (green boxes), large, abrupt changes are likely to be required to respond to climate disasters and emergencies.

In contrast to incremental adaptation, transformational adaptation changes the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate change and its cascading impacts. Transformational adaptation is likely to be needed in systems where tipping points may be reached.

To be effective, transformational adaptation must consider the social and economic factors that affect ecosystem management. Changing how we affect or manage the environment could delay a tipping point, giving communities and human systems time to adapt to expected new conditions.

Triggers for transformational adaptation

Transformational adaptation should be investigated if any of the following conditions are met.

Significant changes have already occurred

If climate change has driven significant changes to social or ecological systems, it indicates transformational adaption is necessary. This is not only to adjust the system to accommodate the changes but to anticipate further impacts.

For instance, if the wave patterns have changed so that the sand at the beach has washed away and any replacement sand cannot be retained.

There are signs of high vulnerability

If climate change impacts are expected to test the existing systems' resilience (especially if tipping points might be reached), this is an indication that transformation adaptation is likely to be needed.

For instance, if an alpine area is projected to have significant declines in snowfall.

Current approaches are failing

If current approaches are no longer effective at achieving their goals, it might indicate that transformational adaption is necessary.

For instance, higher levels of disturbance due to climate hazards (for example, fires or floods) could mean that the historical approach to managing weeds in a location is no longer effective.

Decisions have long-term consequences

If a decision has a long-term consequence (30+ years) and/or requires a long lead-time to implement, the need for transformational adaption should be considered.

For instance, if an island or coastal location is identified as a potential site for the reintroduction of captive-bred animals but it is going to be affected by sea-level rise.

Whether adaptation is incremental or transformational, there is a need to navigate the significant uncertainty associated with climate change impacts on the natural environment.

Dealing with uncertainty

Image showing branching arrows indicating possible futures
Source: Strategy Under Uncertainty by Hugh Courtney, Jane Kirkland, and Patrick Viguerie From the Harvard Business Review (November–December 1997)

Climate change adaptation occurs within a context of high uncertainty, which creates an enormous challenge. Decision making needs to be adaptive and flexible to navigate this and allow us to accommodate changes in our understanding.

It can be helpful to identify 'possible futures' for an environmental value or location.

Some of these futures will be preferable to others, and we will want to make decisions to keep us on the 'preferred path'. However, over time it could become clear that the preferred future is unattainable, and we will have to reconsider what is possible.

Considering multiple futures and acknowledging uncertainty are two parts of the Climate Adaptation Lens.

The Climate Adaptation Lens

Climate change is likely to affect all Victorian ecosystems to some extent. To prepare and respond effectively, a climate adaptation lens should be applied to natural environment management decisions at the appropriate scale.

To apply a climate adaptation lens, decision makers should do the following.

Consider the issue within context

Consider climate change within the context of other pressures on the environment and other socio-economic drivers, and tailor solutions accordingly.

For instance, how adaption actions proposed by other systems may have consequences for the natural environment.

Account for the 'lifetime' of the decision

Determine how far into the future a decision will be effective (for example, are the consequences of this decision short-, medium- or long-term.

For instance, if a decision will have long-term consequences (20+ years) it is important to consider projected climate over time and whether transformational change may be necessary.

Acknowledge uncertainty

Acknowledge inherent variability and uncertainty in future predictions and identify the futures and variables on which a decision could hinge.

Be transparent about dealing with uncertainty and document assumptions behind a decision.

For instance, be clear about what assumptions have been made in making a management decision. Monitor whether those assumptions hold over time. If the context changes, have a clear path for reviewing the initial decision.

Take a futures approach

Explore multiple possible futures and identify tipping points.

Test the robustness of actions against multiple future scenarios.

For instance, use the adaption pathways approach. Identify what may occur in the future and determine how those 'possible futures' would affect management actions. Prioritise actions that are worth doing under multiple future scenarios ('no regrets' options).

Anticipate transformational change

Identify early on whether transformational adaption should be explored now. If not, continually monitor and assess whether incremental adaption is sufficient or whether transformational adaption may be required

For instance, determine whether one of the four triggers for transformational adaption are met. Use a futures approach to consider under what circumstances transformational change would occur or be beneficial. Consider impacts of transformational change on environment and socio-economic values. Use this analysis to inform adaption planning.

Be transparent about trade-offs

Identify potential negative consequences of an action, including equity and social vulnerability, and work to avoid them.

For instance, consider whether a management decision has negative consequences for other systems or vulnerable people. Consider these consequences in decision making. Clearly document trade-offs that have been made.

It is very important that the sector apply all parts of the Climate Adaptation Lens to projects where:

  • decisions are ‘locked-in’
  • investment is significant
  • there is a long lead time to plan and implement the project
  • it takes a long time to see whether the approach is effective or not, or
  • the risks and/or benefits extend beyond the boundaries of the project.

The climate adaptation lens can also help with emergency prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Climate projections suggest extreme events are likely to become more frequent and/or severe in the future. They are also likely to become more unpredictable as they diverge from our past experience. This means climate change will play an increasingly important role in emergency management decisions.

Emergency management: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.Transformational adaptation is part of preventing disasters because it moves beyond resilience to think about why the natural environment or communities are vulnerable, and what can be done to reduce this.

Futures approaches, such as scenario planning, can help emergency management teams consider what might happen in the future, including events outside their experience.

