3A.4 Preparing through simulation: Using role-play exercises to incorporate climate risks into decision-making

Monday, 18 July 2011: 4:15 PM
Salon A (Asheville Renaissance)
Todd Schenk, MIT, Cambridge, MA; and D. Plumb and E. T. Paul

Games are often discounted as the stuff of children's play or Saturday nights at the cottage. Decision makers and those they work with increasingly, however, appreciate the value they can add to the public policy making process, providing safe spaces to explore information and alternative pathways forward. These safe spaces are all the more valuable when planning for climate change, as communities face greater uncertainty and increasingly volatile situations. Simulations can present one or more possible futures to stakeholders and ask them to work through how they would respond. This can help analysts, advocates, and decision makers prepare for the particular scenarios presented and, at a broader level, can shed light on how they might respond so that plans, policies, and management structures can be modified and capacity provided proactively.

Role-play exercises are particularly appropriate in the context of climate change given that decision makers need to prepare for situations they may face in the future but have less experience dealing with in the past. Many decision makers do have emergency plans for, and even experience dealing with, floods, droughts and other climate-related catastrophes; the severity and frequency are, however, expected to be unprecedented. The relative nascence of the climate adaptation field means that those engaged in infrastructure development and other forms of project planning have little or no experience integrating the potential impacts of climate change on their long-term investments into their analysis and decision-making. The dearth of cases in which climate change has been meaningfully integrated into project-level planning makes learning from others difficult too.

When different stakeholders are brought together to play a simulation exercise, this experience helps them to understand each other's points of view, interpretations of data, and sets of interests around how to best adapt to projected climate change impacts. Conflicts around how data should be collected, analyzed and interpreted have often impeded decision-making on a range of science-intensive policy issues. Simulation exercises help stakeholders to understand where the data is coming from and how scientists are using it, thereby increasing the credibility of the information in stakeholders' minds. Scientists play a key role in providing information, but it is only useful if others have confidence in it and are able to use the data appropriately. Technical information - real or simulated - can be provided in such a way that participants have the freedom to process it outside of their traditional roles and settings. Simulations also provide a “sandbox” in which decision makers can wrestle with data that is not yet conclusive but may have major implications down the road.

Various organizations, including the Consensus Building Institute (CBI), have been using role-play simulations for decades to help decision-makers and stakeholders work through a wide range of issues. They are now applying their expertise in the climate change arena.

CBI partnered with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, NOAA and the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative to develop a role-play exercise exploring how Maryland's coastal communities will adapt to climate change in one such project (see: http://maryland.coastsmart.org/). The exercise was run with over 170 mayors, county commissioners, environmentalists, business leaders and state officials during an interactive summit in April of 2009, and is now available online for others to download and play. The exercise is quite comprehensive with nine stakeholders, plus a mediator, tackling questions in the areas of 'reducing vulnerability of the built environment'; 'water and wastewater infrastructure'; 'protecting wetlands and wildlife'; 'farm and forestland preservation'; and 'public education'. How to deal with disagreements around information through ‘joint fact finding' is an important piece of the exercise.

Learning from this experience, CBI's emphasis has shifted from comprehensive adaptation planning to sector-specific adaptation planning as risk management. Many decisions made at the project or department level will need to directly account for climate change going forward, making standalone adaptation plans less attractive.

In a subsequent project, the World Resources Institute partnered with CBI in the summer of 2010 to prepare two simulation exercises in two different sectors and locations: An exercise exploring agricultural planning in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and another exploring the hydroelectricity sector in Ghana (see: www.worldresourcesreport.org/country-scenarios). In each case, data on climate change (including both hydrologic and meteorological projections), future plans and information on the decision-making environment were used to prepare the exercises. This information was gleaned from interviews with a wide range of stakeholders and a thorough literature review. These exercises revolve around issues or questions that decision-makers may face themselves in the not so distant future in light of climate change, but are abstracted to imaginary times and places to depoliticize as much as possible. The exercises were facilitated with groups of high-level decision-makers and other stakeholders in each country.

CBI is also offering a series of two-day and one-day courses on climate change adaptation for local government officials and other stakeholders, in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and other experts (see: http://cbuilding.org/news/item/local-communities-adapting-climate-change-managing-risk-decision-making). The course uses exercises heavily to help participants better understand and practice assessing risks, initiate an adaptation planning process and manage data and work with scenarios. The target audience for these courses is local officials and other stakeholders active at the local or regional scale, as a great degree of adaptation planning will need to take place here yet the capacity and resources are not always sufficient.

The challenge is what to do in light of the risks associated with climate change. Decisions are being made every day that have long-term implications and that are subject to climatic risks. One tool that we have found useful is role-play simulations. This paper will explore how exercises can be constructed and implemented to maximize the degree of learning among those participating, while creating opportunities for action. Should this paper be chosen and it is desirable, the authors would be interested in facilitating a small exercise as part of the conference.

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