Using Scenarios to Explore Climate Change: A Handbook for Practitioners

Posted on: 10/30/2013 - Updated on: 3/06/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg



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.

Affiliated Organizations

The U.S. Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation's natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated Island Communities. The Interior heads eight technical bureaus: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Minerals Management Service, National Park Service, Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S.


Document Type
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy