Issues Magazine

Adaptation Benchmarking

By Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship

The results of a survey into the current level of adaptation planning in Australian organisations give some interesting insights into adaptation activity and understanding.

CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship and the Australian government’s Department of Climate Change (DCCEE) are conducting a longitudinal survey of public- and private-sector organisations, the results of which would ideally play a significant part in Australia’s efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

One of the project aims is to benchmark the current level of adaptation activities in sampled organisations to allow tracking of changes in adaptation activities and to attribute observed changes to the impact of the DCCEE, the Climate Adaptation Flagship and other agencies where appropriate.

Initial telephone surveys were conducted in late 2008, and included state and local government groups, infrastructure management organisations and a variety of industry representatives and individual businesses. The survey measured the type and extent of adaptation activities these organisations are currently undertaking. Survey results indicate that although most businesses recognise the challenge posed by climate change and accept that both mitigation and adaptation are important, the nature and extent of adaptation activity was highly variable. Only 59 per cent of surveyed organisations have conducted a formal vulnerability assessment, and less than 40 per cent have implemented any specific planning or other changes aimed at adapting to future climate change impacts.

Other specific findings of interest from the telephone survey are:
• There is a degree of confusion between mitigation and adaptation. Many respondents described mitigation activities when asked about adaptation activity, even after formal definitions of both adaptation and mitigation had been given to them.

• Adaptation activity appears to be linked to knowledge and beliefs about climate change issues. Organisations that rated climate change, adaptation and (to some extent) mitigation as more important, and those with higher knowledge of adaptation and mitigation were more likely to have conducted vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning.

• Adaptation activity appears to be more likely to occur in organisations with longer planning horizons. There is also some indication that larger organisations were somewhat more likely to have conducted vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning than smaller organisations.

• Adaptation activity appears linked to contact with outside organisations. Respondents who reported contact with outside organisations (including the DCCEE and CSIRO) were more likely to have conducted vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning.

• Once vulnerability assessment has been conducted, subsequent adaptation planning is more likely, especially if it indicates that the organisation’s vulnerability is high. This finding suggests that prompting organisations to conduct vulnerability assessments may be expected to have flow-on impacts on levels of adaptation planning.

In late 2008, interviews were conducted with 19 state and federal government agencies that are involved in adaptation activities. These interviews indicated that state and federal government entities typically incorporate climate adaptation within a broader climate change framework rather than having separate policy directed at adaptation. Further, the major area of activity related to adaptation was gathering additional information, suggesting that adaptation planning is still in its early stages within these entities. Commonly cited barriers to adaptation activity were lack of information, lack of clear responsibilities and coordination across jurisdictions, and uncertainty regarding funding, although this latter issue was more often identified by state/territory entities. Federal entities also cited lack of community engagement and the presence of climate scepticism as barriers to adaptation planning.

Sixteen in-depth interviews were conducted early in 2009 to gather more information about drivers and barriers to adaptation activity. Organisations with both low and high levels of adaptation activity (as identified by the first survey) were targeted for these interviews to examine the differences between them. Drivers for adaptation planning that were identified included a growing awareness of climate change, a sense of vulnerability to climate change impacts, and a response to pressure from external stakeholders. Barriers to adaptation planning included a lack of information and resources (money, people and time), a lack of policy clarity and/or government support, scepticism about climate change impacts, and a culture of conservatism within the organisation.

It is noteworthy that the drivers and barriers to adaptation activity identified by both types of organisations were similar. This suggests that there are not extensive qualitative differences preventing organisations from taking action. Rather, the differences seem to involve the relative scale of drivers and barriers: if the drivers are extensive enough in an organisation to overcome the barriers, then it appears likely that the organisation will take action on adaptation issues. In particular, it appears that once organisations develop a sense of vulnerability to climate change (and overcome scepticism, lack of information and a lack of resources) they are likely to take action.

Finally, the conceptual framework that acted as a guide for this research has received a substantial degree of support from the data. The drivers and barriers identified in the model were largely supported by both the quantitative survey findings and the qualitative interview results.

It appears that adaptation planning is more likely to occur if an organisation:
• has more knowledge of climate change in general;
• has conducted formal vulnerability assessment;
• has prior experience with longer-term strategic planning; and
• has contact with external organisations to provide information and assistance.

Further, it appears that adaptation planning may be less likely if the organisation:
• is waiting for someone else to take responsibility for adaptation planning;
• has an organisational culture that does not support change;
• has a lack of information or physical resources (money, staff, time); and
• has a degree of scepticism about climate change in general.

The three processes of data collection will be repeated to allow for the tracking of changes over time and to provide some assessment of the impact of work conducted by the Climate Adaptation Flagship and DCCEE in the intervening period. Once the second set of survey data is collected it will be possible to identify how, and to what extent, various organisations in the sample have changed over time. It will also be possible to identify organisations that have changed markedly, and compare them to those that have not changed. This approach will allow a further examination of the range of barriers and drivers of adaptation planning in Australian organisations.

This research project is funded jointly by the Australian government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship. The authors gratefully acknowledge Louise Yabsley and Dale Inabinet from the DCCEE for their contributions and assistance.

The Climate Adaptation Flagship Working Paper Series
The CSIRO Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship has been created to address the urgent national challenge of enabling Australia to adapt more effectively to the impacts of climate change and variability. This working paper series aims to provide a quick and simple avenue to disseminate high-quality original research, based on work in progress, and generate discussion by distributing work for comment prior to formal publication. Copies of the Climate Adaptation Flagship’s working papers can be downloaded at

Adapted with permission from Gardner, J., Parsons, R. and Paxton, G. (2010). Adaptation benchmarking survey: initial report. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship Working Paper No. 4.