We need a global collection of local scenarios

Jenny Seifert & Stephen Carpenter
University of Wisconsin, USA

Global environmental change is a complex problem, which is no news to this blog’s readers. We all grapple with the near-paralyzing uncertainty that comes with studying and solving the challenges associated with a changing climate, shifting land use and fickle human demands—challenges that span time and geographic scales, and could be addressed in as many ways as there are perspectives in this world.

An approach to reining in this complexity is the co-development of scenarios by researchers and stakeholders. These provocative yet plausible stories about the future are valuable tools for resilience planning because they synthesize complex information accessibly, lean into the uncertainty, create public engagement opportunities, and provide a credible and relevant foundation for quantitative analyses and modeling efforts.

Scenarios are provocative, plausible stories about the future that can aid resilience planning.

While perspectives on how to go about developing scenarios are also numerous, there is a growing consensus on the need to integrate global scenarios, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with regional scenarios in order to enhance their relevance to decision makers.

Herein lies an opportunity for cities worldwide.

Scenarios can facilitate thinking about and planning for the resilience of cities, which have additional complexities. Cities are open systems that depend on other regions for resources and waste disposal. They are also highly connected to outside regions via demographics, economics and social factors.

At the recent meeting of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in Malaysia, scenarios were on the discussion table. Biodiversity and ecosystem services, or the benefits people get from nature, are inherently local or regional. Global climate change, markets, demographics and social trends certainly influence them, but the capacity to produce and protect them is dependent on local variables such as culture, politics, wealth distribution and the characteristics of regional ecological systems. Global scenarios are simply not capable of capturing the diverse in situ features of specific places around the world.

For this reason, a team of scenarios researchers recently presented a strong recommendation in Sustainability Science that IPBES adopt a hybrid approach that harmonizes local/regional stakeholder-driven scenarios with global drivers from the IPCC scenarios and other global scenarios projects. Kok and colleagues argue a “bottom-up” strategy is best suited to ensure scenarios are relevant tools for making decisions to sustain or enhance local biodiversity and ecosystem services.

We agree and add that, regardless of the approach IPBES adopts, there is tremendous value in building a collection of regional scenarios that capture key features of the local society and ecosystems, and integrate those with global changes. Such an approach makes global issues locally relevant and is well positioned to bridge research and decision-making around building place-based resilience for ecosystems and communities.

An exemplary scenarios project that integrates a local, stakeholder-driven process with global drivers is Yahara 2070. Created by a research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, of which we are part, this set of regional scenarios depicts four possible futures for ecosystem services and human well-being in the Yahara River Watershed of Wisconsin, USA.

Yahara 2070 is a set of four scenarios for the Yahara River Watershed in Wisconsin, USA. Illustrations by John Miller.

More than a quarter of this region is urban, and it is home to the state’s capital city, Madison. But nearly half of the watershed is farmland, mainly dairy and corn. The coexistence of a growing urban area and productive farmland is important to our local economy and culture, but it is also at the root of many challenges to sustaining our ecosystem services. Notably, centuries of agricultural and urban runoff have severely harmed the quality of the region’s freshwater lakes and waterways and put the resilience of its land, water and communities at risk.

This local challenge is also under the influence of global drivers. Current market demands for dairy products and corn are at odds with the ability to improve water quality. Climate change could worsen problems by bringing more rains and runoff and by making lake water warmer and, thus, more inviting to the toxic algae that plague it. Moreover, an invasive species has already eliminated an important native species that eats lake algae, worsening water quality.

With these local issues and global drivers as context, our research team took a bottom-up, participatory approach to generate the Yahara 2070 scenarios. We started by developing stories about four different futures for the watershed, which are based on interviews and workshops conducted with over 80 local people who have a vested interest in land and water issues, such as farmers, County government employees and local developers. Their perspectives about the future were also interwoven with the global scenarios literature.

The resulting stories capture local and global trends and ideas about how the region could address land and water resilience over the next two generations. For example, in one scenario, a global values shift toward less consumption drives local land use toward denser cities, smaller and more diverse farms, and more natural space—a storyline that reflects both local visions and global movements like the Great Transition.

Our quantitative analyses enrich these storylines. We translated the stories into numbers our computer models could calculate by developing quantitative trajectories, or “driver curves,” for regional changes in climate, land use, and agricultural practices that either appear in or can be implied by the stories (see Carpenter et al., 2015).

Spanning the local and global was particularly important when creating the climate driver curves. This entailed using downscaled global climate scenarios for the region, derived from IPCC data and a weather generator, to ensure the future climates portrayed are consistent with the global context.

Climate driver curves, such as this one for the aforementioned values scenario, downscale global data to the regional level. Figure by Eric Booth

Our models then simulated these trajectories to provide a year-by-year snapshot of the consequences for the region’s ecosystem services to the year 2070. The results, which are still in analysis, are revealing important implications for how climate and land-use changes could affect our ecosystem services in the future and what that means for how we might move forward today.

Yahara 2070 is already showing its potential as a relevant and useful tool for local decision-making and public engagement. Our model results will affect local efforts to sustain or improve ecosystem services. For example, they have shown us just how difficult it will be to clean up our lakes in the next couple of generations and what ecological barriers stand in the way. While this is not the news anyone wants to hear, these results can help set expectations, guide policies and programs, and fuel urgency for action.

We have also been working in partnership with local entities to generate public discussion around creating a desirable future for the region’s water and people, using the scenarios as conversation catalysts. Our goal is to increase the salience of long-term thinking, a necessary skill for resilience planning.

Thus, the hybrid approach suggested by Kok et al. is feasible, as Yahara 2070 exemplifies, and shows promise as a tool for cities interested in resilience planning. And, should more cities take this approach, a collection of regional scenarios could not only benefit the long-term health of ecosystems and people in those places, but could also stimulate a groundswell of long-term thinking across the globe and populate the collective psyche with many, diverse stories about what kind of future we want to build together.


Jenny Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the Water Sustainability and Climate Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Steven Carpenter

Stephen Carpenter is a principal investigator on the same project and the director of the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.


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