Climate Futures Forums: A Participatory Approach to Adaptation Planning in the United States

By Stacy Vynne, the Resource Innovation Group (TRIG)

For the past four years, the organization that I work for, The Resource Innovation Group (TRIG), has been running a series of Climate Futures Forums in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The Forums are essentially based on the principles of Community Based Adaptation (CBA) and we have found them to be an effective means for bridging the gap between climate scientists and local decision-makers. In addition, the Forums demonstrate the value of bringing local experts into the community adaptation planning process: these “experts” are individuals that may not necessarily have academic training on climate change or adaptation, but who have observational and experiential expertise. They live, work and play in these communities and know them well. While the Forums have proven to be extremely instrumental for adaptation planning in the Pacific Northwest, I hope that by sharing the process and lessons learned here, other organizations may be interested in replication.

The Concept. The idea for the Climate Futures Forums emerged out of a statewide planning process in which my colleagues were participants.  In 2008, a report on addressing rapid climate change was released to the Oregon Governor by The Governor’s Climate Change Integration Group. While the report made recommendations on reducing emissions and implementing adaptation strategies, it did so at a state-level. During the process of developing the report, it became clear to my colleagues that we needed a scaled down climate planning process that focused on specific geographic regions and engaged stakeholders with a variety of interests. It was recognized that Oregon is geographically diverse and climate impacts would vary across regions, making tailored response strategies necessary.  But more importantly, from my perspective, climate adaptation strategies developed at the local community level (compared to strategies developed at the state level) were more likely to gain buy-in from local elected officials and the public.

The Process. We have conducted Climate Futures Forums in four river basins of the Pacific Northwest: the Rogue, Upper Willamette, Klamath, and Lower Willamette. (The first three Forums were run in partnership with Geos Institute, based in Ashland, Oregon.) While these regions have a number of characteristics in common, particularly around snowpack dependence, they are diverse culturally, economically, and geographically.

Step One: Develop an advisory board

We started by convening a regional advisory group comprised of leaders and well-respected individuals from the community of focus. Typically, our advisory teams included eight to twelve individuals representing regional and local governments, watershed councils, businesses, university researchers, public health, emergency managers, transportation agencies, utilities, tribal governments, and community based organizations (social equity, environmental, etc.).  The advisory groups provided input and advice throughout the process.

Step Two: Find out what the models have to say

The second step involved collaboration with local research institutions to provide downscaled climate models. The modelers provided us with mid- and end-of-century climate projections at the basin level, typically at the 8km2 grid scale, for the following: temperature, precipitation, snowpack, stream flow, fire and vegetation. A number of global climate models were used to provide a range of outcomes, as well as two Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emissions scenarios (A1B and B1). A report, written in an easily digestible fashion, was developed to describe the results of the modeling process; however we did not include interpretations on the resulting consequences. This step was left to the participants of the workshops (see the next step).If interested, you can see sample modeling reports here.

In addition to the climate modeling data, we also developed a report on socio-economic information about the community (such as major employers, current and projected future demographics, education, history of land use, cultural interests). While we did not integrate quantitative data for the above information with the modeling results, it provided a qualitative basis for discussion. If interested, you can see sample modeling reports at our websiteups

Step Three: Community expert consultation

Next we developed a series of workshops where we invited community members with expertise or an interest in the following five systems: natural (aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and species); built (e.g. roads, buildings, other infrastructure); economic (e.g. businesses, timber, agriculture); human (e.g. health, emergency management, education); and cultural (e.g. Native American resources, historic infrastructure). We also engaged representatives from local and tribal government, nonprofits, and neighborhood associations.

In most cases we held the natural systems workshop separate from the other interests. At first this may seem counterintuitive, but we decided to hold them separately because many of the impacts to community systems – built, economic, human, and cultural – would result from impacts to natural systems. For this reason we felt it was important to have the natural systems impacts fleshed out first. This way the community system participants could react to this information as well as the modeling data.

During the workshops, participants were presented with the downscaled modeling data and asked to use this data along with the information generated from the natural systems workshops to identify the resulting consequences that they anticipated for their systems and sectors of interest. Next, through a facilitated process, participants identified strategies or recommendations for building resilience of these systems.

