Resilience of our environment and society


The resilience of a society is dependent on the sensitivity of the society to change and its capacity to adapt to change.

Field et al. (2014a) view adaptation as a means to build resilience and to adjust to climate change impact using the concept of climate-resilient pathways. These pathways combine adaptation and mitigation to reduce climate change and its impacts in sustainable development trajectories. Figure ATM27 demonstrates the concept of climate-resilient pathways. The resilience of ‘our world’ is influenced by biophysical and social stressors such as climate change, climate variability, land-use change, degradation of ecosystems, poverty and inequality, and cultural factors. Decision points and pathways in the ‘opportunity space’ lead to a range of ‘possible futures’ with differing levels of resilience and risk. Within the opportunity space, climate-resilient pathways result in a more resilient world through adaptive learning, increasing scientific knowledge, effective adaptation and mitigation measures, and other choices that reduce risks. Climate-resilient pathways may involve significant transformations in political, economic and socio-technical systems. These transformations may be reactive, forced or induced by random factors, or deliberately created through social and political processes. Pathways that lower resilience can involve insufficient mitigation, poor adaptation, and failure to learn and use knowledge.

Although both mitigation and adaptation are essential for climate risk management at all scales, the success of climate-resilient pathways will be fundamentally linked to the effectiveness of climate change mitigation (i.e. as problems become unmanageable, limits to adaptation and risks of irreversible losses increase, reducing future options for climate-resilient pathways).


An image depicting how biophysical and social stressors impinge on our world’s resilience space, and how either climate-resilient pathways or pathways that lower resilience might affect this balance in different possible futures. The possible futures range from a world where resilience outweighs the stressors to a world where the stressors overwhelm the planet’s resilience. The image is described in detail in the figure notes.

Note: (A) Our world is threatened by multiple stressors that impinge on resilience from many directions, represented here simply as biophysical and social stressors. Stressors include climate change, climate variability, land-use change, degradation of ecosystems, poverty and inequality, and cultural factors. (B) Opportunity space refers to decision points and pathways that lead to a range of (C) possible futures, with differing levels of resilience and risk. (D) Decision points result in actions or failures to act throughout the opportunity space, and together they constitute the process of managing or failing to manage risks related to climate change. (E) Climate-resilient pathways (in green) within the opportunity space lead to a more resilient world through adaptive learning, increasing scientific knowledge, effective adaptation and mitigation measures, and other choices that reduce risks. (F) Pathways that lower resilience (in orange) can involve insufficient mitigation, maladaptation, failure to learn and use knowledge, and other actions that lower resilience; they can be irreversible in terms of possible futures.

Source: Figure TS.13 from Field et al. (2014b)

Figure ATM27 Opportunity space and climate-resilient pathways

Climate change will result in vulnerabilities that are likely to be location specific. For example, high-elevation regions and arid locations are more sensitive to changes in precipitation; small island states and states with extensive coastlines are more sensitive to land inundation from sea level rise.

However, some regions may benefit from climate change. For example, warmer temperatures will reduce energy demand for winter heating and reduce winter mortality in cooler climates, including southern Australia (Bambrick et al. 2008). Forest growth in cooler regions and spring pasture growth in cooler regions would also increase, and may be beneficial for animal production (e.g. Kirschbaum et al. 2012).

In Australia, recent extreme climatic events show the significant vulnerability of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (Reisinger et al. 2014):

  • High sea surface temperatures have repeatedly bleached coral reefs in north-eastern Australia since the late 1970s and more recently in Western Australia; the 2016 bleaching event affected 93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef (Hughes et al. 2016).
  • Widespread drought in south-eastern Australia (1997–2009) resulted in substantial economic losses.
  • The south-eastern Australian heatwave in late January 2009 resulted in 374 more deaths in Victoria than would have been expected.
  • The Victorian bushfires in early February 2009 killed 173 people and more than 1 million animals, destroyed more than 2000 homes, burned about 430,000 hectares, and cost about $4.4 billion.
  • The floods in eastern Australia in early 2011 cost about $12 billion in lost revenue, mainly through lower coal and agricultural production.
  • Heatwaves in 2013 (Australia’s hottest year), 2014 and 2015 had substantial impacts on infrastructure, health, electricity supply, transport and agriculture.
  • From November 2015 to January 2016, South Australia’s Pinery bushfires (26 November), the Sydney tornado (17 December), the Great Ocean Road bushfires in Victoria (26 December) and the bushfires in Western Australia’s south-west (8 January) cost $515 million in insured losses (ICA 2016).

