Solving Problems Through Adaptive Co-Management

 Sep 28, 2015    by Toni Klemm

Before doctoral students can embark on their research journey they have to pass a general exam, a one-week torture chamber to prove they know all about the methods and fields of science they will touch upon in their upcoming research. My research at the South Central Climate Science Center covers agriculture, climate modeling, statistics, GIS, and social science, so there’s lots to learn, and some of these fields don’t overlap a lot in their methods or language, to say the least. I’m developing tailored seasonal climate forecasts for agricultural producers in Oklahoma. Interdisciplinary research can be messy, stressful, confusing, and very time-consuming—maybe one reason why it is not for everyone. I find it fascinating, though, for exactly these reasons.

Conducting, facilitating and funding interdisciplinary research with scientists and stakeholders is one of the main purposes of the Climate Science Centers. One challenge with applied, interdisciplinary problems is actually solving them, providing solutions that people are happy with. Solving these sorts of problems involves getting diverse stakeholders to sit together at a table and understand each other’s perspectives, work together, learn from each other, and come out with practical solutions. This isn’t easy, as witnessed by the challenges involved in matching stakeholders’ needs with the sorts of products and insight researchers can provide, like the seasonal climate forecasts issued by the Climate Prediction Center (CPC). Many farmers and ranchers say these forecasts are unreliable, difficult to read, and don’t give them the information they need to make important decisions. They were developed in what some researchers call the “loading-dock approach”: putting information out on the loading dock, walking back inside, and waiting for people to pick it up and use it.

How do we improve on the loading-dock approach? One alternative is what social scientists call adaptive co-management, a combination of two techniques many people are already familiar with: co-management and adaptive management. Co-management describes the collaboration of different stakeholders whereas adaptive management describes flexible, adaptable procedures that incorporate feedback and can change over time through so-called dual-loop learning—basically learning by doing. Adaptive co-management, then, is decision-making among multiple stakeholders with trust, respect, and equal influence who acknowledge that any one result or solution is not the be-all and end-all to the problem but may need to change over time. Changes in farm management, new regulations, shifts in commodity prices, or advances in climate research (such as higher resolution climate models) can force all decision-makers to adapt to new conditions.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, various obstacles can prevent stakeholders from developing solutions, even when they use adaptive co-management strategies. Common stumbling blocks include preconceived attitudes about other stakeholders (often a result of unresolved conflicts from the past), unwillingness to share influence and power, inability to commit financial or human capital, or simply not understanding each others’ culture and language, literally and figuratively. This last one is a problem that often occurs when “western” scientists work with local experts in developing countries. Institutional mechanisms like meetings, translation, collaboration, and mediation can help develop solutions and products that all participants will eventually use, though none of these is a panacea.

Despite these obstacles, adaptive co-management strategies are already being successfully applied. The collaboration between the South Central Climate Science Center and the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative in restoring native grasslands, which Jessica wrote about last week, is one good example. So are NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment (RISA) teams, such as GLISA around the Great Lakes, SCIPP in the south-central US, or CLIMAS in Arizona, New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico. While the Climate Science Centers are more involved in climate science integration into adaptation and protection of natural and cultural resources, RISA teams work with a range of sectors, including public health, on climate risk management. The USDA Regional Climate Hubs help farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to adapt to climate variability and change. Internationally, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), based at New York’s Columbia University, works with stakeholders in developing countries on strategies to transfer climate science into risk assessment and mitigation.

Related material:

Cash et al. (2006): Countering the Loading-Dock Approach to Linking Science and Decision Making: Comparative Analysis of El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Forecasting Systems. Science, Technology & Human Values 31, p. 465-494.

Plummer & Armitage (2007): Charting the New Territory of Adaptive Co-management: A Delphi Study. Ecology and Society 12, article 10.

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Photo: Toni Klemm