Scenes from a warming climate

Collecting the pieces

At this point in my ongoing series about scenarios for a warming climate, I will stitch together the previous seven episodes.

This is Part 1, which sets the scene and develops the storyline

For several months, I have been building a framework for crafting stories about our climate future. These stories are critical in planning for and adapting to Earth’s evolving climate. I hope to reveal ways to gain some control over the disruptions caused by climate change and make things less scary.

At the edge of the Dark Woods

Mountain range

On one of his trips outside Colorado, author Rood shot this image at the edge of Nebraska. (Image courtesy of Rood.)

Have you ever seen a western where the hero walks out of town in a direction he doesn’t usually go? He crosses a stream, travels over some gentle hills, and then he sees it: the edge of the desert. It extends infinitely to the right, left, and straight ahead. The sky is smeared. Against all odds, a higher cause compels our hero to cross the barren landscape.

Everyone knows the journey is impossible, yet there he goes, brimming with absolute faith in providence and himself. It’s a tale as old as the Odyssey. No matter what form the wilderness takes – unforgiving desert, mysterious swamps, turbulent seas, or even the yellow brick road – the path presents problem after problem as one traverses the unknown.

Consider a more common wilderness that we’ll call the Dark Woods. There are some enticing trails at the edge. As we step in, we encounter some familiar things: trees, shrubs, streams, and squirrels. But somewhere in the Dark Woods, those trails will become overgrown. We have heard that if we continue forward, there will be overwhelming danger and, perhaps, vast reward. The tension keeps us alert and invested.

Some never want to step into the Dark Woods. Others cannot resist.

Into the Dark Woods

Our warming climate places us on the edge of a climate wilderness similar to those Dark Woods.

We have spent the last 10,000 years learning to live with our weather and climate. Weather informs our architecture, our agriculture, our commerce. We’ve had tremendous success building civilizations, accumulating wealth, and growing the world’s human population.

Our successes, however, have created new challenges. We are changing the climate. We are making it warmer.

To our credit, we are aware of that fact and know why. We even have a fuzzy vision of the future. Today, we have no choice but to step into the climate wilderness.

Time has placed us at the edge of the Dark Woods, where the trails are barely visible. There is much that is familiar and some that is alien. We can tap into our faith in providence and ourselves, staggering as the trails disappear into the overgrowth. Or we can lay out plausible paths to navigate that wilderness using our collective wits and knowledge. We can create plans.

Road maps, guides, and scouts

Perhaps it is the old NASA employee in me, but I prefer to think through plausible and likely plans, paths, and perils.

When I start a trip out of Colorado, I look at a map. Lines represent the major roads; the minor roads are not drawn. I see forks and turns. Nebraska is laid out in front of me, essentially unchanging. A simple road sign can be an adequate guide.

If I go down the wrong fork in the road, I can always turn back. This is good because I like to explore the minor roads, even turning down the dirt routes that branch off minor roads. I regroup and recover all the time.

My plans change if I know a blizzard is on its way. I consider the impact and prepare for different driving conditions. The roads could be dangerous, even deadly. A weather forecast provides guidance; I consider different routes and pack blankets.

Often, I see climate uncertainty described as “making decisions at a fork in the road.” We argue that knowledge and good road signs will help us make better decisions — perhaps good decisions, maybe even the right decisions.

Graphic depicts a forked road with three options: forward, left, and right

The fork in the road requires us to consider multiple paths. (Graphic courtesy of Rood.)

People often ask similar questions about the changing climate: What will climate change do? What should I plan for? Which path should I choose?

It turns out that comparing climate uncertainty to forks in the road is not really the right comparison because choosing one, single climate path is not usually the correct answer. If, in the past, we had to prepare for drought and flood, then we have to do the same in the future.

Consider this image of a forked path leading us through our climate wilderness. One fork leads to a climate that is getting wetter; the other is getting drier. All are getting warmer.

We need a guide to evaluate multiple paths because we will experience multiple paths. If we apply this metaphor to my trip through Nebraska, I will travel multiple trips, so I better be ready to explore many roads.

Rules to get us started

Here are two important rules for developing stories for climate futures.

The Rule of Complexity tells us there is no one thing that climate change will do.

The Rule of Change tells us that what is true for the next 30 years might not be true for the 30 years that follow.

The rule of complexity says we must choose multiple options. This does not fit with our sensibilities that at a point of decision, a direction is determined. The second rule emphasizes that we cannot just make a decision and consider the job done. We are in a time of constant change, not in a transition from some old climate to some new one.

Nothing is fixed on this journey; it is like Nebraska is changing before my eyes as I drive through a blizzard. I’m on the same roads I always take. I’m moving in the same direction. The roads feel unfamiliar, though. They might even be impossible to find.

Narrowing the narrative

Barren Nebraska landscape

When crafting climate scenarios, it’s important to look at what is on the surface around you, the author says. (Image courtesy of Rood.)

We need a way to narrow the climate story and make it relevant to our lives.

An excellent first step in narrowing the story is to make the problem more concrete. It needs to be accurate. Think about your personal experiences with weather. Ask yourself: Have I or my community been damaged; how have I been vulnerable to weather?

A simple climate change story emerges from this exercise. What would happen if the same weather event occurred in the future but was more extreme than in the past?

This should also provide a starting point that reveals new vulnerabilities. It helps to see the physical nature of the threat (drought, fire, flood) and it exposes the capacity to respond and, perhaps, prevent future occurrences.

Another early step is to look at what is on the surface around you. For example, how much of the surface is paved, and what happens to rainfall during a storm? Are you on the coast? Or, if you live in a region that experiences “fire season,” what are the sources of potential fuel? These questions help prioritize how weather will affect you and how changes in weather will affect you.

Managing uncertainty

The goal is to find at least one adaptation issue to address. More than one is better because we can analyze tradeoffs. One, however, will get us started.

To advance how to build the story, I will pick a problem that is relevant to me — a coastal community. We’ll call it Floodtown, and it has had recurrent floods in the last 15 years.

Problem statement: How do we manage excess water in Floodtown as Earth warms?

Because of the rule of change, this is not a problem we can solve and walk away from. Adapting will be an ongoing activity in Floodtown. This is especially true on the coast because of the rising sea level.

How do we manage the rule of complexity? One way is to design a set of scenarios that plausibly bring in excess water. This could be intense rainfall, rising sea or lake levels, rain on accumulated snowpack, or persistent rain over several weeks. They all bring floods, but they require different strategies for water management.

What is plausible? Though there are many possible experiences in the climate wilderness, it remains true that weather will continue to behave according to the laws of physics. The previous columns have included how those laws shape climate in a warming future, and I will use them in the next column.

This storytelling approach is called scenario planning. It has many applications in business and government. It allows analysis of consequences and responses. Well-designed scenarios help to manage uncertainty.

What I have done here is to frame the paths through the climate wilderness differently. By picking the problem of managing excess water, I have limited the relevant climate storylines. Like my routes across Nebraska, the project management tasks for water management in Floodtown are reasonably well defined. By having a set of scenarios, I can plan and design for different contingencies, much like managing a blizzard on my drive across Nebraska.

The next entry in this series will start by developing four scenarios for bringing excess water to Floodtown and thinking about those scenarios in terms of past vulnerabilities and future risks.
(Lead image of Nebraska’s Toadstool Geologic Park courtesy of Ricky Rood.)


  1. Marijo Wunderlich - '82 School of Public Health

    This reminds me of a stochastic tool taught by Dr. Robert Gross in the SPH.
    The researcher chooses a geographic area (mine was in Bolivia) with data re: morbidity and mortality. Then researcher develops various Public Health interventions/programs that one can estimate impact/outcomes in terms of morbidity and mortality.
    Population affected, $ allocated at varying levels and feasibility/coverage are plugged into model to help decision-makers (Ministry of Health) asses choices. Cost efficiencies and effectiveness could then be determined.
    Was a great exercise and many Ministry of Health staff from developing countries utilized model as aid to decision-making in their home countries.
    Dr. Gross was a great prof known for his “steel trap” mind that brought clarity and rigor to real world decisions.


    • Richard Rood - Never graduated


      thanks for the comment. I love finding links across fields. I often use public health as a model for engagement and knowledge us that is more mature than climate change science.

      I had never thought of this as a stochastic tool.


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