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Climate Ready Central Australia - Why it matters

There is mounting public pressure to mitigate future temperature rise by curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but much less attention is being paid to risk reduction and adaptation right now.

Outback communities are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Extreme weather and rising temperatures threaten food and water security and puts our way of life in the desert at risk. These threats are interconnected with the covid pandemic: both crises affect our health, wellbeing and livelihoods, especially vulnerable and remote populations.

Practical actions to strengthen the resilience of our communities are becoming increasingly important as life gets hotter and harder across the Territory.  Done right, the way we respond to climate change also offers us an opportunity to make our society more resilient, more equitable, healthier and stronger.

ALEC is working to build the resilience of Central Australian communities through actions to strengthen water security and build local sustainable food systems, partnerships to support Indigenous land management and advocacy for climate leadership and coordination at all levels of government.

Why adaptation matters

A changing climate in the Northern Territory involves increasing average temperatures, more hot days (over 35°C), increasing intensity of extreme events such as storms, cyclones, floods, droughts and bushfires and unpredictable rainfall.

In remote communities throughout Central Australia—where people already experience inadequate housing, water scarcity, energy poverty and a lack of infrastructure and health services —climate change is nothing less than an existential threat. Adaptation is, therefore, as much about justice as it is about economics.

Failing to address the growing threat of extreme weather could cost the Territory billions of dollars and makes our communities extremely vulnerable.  Investing in changes to how we currently live, work and plan is essential to maintaining healthy communities, ecosystems and businesses in the face of a changing climate.

We must rapidly reduce emissions to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We also need a comprehensive strategy for how we respond and adapt to the changes that we are already facing. It’s an immediate need.

Communities taking control

While climate change is a global issue and can sometimes feel too big for individuals to make a difference, climate adaptation happens at the local level. It offers people, communities and businesses a chance to participate in and take control over shaping their localised responses. For this reason, it is also a very complex challenge, as there is no “one size fits all” solution. 

People familiar with Central Australia know that the desert country is rich in diversity: both natural and cultural. Deciding on practical actions to help desert communities and ecosystems to cope with a changing climate will require a participatory approach and a collaborative approach involving many different community stakeholders.  This is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge.

Adaptation measures include making changes to the physical environment - keeping towns cooler by planting more trees and building shade structures; building houses that are better adapted for heat; establishing food gardens to increase food security – as well behavioural shifts such as people using less water at home or local food producers changing sowing and harvesting dates. Policy responses at the local, national and global level are also key.

The successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Northern Territory showed us the importance of coming together as a community, listening to experts to inform our response and working across sectors. The decisions that were made by many different groups working together enabled the Territory to be the safest place in Australia.   Climate adaptation similarly requires a high degree of collaboration, knowledge sharing and cooperation.

What adaptation looks like in Central Australia

  •  Filling in the gaps: mapping climate risk.

A major hindrance to adaptation planning is the gap is knowledge. We need to know the situation: the state of the climate, how it is changing and what the unique impacts will be across each different community. This information is not readily downloadable from the Internet, but it’s critical we collect it.

For example, AdaptNSW has developed a process for using local knowledge to identify potential threats and response options to help communities prepare for climate change. The project has engaged more than 1700 state and local government participants, to enable regional adaptation and planning by working with local government, agencies and other local stakeholders to identify and understand regional climate vulnerabilities. 

  • Community-led adaptation 

We know that vulnerable Territorians, particularly Aboriginal Territorians living in remote areas, will be disproportionately impacted by climate change with impacts affecting health and well-being as well as livelihoods.  

Adaptation is therefore a critical response to the current and future impacts of climate change in remote communities, and community-led adaptation initiatives are often the most successful and effective.

Arid Edge Environmental Services have been assisting  remote communities in undertaking a participatory, community climate vulnerability assessment to identify the threats and vulnerabilities, as well as existing strengths and capabilities, to meet the challenge of climate change. This is a grass roots, participatory process that puts local people in the lead of identifying key climate-related threats to be addressed, and the adaptive strategies needed to overcome them.

  • Resilience is an opportunity 

Building a resilient Territory is an opportunity to support the creation of additional meaningful job opportunities that are sustainable and promote economic development, including in some of the remotest parts of the Territory. 

For example, the Territory has many outstanding natural assets. Investing in niche markets targeting ecotourism, while ensuring tourism infrastructure projects build seasonality and climate change variances into their long term resilience and sustainability is one example of the ways adaptation can benefit communities. 

  • The money story: financing change

How much will it cost to adapt to and mitigate climate change in the coming years—and who will pay for it? Financing is one of the biggest hurdles in climate change adaptation. There is a lack of political will on both sides to invest in climate preparedness, leaving our communities vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather and other shocks.

However, there is a cost to inaction that increases the longer we delay. Investment in climate-readiness through the creation of new low-carbon jobs and industries has immense potential to bring positive benefits to the community and the economy, both in the short and long term. 

A path forward

Since climate change affects everybody, planning how to adapt also needs to involve everybody. No one person, group, business or government can do it alone, and a high degree of cooperation and knowledge sharing will be critical for an effective response. 

Across Australia, State and Territory Governments are recognising the urgent need to prepare their communities and industries for a warming world. The Territory is falling behind, which is why we can no longer wait. 

We have an opportunity to enhance the resilience of our people, communities, natural environment and our economy through effective adaptation measures

A commitment by Government is needed to enable climate adaptation at local, regional and sector levels. We’re calling on the NT Government to adopt Territory-wide adaptation adaptation strategy that sets out how we will manage the risks of a variable and changing climate and outlines a vision for a climate-resilient future in the Territory. 

At the same time, individuals, community groups, businesses and industries must begin planning ahead, preparing for how they can respond to climate risks, identify opportunities and strengthen their resilience.