First Symposium on Policy Research


Climate change and organizational learning in the context of watershed management


Sarah Michaels, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada; and N. Goucher and D. D. P. McCarthy

Developing and implementing climate change policy challenges organizations working at different geographical scales. While much public attention has focused on international and national scales and on policy exclusively directed to addressing climate change, innovative work is being undertaken at the subnational scale within the context of developing resilience to multiple threats.

Regional entities responsible for natural resource management are engaged in considering how to incorporate climate change concerns into their traditional portfolio of responsibilities using a mix of familiar and novel approaches. The work of conservation authorities in Ontario, Canada provides useful insights into how organizational learning takes place for this to occur. Creatures of the Ontario provincial government, conservation authorities are community-based, quasi-government agencies mandated to manage natural resources in watersheds on an integrated basis on behalf of their constituent municipalities. In connection with their responsibilities for managing water quality and water quantity in their respective watersheds, they are producers and consumers of applications of atmospheric and hydrologic science. Through processing information, organizations learn by expanding their range of potential activities.

This paper reports on how organizational learning takes place about the emerging issue of climate change compared with focusing event triggered learning and learning induced by a change in the political regime. A focusing event is a sudden, uncommon event that leads to harm or exposes the potential for devastation. Two examples are Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and the contamination of the drinking water system for the Town of Walkerton in southern Ontario with deadly bacteria in 2000. The example of a change in political administration leading to policy transformation used in this discussion is a newly elected Ontario government in the mid-1990s cutting provincial financial support to conservation authorities by 70%. Climate change affords conservation authorities opportunities to learn in similar ways as they have from the two focusing events and from the change in administration. At the same time, conservation authorities can experiment with anticipatory approaches to addressing climate change. The empirical basis for this discussion is a three year study examining what problems Ontario conservation authorities face and how they are addressing them.

The value of this research is that it explores organizational learning about climate change in a dynamic, regional context. This context requires conservation authorities to incorporate concern about climate change into a crowded, evolving agenda of interrelated, pressing, natural resource management issues.

Session 1, Policy Research in the Earth System Sciences
Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 8:30 AM-5:30 PM, A307

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