Key Theme—

Working Together Differently

The ‘local’ scale is where many people see and feel the effects of climate change.  These everyday experiences and encounters unfold in local places that are important sites for thinking about how the bigger stories of climate variability and disruption are experienced, lived, negotiated and responded to.  

Local climate disruption in Australian cities is often experienced and understood through adverse weather events such as flooding, wildfires, storm damage, and extreme heat.  Many local governments when developing their plans for climate adaptation take these climate ‘risks’ as their starting point.   It is important that people working in local governments and communities are able to understand and respond to climate risks and vulnerabilities.  

Understanding what the risks are and who and what is in harm’s way is a key critical action for bridging the environmental and social dimensions of climate change. But what quickly emerges is that people do not always understand or experience climate risks in the same way.  It is important not to assume that there is a common consensus in the community about how climate risks are understood or acted upon. This makes developing appropriate actions and plans for climate change adaptation particularly challenging.  

Building community consensus around the urgency of climate change and the need for action around climate adaptation creates a paradox of planning for certainty and planning for contingency.  The paradox of planning for certainty and contingency in local climate adaptation occurs when there are competing demands to radically transform current social norms and practices that are maladaptive but where funding, political and policy cycles, rules and legislation or fragmented relationships between government, community and businesses can impede the development of meaningful solutions.  

Under such circumstances it seems that individuals, groups and organisations trying to implement climate adaptation are pulled in many different directions, leading to fragmented rather than collaborative approaches. Fragmented responses make it difficult to implement socially and environmentally innovative climate adaptation strategies. Similar problems have been identified in research undertaken in Europe and the UK on carbon governance and urban transitions (Bulkeley et al 2014; Bulkeley et al 2018).  

This research found that effective responses to climate change in urban contexts involve experiments in governance, civics, and in science-community-industry collaborations.  Experiments are grounded in practices and procedures but they do not adhere to any one particular model or outcome.  

In this regard, experiments may be considered as contingent and open to continual, collaborative work.  Experiments also foreground the diverse ways in which communities of people and practices become knowledgeable about the changing and variable urban ‘weather worlds’ that we find ourselves living in.  Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2010, p S121) beautifully illustrates this approach:

By becoming knowledgeable I mean that knowledge is grown along the myriad paths we take as we make our ways through the world in the course of everyday activities, rather than assembled from information obtained from numerous fixed locations. Thus it is by walking along from place to place, and not by building up from local particulars, that we come to know what we do.

‘Working Together Differently’ explores these myriad of paths that ‘story’ the diverse practices of local climate adaptation in Australian cities.  In this section, we are particularly concerned with stories that demonstrate how barriers to climate adaptation have been broken down and where new opportunities and values have been identified and developed. 

We found that a common thread in this theme was that specific ‘technical-risk’ talk about climate mitigation and adaptation was often (but not always) put to the side in favour of more experimental approaches aimed at ‘making things work differently’.  These approaches build on what people care about and are actually doing through the development of climate-adaptive practices. In putting the technical-risk narrative to the side, diverse ways of interweaving adaptation and mitigation with sustainable living are foregrounded.  One local government participant in our research explained it this way:  

… there is interest and I just think probably what local government needs to do is to back away from the language of adaptation and move towards the things that the community already understand them as doing and build on that. Because we do see a lot of that. We see a very active community in plantings. When there are planting days they are all out – rain, hail or shine. If there are dune reveg days they are out rain, hail or shine. If there is clean up days they are out there. If they do a consultation on the urban forestry strategy and biodiversity they are all out there and in that consultation. Tiny houses – everyone is there.

What is being described here is how working from practice, from experiments, and with what people do and relate to is a powerful way of breaking down the real and perceived barriers to local climate adaptation. And importantly, this also promotes new pathways forward: where caring, sharing and co-benefits drive technical, economic and social innovations.

‘Working together differently’ thus highlights how innovative and experimental thinking and practice can counteract the paradox of planning for certainty and contingency by in local climate planning by turning these around (Houston et al 2016).  This idea is inspired by what we heard from the participants in our research and by Lesley Head and Chris Gibson’s (2012) evocative call to move beyond limiting frames that narrowly seek to identify climate issues as purely physical phenomena or as an object of environmental and institutional risk (MacCallum et al 2011).  

Working together differently entails drawing on a range of diverse knowledge, methods and practices capable of producing generative and creative practices that can create genuinely new opportunities for social and environmental change (Head and Gibson 2012; Gibson-Graham 2006; Houston et al 2016).  This process is more unsettled, less certain and involves experimentation by ‘walking along’ pathways towards living sustainably.  It involves (hopefully) becoming wiser to the ways in which climate-adaptation knowledge is made and brought into being through different forms of collaborative practice (Bulkeley et al 2014; Ingold 2010).  

Geographer Mike Hulme’s insight that ‘we make the weather’ and that the weather also ‘makes us’ is especially salient here (2018). Working together differently might seem counterintuitive in its refusal to fix climate adaptation and this can indeed seem a difficult proposition in the fiscally and risk averse contexts that people work in.  However, in the stories highlighted in this section, rethinking the ways climate-adaptation can be done, is being done, and how it engages diverse and multiple collaborators through ‘other’ modes, narratives and practices is identified as a key social innovation. 


One Planet Council Program: Fremantle, WA

The equity dimensions of sustainability are at the heart of the ‘One Planet Council Program’ which brings together community members and local government to work together towards sustainable living. One Planet is a global initiative and its aims are ‘to create a future where it is easy, attractive and affordable for people to lead happy and healthy lives within a fair share of earth’s resources.’

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CanWin – Climate Action Now! Working together to win

CANWin – Climate Action Now! Wingecarribee – is a non-partisan community group based in the Southern Highlands of NSW. The organisation works to foster community-based initiatives that respond to the impacts of climate change and develop community resilience in the face of peak oil.

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Cultivating Community Gardens

“However, you find out, we’d love for you to join us on the first Sunday of every month” – Such an open invitation is put on the notice board of the Moss Vale Community Garden (MVCG) website. With the aim of living together sustainably through planting fruits and vegetables to share and encouraging others to join in the gardening practice in 2004 Together in Highlands community group formed.

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The making of ‘UrbanHeat101’

In western Sydney, where the urban heat is worst felt the local governments have already got their own strategies to beat the heat. Blacktown Community Strategic Plan (CSP) identifies the risks to western Sydney from increasing urban heat due to climate change where residents will experience an increasing number of hot days each year with average annual temperature increasing 0.6 to 1.5 degrees by 2030.

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Bulkeley, H., Marvin, S., Palgan, Y. V., McCormick, K., Breitfuss-Loidl, M., Mai, L., … Frantzeskaki, N. (2018). Urban living laboratories: Conducting the experimental city? European Urban and Regional Studies.

Bulkeley, H., Castan Broto, V and Edwards, G (2014) An Urban Politics of Climate Change: Experimentation and the governing of socio-technical transitions.  London and New York: Routledge.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Head, L and Gibson, C (2012) Becoming Differently Modern: Geographic Contributions to a Generative Climate Politics. Progress in Human Geography 36(6): 699-714.

Houston, D., MacCallum, D., Steele, W., Byrne, J., (2016) Climate Cosmopolitics and the Possibilities of Urban Planning.  Nature and Culture 11(3): 259-277.

Hulme, M., (2018) Weather-worlds of the Anthropocene and the End of Climate. Weber: The Contemporary West.  Fall: 59-70.

Ingold, T., (2010) Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing.  JRAI: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S).  S121-S139

MacCallum, D., Steele, W., Byrne, J., Houston, D., (2011) Environmental Imaginaries: Climate Change as an Object of Urban Governance. State of Australian Cities Conference, Melbourne.