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.