Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in the Interior West: Using Scenario-building to Investigate Community Decision-Making under Uncertainty

Lead PIs:

Laurie Yung, Department of Society and Conservation, University of Montana
Dan Murphy, Department of Anthropology, University of Cincinnati
Carina Wyborn, Department of Society and Conservation, University of Montana
Dan Williams, USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station


Cory Cleveland, Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, University of Montana
Solomon Dobrowski, Department of Forest Management, University of Montana
Lisa Eby, Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, University of Montana
Paul Lachapelle, Department of Political Science and Extension, Montana State University
Elizabeth Shanahan, Department of Political Science, Montana State University

Supported by:

USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station
University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation
University of Montana Institute on Ecosystems/NSF EPSCoR

Project description:

Montana landscapes face a myriad of ecological and socioeconomic threats due to climate change.  Rural communities within these landscapes are already being forced to adapt to and cope with changes, such as prolonged drought, insect and disease outbreaks, changing fire regimes, extreme weather events, lower late summer stream flow, and shifts in recreation and tourism. This interdisciplinary project links possible climate change impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems with social vulnerability and community adaptive capacity.  In developing participatory scenarios of landscape change with local communities, this research will investigate individual and community understandings of and approaches to vulnerability and adaptive capacity, including how perceptions of risk, institutional dynamics, and governance arrangements impact potential opportunities and constraints to community decision-making in the context of uncertainty. Because the scenario building requires the integration of local and community knowledge with scientific understandings of ecological change, project PIs include both social and natural scientists.  This novel methodological technique, which we call iterative, multi-scaled scenario-building, is designed to illicit perceptions of decision-making processes, and the resources, networks, and institutions necessary for particular courses of adaptive action. 

This research is designed to advance our understanding of community vulnerability and adaptive capacity in the context of climate change.  More specifically, we will (1) build knowledge about the nature of socio-ecological vulnerability at individual, group, and community scales, (2) improve our understanding of the resources, social networks, and institutions that contribute to adaptive capacity, (3) develop, pilot, and refine innovative research methods that integrate social and ecological understandings of landscape change and the outcomes of various adaptation actions, and (4) determine the usefulness, practicality, and scalability of scenario-building exercises for integration into Forest Service rapid vulnerability assessment procedures and climate change planning. 

In addition to the above, the project will result in the following benefits/outcomes: (1) Provide managers a better understanding of local communities, including institutional and governance constraints and opportunities and community perceptions of risk and uncertainty, (2) Shift focus from past vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities to future vulnerabilities and capacities, including sources of conflict and avenues for collective action, (3) Provide initial assessments of ecological and social impacts of possible adaptive actions, and (4) Facilitate community engagement regarding possible ecological futures.  Research is currently being conducted in the Big Hole Valley in southwestern Montana.  Pending funding, the project will expand to study sites in Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming.