Adaptive capacity and adaptation envelopes

Climate adaptation fundamentally challenges current ways of thinking, planning and acting in environmental management. While public land managers across the US grapple with mandates to “integrate adaptation” into their decisions, very little is known about how land managers and users conceptualise adaptation and the challenges it presents to local decisions, economies and landscapes.

In a recently published paper in Regional Environmental Change, we explore how residents and land managers in Grand County, Colorado perceive adaptation in the context of environmental change and uncertainty. We used a novel, iterative scenario building methodology to engage research participants in a conversation about local landscape change in their region. We found that past experiences of environmental change enabled residents to envisage a high capacity to respond to future change.

This presentation is an overview of the paper.

However, perceptions of uncertainty and powerful cross-scale processes related to federal land management and water diversions constrain possible adaptation pathways. Adaptation pathways envision adaptation as a continual pathway of change and response embedded within a broader socio-political context. Given these cross scale constraints on adaptation, we propose that it is not enough to simply suggest that building local capacity will enable these actors to move towards adaptation.

Adaptive capacity refers to the capacity of actors to respond to change. It is mediated by a number of different factors, including the availability and distribution of resources and technology, the structure of institutions and governance, levels of social and human capital, knowledge generation and management, and perceptions of agency, efficacy, and risk. We argue that the dominant framings of adaptive capacity conflates diverse enabling and constraining factors from cognitive processes to macro-scale political economic structures with little attention to their interactions. This conceptual “lumping” limits our ability to tease apart the different ways that social structures, collective or individual agency affect adaptation at different scales.

We propose the idea of an “adaptation envelope”, which enables and constrains the capacity of local actors to respond to climate change. Envelopes shape both decision space and implementation, and are created by interacting local and extra-local cultural, economic, political, and institutional processes. Because these processes make some actions possible while creating barriers to other actions, they make some pathways possible while shutting down others. These constraints are dynamic, so both local and non-local actors can sometimes expand the envelope. Expanding the adaptation envelope may lead to improved adaptation outcomes because local actors have a broader set of pathways to pursue.

This conceptual distinction between adaptive capacity and adaptation envelopes helps to target policy interventions more appropriately. We argue that actions to expand the envelope are likely to be very different to those which will build more local capacity.

Wyborn, C. Yung, L. Murphy, D. Williams, D. (2014) “Situating adaptation: how governance  challenges and perceptions of uncertainty influence adaptation in the Rocky Mountains” Regional Environmental Change DOI: 10.1007/s10113-014-0663-

You can download the paper here


Talk of integration

2 days, 19 people, lots of coffee, bagels, flip charts and stickies (aka post it notes). Their task: review 9 papers on climate change vulnerability assessments, adaptation governance and co-production to develop a conceptual framework. Welcome to the SECR project – Social, ecological climate resilience in SW Colorado. A multi-headed beast of monumental proportions – okay, maybe that is a little melodramatic, but this project is a collaboration of 11 Co-PIs, 9 institutions hoping to produce a ‘social-ecological-climate-systems’ vulnerability assessment of two basins in SW Colorado. The vulnerability assessment will be a platform for the development of adaptation strategies for public land managers in the region. We’ve got the typical transdisciplinary bases covered: social scientists (of various colours and stripes), a climate scientist, conservation planners, landscape ecologists, and NGOs.

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Trudging down the same science policy path

This #NACCB2014 kicked of with an opening plenary titled “Conservation Biology, Politics and Policy—What Does It Take for Science and Scientists to Make a Difference?” In this session we heard from six (white, all gray haired except one) men about the interface between science, policy and politics. As I have said before here and here there the complex relationship between science, policy and politics is a field of academic endeavor, with many useful insights for conservation biology. However, once again, we find SCB trudging down the same science policy path that is dominated by the now widely discredited linear model that sees “rigorous science” is translated into policy and politics and we see change in the world. What I find fascinating is that every one of these speakers stood up and showed us that this model does not work but have fallen back on recommendations that still place primacy on this model.

