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Towards local-parallel scenarios for climate change adaptation

We live in an already complex world, to which climate change is rapidly adding an extra layer of complexity. Communities and societies are increasingly having to adapt to climate change, but the unpredictability of change makes it very difficult to plan for future responses at any scale.

To address this problem, scenario planning is commonly used to explore potential impacts, assess vulnerability of populations, and identify their adaptation options. The ‘global-parallel’ method, as used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is one example. It creates projections of the effects of climate change for specific regions, using consistent global datasets of, for example, greenhouse gas emissions and population growth, set within a variety of policy options. 

In developing such scenarios, however, there is a challenge in moving from the global scale to the national and local scales in a way that connects and explains complex systems in meaningful ways for stakeholders such as farmers and other rural business people. Another risk is that the experts who develop such scenarios are seen as privileged out-of-towners or ‘suits’, leading to problems of trust and even undermining the perceived legitimacy of climate change as an issue.

In response, Dr Nick Cradock-Henry and Dr Gradon Diprose of Manaaki Whenua have worked with former Manaaki Whenua colleague Dr Bob Frame to extend global data-driven scenarios to national and local contexts in ways that are time and resource efficient, are relevant to local decision-makers, and combine the complex synergies between climate change and other stressors – financial, social, and environmental – experienced by people in rural areas and on-farm.

Using the West Coast as a testbed, they have developed a novel ‘local-parallel’ method that might be applied across other regions, to gain insight into local and regional farm management dynamics, and to better understand climate change adaptation locally in terms of complex adaptive systems.

At the heart of the approach was the co-creation of contemporary, locally specific yet globally connected knowledge about the likely effects of climate change on farm management on the West Coast. This was achieved by interviewing a wide range of local business people and thought leaders – from doctors and clergy to writers and artists – both formally and informally, to discover their lived experiences, and researching easily relatable documents and visual cues such as local photographs, maps, and opinion pieces from local newspapers.

At a pair of workshops attended by West Coast farmers, the team then presented global and national trends in climate adaptation for two scenarios, a low emissions scenario and a high emissions scenario, alongside the local stakeholder knowledge.  

The researchers showed that the local-parallel approach, with its additional components of locally specific knowledge, helped make the climate change scenarios appear as accessible and credible representations of plausible local futures. 

“Futures scenarios are an exciting way to address long-term challenges characterised by uncertainty and complexity. Involving stakeholders and end-users in scenario development and using the diversity of data can deliver rich insight into plausible and possible changes. Developing this futures literacy in turn, enhances resilience through improved foresight to deliver better outcomes in the face of climate change and other stressors,” says Nick.

In other recent work, Nick was an invited contributing author on the Australasia chapter of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which was finalised in February 2022. The chapter covered climate change impacts and risks, vulnerability, barriers, and options for adaptation and climate resilient development here and in Australia, including for primary industries, tourism, and the water/food/energy nexus. With Bob he also gave an invited webinar in April 2022 to the Business School, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts, USA, focusing on the impacts and implications of climate change in Aotearoa, and the risks and opportunities for business. Case studies in the dairy and wine industry, financial services and retail were used to illustrate the ways businesses are adapting to change.