Planning for Climate Variability and Change
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Why Plan For Climate Variability and Change?
Climate variability and change present both challenges and opportunities for Pacific Northwest (PNW) resource managers. Increased winter precipitation may, for example, fill reservoirs sooner but the additional precipitation could also increase the risk of winter flooding. Effectively managing the consequences of climate fluctuations requires:
- understanding how climate variability and change affect resource management, and
- integrating approaches to manage these impacts into near-term operational and long-term strategic planning.
In other words, planning for climate variability and change.
Many resource agencies are accustomed to responding to seasonal to inter-annual variations in climate. Water resource management agencies may, for example, have drought management plans that are initiated when conditions warrant. These responses may incur significant costs, however, such as lost agricultural crops or increased fish mortality if instream flow requirements cannot be met.
Research conducted by the CIG finds that patterns of natural climate variability such as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) influence PNW climate in ways that allow researchers to skillfully predict shifts in the odds for distinct climate conditions (e.g., wet vs. dry, or cool vs. warm) in select seasons. This predictability has contributed to the development of climate forecasts (e.g., the ENSO forecast) and climate-based resource forecasts (e.g., streamflow forecasts).
By taking climate forecasts into account and adjusting operational practices to reflect potential conditions, resource managers are better positioned to meet resource management objectives that might otherwise be compromised as a result of different climate conditions. Climate forecasts may also enable managers to anticipate and capture the benefits associated with possible climate conditions. In both cases, the lead-time provided by the forecasts gives managers the opportunity to anticipate and plan for potential climate-induced changes.
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Climate change considerations have historically had a difficult time getting on the agenda of many public and private institutions for a wide variety of reasons, including:
- Resource constraints and issue fatigue — Decision makers are often juggling multiple issues of immediate importance at any given time, making it difficult to take on "new" issues such as climate change. Decision makers may also face financial and/or human resource constraints that limit their organization’s ability to address climate change impacts. In many cases, however, climate change will not manifest itself as a new and independent challenge. Instead, climate change will likely exacerbate existing management concerns that are already of immediate importance, such as conflicts over water supplies during the summer low streamflow period. Working to decrease vulnerability to existing problems that are likely to be affected by climate change may help reduce vulnerability to future climate change. For this to happen most effectively, however, the potential impacts of climate change must be recognized and considered as existing management concerns are being addressed.
- Differing planning horizons — Climate change concerns are often perceived as issues to address later “when we see that climate change is occurring”. Given that some adaptive strategies may require years or even decades to implement, deferring consideration may increase vulnerability to climate impacts and the costs associated with responding to those impacts.
- The need for more specificity — Many decision makers indicate that they will plan for climate change when researchers can provide information specific to the decision maker’s area of interest (a particular river reach, for example). While scale still remains a factor in conducting climate change assessments, recent advances in down-scaling techniques have improved the overall accuracy of smaller scale climate change impacts assessments used to guide local policies and infrastructure choices.
- Perceptions that climate change can only be addressed at the global scale — The highly publicized debates on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction strategies (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol) may contribute to perceptions that climate change is an international scale problem that will be handled through federal policies and international agreements. The impacts of climate change will be felt most acutely at the local scale, however. Consequently, decision makers may mistakenly dismiss the need to develop locally-based adaptive management strategies. This perception also overlooks the fact that even if CO2 emissions were halted tomorrow, warming is expected through the 21st century due to the persistence of existing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Some degree of adaptation will be required at the local level, therefore, even if emissions reduction objectives are achieved.
- The need for more certainty — While there is scientific consensus about climate change and its causes, some decision makers are waiting for more certainty about projected climate impacts. Decision makers are regularly called upon to make decisions based on uncertainty (e.g., assumptions about population growth or economic development) with an overall goal of managing future risk from a variety of different factors.
- Uncertainty over how to plan for climate change — General uncertainty regarding how to plan for climate change can create barriers to planning. Some decision makers may be hesitant to discuss planning for climate change given the expectation that the issue requires developing substantially different policies and planning approaches. Often times, however, the tools that would be used to develop adaptive capacity for climate change are the same or similar to those used in current management practices.
Public concern about climate change, the consensus of the scientific community that human activities have and will continue to change the climate, and information on regional-scale climate impacts from organizations such as the CIG are contributing to a shift in PNW policy making environments to include climate change concerns. The increased interest in preparing for climate change is particularly important in the PNW given the region’s dependence on climate-sensitive natural resources (e.g., snowpack, salmon, and forests) and natural resource-based economic activities (e.g., agriculture, timber production, fishing, and recreation/tourism).