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NACCB brings science journalists to the fore

The NACCB meeting in Missoula kicked off yesterday with ‘conservation tapas’ – small bites of big issues. COMPASS has done an incredible job working with the local organizing committee to bring an army of science journalists to this meeting to connect with and publicize the conversation. For all those conference attendees who missed the session last night, here is a (very rough) list of who is interested in what so you can go stake out these folks and get them excited about your work.

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Beyond ‘the Gap’: Connecting conservation science with policy and practice

Starting this weekend the North America Section of the Society for Conservation Biology will be meeting in Missoula, Montana. The conference theme is Challenging Conservation Boundaries, will bring together scientists, practitioners and policy makers from around the continent to talk about the future of conservation science and practice. Of the many excellent sessions to come is a workshop on the diverse contributions that social science can make to conservation biology: The Conservation Social Sciences: Elucidating “What?”, “How?” and “Why?” to Inform Conservation Practice organized by Nathan Bennett at UBC and Robin Roth from York University. I will be speaking about science studies and the insights it can provide in helping conservation biologists with their mission to connect science will policy and practice. Here is a shorten version of the paper I wrote for the workshop. You can view the prezi here

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#FutureEconomy Future Networks?

Five days, thirty young scientists, seven senior scientists, fine food, ample wine, and wide-ranging conversations. In the last week of May, 2014 the International Social Science Council and International Council for Science hosted the second ‘young scientists networking conference’ at Villa Vigoni, Italy. The main goal was to use a week of discussions around the broad theme of ecosystems and human wellbeing in the green economy to catalyse a network of young scientists from diverse disciplines and locations. As we return to the reality of data analysis, writing and project management, we have been pondering what it takes to harness five days of intellectual energy and three-course meals into a lasting network.

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Governance, Resilience, and Planetary Power Grabs

Having just spent a week with a bunch of nerds eating cheese, drinking wine and navel gazing about resilience, seems like I should justify this pleasure by reflecting on the academic side of the conference.  In a busy week there is a lot to reflect on, but I’d like to focus in on the some of the discussion about governance and knowledge co-production and the connection (or lack thereof) between the two.

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Entering the field: A return to the San Juans

Entering the field is a challenging and exciting time for social scientists, as we finally get to sink our teeth in to the landscape, talk to ‘real people’ and get to know and understand a new place. My first encounters with the San Juan mountains were 12 years ago as a ski bum in Telluride the winter before I started university. At the time I envisioned returning to the Rockies after I completed my degree to be a snowboarding instructor, but somewhere along the line my inner nerd took over and I ended up doing a PhD. To the amusement of those close to me, I’ve always managed to combine my passion for mountains with my research. So here, I find myself returning to the San Juans to understand the social and environmental changes that are taking place in the region and what the agencies and folks around here are doing about it.

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#engagedacademics changing research practice not just communicating outputs

Yes, another piece of academic navel gazing in what has been an interesting week of gazing at the question of the contribution of academics to society. Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column framing of academics as a intellectual snobs who don’t contribute to society, catalyzed a heated backlash in the twitterverse. Academics who, in a variety of different ways, see public engagement as core to their work pointed out that his critique was outdated, narrow, masculine, elitist and just plain wrong. Much of this debate has focused on academic incentive structures or the varied ways that academics currently engage and contribute to the public sphere. But there is one perspective that hasn’t had so much airtime: changing the way academics do research to build better connections between their knowledge, policy and practice. These approaches use the research process, not just the research outputs, to understand, participate in, and catalyze change.

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Ethnography of Adaptation

Ethnography has long been a tool of science studies. Ethnographers observe and document culture in various contexts, studying everything from urban hip hop, to Japanese tattoo artists, Inuit seal hunting practices, to Australian peanut farmers. All our cultures and social contexts are up for grabs. Including science. This year at the I will be blogging an ethnography of adaptation, reporting on the highs, lows, frustrations, innovations of a collaborative project tasked with understanding the adaptation options for land management in the Southwest Colorado. Documenting how the project unfolds will, hopefully, generate insights for future adaptation research.  Continue reading