Climate Change Adaptation Governance Indicators

Planning for the impacts of climate change is a complex and challenging issue. Solutions can only be driven through informed decision-making and to date there is little evidence to suggest that this is occurring in any meaningful way in most of the cities around the world. For local and city governments managing climate change is complex and fraught with challenges associated with resource constraints, community buy-in, legal risks and political positioning. These government decision-makers also have to work within a shifting State and National policy environment.



At the moment it seems that there is an over-emphasis on the risk assessment approach to climate change adaptation – which more often than not results in stagnant reports that lead to responses that are cherry-picked and tend to align with available resources or political allocations of the day.

Focusing on climate change adaptation governance is about the core system that supports climate change adaptation actions. It includes institutional arrangements, resource allocation, executive and interdepartmental support, inclusion in strategic planning, financial planning and any other activity that will enable climate change adaptation to be mainstreamed into a city council’s activities. Sometimes in the adaptation literature this will also be referred to as process-based measures.

While outcomes-based measures are also important it is prudent to focus initial emphasis on an organization’s adaptation governance. This is because unless it can be ensured that an organization’s internal adaptive capacity is robust, there is a risk that specific adaptation actions will be ad hoc and constrained by limited resourcing and political support.  This is an issue recognized in the adaptation literature:

"The whole point of the work on adaptation processes is to have risks (and opportunities) associated with climate change [...] actually addressed in decision-making at some practical level."

(Smit & Wandel 2006, p.285)


Multiple complexities

In effect, when looking at the two themes presented here (process and outcomes-based actions) it becomes evident that static reporting, at one specific time, cannot manage the dynamics required in understanding and responding to a changing climate. The difficulties rest in the multiple complexities of understanding so many unknown possibilities that may occur over time. For example, it is near impossible for an adaptation practitioner to project how a range of potential future climates in one location may affect a shifting range of coping thresholds for the social, natural and economic environment, whilst considering other stressors and influences (e.g. carbon pricing, technological advancement, oil price shocks). Recognizing that multiple futures are possible, lends support to the need for robust decision- making frameworks that can respond as issues and information emerge over time.

Based on experience gained when working with local governments and city councils in Australia I have created a suite of indicators to help cities step away from the risk-assessment first approach. The Informed.City™ process allows decision makers at the municipal level to take stock of where they are at in regards to climate change adaptation. Think of the process similar to climate change adaptation genomics.  Like genomics in the sciences the Informed.City™ process allows the organisation to identify areas that may experience future shocks, identify markers that require modification and help local and city governments transition towards mainstreaming adaptation.

Importantly the Informed.City™ process is free for any local and city government officials to participate, so long as they agree to their non-identifiable information being pooled into the collective aggregate.  This allows for the comparison and benchmarking. 

To date information from over 50 municipalities have been collected – with a further 20 or so cities currently soon to submit their results.  Informed.City™ is being released online in the coming weeks to allow cities free access to their indicator scores and the ability to freely update their assessment scores as they progress on their mainstreaming of adaptation:

"The project provided Kingborough Council opportunity to have climate change adaptation taken up as an issue, throughout our organisation. To have climate change adaptation, as it were, inserted in to the DNA and culture throughout Council activities. By focusing on climate change adaptation governance, Council has become better positioned to undertake informed decision making during what seems likely to be an uncertain future. Our project was designed to enable Council to manage adaptation to climate change in an inclusive and transparent way."

Dr Graham Bury, Mayor of Kingborough Council.


The results to date have been both insightful and influential. Many cities that have participated only a few months ago are already seeing positive outcomes manifest through the development of climate change adaptation policies, development of specific guidelines and appointment of resilience officers.

To date over 1,000 local government staff have participated in the associated online survey which also teases out the internal barriers and enablers to adaptation.


The legal imperative

Just as an analysis of a person’s genome can help identify important health markers the Informed.City™ process can help tease out the existing or emerging climate legal risk issues:

"Early recognition of climate legal risk can potentially reduce the likelihood of subsequent legal action by affected stakeholders. But recognition alone is not enough; it is essential that protocols and procedures are in place that facilitate management of climate legal risk through implementation of climate change adaptation strategies and decision-making process. It is only once these protocols and procedures are implemented that climate legal risk can be effectively managed."

Baker-Jones et al (2013, p.11)


Mark Baker-Jones (partner at Dibbs Barker) has developed a unique climate legal risk process that segues into the Informed.City™ process, allowing cities to take further action once the key issues have been raised from the self-assessment.

Donovan Burton explaining

Donovan Burton discussing recent court rulings on climate change issues.


More Information

The indicators are currently being presented to an academic journal for publication and a link will be provided to those interested in the specific details and some of the collective results. Donovan Burton is the owner of Climate Planning. He has undertaken over 100 projects with cities, insurers, developers, lawyers and all levels of government throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  

If you would like to participate in the project before the online release please contact Donovan directly on with “Informed City” in the subject line.  As said, participation is free for local and city governments.



Baker-Jones, M., Burton, DL., Bell, J., Chang Seng, D., 2013 Climate change adaptation: Guided by the Law DLA Piper, Brisbane, available at

Smit, B and Wandel, J (2006) Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability, in Global Environmental Change, 16(2006), pp. 282–292.


The photo of Donovan Burton is reproduced courtesy of Barry.Nilsson.

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