A scenario planning case study visualization, illustrating what a 1.2-meter sea level rise by the year 2100 would look like in a delta setting (top) under a do-nothing management option and (bottom) under more active management. Credit: Dave Flanders, Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning, University of British Columbia. Used with permission.

Community leaders and resource managers face a twofold dilemma: Climatic and hydrologic changes will sweep their communities, and scientists don’t have past analogues through which projected changes can be assessed. So how can communities plan for the future?

Increasingly, policy makers and resource managers deal with this uncertainty by using scenario planning (SP). The proliferation of SP and other methods, together with a vast array of climate projections and impact assessment, necessitates the appraisal of practices for employing SP in climate adaptation planning.

To this end, 30 expert SP researchers and practitioners from the United States and Canada met this past spring at the University of Arizona with the aim of improving the use and effectiveness of SP in planning for climate adaptation. They explored the varied and emerging methods of scenario development and application in cases where uncertainty is a factor and identified best practices for combining methods within a decision support context.

Discussions centered on the connections between SP and decision processes; issues of scale and applications across social, political, and economic sectors; barriers to using SP; and opportunities for innovation.

What Is Scenario Planning, and How Can It Be Used Effectively?

Scenarios are plausible descriptions of the future used to envision how unpredictable forces will play out over time to explore the risks and opportunities for decisions that agencies and organizations are making now. Scenarios range widely, from verbal descriptions to complex quantitative representations of socioeconomic, climate, or environmental conditions. For example, visualizations of scenarios of sea level rise and storm intensity might show the effects of climate change impacts on various development design alternatives within communities.

Public land managers increasingly use scenario planning to identify climate change adaptation strategies that address changes and work toward a preferred alternative future.

SP methods offer participatory approaches, often in the form of workshops, that help groups articulate their mental models and expectations so that meaningful dialogue on achieving outcomes can take place, despite uncertainties. SP is increasingly being used with climate scenarios to assist public land managers and others in identifying adaptation strategies that address recent and anticipated changes and work toward a preferred alternative future.

The workshop examined how various existing SP methods help with handling uncertainty in decision making by evaluating whether methods merely characterize uncertainty, reduce it through a common future vision, or embrace it through an exploratory approach.  Participants also explored how different SP methods help identify adaptation options within different decision frames. For example, how will a given scenario affect how community leaders decide to invest in varying forms of infrastructure?  What information is needed to make such decisions about options, and what processes will help decision makers engage and mobilize the public to consider and adopt identified actions?

Why Use SP?

SP approaches can vary greatly—some are qualitative, some are quantitative; some are normative (starting with the present state), some are exploratory (starting with an envisioned end state); some envision in the short term, some envision in the long term. However, all SP processes can effectively engage stakeholders by creating snapshots of the future, depicted numerically (as by modeling), via narrative (verbal storylines), graphics (visualization), or a combination but with varying emphasis and applications.

When used effectively, these methods spur a divergence of ideas about multiple futures that in turn can be captured to bring about convergence on pathways for robust adaptation decisions.

When used effectively, these methods spur a divergence of ideas about multiple futures that in turn can be captured to bring about convergence on pathways for robust adaptation decisions. Participants emphasized the utility of SP as a method for integrating scales of decision making, such as strategic to operational, local to national, and field level to executive.

Starting Local

Participants acknowledged the value of local knowledge, pointing out that those who best know a place, system, or activity will have the most insight and knowledge about concrete climate impacts. This knowledge does not supplant scientific modeling and analysis but can contextualize and deepen information about unexpected impact pathways or institutional factors likely to affect adaptation outcomes.

In keeping with this, participants agreed that inclusion of SP as an ongoing process within the National Climate Assessment, for example, will make climate assessment more participatory and dynamic.

The Future of SP

Fig. 1. Characterization of approaches and outcomes in scenario planning with respect to issue complexity (from relatively simple to complex, as with cascading climate impacts) and available resources. The bottom right quadrant is the area that is most problematic but also presents the most opportunity for innovative solutions. Credit: Jonathan Star, Scenario Insight

Attendees concluded that the greatest opportunity for SP innovation involves cases of high process complexity but limited planning resources (Figure 1, bottom right). To begin addressing this need, the group recommended creating modular and reusable applications that can be shared from community to community through “regional libraries” that allow users to search for scenario components, such as end states, adaptation strategies, and research needs.

The agenda, participant list, and presentations are available on the Center for Climate Change Adaptation Science and Solutions website, and a meeting report is forthcoming.

—Gregg Garfin and Mary Black, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson; email: gmgarfin@email.arizona.edu; and Erika Rowland, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bridgton, Maine.

Citation: Garfin, G., M. Black, and E. Rowland (2015), Advancing scenario planning for climate decision making, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO037933. Published on 27 October 2015.