Our Work in Spokane Continues

(A note to our email subscribers: this post was published on August 19, 2019.) 

As part of CIRC’s Spokane Community Adaptation Project (SCAP), our team of climate researchers has been advising community members in Spokane, Washington as they create a climate vulnerability assessment for the Spokane region.

Project participants will be presenting these findings at the Spokane REI on August 20, 2019. The talk will offer an introduction to the SCAP effort as well as an introduction to CIRC’s Northwest Climate Toolbox, our suite of free online tools that has been key to the SCAP effort.

This blog offers a glimpse at SCAP and its findings as well as some advice for other academic groups similar to CIRC that work with community members on climate assessment efforts.

Over the years, CIRC has learned that working with communities to produce science together —coproduction in the academic jargon—can be a difficult process.  We hope the advice we offer here will help others assess how not to go wrong (and maybe do something right) when pursuing efforts similar to CIRC’s.

Let’s start by talking about what the SCAP effort has produced.

The Executive Summary

In the spring of this year, SCAP participants completed the first part of what will become a climate vulnerability and resilience assessment for the Spokane community.

SCAP participants presented their primarily findings at the Spokane River Forum in April of this year. An official document, The Executive Summary to the Spokane Climate Vulnerability and Resilience Assessment, was presented to the Spokane City Council in June of this year.

The Executive Summary was created using CIRC’s Northwest Climate Toolbox. In a nutshell, SCAP participants learned how to use the Toolbox, examining how climatic factors, such as projected changes in temperature, streamflow, and mountain snowpack are likely to affect them in the future. Then SCAP participants went the extra mile, researching impacts to local wildlife and interviewing local businesses about how these climatic changes could impact their livelihoods.

The Executive Summary compiles what the CIRC team is calling climate data stories, narratives outlining the climate impacts and trends SCAP participants determined were most relevant to them. (If your research team is working with communities, feel free to use the idea of climate data stories in your work. Just do us a solid and cite us.)

Climate data stories covered in the Executive Summary include how rising temperatures will likely lead to more heat-related illnesses during Spokane’s annual Lilac Bloomsday Run, a seven-and-a-half mile run that draws roughly 50,000 participants and raises money for charities; how wildfires will likely impact the region’s many forests; how whitewater sports and Redband Trout habitat will be impacted by low flows expected on the Spokane River, and how Spokane-area ski resorts might still be viable if we start to collectively cut our greenhouse gas emissions and slow warming and how these businesses probably won’t be if we do nothing to cut emissions and as a consequence warming is allowed to continue at its current high rate.

For each climate data story, SCAP participants identified a set of resiliency actions designed to make their community more resilient in the face of climate changes. For instance, to respond to rising temperatures on Bloomsday, the Executive Summary recommends more training and equipment for first responders treating heat stress.

How Spokane community members came to these results requires a little backstory…

SCAP’s Backstory

The Executive Summary comes out of nearly a year-and-a-half of cooperation between CIRC and the community of Spokane. We’re thankful to have a group of dedicated community member willing to work through the “getting-to-know-you” phase to coproduce some very unique products with our team. We especially want to thank this cadre of individuals for steering our joint effort in the right direction. That steering began with the tools we built.

Over the past four years, the CIRC team created and refined The Northwest Climate Toolbox, our suite of free, evidence-based, online climate applications. From the start, our goal with the Toolbox had been to put its tools into the hands of a community eager to address climate change. So, when in 2017 we launched the SCAP effort, we thought we had it made. We had an eager community. We had the Toolbox. But…we were wrong.

Initially, many on the CIRC team believed that we could simply introduce SCAP participants to the Toolbox and set them free to fiddle with the Toolbox’s many tools—replete with their own bells and whistles and specialized terms—and, you know, see what happens—easy peasy.

We wanted SCAP participants to set some goals and use the Toolbox to determine what climate and weather impacts their community was most vulnerable to as well as what actions they might take to increase resiliency in the face of those impacts. What we didn’t anticipate is how difficult it was going to be to get people to, as our team puts it, “think inside the Toolbox.”

CIRC’s Curse of Knowledge

Through discussion with SCAP participants, it became clear that we had created a set of tools that was simply not intuitive enough for the average SCAP user. We also knew that we weren’t working with just any set of users off the street. Many SCAP participants have advanced degrees, understand and have used the scientific method, have worked with datasets, and/or work in resource management. It was and is an ideal group to work with. But, as so often happens with experts, the CIRC team assumed that because we had spent hundreds of hours engineering, designing, and using the Toolbox that somehow people in Spokane who hadn’t put in those same long hours could use the Toolbox just as easily as we could. We found ourselves suffering from the old curse of knowledge. It was a problem we worked hard to correct.

The Northwest Climate Toolbox Workbook

Our solution? We created a guide to the Toolbox.

The Northwest Climate Toolbox Workbook: Discovering and applying your climate data story for climate adaptation planning provides step-by-step instructions for using the Northwest Climate Toolbox to create climate data stories. (Again, these are narratives outlining the climate impacts and trends relevant to local communities.) The idea of climate data stories—when we finally got there—seemed to energize the individuals participating in SCAP.

Of course, the Workbook didn’t start out with the idea of climate data stories. Instead the Workbook went through several drafts that our Spokane stakeholders graciously beta-tested with us. For instance, the Workbook initially focused on the bells and whistles of how to navigate the Toolbox.

The problem, we eventually realized, was that without a goal to focus on, all the work of learning to use the Toolbox felt cumbersome rather than empowering to our participants.

The bells, whistles, and data were simply more tools, not the goal.

The goal, we came to understand, was helping Spokane community members to discover how their concerns about their community played out in the data that the Toolbox helped them to visualize. The bells and whistle were just a means to that ends. That’s when we came up with the idea of climate data stories.  This not only energized our stakeholders, helping them find their stories within the Toolbox’s tools and data, it also seemed to take away some of the burden of learning to think inside the Toolbox.

 Next Steps

What’s incredible about the people CIRC worked with in Spokane is not only how they took our work and ran with it, but also their commitment to the effort.

SCAP started with a good deal of skepticism from participants about what CIRC could do for them and how realistic the NOAA RISA model of community-based science really was. This skepticism subsided while using the Workbook. Once SCAP participants were actively researching and writing their own climate data stories, they began to own the effort, including the outreach SCAP participants are now doing.

We are truly humbled to be working with such a wonderful group of individuals. And we are grateful for what they have taught us.

Please come check out their work at REI in Spokane on August 20, 2019.

And if you’ve got a moment, please read the full Executive Summary.

Ann Mooney is CIRC’s Project Manager and Stakeholder Engagement Specialist. She is currently leading CIRC’s Spokane Community Adaptation Project and is the lead author on the The Northwest Climate Toolbox WorkbookPrior to CIRC, Ann worked with communities in Southeast Asia as part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) efforts to protect local fishing communities and the coastal ecosystems they depend on.

Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writerOther posts by this Author.

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