Practice: Energy, Environment, and Land Use

Helping Coastal Communities Prepare for Climate Change

Using role-play simulations to build the capacity of at-risk towns and cities to adapt to climate change risks

Preparing for climate change presents a largely unprecedented and increasingly urgent planning challenge for communities throughout the world. This is particularly true for towns and cities along coastlines, which are likely to experience some of the earliest and most severe effects of a changing climate.

Large cities, such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco, have begun to take climate change risks seriously. However, most towns and cities in New England and throughout the U.S. have hardly begun the conversation about what climate change impacts might mean and how to prepare for them. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Municipalities have a lot of other issues to think about and concerns to juggle. Many local officials, whether or not they are concerned about how climate change will affect their towns and cities, don’t feel climate change adaptation is a priority for their citizens. Decision-makers and agency personnel often feel constrained by budget limitations or lack of technical capacity. Even where there is commitment to addressing climate change risks and capacity to take on the challenge, planning for an uncertain climatic future amid differing ideas about whether and how to adapt remains a daunting task—one that will likely require new, more flexible approaches to planning, development, and ecosystem management.

How can we support at-risk communities in effectively planning and preparing for climate change? CBI doesn’t have a silver bullet, but we do have some ideas about how we can help.

The New England Climate Adaptation Project—Using Role-Play Games to Get the Adaptation Conversation Started

NECAP Games sessionsDecision-makers are unlikely to gain support for the investments, tough choices, and tradeoffs that adaptation will likely entail without widespread public concern about climate change risks. Therefore, raising awareness about climate change threats and building public support for managing these risks is a key first step in supporting effective climate change adaptation. A second, and related, step is to introduce tools and resources that at-risk communities can use to move forward with adaptation despite the many challenges they may face in doing so.

CBI is currently working with partners from the MIT Science Impact Collaborative and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) to test an innovative public engagement technique for generating widespread awareness of climate change threats and introducing possible ways of moving forward with adaptation. Building on CBI’s use of role-play simulations in a variety of other complex decision-making contexts as well as a growing body of research indicating that “serious games” can provide a powerful way of educating and engaging adult learners, we believe that science-based climate change adaptation role-play simulations, when run with a large and diverse cross-section of decision-makers and the general public in at-risk coastal towns and cities, can stimulate conversation around climate change risks and catalyze adaptation action.

To test this hypothesis, we have undertaken a two-year research effort, known as the New England Climate Adaptation Project (NECAP). Funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative and led by Professor Lawrence Susskind of MIT and Patrick Field of CBI, NECAP was explicitly designed to include the “intended users” of our research—local officials, decision-makers, and people working on climate change adaptation outreach and education—in developing and implementing the study. To achieve this goal, we are working closely with the NERRS Coastal Training Program and have partnered with four coastal New England towns and cities: Barnstable, Massachusetts; Cranston, Rhode Island; Dover, New Hampshire; and Wells, Maine. Another key intent of the project is to do “action research:” we are not only conducting research on the effectiveness of our public engagement approach, but are also actively trying to stimulate adaptation action on the ground in our partner towns and cities throughout the process.

During the first year of the project, which began in September 2012, our NECAP team worked with climate change consultants at the University of New Hampshire to generate localized climate change projections for our four partner municipalities and to translate these projections into Summary Risk Assessments. At the same time, CBI staff worked with MIT graduate students to conduct a stakeholder assessment in each town, using in-depth interviews with key stakeholder to develop an understanding of local attitudes about climate change risks and perceived opportunities and barriers for adaptation.

The findings from our risk assessments and stakeholder assessments in each town and city were then used to create a tailored, science-based role-play simulation game for each site. Each game focuses on climate change risks most relevant to that site. For example, the game for Wells, Maine, focuses on risks related to sea level rise and coastal storms. The game for Dover, New Hampshire, centers on stormwater-related risks. Each game is also designed to reflect stakeholder dynamics and the political context of its town or city.

Additionally, our adaptation simulations were created with the intent of getting participants thinking and talking about some key ideas, including:

  • Decisions communities make today will either increase or decrease their resilience to climate change in the future. Shortsighted decisions that don’t take into account climate change could have considerable long-term costs.
  • Credible scientific and technical information about climate change, related risks, and possible adaptation strategies is available and should influence the decisions communities make today.
  • We can’t predict what the climate will be like in the future with certainty, but there are “no-regrets” actions towns and cities can take that are likely to be beneficial no matter what the climate brings.
  • Climate change is a collective risk problem that requires collective problem solving and coordination among different stakeholders, groups, agencies, and jurisdictions.
  • Stakeholders have different interests, levels of risk tolerance, and ideas about what, if anything, should be done to address climate change risks.
  • There is no “right” or “best” way to adapt. At-risk communities will have to work together to decide what adaptation strategies they want to pursue.
  • The consensus building approach might help at-risk communities move forward with collectively planning and preparing for climate change despite the challenges associated with uncertainty, resource constraints, and differing perspectives about what should be done.

As we enter the second year of the project, we are now in the midst of running role-play simulation workshops in our four partner towns. Working with our MIT, NERRS, and municipal partners, our goal is to engage 150 to 200 people in each town through roughly ten workshops by the end of this year. We will also hold debriefing sessions with our town partners and other key stakeholders in each site later this year and again toward the end of the project to assess whether our workshops are generating greater public awareness and concern about climate change adaptation and to explore ways of helping our partner towns move forward in actually implementing adaptation.

Will our role-play simulations and related efforts help our partner communities begin a conversation about managing climate change risks and catalyze collaborative adaptation efforts? That remains to be seen—we’ll have a better answer next summer, once our MIT partners have finished collecting and processing research data.

In the meantime, CBI will continue to use our skills in capacity building, stakeholder engagement, and consensus building to help at-risk communities in New England and elsewhere plan and prepare for climate change.

For more information, please contact Danya Rumore, Associate and New England Climate Adaptation Manager, at drumore@cbuilding.org

Learn more:

New England Climate Adaptation Project: necap.mit.edu

MIT Science Impact Collaborative: scienceimpact.mit.edu

National Estuarine Research Reserve System: www.nerrs.noaa.gov

“Collective Climate Adaptation: Can Games Make a Difference?”  http://thesolutionsjournal.com/node/2021