Monday, July 27, 2015

How do we adapt to climate change? - Collaboration!

In the discussion of dealing with the problem of climate change there are two major components to the conversation, which are mitigation and adaptation. The mitigation discussion focuses on actions we can take to prevent further climate change as a result of human actions. These actions include but are not limited to implementing renewable energy projects, limiting waste, protecting/enhancing forests, generally consuming less, and increasing energy and building efficiency.  The adaptation discussion, on the other hand, focuses on what we can do to adapt to the changes that are already happening as a result of the climatic change such as moving buildings away from rising seas, working to prepare for extreme weather events, and changing planting times to reflect the changes in growing seasons. This summer I am working on connecting farmers and ranchers to resources to help them adapt to climate change in Montana, and it is a more challenging task than I ever expected.

I started off my fellowship by reading hundreds of articles, stories and websites looking for how farmers and ranchers can adequately prepare for heat stress on their animals/crops, natural hazards (wildfire, flooding and drought), general changing weather patterns, and other things that the western US is expected to face as a result of climate change. There is a lot of information out there, but it is hard to see how a Montanan farmer or rancher would be able to use it for their specific operation in order to adapt to climate change. For them to "adapt" they need to be able to see what the potential impacts are for their location (ex: less snowpack in the next 5 years), understand the consequences of those impacts (ex: less snowpack means less water later in the summer), and then react to that information by changing their practices on the ground (ex: switching to center pivot irrigation, using a drought resistant crop, working with others to distribute water rights). It is incredibly challenging to find this information, apply it to the operation, and then make changes that a farmer or rancher may have no experience with, which makes it risky and could lead to financial loss.

It is clear that the only way that farmers are going to be able to adequately adapt is if the information is easily available and applicable to their operation, translated, and there are resources to address their specific concerns to mitigate some of the risk that comes with making changes (online and through people like extension agents). However, to do this well will require information and effort on the part of non-governmental entities, universities, extension, and state/federal agencies because they each hold or could create resources that could help farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change that are specific to Montana. This is where collaboration comes into play.

This past month, my colleagues and I have been working on bringing together people from around the state to utilize their resources collaboratively in order to provide the best service to farmers and ranchers with the end goal of helping them adapt. We have been talking to the Montana State Climate Office, the Institute on Ecosystems, the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, Montana Farmers Union, Montana State University Extension, and several state agencies, as a start, to see how we can build this resource together. It has been an interesting challenge to propose this idea, help entities get the information about the needs on the ground, and then think about what resources need to be created to address those needs. For example, the Institute on Ecosystems is developing a state climate assessment and in order to create an assessment that collects the information that producers need, they need to talk to producers to see what their needs are, and Montana State University Extension can help with that.

Additionally, this idea has grown beyond just agriculture to Forestry, Water, and Agriculture in order to help transition Montana natural resource management as a whole to adapt to climate change. The team that helped develop the US National Climate Assessment is consulting the Institute on Ecosystems to develop the Montana Climate Assessment, and they emphasized the importance of having local information and tools to react to that local information. They also indicated that thus far there has been no state in the US that has developed a climate assessment targeted towards managers on the ground with resources attached to that assessment to help the manage make adaptation decisions. So this is a huge opportunity for Montana, and a collaborative resource/initiative like this can act as a template for other states to use as they also create tools for resource managers to adapt to climate change.

It has been very interesting to see how a state is dealing with an abstract concept like adaptation and making it into a reality. I am in the right place at the right time to watch all this unfold, and to be able to contribute to the dialogue/coordinate this effort as a part of my fellowship. It is an exciting process that changes every week, but is full of potential and promise.

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