Ten years ago, climate adaptation research was gaining steam. Today, it’s gutted


Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

Ten years ago, on February 7, 2009, I sat down in my apartment in central Melbourne to write a job application. All of the blinds were down, and the windows tightly closed. Outside it was 47℃. We had no air conditioning. The heat seeped through the walls.

When I stepped outside, the air ripped at my nose and throat, like a fan-forced sauna. It felt ominous. With my forestry training, and some previous experience of bad fire weather in Tasmania, I knew any fires that day would be catastrophic. They were. Black Saturday became Australia’s worst-ever bushfire disaster.

I was applying for the position of Director of the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research (VCCCAR). I was successful and started the job later that year.




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The climate in Victoria over the previous 12 years had been harsh. Between 1997 and 2009 the state suffered its worst drought on record, and major bushfires in 2003 and 2006-07 burned more than 2 million hectares of forest. Then came Black Saturday, and the year after that saw the start of Australia’s wettest two-year period on record, bringing major floods to the state’s north, as well as to vast swathes of the rest of the country.

In Victoria alone, hundreds of millions of dollars a year were being spent on response and recovery from climate-related events. In government, the view was that things couldn’t go on that way. As climate change accelerated, these costs would only rise.

We had to get better at preparing for, and avoiding, the future impacts of rapid climate change. This is what is what we mean by the term “climate adaptation”.

Facing up to disasters

A decade after Black Saturday, with record floods in Queensland, severe bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria, widespread heatwaves and drought, and a crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is timely to reflect on the state of adaptation policy and practice in Australia.

In 2009 the Rudd Labor government had taken up the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader, we seemed headed for a bipartisan national solution ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Governments, meanwhile, agreed that adaptation was more a state and local responsibility. Different parts of Australia faced different climate risks. Communities and industries in those regions had different vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities and needed locally driven initiatives.

Led by the Brumby government in Victoria, state governments developed an adaptation policy framework and sought federal financial support to implement it. This included research on climate adaptation. The federal government put A$50 million into a new National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, based in Queensland, alongside the CSIRO Adaptation Flagship which was set up in 2007.

The Victorian Government invested A$5 million in VCCCAR. The state faced local risks: more heatwaves, floods, storms, bushfires and rising sea levels, and my colleagues and I found there was plenty of information on climate impacts. The question was: what can policy-makers, communities, businesses and individuals do in practical terms to plan and prepare?

Getting to work

From 2009 until June 2014, researchers from across disciplines in four universities collaborated with state and local governments, industry and the community to lay the groundwork for better decisions in a changing climate.

We held 20 regional and metropolitan consultation events and hosted visiting international experts on urban design, flood, drought, and community planning. Annual forums brought together researchers, practitioners, consultants and industry to share knowledge and engage in collective discussion on adaptation options. We worked with eight government departments, driving the message that adapting to climate change wasn’t just an “environmental” problem and needed responses across government.

All involved considered the VCCCAR a success. It improved knowledge about climate adaptation options and confidence in making climate decisions. The results fed into Victoria’s 2013 Climate Change Adaptation Plan, as well as policies for urban design and natural resource management, and practices in the local government and community sectors. I hoped the centre would continue to provide a foundation for future adaptation policy and practice.

Funding cuts

In the 2014 state budget the Napthine government chose not to continue funding the VCCCAR. Soon after, the Abbott federal government reduced the funding and scope of its national counterpart, and funding ended last year.

Meanwhile, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall argued that climate science was less important than the need for innovation and turning inventions into benefits for society. Along with other areas of climate science, the Adaptation Flagship was cut, its staff let go or redirected. From a strong presence in 2014, climate adaptation has become almost invisible in the national research landscape.

In the current chaos of climate policy, adaptation has been downgraded. There is a national strategy but little high-level policy attention. State governments have shifted their focus to energy, investing in renewables and energy security. Climate change was largely ignored in developing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Despite this lack of policy leadership, many organisations are adapting. Local governments with the resources are addressing their particular challenges, and building resilience. Our public transport now functions better in heatwaves, and climate change is being considered in new transport infrastructure. The public is more aware of heatwave risks, and there is investment in emergency management research, but this is primarily focused on disaster response.

Large companies making long-term investments, such as Brisbane Airport, have improved their capacity to consider future climate risks. There are better planning tools and systems for business, and the finance and insurance sectors are seriously considering these risks in investment decisions. Smart rural producers are diversifying, using their resources differently, or shifting to different growing environments.

Struggling to cope

But much more is needed. Old buildings and cooling systems are not built to cope with our current temperatures. Small businesses are suffering, but few have capacity to analyse their vulnerabilities or assess responses. The power generation system is under increasing pressure. Warning systems have improved but there is still much to do to design warnings in a way that ensures an appropriate public reaction. Too many people still adopt a “she’ll be right” attitude and ignore warnings, or leave it until the last minute to evacuate.

In an internal submission to government in 2014 we proposed a Victorian Climate Resilience Program to provide information and tools for small businesses. Other parts of the program included frameworks for managing risks for local governments, urban greening, building community leadership for resilience, and new conservation approaches in landscapes undergoing rapid change.




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Investment in climate adaptation pays off. Small investments now can generate payoffs of 3-5:1 in reduced future impacts. A recent business round table report indicates that carefully targeted research and information provision could save state and federal governments A$12.2 billion and reduce the overall economic costs of natural disasters (which are projected to rise to A$23 billion a year by 2050) by more than 50%.

Ten years on from Black Saturday, climate change is accelerating. The 2030 climate forecasts made in 2009 have come true in half the time. Today we are living through more and hotter heatwaves, longer droughts, uncontrollable fires, intense downpours and significant shifts in seasonal rainfall patterns.

Yes, policy-makers need to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions, but we also need a similar focus on adaptation to maintain functioning and prosperous communities, economies and ecosystems under this rapid change. It is vital that we rebuild our research capacity and learn from our past experiences, to support the partnerships needed to make climate-smart decisions.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Cross-pollination, migration, adaptation: Australia’s fragile grasslands at the Venice Biennale



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Ten thousand native grassland plants were grown in Italy for Australia’s national pavilion at the Biennale.
Dane Voorderhake

William Feuerman, University of Technology Sydney

Review: Venice Biennale (Architecture)


The 16th International Architecture Exhibition, the Venice Biennale, is now open. With 62 countries represented, the Biennale is a demonstration of “how the world might be perceived differently from diverse parts of our planet,” as described by the event curators.

This year’s theme, Freespace, is about the potential of architecture to be perceived beyond face value. With a somewhat romantic undertone, the curatorial statement emphasises the physical building. This is in clear contrast to the 15th Biennale in 2016, curated by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, which foregrounded social and political issues.

There are 62 national pavilions mostly in or around the Giardini, Venice’s parkland. The pavilions, with curators selected from each respective country, provide great insight into the current state of the architecture profession.

Repair, Australia’s Pavilion, curated by Baracco+Wright Architects in collaboration with artist Linda Tegg, constructs an immersive sensory experience for visitors. Repair aims to reclaim endangered grasslands that existed pre-European settlement.
More than 10,000 plants, including 65 different Victorian grassland species, fill a black cube designed by Denton Corker Marshall architects.

Only 1% of these grasslands remain in Victoria. The Australian curators explained that the reclamation of grasslands is “a sort of reverse order of urban sprawl”.

Projections in Australia’s national pavilion show other buildings that have incorporated nature.
Dane Voorderhake



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The plants are arranged in sporadic densities throughout the space. I yearned for the room to be filled even more as the smells, which are ever present, brought a familiarity to a foreign place. Artificial lights above illuminate and protect the interior landscape. Every so often the lights dim and two perpendicular walls project videos of 15 Australian architecture projects that address the environmental issues posed by the curators.

