Adaptation Pathways

Planning for climate change requires a shift from what are usually considered normal and traditional planning approaches with one final outcome, towards another that considers multiple possible outcomes. Approaches such as ‘adaptation pathways’ can help us think through and plan for multiple possible futures.

Adaptation pathways is a planning approach addressing the uncertainty and challenges of climate change decision‐making. It enables consideration of multiple possible futures, and allows analysis/exploration of the robustness and flexibility of various options across those multiple futures.

What is adaptation pathways planning?

NRM planning needs to be able to justify, prioritise and implement actions, while at the same time recognise and allow for future changes in; climate, environment, values (both social and economic), knowledge, socio‐political environment, and climate modelling systems. Adaptation Pathways acknowledges these and allow NRM planners to plan for change and allow for uncertainty. The Southern Slopes Climate Change Adaptation Research Partnership (SCARP) has come up with a list of advantages of adaptation pathways when compared to other existing NRM planning processes. An Adaptation Pathways approaches can allow NRM planners to:

  • Adopt strategic rather than reactive planning rather than being driven by current policies, conditions and issues, adaptation pathways encourage creative forward thinking about potential and desirable futures.
  • Develop an adaptively robust strategy that facilitates to short‐term actions, leaves options open, and provides a guiding framework for monitoring the robustness of specific options across possible futures. Sequencing such actions identifies when, why and how to change course and sets the foundations for a ‘living’ plan.
  • Use vulnerability assessments for action planning to address underlying drivers of those vulnerabilities. 
  • Adopt a social learning approach to adaptation through co‐learning among decision‐makers, researchers and other stakeholders, issues and problems can be discussed in order to define a greater array of potential options and actions. Adopting a learning approach to planning, aids in greater insights into the current situation and can facilitate identification of more innovative transitional and transformational pathways.
  • Facilitate discussions with and among stakeholders about possible adaptation options and pathways preferences.
  • More readily recognise potential maladaptive actions - undesirable outcomes can result from a narrow focus on simple cause‐effect relationships or assumptions that individual approaches or policies are ‘right’. Using a pathways approach can help identify when an option or pathway may shut‐down future options, thus reducing plan robustness.
  • Support best practice in regional NRM ‐ existing good practice helps to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change impacts, and using pathway planning allows NRM planners to commit to short‐term actions within a larger framework that guides the robustness, including flexibility, of future actions.

The video below provides a summary and a case study to how adaptation pathways can be applied.

Adaptation Pathways consists of five core components (Figure 1 below). As the pathways approach is designed to be adaptive this process can also be flexible. For example, instead of a linear approach that is usually adopted in NRM, a more reflective, adaptive approach can be used.

Figure 1: Five stages of adaptation pathways planning

1. Defining objectives for pathways

As with most NRM planning processes, defining the objective - determining what you want to achieve, is a crucial initial step. Not defining it properly can often unravel all proceeding planning if done incorrectly. Objectives need to be specific, measureable and time framed, and need to relate to an overall goal. Developing appropriate objectives allows better options for developing and evaluating options, as well as providing a basis for monitoring and evaluating all stages of the adaptation pathways planning approach.

2. Understanding the current situation

Knowing as much about the natural asset or landscape that the adaptation pathway is for, provides a basis for analysing potential futures and developing pathways. It can be done in three steps.

  1. Analyse the current situation and with historical information reflect on how the asset has been managed. Use this information to develop potential future management options.
  2. Determine management actions that may lead to reducing the vulnerability and/or increase the adaptability opportunities for the asset you are developing a pathway for.
  3. Identify evidence-based, robust, ‘no regret’ options.

Understanding the current situation, while acknowledging the past, helps inform how a pathway approach might be best developed.

3.      Analysing possible futures

Stage three involves exploring a number of potential futures, and developing various management responses. It is important to acknowledge at this stage other factors influencing a management response, such as future policies, markets and social values. In any case, the future is always going to be uncertain. By developing a range of scenarios, a range of options can be tested and determined if they are robust, flexible or both. The choice or relevance of future analysis methods should be determined by the type of ‘problem’ the current situation presents.

4. Developing adaptation pathways: identifying and prioritising options

Stage four is the main component of adaptation pathways planning. It identifies potential adaption options and determines the flexibility and robustness of each. Potential turning, tipping and trigger points are identified, and alternate options that can lead to original objectives are determined. This stage is reliant on work done in stages two and three. There are six steps in identifying adaptation pathways for a particular objective:

  1. Identify options to address existing drivers of vulnerabilities under current conditions
  2. Identify tipping points, turning points and trigger points (see below)
  3. Identify alternate and additional options to help address objectives under the range of potential futures 
  4. Sequence and document potential actions into draft pathways
  5. Analyse and evaluate the pathways
  6. Finalise and document or map pathways.

Tipping points ‐ what is likely to change in the biophysical system?

These are biophysical thresholds where the magnitude of change means the current management strategy will no longer be able to meet the objectives. Identifying these helps to indicate whether and when other options are needed. An example of a tipping point is when an estuarine mangrove community, which cannot retreat because of geological or infrastructure constraints, becomes permanently inundated under sea level rise scenarios.

Turning points ‐ what are the plausible ‘game changers’ in the socio‐economic conditions or rules?

These are situations in which a social–political barrier is reached. This may be due to climate change, or changes in formal policy objectives as well as informal societal preferences, stakes and interests. For example, a policy change relating to the mechanism for pricing carbon can lead to landscape-scale changes in re‐afforestation with implications for conservation, livelihoods and rural communities. A social threshold relevant to south‐eastern Australia may be the point at which too many regional landholders are ‘absentees’ to effectively enact community‐based NRM.

Trigger points—when do we need to start?

Trigger points mark the necessary lead time for action before reaching a turning point. They are also defined by how long a decision to change takes to be made and implemented. However, this aspect of defining trigger points stems from the next stage of identifying alternate options. They are a crucial part of a pathways approach; enabling plans to be strategic and anticipatory, rather than reactive and ad hoc.

5. Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting, Improvement and Learning

The future is not predictable and as a result, adaptation depends on learning and responding effectively to lessons learnt, as well as experience, changing circumstance and new knowledge. This means a sound Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting, Improvement and Learning (MERIL) system is fundamental to adaptation, and enabling both adaptive management and governance. Monitoring of key indicators of systems change (e.g. tipping, turning and trigger points) underpins decision‐making about adjustments to strategies, operational plans and implementation practices. This includes monitoring the biophysical, social, economic and political systems.

For further information and guidance on how to apply these steps, refer to SCARP’s ‘Adaptation Pathways: a playbook for developing robust options for climate change adaptation in Natural Resource Management’ at