It’s important to note that we had the participants focus on adaptation or resilience recommendations that provided benefits across multiple systems and those that provided a mitigation benefit. In other words, we wanted to get the biggest bang for the buck with each of the recommended strategies. So, for example, a recommendation for an ecological restoration activity to safeguard cold-water salmon habitat should also provide a public health benefit. Or, an example of a recommendation providing both an adaptation and mitigation benefit would be expansion of programs for insulating and weatherizing homes.

Step Four: Communication & Engagement

Following the workshops, TRIG staff (with review and support from the advisory team and interested participants) prepared a comprehensive report with findings from all of the workshops. Public presentations, media releases, informational sessions for elected officials, and webinars were used to release the reports to the communities.

In each of the regions, we have continued to engage with the communities on initiating next steps such as identifying priorities and opportunities for implementing the recommendations. The extent to which the communities have made progress on implementation has varied: in some regions, the full suite of recommendations from the report are being integrated into existing and upcoming planning processes; while in other regions, institutions (universities, nonprofits) within the communities are moving forward with individual recommendations.

Key Characteristics of Success: In 2010, we conducted a survey of communities where the Forums had been held to identify how useful the participatory process was in spurring action: either mitigation or adaptation. We also included some control communities, many of which had initiated some climate palnning, but had not held participatory processes. Based on the survey results, and feedback and observations from the process, we’ve identified some key characteristics to success (or at least what we believe can be deemed success!). We hope that these lessons learned support other communities that are interested in the Climate Futures Forums process.

Use Community Based Adaptation as a Model

Community Based Adaptation is all about engaging the community in the development of strategies to build resilience by providing them with information. It’s truly a bottom up process, however with a scientific overlay of the data. The information/data needs to be accessible, while a variety of individuals with vast knowledge and diverse experiences should be engaged. The format for the workshop or forum needs to enhance their ability to build trust among each other so they can act collectively (both during the forum and after).

Engage Local “Experts” as Participants to Support Buy-In

While you don’t only need a wide variety of sectors or interests represented, you also need to engage the local “experts” – individuals that have local knowledge, experience, and observational input. While our workshops have had heavy participation from local experts, we’ve found that the recommendations emerging from the process are as robust as adaptation planning processes that have relied on only scientific or “expert” input. The strength in our process is that there is ownership over the recommendations by the community members, and they feel more empowered to deliver on these actions.

Geographic Focus and Institutional Engagement is Crucial to Implementation

When developing a forums process, you need a very specific, well-defined area of interest, such as a watershed or river basin. It’s essential that local climate modeling data – as refined as possible- is provided to participants.

While it can be expensive to obtain, the local data has helped to make the impacts more real for participants. Our survey found that learning about local impacts of climate change was the number one reason why communities became interested in adaptation. In addition, a lack of local data was a top factor in acting as a barrier to adaptation (behind lack of capacity). Finally, working with a specific geographic area, you’re likely to have workshop participants that are use to collaboration and may have already built up trust in other settings. We saw the greatest progress in moving forward with implementing recommendations in communities where an institution (such as a nonprofit, regional government agency, or university) had been identified and engaged early in the process. These institutions were well respected and played a strong leadership role within their region.

A few other factors that we have found important to the process include: the use of trained, neutral facilitators; having a flexible communication strategy (more on this in a future entry!); engaging multiple sectors; working with local leaders to ensure that the critical voices participate in the process; and having local leadership facilitate and guide the process through the advisory committee.

What’s in it for me? While, as I mentioned earlier, we have had some mixed results in seeing implementation of the recommendations, the Forums have been rewarding in another way: developing personal relationships. Following the workshops, we have had the opportunity to partner on other projects, develop joint grant proposals, and work together on conferences and events because of the relationships that were developed over the 12-18 month process. From an adaptation practitioner perspective, I developed a strong understanding for what these communities need, want, and the political and financial barriers they face to implementation. While I believe we’ve helped to make climate change more real for these communities by making it local, it has also been a reality check for us on what can feasibly be accomplished.

So what now? Our hope is that other communities can replicate this process as a form of participatory climate planning. If you want more information or details on the process, lessons learned, or survey results, please contact me.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.

The Resource Innovation Group is a nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon.