The Griffith Climate Change Response Program (GCCRP) leads Griffith University’s research into climate change adaptation and mitigation. As climate change issues cut across many fields of study our research projects are multidisciplinary. The program brings together the wealth of Griffith research expertise from across the University, enabling climate change problems to be addressed in a comprehensive manner and often in conjunction with our international partners. Our research in the Pacific is focussed on developing the approaches, information and tools needed to understand climate risks, the adaptation options available, and how this information and knowledge can be used by governments, businesses and especially local communities.

Despite the publicity attracted by a small number of denialists, including some high profile politicians and business people, the majority of Australians accept the climate is rapidly changing due to additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from using fossil fuel – coal, oil and gas – for energy and deforestation and degradation. Yet while this majority is convinced of the diagnosis, debate remains around the prognosis and hence the extent to which we face a climate emergency or just a very serious environmental problem. Climate change remains a political football in Australia and the potential for ongoing policy flip-flops means a strong and reliable policy framework to guide, incentivise and catalyse strong climate action in business and the community is lacking at the national level, though positive leadership is being shown by many of our State Governments including Queensland. The policy tide is turning, however, as with each passing season and year, new temperature records are broken, extreme weather events including heatwaves, drought and fires, take their tole, and flow-on impacts to sectors become more apparent. Perhaps the most telling sign is that recognising and managing climate risks are now very much on the radar of the financial sector and are being mainstreamed into credit rating schemes, stock exchange reporting requirements and corporate board responsibilities.

In Australia’s immediate surrounding region, however, and in particular the Indonesia-Melanesian Arc, and the wider Pacific community, the impacts of climate change and the need to respond are more deeply accepted and understood. This reflects the higher level of exposure and vulnerability of communities in developing countries. Small island developing states, along with communities on the many hundreds of islands in East Indonesia, are particularly exposed and vulnerable given the large proportion and number of communities in sensitive coastal locations.  Such are the risks to economies and communities, that climate change is recognised as a barrier to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Understanding climate risks now and into the future is a complex task even in a data rich country like Australia, so a first and major challenge in developing countries, and in particular SIDS, is the need to ensure that the data and information needed for adaptation and resilience planning and decision making have (1) secure and sustainable storage and (2) connectivity to improve the capability of stakeholders to access data and information among portals, (3) are discoverable through proper meta-data descriptions and the like, and (4) that the data and tools are in formats and systems that makes them usable and reusable. Through the Pacific iClim Project, funded by DFAT, the GCCRP is working with the Secretariat for the Pacific Environment Program (SPREP) to develop and promote a regional approach to Information Knowledge Management (IKM) for climate change. Since its inception, the iCLIM project has made significant steps towards improving the level of awareness, capacity and technical solutions required for effective climate change data and information management in the Pacific. The project commenced in March 2014, and in 2016 was funded for a second phase to December 2019. In addition to SPREP, GCCRP is working with seven Pacific countries to help build their IKM capacity build and improve their national data portals.

A rapidly changing climate accentuates existing as well as bringing new hazards to coastal communities and risk assessment approaches are needed that are fit for purpose in the Pacific context and given the key role of the land and sea customary owners and local communities. Pacific communities have a high reliance on subsistence farming and fishing and the majority are heavily dependent on the benefits they derive from their local ecosystems. GCCRP’s EcoAdapt Project aims to identify appropriate adaptation interventions in the coastal zone of Pacific island states and territories in the face of rapidly changing climate and ongoing capital-intensive developments. In particular, we are investigating the advantages and limitations of: ecosystem-based approaches compared to soft-engineering approaches that use natural processes and the more conventional hard-engineered solutions. Coastal adaptations need to be evaluated in terms of their impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity, the extent to which they disrupt natural processes, and the benefits they provide for the sustainable livelihoods of local communities, among other things. Partners for the EcoAdapt Project include the University of the South Pacific – Emalus Campus, The Tafea Provincial Government and local communities on Tanna Island.

Professor Brendan Mackey is the Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program and Program Leader for the Collaborative Australia-Indonesia Program on Sustainable Development and Climate Change, Griffith Asia Institute.