Date released
22 March 2021

By Dr Veronica Doerr, Research Program Manager Climate Change, ACIAR

Climate change has emerged as a systemic risk, with interconnected and cascading impacts across every aspect of livelihoods and food systems. But it’s also an opportunity to reduce poverty and create thriving new food systems, more sustainable relationships with our lands and oceans, and greater equity across societies.

Action is required on two fronts. Globally, we must ‘mitigate’—to slow and eventually halt the rate of climate change we must reduce the volume of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. Just as importantly, we must ‘adapt’: find new ways to produce food and sustain livelihoods in a world that will inevitably experience further climate change.

The challenge

Tangible options that help farmers cope with climate change, like new climate-resilient crop varieties and water-saving technologies, are easy to understand and may be readily adopted. Yet most of these approaches help producers cope with only a relatively small degree of climate change—a slight reduction in rainfall or a few more hot days in the growing season.

Many communities and governments are interested in taking more ambitious action on both mitigation and adaptation because they are already experiencing more severe impacts. They recognise that prolonged droughts, greater coastal inundation and growing salinity intrusion are not readily addressed with incremental technological improvements.

Increasingly, societies need to find the game-changing approaches that can transform how they produce food and sustain livelihoods in ways that produce less greenhouse gas emissions and are more adapted to the ongoing and increasing disruptions of climate change.

Transformation is about people

Action-based research on climate transformation is still in its infancy. Yet, already a key lesson has emerged that accomplishing transformation may be less about technological innovation and more about social and institutional innovation.

Farmers, community leaders, business owners, governments and providers of climate finance all need to be pulling in the same direction to create a deliberate transformative change. Fishers in Solomon Islands who depend on coral reefs cannot respond individually if 70–90% of coral reefs decline as anticipated under a 1.5°C increase in average global temperatures. The new production systems, policies, markets and investments that enable fishers and the broader communities to respond to such disruption must come together.

Extensive cooperation like this depends on changing in ways we can’t touch or see—changing the way in which people use and share information, make decisions, collaborate and learn.

In contrast, agricultural research is usually associated with very technical and tangible solutions. Social science and economics are included, but often to define the context within which the technical solutions must fit. Yet climate change demands that we research how to change these contexts—how to reshape the systems and processes that govern societies and their collective decisions and actions. This may feel less tangible—less like agricultural research. But without it, the ability to adopt the technical solutions—particularly at large scales—will inherently be limited.

Don’t just adapt, be adaptive

Another reason climate transformation research needs to focus on people is that climate change is ongoing. There is no stable future climate to adapt to. The technical solutions that are appropriate now may not be useful in 10 years’ time, and what works in 10 years may no longer be helpful in 20 years. Thus, it may be more important for people to have the tools, skills and foundational building blocks to be adaptive—to more rapidly assess changes in climate, develop innovative ideas, trial and compare options, and evaluate and adjust.

In fact, in the scientific literature, terms like ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptation’ actually refer to the capacity to change and the processes used to do so, rather than to specific end points. It’s like the old adage, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Specific tangible changes on farms and in livelihoods and food systems are necessary, of course. But research also needs to focus on how to support farmers, communities, businesses and governments to build the capacities and the processes to be more adaptive—to work together on locally-led solutions.

Creating this ability to be adaptive would be transformative, creating benefit not just for now but for the long-term, as further changes and disruptions arise.

There is a great deal we don’t yet know about how to do this in an action-based practical way, especially for the benefit of millions of small-scale farmers. It’s such a new area of work that all countries, regardless of their current level of development, are still in the beginning stages. This also makes it an ideal opportunity for Australia and our partner countries to learn and progress together, and hence for the strong partnership model of ACIAR to contribute.

Climate change at ACIAR

Supporting and learning with our partners to address climate change is not new for ACIAR, but having a focus on transformation is.

The new Climate Change Program was created in late 2020 to complement existing work on climate change across the rest of the ACIAR portfolio. The new program deliberately concentrates on how to take action on the kinds of transformations discussed here—fundamental shifts in how livelihoods and food production, and the social and institutional systems that sustain them, are organised and able to be adaptive.

Yet not every situation requires transformation. A diversity of approaches is still needed to match the scale of impacts experienced and anticipated by our partners.

Where impacts of climate change are relatively small, a range of ACIAR programs support farmers, agribusinesses and governments to absorb these impacts through more efficient use of resources like fresh water which are becoming scarcer or more variable under climate change. Where impacts are intermediate, our programs support strategic adaptation—shifts in livelihood and food systems including the types of food produced and how, the ways that risk and finances are managed, and interactions with market chains.

The articles in this issue of Partners showcase different responses: absorb, strategically adapt and transform. The transformation work and the Climate Change Program itself are just beginning. We certainly don’t have all the answers yet, but this is precisely why we do research. 

Key points

  • Tangible options to adapt to climate change must be complemented by supporting the development of new approaches to problem-solving.
  • Changing how people work together and solve problems is key to creating transformative and lasting change to help agriculture adapt to a changing climate.
  • The new ACIAR Climate Change Program complements existing ACIAR research by focusing on how to take transformative action.