This thinking can be used to determine how to reduce risk and identify any gaps in response capability. ‘If… then…’ statements can help with planning.

It helps to work with the community before an extreme event and discuss what will be prioritised and why. This transparency about trade-offs enables different voices to be heard and communities to support decisions.

Protecting Victoria’s Environment – Biodiversity 2037 states that ‘the impacts of climate change, and the uncertainty it brings, will be considered in all conservation decisions’. To give our biodiversity programs best chance of success they must consider the climate adaptation lens.

This could look like:

  • ensuring that locations identified for long-term protection of species (i.e. those that are fenced and intensively managed) are not highly vulnerable to climate impacts
  • identifying species most at risk and designing appropriate interventions (e.g. insurance populations)
  • undertaking scenario planning for emergency events specifically focussed on biodiversity impacts.

Victoria’s Climate Change Strategy

The Victorian Government is taking strong and lasting action to reduce Victoria’s emissions to net zero by 2050 and build resilient communities prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change. Victoria was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to legislate a net-zero emissions target with the Climate Change Act 2017 and set a strong foundation for future climate resilience with action under Victoria’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan 2017–20.

Victoria’s Climate Change Strategy sets out the Victorian Government’s current action on climate change and our next steps. Reducing our emissions will help lessen the impact of climate change, but it will not prevent it – some degree of climate change is already locked in. Adapting to the impacts of climate change will reduce risks, build social and economic resilience, and ensure Victoria is best placed to take advantage of opportunities.

The Climate Change Strategy sets our adaptation objectives for the next decade and priorities for the next 5 years consisting of priority focus areas to:

  • address current climate change impacts
  • reduce barriers to adaptation
  • lay the foundations for transformational adaptation.

It also outlines the enablers that will support action:

  • capacity building and partnerships
  • governance and strategic planning
  • sustainable adaptation finance
  • leadership and innovation.

Contributing to the Climate Change Strategy

Analysis was undertaken to determine how current government initiatives in the natural environment system were contributing to Victoria’s Climate Change Strategy priorities. The findings are summarised below. Further detail about existing government initiatives in the natural environment system and how they contribute to the Climate Change Strategy priorities are provided in the supporting documents.

Focus area 1: Address current impacts

Several government initiatives have been designed and undertaken to address current climate impacts on the natural environment system, many in direct response to disaster events. The 2019–20 bushfires demanded and received a swift recovery response. They also provided impetus to look beyond a single fire event and consider long-term strategies for maximising ecosystem resilience throughout Victoria.

There are also many other projects across the natural environment system aimed at enhancing resilience. It is important for these projects to apply the climate adaptation lens to decision making.

Victoria’s Catchment Management Authorities have been leaders in trialling new approaches to climate adaptation, including using pathways to deal with uncertainty and integrate local knowledge into planning. Adaptation pathways are also being used as part of Victoria’s Resilient Coast Project.

Innovative place-based approaches to decision making, such as adaptation pathways, could be adopted more broadly across the natural environment system.

Identified needs:

  • Help build capacity to deal with uncertainty by providing guidance to decision-makers.
  • Collect and analyse more and better data to monitor and assess emerging threats.
  • Move beyond recovery from disaster events and strategically build ecological resilience.
  • Provide leadership and support for adaptation pathways to be adopted more broadly.

Focus area 2: Reduce barriers to adaptation

Capacity building programs are underway to reduce barriers to action arising from lack of knowledge. A significant amount of research is being undertaken to improve our understanding of how climate change will affect the natural environment. Tools and guidance are also being developed to help apply this research to real-world problems.

Given the natural environment’s size and complexity, and the diversity of organisations and people involved in its management, there is no consistent coordinated approach to climate change adaptation across the system.

Targeted approaches can promote innovation to solve specific issues, however their ability to meet adaptation objectives and resolve trade-offs is limited. Therefore, strategic prioritisation is needed – supported by a state-wide view of relative vulnerabilities – to inform where place-based approaches will be most beneficial. There are tools available to support this, such as DELWP's Strategic Management Prospects tool. It is important for these tools to apply the climate adaptation lens.

Identified needs:

  • Provide a statewide view of climate change vulnerability to identify strategic priorities and inform adaptation planning.
  • Examine current projects and tools to determine if and how they apply a climate adaptation lens.

Focus area 3: Lay foundations for transformational adaptation

A variety of projects across Victoria are anticipating climate change impacts over the long-term and preparing for them. Some actions are more novel than standard approaches and involve more modification of the natural environment. Whether an action is appropriate will depend on many factors.

The lessons from experiments and trials of new approaches should be shared widely to build on successes and reduce risks.

Transformational change is not easy and generally has a long lead time. The Royal Society of Victoria’s Future Thinking Forum 2020 – Addressing resilience in Victoria’s Water, Agriculture and Biodiversity reported that it is essential to begin the hard and slow work of transformational adaptation now.

Decisive action to adapt now will reduce current and future risks, build environmental and social resilience, and ensure the consequences of climate change are minimised.

Identified needs:

  • Support innovative trials and provide guidance on how to manage risks arising from new approaches.
  • Embed a learning approach into monitoring and evaluation frameworks.
  • Undertake first steps for transformational adaptation in the natural environment system by identifying locations in Victorian where it should be
  • further explored and gathering information on past transformational projects.

Page last updated: 29/01/24