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Planning for Climate Variability and Change
The ultimate objective of planning for climate variability and change is building the capacity required to efficiently manage climate impacts before and as they occur. This may entail modifying existing policies, practices, and procedures to provide the flexibility necessary to adjust to short-term and long-term changes in climate. In some cases, new policies may need to be developed. Building adaptive capacity may also involve constructing new infrastructure designed to mitigate projected impacts. In all cases, building adaptive capacity to climate variability and change is expected to evolve over time. Resource planners should be open to regular re-evaluation of policies and practices in light of known and projected climate impacts.
Integrating information on climate impacts is in many ways a type of risk-management. How well, for example, does a particular system currently respond to climatic stresses (e.g., warmer temperatures, summer drought)? How might this response change given the added stresses of population growth and climate change? What new risks may emerge as a result of climate change? Taking these and other questions into consideration, what is the risk tolerance for the impacts of climate variability and change? If the risk tolerance is low, proactive consideration of these impacts is warranted.
A key question to consider in any planning exercise is whether the decisions being made are robust given what is known (and not known) about climate variability and change in the PNW. Would decisions involving traditional assumptions about the quantity and timing of streamflows, for example, still meet their intended objective if conditions fell outside the assumed boundaries and/or became more variable? Because decisions made today will often shape future vulnerability to climate change, considering these possibilities may improve an organization’s ability to meet management objectives even as climate variability, climate change, and population growth affect resources.
A fundamental starting point for building adaptive capacity to climate variability and change is becoming familiar with what is known (and not known) about PNW climate and climate impacts. Research publications, media reports, and other documentation from research groups such as the CIG provide a wide variety of resources at varying levels of technical depth. The CIG also gives presentations to interested organizations throughout the PNW. To request a presentation, contact CIG Outreach.
Another important step is recognizing known or potential climate impacts in the scope of planning activities and planning documentation. Including climate impacts in the scope of planning activities helps to ensure that climate impacts will be considered to some degree in the planning process itself. Climate impacts should also be recognized in planning documentation even when not included in the original scope. This language, which may be as simple as acknowledging that climate variability and change can affect resource availability and use in ways that need to be considered, lays the foundation for future consideration of climate impacts even if the organization is unable to conduct more in-depth technical assessments at that time.
Avenues for planning for climate variability and change are diverse. In most cases, adaptive capacity will be developed by adding climate variability and change into traditional planning processes. Examples include but are not limited to:
- Locally-based watershed planning
- Salmon recovery planning
- Water supply planning
- Local land use planning
- Coastal zone management planning
- Flood control planning
- Forest management plans
- Water quality management (state, federal reqs)
In these cases, climate variability and change simply become additional facets to be considered in the planning process rather than the focus of the planning process in its entirety.
If detailed planning studies are not an option, some insight into the potential consequences of climate variability and change may be gained by examining how resources have been affected by past climatic events. How has a particular system responded during past El Niño years, for example, compared to normal years? Is the system sensitive to changes in temperature and/or precipitation? Consider the Snotel graphs for Ollalie Meadows, Washington (Figure 1 and Figure 2).
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Figure 1 Normal Conditions for Ollalie Meadows, WA (Water Year 1995). Temperature, precipitation (green lines), and snowpack (blue lines) were near normal during WY1995. Ollalie Meadows sits at an elevation of 3,700 feet.
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Figure 2 Unusually Warm Conditions for Ollalie Meadows, WA (Water Year 1992). Near normal precipitation (green lines) but temperature was +3.5°F (+1.9°C) warmer than usual, reducing total snowpack (blue lines).
Snowpack at Ollalie Meadows is noticeably sensitive to increases in temperature even when precipitation is normal. How were natural and human systems affected by these changed conditions? What stresses emerged during 1992 or similar years as a result of the warmer temperatures and/or loss in snowpack? How might this response differ in a decade if population growth is a concern? While this type of analysis provides only a rough approximation of what climate variability and climate change could mean for a particular area or resource, it does, nonetheless, provide some level of information from existing sources that may be helpful to planning purposes.
Technical planning studies can provide resource managers with important details on how climate variability and change can affect specific resources of interest, such as a municipal water supply or hydropower system. These studies allow researchers and resource managers to evaluate:
- how climate variability and change can affect resource availability and use,
- the effects of different management policies and infrastructure development, and
- the tradeoffs that may be required to balance different operating objectives.
Climate change studies frequently focus on changes projected for the decades of the 2020s and 2040s, time periods well within the planning horizon for many major planning efforts. Examples of technical planning studies conducted by the CIG and partner agencies are available.
More about Planning for Climate Variability and Change
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For additional information on, or assistance with, planning for climate variability and climate change, please contact CIG Outreach.