The frequency and/or intensity of such events are projected to increase in many locations (Whetton et al.2015). Without adaptation, changes in climate, sea level, atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidity are projected to have substantial impacts on water resources, coasts, infrastructure, health, agriculture and biodiversity (Reisinger et al. 2014). Freshwater resources are projected to decline in far south-western and far south-eastern mainland Australia. Rising sea levels and increasing heavy rainfall are projected to increase erosion and inundation, with consequent damage to many low-lying ecosystems, infrastructure and housing. Increasing heatwaves will increase risks to human health; rainfall changes and rising temperatures will shift agricultural production zones; and many native species will suffer from range contractions (some may face local or even global extinction) (Reisinger et al. 2014).

People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise disadvantaged are most sensitive to climate change. Sensitivity is usually the result of cross-cutting social processes, such as discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age and disability, and result in inequalities in socio-economic status and income, as well as in exposure to risk. Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly by affecting livelihoods, reducing crop yields or destroying homes, and indirectly by increasing food prices and food insecurity. Climate change impacts are expected to exacerbate poverty in most developing countries and create new poverty alcoves in countries (both developed and developing) with increasing inequality.

It is important that vulnerabilities in social resilience are reflected in national and international policies aimed at adapting to climate change. For example, social protection measures, insurance programs and disaster risk management may enhance long-term livelihood resilience among poor and marginalised people, if policies address poverty and multidimensional inequalities (Field et al. 2014a). These communities are likely to be the greatest beneficiaries of action towards a low-carbon future (Harrington et al. 2016).

Within Australia, several reports have suggested that Indigenous communities, particularly those living in remote interior or low-lying coastal areas, may be particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts (Hennessy et al. 2007, Altman & Jordan 2008, Green et al. 2009). In urban and regional areas, where 78 per cent of the Indigenous population lives (ABS 2013), assessments have not specifically addressed risks to Indigenous people (Reisinger et al. 2014). However, socio-economic disadvantage and poor health indicate that Indigenous Australians are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change (McMichael et al. 2009, SCRGSP 2014). Whether in remote or urban areas, the natural environment may also form an important part of Indigenous peoples’ culture and spirituality (Hennessy et al. 2007), and changes to the environment will therefore have an effect.

Green et al. (2009) summarise the regional projected impacts of climate change to which Indigenous communities may be particularly vulnerable. Projections by Whetton et al. (2015) indicate that, in northern Australia, substantial changes to wet-season and annual rainfall are possible across the century, but low confidence exists about the direction of future rainfall change (i.e. whether rainfall will increase or decrease). Sea surface temperatures near tropical northern Australia are projected to increase, and sea level rise in the tropical north of Australia will have the most significant impact in the short to medium term when combined with extreme events such as king tides and storm surges. Some studies indicate an increase in the proportion of tropical cyclones in the more intense categories, but a possible decrease in the total number. These impacts could result in more heat stress, stress on water reserves, and storm disturbance and coastal inundations. In particular, sea level changes may have severe consequences for those in Torres Strait (Hennessy et al. 2007).

Climate change is expected to affect the distribution of species in Australia (Steffen et al. 2009), which may affect Indigenous people who are highly reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods. For example, 80 per cent of adults living in Indigenous communities fish or hunt for livelihood (Altman & Jordan 2008). Income from fishing is also of economic significance in more settled regions such as coastal New South Wales (Gray et al. 2005). Indigenous people also rely on natural resources for their cash income, as in the case of commercial farming of native foods, or arts and craft industries that rely on native plants as materials (e.g. Altman & Whitehead 2003).

Adaptation efforts may also disadvantage Indigenous communities. For example, forced or involuntary migration to urban centres from areas rendered uninhabitable by climate change (including rural and remote regions, and low-lying islands or coastal zones) might cause major economic, social, cultural and even psychological damage. Traditional land that Indigenous and traditional peoples inhabit represents the fundamental core of their cultures (Macchi et al. 2008). Some Indigenous groups have occupied their traditional lands without interruption since precolonial times. In other situations, Indigenous groups have fought hard for native title rights and the associated right to live on their traditional lands.

Adaptation and mitigation to climate change can, however, also offer opportunities for Indigenous communities. Indigenous engagement with environmental management can improve health and may increase adaptive capacity (Burgess et al. 2009, Hunt et al. 2009). Extensive land ownership in northern and inland Australia, and land management traditions mean that Indigenous people are well situated to provide GHG abatement and carbon sequestration services, which may also support their livelihood aspirations. For example, the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project is a commercial agreement based on customary knowledge of fire management that produces a tradeable carbon offset (Altman et al. 2007, Heckbert et al. 2012; Box ATM7) Other potential opportunities include feral animal management (to reduce methane emissions), carbon sequestration (tree planting) and geo-sequestration (Altman & Jordan 2008).

Keywood MD, Emmerson KM, Hibberd MF (2016). Climate: Resilience of our environment and society. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372