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Using Scenarios to Explore Climate Change: A Handbook for Practitioners

Created: 10/30/2013 - Updated: 2/12/2019


National park environments are characterized by dynamic landscapes. Tides ebb and surge along shifting coastlines. Wildfires and diseases invade forests. Wind and water erode historic structures. Plant populations adapt, animals migrate to survive, and humans adjust. However, a rapidly changing climate is triggering even more alterations, forcing cautious confrontation and thoughtful response.

Careful stewardship of natural and cultural resources is being challenged by the accelerated rate at which scientific information must be acquired, understood, and conveyed. Successful action in the face of climate change requires not only greater understanding of scientific data, but also using this understanding to adaptively lead by example in park operations, facility management, and communications.

Climate change adaptation requires us to continue to learn from the past, but be “forward looking,” anticipate plausible but unprecedented conditions, and expect surprises. In this context, we must revisit our management goals and “desired conditions,” since frequently these describe our expectations based on historic conditions. To that end, scenario work explores and describes characteristics of several plausible futures, enabling managers to consider how to define and meet their goals (desired conditions) under changing, and new circumstances.

This handbook describes the five-step process for developing multivariate climate change scenarios taught by the Global Business Network (GBN) during a series of training workshops hosted by the National Park Service in 2010 and 2011. The authors created this guide as a reference for workshop participants who possess some familiarity with scenario planning. The process featured in this manual is not a definitive method for building climate change scenarios, since many valid methods exist to develop climate change scenarios. The technique presented here is just one effective and proven approach.

Detailed instructions are provided on how to accomplish each step of the five-step scenario building process. Appendices include a hypothetical scenario exercise that demonstrates how to implement the process, some early examples of how national parks are using climate change scenarios to inform planning and decision making, and advice on designing and facilitating scenario workshops.

This Handbook for Practitioners may be used as a reference when designing scenarios and scenario exercises. The process is flexible, not rigid. Participants are encouraged to explore or develop new techniques. Building scenarios is a dynamic, flexible, iterative practice that you can tailor to fit your needs.

Published On

Monday, July 15, 2013


Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy: 
Conduct scenario planning exercise

Related Resources

Scenario Planning in Joshua Tree National Park

Photo attributed to Nyenyec (assumed based on copyright claims). Incorporated here under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. No endorsement by licensor implied.

Case Study

Joshua Tree National Park was selected by the National Park Service for a climate change scenario planning process because of the inherent threat climate change poses to the park and because of the importance of understanding fire regimes, invasive species, and climate change interactions.

Climate Change Scenario Planning Workshop: Joshua Tree National Park and Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

Photo attributed to Robb Hannawacker. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No endorsement implied. 

Sector Addressed: 
Conservation / Restoration