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Navigating the Anthropocene’s rivers of risk—climatic change and science-policy dilemmas in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin


Water extraction is fundamentally altering many of the world’s rivers, floodplains and wetlands, while drying trends intensify competition for water resources. Climate change is challenging integrated water resource management policies that aim to balance human and environmental water needs. This paper explores the challenges of managing natural resources in a regime of climate change. It examines Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, where national water law requires a Basin Plan based on best available science. However, proactively responding to climate risks is institutionally and politically complex, even though understanding of the Basin’s hydro-climate system has improved. Despite decades of research consistently warning of a drying climate, the Basin Plan relied on historical hydrological data to determine future water resource availability. The paper uses the heuristic of the science-policy interface to examine why there were no significant adjustments to account for climate change. This analysis finds that the science-policy interface is highly politicised, with different risk cultures in the scientific, governmental, political and commercial sectors constraining adaptation planning. These constraints need to be overcome because the changing nature of the Anthropocene’s rivers means adaptive policy and institutional frameworks are needed that can navigate the complexities, uncertainties and indeterminacies of a changing climate.

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  1. A Royal Commission is Australia’s highest form of judicial inquiry.


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Sincere thanks to those who have provided valuable guidance on this research, including two anonymous reviewers, who improved earlier versions.

Figures attributed to Australian Government agencies of ABARE, CSIRO, BOM are provided under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence.

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Correspondence to Jason Alexandra.

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Alexandra, J. Navigating the Anthropocene’s rivers of risk—climatic change and science-policy dilemmas in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Climatic Change 165, 1 (2021).

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  • Risk cultures
  • Adaptive governance
  • Hydro-climatic research
  • Science-policy interface
  • Post-normal science
  • Murray-Darling Basin