We embarked upon such an effort as part of the Colorado Climate Preparedness Project, which examined the status of climate adaptation efforts across Colorado state government in five climate-sensitive sectors: water; agriculture; electricity; outdoor recreation; and wildlife, ecosystems, and forests. Through a series of 22 interviews with key actors in the state we elicited information about current or planned climate adaptation activities and identified future climate-related needs and impacts across the state.
Our research demonstrated widespread awareness of potential climate impacts across state government in Colorado, although the level of concern varied among the different sectors. Interviewees in all five sectors identified significant sensitivity to potential climate change impacts to water resources such as changes in runoff patterns, snowpack, and storage. Other potential climate change impacts are often less well understood and may be more speculative. For example, rising temperatures may have both positive and negative impacts on outdoor recreation and tourism that may, in turn, be complicated by public reaction to media coverage of extreme weather events such as wildfires and drought.
Overall, while the degree of explicit climate change adaptation planning varies widely across the five sectors, many ongoing activities have the potential to provide some level of resilience in the face of future climate change. For example, electric utilities actively work to reduce summertime peak load demands, which may help ameliorate the impacts of higher future summertime temperatures. Further, aquatic ecosystem managers are working to mitigate existing stressors on cold-water fisheries habitats to reduce the overall impact of higher stream temperatures on endangered species.
In addition to the capacity to plan for climate variability through these existing frameworks, some decision makers are starting to explicitly plan for climate change. However, a significant barrier to adaptation planning is dealing with uncertainty. Even actors who explicitly and successfully incorporate climate variability into planning are struggling with the inherent uncertainty of long-term climate projections and the incompatibility of the timescales of climate change with existing planning regimes. Some decision makers are reluctant to begin explicit climate change adaptation without sufficient downscaled climate projections, while others respond to uncertainty by planning for multiple future scenarios. A lack of systematic approaches to uncertainty and the belief that planning must await accurate regional climate projections are barriers to adaptation for some entities.
The project concluded that adaptation across Colorado could be facilitated through increased coordination among different levels of government, monitoring of and research on climate change impacts, development of a statewide vulnerability assessment, stakeholder and public outreach, and political leadership. These lessons are likely applicable in other state and local jurisdictions, and the framework outlined here can provide a useful and repeatable template for assessing adaptive capacity and future adaptation-related needs as the basis for a comprehensive adaptation plan.