Limits to climate change adaptation in the Great Barrier Reef: scoping ecological and social limits

Media type: 
Louisa Evans
Fidelman, P.
Hicks, C.
Morgan, C.
Perry, A.L.
Tobin, R.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University

This report looks at current and future climate change impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. It studies the perceptions of key stakeholder groups of potential outcomes, in order to better understand the motivations and capacities underlying adaptation action in the region.

Extended Summary

In this study, we developed a set of four alternative future scenarios to explore different climate change impact and adaptation pathways and their implications for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and its fishing and tourism industries. We conducted a rapid literature review and a scientific consultation in order to develop the initial scenarios. We then presented and discussed the scenarios in multi-stakeholder workshops and in interviews with representatives from the tourism and fishing industries, non-governmental organisations, local and state government, and the research community. The workshops and interviews explored a range of issues, including i) the plausibility of the scenarios for different parts of the GBR region, ii) the extent to which different industries or groups were able to adapt in certain ways, iii) the limits and opportunities that characterise adaptation, iv) the trade-offs and synergies that occur between sectors, v) possible conflicts that arise from climate change adaptation in the region, and vi) the overall implications for the industries. 

The study scoped potential adaptation options and the myriad of limits that characterise adaptation in the GBR region. Our results highlight some important issues. Desirable outcomes from adaptation for the commercial sectors  include long-term sustainability of resources and ecosystems, and long-term viability or profitability of individuals and industries. For the recreational fishing sector, sustainability and hassle-free enjoyment of the resource are desirable. Stewardship and business planning were identified as core adaptation strategies and it was argued by stakeholders that adaptation should be embedded within broader environmental management and industry-enterprise development processes. Further, adaptation and adaptive capacity are viewed as important for climatic, non-climatic, and composite disturbance events. The adaptation strategies discussed and the limits identified are, therefore, not just relevant to the climate change debate. Yet, dialogue around climate change is so far helping to bring stakeholders within the GBR together, thereby strengthening partnerships in the region over the past five years or so.

Through this scoping study we found that often limits to adaptation were identified and discussed as both limits and opportunities, as interchangeable perspectives. We argue that when it comes to economic, institutional, social and political limits, the thresholds or the points at which these factors render adaptation ineffective as a response to risk are socially constructed or subjective, meaning that limits are not insurmountable or absolute, but can just as easily be seen as future opportunities. For instance, high market competition and the lack of market positioning mechanisms are identified as important limits to adaptation through improved business management and product diversification. Yet, marketing and branding GBR industries as sustainable, well-managed, and as local community assets is seen as one of the biggest opportunities to improve sustainability and profitability outcomes, and to reduce the current and future vulnerability of GBR ecosystems and industries. We also found that distinct adaptation strategies are characterised by a diversity of interacting limits, which are difficult to isolate.

We therefore, identify a series of ‘wicked problems’ that represent bundles of limits, which affect different industries and sectors in Limits to climate change adaptation in the Great Barrier Reef: scoping ecological and social limits subtly different ways, but which could provide broad over-arching entry points for action to address limits. These ‘wicked problems’ are introduced below: 

1. A whole industry perspective: Beneficial outcomes, including sustainability, profitability and lifestyle values for GBR industries and individuals cannot, in many cases, be achieved through individual action but necessitate a ‘whole-of-industry’ or an ‘integrated industry’ approach. With this comes a particular set of limits to adaptation.

2. Uncertainty and system connectivity: Uncertainty around how climate change will manifest and the vulnerabilities of individuals and industries to impacts makes it difficult to systematically evaluate the most effective adaptation strategies and limits the potential of forecasting, financial management, stewardship, mobility, diversification and technological investment to consistently deliver benefits and reduce negative outcomes. Further, interactions within the social-ecological system that is the GBR and its industries mean that often, inadvertently, vulnerabilities are simply transferred elsewhere. 

3. Private action for public goods: Climate change adaptation can deliver important public goods but it often relies on collective and, increasingly, private action. In the GBR region, private property rights are the dominant form of entitlement. There is, therefore, considerable tension in the region between private interests and public goods such as water quality, wetland protection and rehabilitation, and community safety, all of which underlie effective planned adaptation and desirable outcomes for GBR industries. Further, powerful private interests are based on deeply embedded and historical identities and values linked to Australian primary industry (e.g., cattle grazing and sugar cane) and coastal lifestyles.

4. Perceptions and reputations: The perceptions, identities and aspirations of people with a direct stake in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef play a role in limiting adaptation within GBR industries, including effort management, diversification and stewardship. The perceptions of consumers of fisheries and tourism products also limit the potential of adaptation to reduce vulnerability. For instance, despite considerable progress in the stewardship of GBR commercial fisheries, there is still a deeply held view of fishers as exploitative opportunists, which limits the market value and product diversification options for fishers. Government perceptions of industry can also drive, block or limit adaptation.

5. Australia in the globalised world: The integration of the Australian economy in global markets brings considerable benefits to some sections of Australian society, but also introduces high market competition and intractable limits on adaptation of GBR businesses and industries. In our research, we were also interested in the utility of a ‘limits’ approach to adaptation planning. To-date, exploring the limits to adaptation, as distinct from barriers, has been a relatively academic endeavour. In practice, we found it difficult to distinguish between barriers, limits and opportunities when talking about real experiences and perspectives on adaptation.

We also found it challenging to identify individual limits as multiple limits seemed to act on a single adaptation strategy (which themselves are not pursued in isolation) at any one time. Nonetheless, we highlight some real and complex issues that will limit adaptation to climate change in the region, now and in the future. Our findings suggest that understanding limits in a practical sense is important for adaptation planning and action. Within the GBR region adaptation planning includes a recent focus on industry-level vulnerability or risk assessment to identify impacts from climate change and potential adaptation strategies. The aim eventually is to use these planning processes to develop tailored adaptation plans. In evaluating which adaptation strategies or combination of strategies would be the most appropriate and viable in the long-term, we suggest including some questions about limits to identify under which conditions particular strategies fail to reduce the vulnerability of ecosystems and industries to climatic change.

Please cite this report as:
Evans, LS, Fidelman, P, Hicks, C, Morgan, C, Perry, AL & Tobin, R 2012, Limits to climate change adaptation in the Great Barrier Reef: scoping ecological and social limits, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 65 pp.