Limits to Adaptation: Climate change adaptation in the Australian Alps

Media type: 
Morrison, C.
Catherine Pickering
Griffith University

This report assesses the ecological, physical, economic, technological and social thresholds  that may limit the adaptation strategies of conservation organisations and the tourism industry in the Australian Alpine ecosystems. It should assist these organisations in better focusing their efforts to minimise the negative impact of climate change. This research provides a methodology, a case study and important insights into the conflicts that can arise between the objectives of different stakeholders such as conservation and tourism organisations in dealing with climate changes. This research establishes benchmarks for other regions about how to examine limits to adaptation and how social, economic, physical and environmental factors interact.

Extended Summary

The snow covered mountains of the Australian Alps are nationally and internationally important due to their conservation significance, ecosystem services and economic values. Predicted increases in temperature and decreasing precipitation due to climate change will result in dramatic changes in the region with snow cover already declining (approximately 30% since 1954). While the Australian Alps are of high conservation value with most subalpine and alpine areas conserved in a series of protected areas, the area is used by a number of different stakeholders. In or adjacent to, the protected areas there are currently 10 ski resorts, with winter visitation to the resorts worth AU$906 million in 2005. At lower altitude, there are population centres that depend to a large extent on jobs and incomes generated from snow based and summer tourism. Agricultural and other productive industries that occur in the lower lands surrounding the Australian Alps are dependent on water from the mountains including irrigation, while much of south eastern Australia utilizes water and hydroelectric power generated within the Australian Alps. 

Using a desktop analysis of available literature and a series of semi-structured interviews with different local stakeholders, this project examined the impacts of climate change; current and potential climate change adaptation strategies; ecological, technological, physical, economic and social limits to these strategies; potential conflicts and collaborations between stakeholder groups in relation to climate change adaptation; and future research directions for the region. Understanding these climate change issues are critical for stakeholders as they adapt to less snow and warmer summers in the Australian Alps. 

The results of the desktop review and the stakeholder interviews demonstrate that the region benefits from relatively long term data on climate and detailed modelling of climate change compared to many other locations in Australia. There is reasonably detailed existing long term ecological research for the region and modelling of climate change impacts on the flora and fauna. There has also been research on tourism in the region and the likely impacts of climate change on this industry. Because of the fairly direct link between increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation and natural snow cover there is less debate that climate change will change this critical resource. Consequently, stakeholders within the region are more advanced than in many other regions in terms of recognising that climate change is occurring and identifying its impacts. 

The stakeholders in the region are also fairly advanced in planning and utilising a range of climate change adaptation strategies and acknowledging a wide range of biophysical, economic and social limits to those strategies. These limits mean that major impacts of climate change will still occur despite climate change adaptation strategies. For example, while snow-making is the primary climate change adaptation response by the tourism industry, it will not be economically, physically or socially acceptable in the future. Current threats to ecosystems are also likely to continue, e.g. management strategies for feral animals and plants have only slowed the spread of some species under conditions so are unlikely to be adequate with climate change. 

Our results highlight the fact that social, governance and knowledge issues currently play an important but largely under-recognised role in limiting climate change adaptation in the Australian Alps; a role that is likely to increase with time. Given that these limits are fairly flexible or dynamic in nature compared to ecological limits (currently the most recognised threshold), there is great potential for them to play a very significant role (both positive and detrimental) in future climate change adaptation. A major gap identified in current stakeholder assessment of climate change is the importance of the Alps catchment nationally, particularly the importance of its water for Australia’s economy ($10 billion/annum for actual water and products from industries reliant on water supplies from the Alps Climate change adaptation in the Australian Alps: impacts, strategies, limits and management 6 catchment). This is an important social limit that was not recognised by stakeholders who were more focussed on local or regional limits.

While several conflicts have arisen and/or are likely to arise among stakeholder groups in relation to the flow-on effects of various adaptation strategies, there is also a great potential for collaboration in relation to other adaptation strategies in the region.

Please cite this report as: 
Morrison, C & Pickering, CM 2012, Climate change adaptation in the Australian Alps: Impacts, strategies, limits and management, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 78 pp.