The Three Degrees Project received a Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) grant to leverage the power of scenario planning to build more healthy, prosperous, and beautiful communities in climate vulnerable places around the world.

The grant supports a three-day scenario planning workshop in Seattle and nearby Friday Harbor, which we held earlier last month (September 7–10, 2011). We began the workshop at UW Law’s Gallagher Law Library with a dinner keynoted by top scenario consultant, Chantell Illbury, co-author of Mind of a Fox, a seminal book on scenario planning.

(Photo copyright Jack Storms: Storms Photographic.)

The workshop gathered 25 diverse scholars and practitioners from six countries (Ethiopia, Jamaica, South Africa, Norway, New Zealand, and the U.S.) with expertise in climate adaptation, climate justice, and scenario planning. Participants came with a vast array of expertise and included a disaster risk management director from Jamaica, an agronomist from Ethiopia, an Inupiat from Alaska, a development ethics scholar from New Zealand, a scenario planning expert and an epidemiologist from South Africa, retired and acting members of the U.S. military, lawyers, public health experts, atmospheric scientists, Ph.D. candidates, and other scholars from around the U.S.

(Photo copyright Jack Storms: Storms Photographic.)

Why scenarios? Scenarios are stories that narrate uncertain futures. They merge quantitative socio-economic, climate, and demographic data with qualitative data on human behavior to explore long-term uncertainties now, in the present. These stories of the future can enable us to better prepare for key uncertainties whose great importance and impact we may not have anticipated.

The main idea: Let’s not back into the future. Let’s create it. And let’s build the capacity of the most climate vulnerable to drive the process.

The history of scenarios primarily rests with the military and business communities, although many other disciplines and planners use the tools today. Herman Kahn at the RAND corporation developed scenarios for the Pentagon in the 1950s and 1960s. Working with the military, he promoted “future thinking now” to hone a set of more realistic expectations from a logic he considered to wishful thinking. The post-WWII era was an era of great uncertainty marked by new weapons technology and a new political world order, and Kahn used scenario planning to elaborate on alternative plausible futures apart from annihilation and surrender. Shell Oil popularized scenario planning in the 1970s, a period during which the company attributed its relative insulation from the oil price shocks to its engagement with scenario planning tools.

So why use scenario planning tools for climate adaptation? Complexity makes the future highly unpredictable. Uncertainty increases the further out we look. Many of the processes underlying climate change are still poorly understood, further limiting the predictability of system response. Access to climate information that is available is limited, especially in communities most vulnerable to climate impacts and least capable of adapting. Scenarios help us to rehearse warmer futures now and to test current laws and policies for their rigor and performance under future threats to food and water, health, security, equity, and justice.

(Photo copyright Jack Storms: Storms Photographic.)

After the keynote dinner, we boarded vans and the ferry for San Juan Island for the remainder of the workshop. Here’s a view of Mt. Baker from the ferry.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Patz.)

Once landed at Friday Harbor, our objectives were to further introduce participants to scenario planning in the climate change context, teach traditional scenario planning methodology (based on Kahn’s Intuitive Logics method), and then use that methodology to conduct a mock scenario planning exercise. The goals of the exercise were to give participants the opportunity to apply traditional scenario methods to a fact pattern assuming a 2.5 degree Celsius rise in global average temperature in 2050 and to build four plausible future worlds. We encouraged participants to think the unthinkable, test their official (status quo) versions of the future, and go out on a limb.

To generate the set of four plausible worlds, we first asked participants this focal question: Taking global average IPCC climate predictions for 2050 as a given, what laws and policies can we design to improve the lives of climate vulnerable communities around the world over the next 40 years? After reviewing the literature, we noticed too much focus on predicted climate impacts for a specified future time (2025 or 2050), and too little focus on addressing the underlying factors that shape vulnerability and adaptation action. So that’s why we took climate change as a given certainty and operated under such an assumption.

Next, we split the group into 4 teams and build a scenario matrix gridded on two axes defined by the top two uncertainties the group identified as being critical to law and policy development around adaptation over the next 40 years. Growth (GDP) and equality—the top two uncertainties participants identified—were plotted on the two axes. Then, teams brainstormed catchy names that would quickly summarize the characteristics of their world.

The four worlds were:

1. Common Wealth (high levels of equality and growth);

2. Billionaires in the Boiling Broth (low equality and high growth);

3. Middle Ages (low equality and low growth); and

4. Star Trek (high equality and low growth).

Then, the four teams fleshed out their scenario worlds into narrative stories. Each team wrote a newspaper article portraying a day in the life of their scenario in 2050 and a retrospective looking back at the prior decades since 2011. As an example, here’s a sample headline and the lede paragraph from the Billionaires in the Boiling Broth scenario (reflecting a low equality, high economic growth scenario):

Mexican Terrorist Group Seizes Uranium-Rich Pueblo Site on Former New Mexican Hillside
~Espanola, Mexico, September 9, 2051

    • “Armed members of a northern Mexico militia group sieze ancient pueblo buildings this morning after a midnight raid.  The group claims control of the surrounding hillsides, which were found earlier this year to contain one of the world’s largest uranium reserves.  Leaders of native groups which have long called the land home appealed this morning to US government officials for support, citing an 1847 treaty recognizing traditional land rights and bi-national cooperation….”

What emerged from the exercise? Using the four sets of stories, we explored what various alternative law and policy pathways meant for the world’s poor and vulnerable populations. Key questions emerged around how climate change and development will co-evolve—both pushing and inhibiting each other. Legal treaties emerged as a strong source of stability despite projected conflict over resources.

Yet key questions arose: What does success at the community level look like? As international and national climate policies fail, how equipped are local communities to direct and influence the law and policies governing them? How can we best tailor scenario thinking for use at the community level; and, while at the same time, use scenario planning to influence key decision makers? Many scenario exercises fail because they do not connect to the people who make decisions.

Over the next few months, we will be teasing out important questions shaping the research agenda going forward. We will be developing a manual for applying scenario thinking tools to community-level adaptation planning in climate-impacted communities.

So far we see the power of scenario thinking for climate adaptation. But the power of scenario planning, particularly as a tool to promote law and policy development, still needs to be tested and refined.

For more information on the workshop, read Notes from the 2011 WUN Scenario Planning Retreat, view the agenda, or browse a select bibliography on scenario planning.