Back to the Future: Science and Scenarios in Climate Adaptation and Planning

Current trajectories of global climate change call for a dramatic rethinking of the ways in which human communities craft relationships with each other and the natural world. However, current forms of probabilistic forecasting and global climate trend models mask vast uncertainties about what will not only likely happen but might or could happen. This conditional shift should radically re-orient our anticipatory stance from one marked by narrow, risk-oriented probability trajectories to a greater window of possibility. Further, it necessitates speculative thinking in the vein of what scholars deem ‘post-normal science’ – a methodological inclusiveness moving beyond modernist assumptions about risk and objectivity in science to a wider array of critical approaches to uncertain knowledge and futures. Within climate adaptation and natural resource management planning, this re-orientation calls for new tools for conceptualizing diverse futures.

Crafting futures

Scenarios are one such tool that have received increasing attention. Here we focus on scenarios as narratives or qualitative descriptions of alternative futures rather than the trend models exemplified by IPCC scenarios. Unlike global climate models, scenarios permit users to craft possible futures through iterative, reflexive dialogue. Within the context of future climate change, scenarios offer significant potential as a vehicle to bring climate model data into planning conversations while maintaining a clear embrace of future uncertainty and a more expansive approach to adaptation as a form of ‘world-building’. As we have argued before, anthropology in particular is singularly poised to offer much to the development of scenario practices given our commitment to holism and our recognition of the role of narrative and story-telling in human adaptation.

My colleagues and I have been intrigued by the potential of such tools to create and implement action on the ground; however, this has been much harder than anticipated. Funded by the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the US Forest Service, our pilot project began in 2012 as a test of the potential of scenarios to elicit future vulnerabilities and adaptation through community dialogue. Working with communities in the Big Hole Valley, Montana and Grand Lake, Colorado as well as participants from local, state, and federal natural resource management agencies, we found that scenarios were particularly adept at revealing unanticipated synergies and disjunctures – findings that were surprising even to participants. Drawing on lessons learned from these pilots and the desire to utilize scenarios in a decision-making context, my colleagues started a collaboration with the North Central Climate Science Center and other partners to create landscape-scale adaptation plans. Results are still in a preliminary stage but data from both the pilot investigations and the subsequent climate adaptation project identified substantial obstacles and challenges to using scenarios within contemporary decision-making contexts, particularly those within federal resource management agencies such as the US Forest Service.

Promises and problems

Consequently, beginning in 2017, my colleagues and I began investigating the perceived challenges to the use of scenarios these contexts.  We identified 27 resource agency personnel from the US National Park Service and US Forest Service who had experienced or utilized a scenario-based activity within a decision-making or learning context including both project-based and larger unit-wide or regional scales of planning. Participants noted a number of general challenges with incorporating climate change into planning more broadly, including access to relevant climate data, much of which also manifested in their descriptions of the benefits and challenges posed by scenarios. Some participants were positive about the use of scenarios while others were decidedly negative. These dispositions appeared related to a number of factors including the relative success of the activities as well as educational and disciplinary training.

A number of participants spoke directly to the positive benefits espoused by the scenario practice community including how the narrative, qualitative format of scenario-based practices permits expansive thinking or as one participant stated, “out-of-the-box thinking”. Participants found scenarios more creative, diverse, and flexible than other platforms for planning and decision-making. In particular, a number of participants highlighted the way scenarios permit social learning as they provide not only a safe space for diverse voices but also the room to build effective “teams”, reach compromise, and form collaborations beyond their own narrow management or decision spaces. Additionally, unlike planning efforts built around future trajectories of singular or narrowly defined sets of variables, scenarios practices they found allowed participants to recreate a richness that better reflected “the real world”. This kind of iterative, dynamic, world-building across diverse sets of voices fostered space for planning that attends to a broader array of unforeseen consequences and more grounded alternatives. Finally and most importantly, many participants discussed how scenarios allowed them to confront and deal with uncertainty – including the uncertainties within climate models, their downscaled effects, and the broader ecological and social impacts they implied. By explicitly confronting uncertainty and shifting the focus from models built on past or current climates, many participants felt they better understood the conditions surrounding future actions.

Despite the seemingly positive utility of scenarios, participants also offered a wide array of challenges and obstacles to scenario use in broader planning efforts. The most salient obstacles were largely logistical. The wide-open, expansive nature of narrative-focused scenarios simply did not match institutionalized practices of planning – as such, time was nearly universally discussed as an obstacle. Some felt that the social learning focus of many scenario efforts wasn’t streamlined enough to leverage into decision-making. Others cited a lack of clear, top-down policy about the use of scenarios in planning while others described how scenarios were an ill fit for federally required environmental assessment processes. These latter points speak directly to the primary set of obstacles to the use of scenarios in planning. The explicit embrace of uncertainty inherent in scenario processes runs counter to legal requirements. This happens on two fronts. First, for some participants, scenario practices were excessively inclusive of non-scientific knowledge and information that does not adhere to institutional and legal rules and requirements prescribed in federal law.  Second, there are also disciplinary or cultural objections the inclusion of non-scientific knowledge - ‘agency culture’ for some doesn’t permit the space for the kind of highly imaginative, speculative, and reflexive thinking embedded in scenario practices. As one participant described: “I’ve heard people complain about scenario planning because its too sort of qualitative and wish washy or touchy feely or not quantitative enough”. At a fundamental level, these sentiments constituted a rejection of scenarios as legitimate vehicles for translating, incorporating, and/or grounding uncertain climate change data into planning.



The future of scenarios

These challenges are substantial but, as some noted, current planning efforts necessitate moving past them. In the words of one participant,  “our historical organizational structures aren't serving us well at this point, with massive uncertainty, and the integrated nature of all of these changes that are happening, socially, as well as ecologically.” To further the use of scenarios in planning contexts, participants suggested efforts at pre-packaging processes designed for various scales of planning so they do not have to be reinvented each time. Additionally, scenario processes should be designed to accommodate and directly address current planning priorities and data requirements, much of which is circumscribed by federal law. This in turn must balance those priorities with the clear benefits of scenarios including the embrace of uncertainty and diverse forms of knowledge and expertise. That tension, we believe, is at the crux not only of scenario-based forms of planning but of climate adaptation and natural resource management more generally.  We suggest developing facilitation expertise as well as a clear sets of policy directives in which scenarios and their facilitation are supported and encouraged. The future of scenarios in these kinds of decisions spaces is uncertain but the impacts of a changing climate amplify the imperative for speculative and transformative thinking required to foster the radical action needed.

Daniel Murphy is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. He can be contacted at .

His collaborators include Daniel R. Williams (USFS, Rocky Mountain Research Station), Laurie Yung (College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana), Carina Wyborn (Luc Hoffmann Institute – WWF and CFC, University of Montana), and Courtney Schultz (Colorado State University).

Research was funded by USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station - USDA, NSF EPSCoR - University of Montana, North Central Climate Science Center – DOI, and Taft Research Center at the University of Cincinnati.