Collaborating for Change: Transatlantic Workshop on Climate Adaptation

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The mayors of Virgen and Aspen explain how their cities are addressing climate related risks. Credit: AGCI/James Arnott.



In August, scientists, local officials, and other stakeholders convened for a workshop in Aspen, Colorado, to discuss pending threats related to climate change and how communities can rise to the challenge of preparing for these difficult to predict events. The theme of the gathering was “adaptation.” Although many details about potential regional changes are still unknown, the members of this workshop were drawn together by a desire to create communities capable of addressing potential climate threats.


Preparing for climate change is a bit like buying fire insurance.  You buy it as a security against a possibility, because if the improbable event does come to pass, the consequences are severe enough to warrant protective measures.  For the community members involved in this conference, potential fallout from climate change includes sufficiently severe consequences to warrant careful pre-consideration.


Among scientists, there is a strong consensus that climate change is already happening and that it will continue to nudge global average temperatures upward into the future, even if aggressive greenhouse gas reductions are put into place immediately.  Uncertainty exists on the ultimate magnitude of the change and the societal and economic impacts that will occur along the way. Particularly, on a regional scale, it becomes difficult to deliver specific details about future climatic conditions. Yet some stakeholders and scientists agree that even uncertain risks are worth preparing for.


With this in mind, the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) of Colorado has partnered with the Climate Service Center (CSC) to create a transatlantic dialogue that focuses on climate adaptation planning on local to regional scales while encouraging ideas to become action, particularly for mountain and coastal regions. Just as some communities are more vulnerable to fire risk than others, certain communities—alpine and coastal—are more likely to be on the forefront of climate change-induced risks.


With an eye to this vulnerability, AGCI hosted “Adaptation to climate change in mountain and coastal areas: a transatlantic dialogue.” The workshop took place from Aug. 13-16.  It was sponsored by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and is the second workshop in a series, the first having been hosted by the CSC in Hamburg, Germany, in April 2013


Both of these workshops focused the interface between scientific research and planning at community levels, and a varied group of participants were invited to join. The gathering included climate modelers, business people, mayors, climate service providers, resource managers, and social and physical science researchers. Selected for their academic expertise or on the ground experience, they gathered primarily from four regions:


• The German Baltic Sea Coast.
• The U.S. East Coast (Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina).
• The Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado.
• The European Alps (The Tyrol).


Learning history and forest dynamics on Aspen Mountain. Credit: AGCI/James Arnott.

Learning history and forest dynamics on Aspen Mountain. Credit: AGCI/James Arnott.



These regions are geographically diverse and disparate from one another. But these two types of communities were selected to participate because of other important qualities they share: economies dependent on tourism, dynamic landscapes, and sensitivity to changes in the climate.


The workshop was comprised of three main types of interactions: presentations, facilitated group discussions between scientists and stakeholders, and exploration of  decision-support tools for adaptation planning. The tools became focal points for sometimes-heated discussions, and the presentations included creative ways of meeting community needs.


One example of a decision-support tool, ORTIS from the Centre for Climate Change Adaptation “alpS” program, provides research and development, consultations, and acts as a hub of information, focusing on encouraging community involvement to help assess and mitigate risk. It uses scientific models and anecdotal evidence from local communities to keep people apprised of dangers such as rock slides, which may be triggered by changes in snow melt or freezing conditions. The alpS program also works to improve community understanding through outreach programs, even offering a board game about risks and decision-making.


Another tool, from Catalysis Adaptation Partners, addresses adaptation from a different angle. This tool, COAST, provides a way for communities to consider projections of economic costs under different scenarios of possible heights of sea-level or storm surge, without stating whether or not the risks are climate-related. Areas that have been hit by extreme events or are at risk of such events can assess the cost of different building standards or preventative procedures against the costs that would be incurred if an event happened and the prevention had been foregone. Rather than having an outside consultant providing recommended actions for a community, COAST focuses on providing data and a framework for deliberation to allow community planners and stakeholders to reach their own conclusions.


Other presentations included: a public lecture from Laurna Kaatz of Denver Water, Colorado, on how the city is planning for an array of potential future outcomes of climate change; CLIMSAVE (Climate Change Integrated Assessment Methodology for Cross-sectoral Adaptation and Vulnerability in Europe), a project working to develop a pan-European and user-friendly climate vulnerability assessment tool; and the BalticClimate Toolkit, an online toolkit devoted to knowledge sharing and transfer and geared toward policymakers, spatial planners, and businesses.


The tools were well-received and led to deep discussion about how the tools themselves or similar techniques could be used more effectively and could inspire the development of adaptive strategies in other locations.


Several key themes emerged:


• Learning needs to be a two-way process where scientists come to the table ready to learn from as well as to teach non-scientists.
• Communication strategies need to be developed that break through the barrier of scientific jargon and make climate science accessible to the public.
• Neither adaptation nor mitigation of climate change along is enough. If communities wish to thrive within an atmosphere of change, there must be a combination of both strategies.
• For adaptation to be effective, local communities must be involved in the creation and selection of risk plans.
• There is a need for honesty in communication about what is uncertain and what is known, and science vs. personal opinion.
• Direct engagement with science can be welcome, even sought after, by policymaker at community levels.
• The risks associated with climate change are too pressing for slow incremental adaptations to be adequate, yet successful adaptation will take time.


Many questions and concerns about preparing for climate-related risks continue to be unresolved, and there are plans for the transatlantic partnership to continue its dialogue. Questions about the dialogue or tools presented may be directed to James Arnott of AGCI, and further information about the adaptation meeting and a full video of Laurna Kaatz’s public lecture will soon be available online at AGCI.org.