Using Climate Projections in the (Almost) Real World


In recent years, numerous climate projections (such as MACA or LOCA) have been made available for use in impact assessments and adaptation planning. However, the breadth of available projections presents a daunting challenge to managers and scientists who are trying to determine which projections are appropriate for a particular decision context. This is a pretty high-stakes issue, given that improper use of climate projections could lead to decisions that are not cost-effective at best and maladaptive at worst.

Numerous groups have attempted to bridge the gap between data and action through lectures, presentations, the creation of reports / fact sheets, and other provided media. Given the difficulty of this task, there is plenty of room for experimentation and innovation. Early career scientists from the Climate Science Centers came together to develop a new approach for creating some clarity about the wise use of climate projections in decision-making, focusing on building relationships between climate scientists and climate information users. In this post, we discuss what we learned from this process and how we hope to build on our success.

For the 2017 National Adaptation Forum (NAF), the early career scientists at the South Central Climate Center led the development and implementation of a new training activity designed to empower managers to use climate projections more effectively. We wanted to design an activity that got as close as possible to demonstrating how climate projections can be used to solve real world problems in a dynamic management context.

Originally, we intended to provide a comprehensive introduction to future climate projections, including their development, diversity, and application. We quickly discovered why no one had done this yet: it proved extremely difficult to achieve during the a 2 hour session we would have at the NAF! Rather than focusing on the projections themselves, we shifted our goal to demonstrating what the relationship between managers and boundary organizations (such as the Climate Science Centers) can look like, and how that relationship can help managers effectively use the climate projections. In practice, this session was also a wonderful learning opportunity for us early career folks. It helped us understand the process our participants use to make decisions, the key sources of confusion, and the types of information they need.

To prepare participants for the activity, we started with a brief, non-technical presentation on climate model projections. We focused in particular on two things: how the projections are built and their primary limitations; and, how climate scientists help translate model data for practical uses. The heart of the NAF session was an interactive activity in which small groups worked through a real world decision problem that involved the use of climate projections. Participants were given a few paragraphs describing a hypothetical decision problem in which a governor was unsure whether or not to sign a 50-year contract to sell water to another city. They were asked to provide the governor with a recommendation about which action to take: sign the contract, or not? The facilitators in each group were climate scientists with experience using the projections, and they were accompanied by note-takers to document the conversations at each table. Each small group worked through a process together to make the decision using the projections. For this activity, the process the participants used and the relationships they developed with the facilitators were considered the most important part to capture.

During the activity there were a number of common threads that emerged among the groups. Most groups:

  • agreed that the climate projections should be used in the management decision given the time frame in question
  • were concerned about extreme events and selecting useful information which accounted for extremes and temperature
  • grasped that using a multi-model mean could blind them to extremes of importance, but also had difficulty understanding why there is more variation between models then emissions scenarios for some variables

In the end many of the groups (with widely varied backgrounds) were also asked to provide feedback on notecards about their experience in the activity and one new thing they learned. The most notable critique of the exercise was with regards to the realism. While we chose to make the activity related to as much of a real world decision as possible, we also simplified it in ways to draw the focus back toward the sources of uncertainty in the climate projections and how to respond to that in a decision context. Despite the request for additional realism, participants’ feedback also indicated that they had improved their understanding of why there are multiple sets of climate projections. Just as importantly, they came to understand and appreciate that boundary organizations can provide effective assistance for their long term management decisions related to climate change.

It was encouraging for all of us in the boundary organizations to see such a positive response to our activity, but of course we have many recommendations for improving such activities in the future. These include improving the realism of the scenario, adding more variables, choosing targeted audiences, and giving the facilitation more structure. We consider this activity an important new tool to aid stakeholders in learning about climate projections as well as building relationships between boundary organizations and climate scientists. This activity was implemented a second time with undergraduate interns visiting the South Central Climate Science Center, and we are now working to adapt the activity for use by our new partners at Natural Resources Canada. The interest in the activity since its debut at the NAF makes us hopeful that this new tool will help empower decision makers to make effective decisions with the projections and create relationships with scientists at boundary organizations to provide assistance.

The session organizers thank Dr. Ryan Bisel (Department of Communication, University of Oklahoma) for working with us and guiding the development of the session with his expertise in communication, organizational culture, and behavioral ethics. In addition, the activity debuted at the NAF would not have been possible without the support of numerous individuals from across the Climate Science Center network and partner institutions. Thank you to all of you!

Large Group Facilitators:

  • Jessica Blackband – South Central Climate Science Center
  • Renee McPherson – South Central Climate Science Center

Small Group Facilitators:

  • Ryan Boyles – Southeast Climate Science Center
  • Alex Bryan – Northeast Climate Science Center
  • Esther Mullens – South Central Climate Science Center
  • Derek Rosendahl – South Central Climate Science Center
  • Adrienne Wootten – South Central Climate Science Center

Small Group Notetakers:

  • Aparna Bamzai – North Central Climate Science Center
  • Andrew Battles – National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center
  • Stephen Daley-Laursen – Northwest Climate Science Center
  • Cari Furiness – Southeast Climate Science Center
  • Jill Lackett – North Central Climate Science Center
  • Rachel Riley – Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program

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