Date released
19 October 2022
Dr Veronica Doerr
Dr Veronica Doerr - ACIAR Research Program Manager for Climate Change

Meet Dr Veronica Doerr, climate change tactician, knowledge broker, optimist. As the ACIAR research program manager for climate change, Dr Doerr guides some of the ACIAR-supported research that seeks to transform food systems and livelihoods, including research projects that are under the most pressure to either adapt to or reduce climate impacts.

It is a complex scientific, social, cultural and economic endeavour – one that could be overwhelming given the unstoppable force that climate change presents. But it is a challenge Dr Doerr embraces. ‘It’s about taking a step-by-step approach to system change. It’s about accepting that no-one can do this alone,’ said Dr Doerr.

That is the tactician and knowledge broker speaking. The optimist is a long-time researcher working at the forefront of sustainable landscapes and climate change adaptation. She has built a collaborative network among climate researchers and farming communities around the world.

‘I’ve come to know many wonderful people working on this global challenge,’ she said. ‘They recognise the hard realities, but remain positive. They – we – see the potential for a sustainable world, for social justice and for people working together. We are able to hold that vision in our heads and not be overwhelmed by the perception of crisis. Crisis is not a constructive mindset.’

Dr Doerr refers to several influences that sustain this professional and personal energy. They include the networking and support structures fostered by the United Nations climate change conference series, the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP), the Adaptation Research Alliance that has evolved out of COP-related networking, and the farmers and their communities in countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

‘What makes climate change different to sectoral challenges is that it is not just about improving existing livestock, crop or fisheries production. Climate change is a cross-sectoral challenge. That’s why ACIAR has a climate change program dedicated to systems change,’ said Dr Doerr.

Dr Doerr points out that most people know the risks posed by climate change. ‘Farmers will tell you they are observing clear trends, not just occasional disruptive weather events. But farmers, especially subsistence farmers, have limited capacity to respond on their own. That’s why we have to find whole-system solutions. We need to include buyers and suppliers and everyone their livelihoods are linked to.’

Attendees at the G20 meeting of agricultural scientists standing in a group
Dr Veronica Doerr (7th from left) attending the G20 Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists’ Technical Workshop on Climate Change, focusing on lessons learned from the G20 countries on climate-resilient agriculture. Photo: ACIAR

The system challenge

Dr Doerr said the term ‘system’ often sounded abstract. She breaks it down to people and their linkages. ‘It’s about farmers, suppliers, buyers, exporters, governments and the links and relationships that form this network’.

The system challenge is when these elements respond individually, either to risks or to opportunities like carbon markets and climate finance for mitigation measures. What may seem the easiest or most achievable pathway for individuals can be at the expense of a greater achievement by a whole network working together.

‘For example, an exporter might respond to trading risks by sourcing “the right supply” from other farmers in the world rather than work with existing suppliers. That individual response to climate change pulls an existing network, or system, apart. Conversely, greater opportunity can exist if the advantages of working together are clearer. This is where the science is needed,’ said Dr Doerr.

The brokering and facilitation required to achieve a cohesive systems approach has a direct research component. What are the social processes? What are the facilitation techniques? What will bring people together to develop a shared vision that works? What helps to change decision-making processes? It’s about the science of the processes and the science of how to accelerate action.’

Dr Doerr said it was the opportunity to help shape this crucial agenda that attracted her to ACIAR after 15 years at CSIRO. There she researched multifunctional landscapes and methods to support collaboration and learning in climate adaptation.

For Dr Doerr, research collaborations and partnerships are the only way to achieve a global response to climate change impacts. Collaboration facilitates the development of both adaptation and mitigation measures for food-producing systems as a whole.

Group of men and women visiting a business owner
Australian delegates visiting a Fiji agri-tourism business. Photo: ACIAR

Global brainstorming

‘Big system challenges that require system solutions is also where I see the real value of the COP climate change conferences,’ she said. ‘They attract 25,000 to 30,000 participants to what is effectively a giant information and insights-sharing meeting.’

‘It’s a practitioners’ conference and it short-circuits the conventional process of people reading each other’s published papers, building on those and so forth, and by the time you’ve got research ready to apply, 20 years have passed and conditions have changed.’

‘Now we have the chance to reassess priorities and opportunities and the global body of knowledge together and every year.’

Dr Doerr said the COP had also allowed lower-income and middle-income countries to use them as a platform. It provided a place to build strategic alliances and have their voices heard.

COP26, held last year in Glasgow, Scotland, was the first time that agriculture featured significantly on the program. One emphasis was on all countries committing to developing more nature-based farming systems.
Dr Doerr is hoping to see this trend progress even further at COP27, hosted by Egypt this November.

‘I’m hoping agriculture continues to become more centre-stage to accelerate climate change adaptation and mitigation,’ said Dr Doerr.

‘COP27 is already being informally called the “adaptation COP”. This follows the recognition at COP26 that there needs to be more attention given to adaptation, not just mitigation.’

Dr Doerr is part of the push behind locally led adaptation and the Adaptation Research Alliance, a new global organisation, of which ACIAR is a founding member. It facilitates researchers working with farmers and being guided by their needs. ‘Lasting change can only be locally led,’ said Dr Doerr.