At face value, the pavilion can be seen purely as a comment on the environment, but more important is the process the curators took to construct the exhibition. The 10,000 Australian plants were “lovingly nurtured from seedlings to maturity in Sanremo, Italy”.

Like Australian gum trees that have made their home in California, these Victorian grasslands in Venice represent a successful model of migration and adaptation, just as the ritual of this Biennale represents at best, moments of productive displacement and cross-pollination.

Switzerland’s national pavilion, winner of the Biennale’s Golden Lion.
Dane Voorderhake

Still, the grasslands pavilion left open the question of what would happen to these exiles after the Biennale. Would they be returned home, and at what cost? In our era of mass migration and high carbon footprint transport and agriculture, I wondered what fate would be most fitting.

This year’s Golden Lion Winner, the top award at the Biennale, was awarded to Switzerland for House Tour. In perfect Swiss style, the exhibition creates domestic spaces at multiple scales using materials and fittings commonly used in new-build housing or rented apartments. Curated by Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg and Ani Vihervaara, the exhibition aims to question the acceptance of banality.

The British Pavilion, Island, constructs a scaffold around an existing building, providing access to the upper roof structure where the 1909 building pokes out at the centre of the terrace, a literal island. Inside, the pavilion remains empty, void of an exhibition. As the British curators, Adam Caruso, Peter St John and Marcus Taylor, describe

The state of the building suggests many themes; including abandonment, reconstruction, sanctuary, Brexit, isolation, colonialism and climate change. It is intended as a platform, in this case also literally, for a new and optimistic beginning.

The British pavilion constructed a scaffold around an existing building.
Dane Voorderhake

At the entry to the Arsenale, the centrepiece of the Biennale located in a 13th century Venetian shipyard, curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara have hung what feels like hundreds of strands of rope. Here begins the showcase of 71 architects from around the world, each responding to the event’s theme.

The space is filled with a beautiful, yet erratic, set of architectural models, full-scale constructions and interactive media. The Central Pavilion, the Biennale’s other major venue, has a similar sprinkling of work.

The entrance of the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale.
Dane Voorderhake

The 71 participants have each built an object of delight, transforming the 200m hall into a street scene with a series of micro buildings along its sides.

Australian architect John Wardle’s popular installation, Somewhere Other, is an optical machine, or as the placard describes, “a portal, an elaborate window, a calibrated device, a long lens between Venice and Australia”. Australia is also represented by Tasmanian architects Room 11.

Somewhere Else designed by John Wardle.
Dane Voorderhake

Somewhere Other is a beautifully made native timber object generating a range of experiences for its users. It is poetic in both description and construction, a striking demonstration of Wardle’s work and a strong representation of a continent about as far from Venice as you can get.

Other highlights include the a model of the Fuji kindergarten designed by Japanese firm Tezuka Architects. Projected drone footage shows children running free around the school’s circular roof.

Tezuka Architects’ kindergarten with projections of children.
Dane Voorderhake

Ricccardo Blummer and team’s Automatiche E Altri Esercizi (Italy), is “a walkable machine that continually builds minimal surfaces, composed of water and soap which only the reflection of light makes visible”.

Other projects to note were PROP/GLOBAL’s (Portugal) interactive media projected onto a curtain of fine grain tassels that form an enclosure; Valero Olgiati’s (Switzerland) intervention of 33 white slender cylindrical columns producing what he describes as “an intensified spatial experience”; and Kazuya Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s (Japan) acrylic, almost invisible, layered circular space.

Despite the beauty and poetry of many of the works aligning the Arsenale, one cannot deny their indulgence. In 2016, curator Alejandro Aravena asked if exhibitions would widen their scope beyond cultural and artistic dimensions to social, political, economic and environmental ideas. It’s not clear to me that many of the exhibitors at the current Biennale have done this.


The ConversationThe Venice Biennale is on until November 25 2018.

William Feuerman, Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.