Research Summary

Communities, collaboration, and climate change adaptation: Case studies from coastal Maine and Oregon

Coastal community groups focus on adaptation in climate change discussion

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Given the increasing threat of climate change to coastal communities in the U.S., many local groups in these regions are focusing attention and resources on helping their communities adapt to climate change. Research on the science of climate change adaptation is plentiful, but research on the social and collaborative processes of climate change adaptation is lacking. This study explored how coastal community groups organized and worked together to address climate change adaptation.

The authors studied four coastal groups working on climate adaptation projects: two in Maine and two in Oregon. The projects were selected based on scale, accessibility, and purpose. Of the 52 total participants in the groups, 39 agreed to be interviewed by the authors. Interviewees included community members; local, state, and national officials; city and regional planners; NGO representatives; and a university researcher. The interviews lasted 30-90 minutes and questions were structured around four categories of group interaction:
Functional questions explored the purpose of and motives for stakeholder participation.
Organizational questions asked about group roles, norms, and structure.
Epistemological questions probed how knowledge and learning functioned in the group.
Discursive questions explored the role that climate change played in group discussions.
The authors recorded, transcribed, and analyzed the interviews for themes.

From a functional perspective, the authors found that group members were motivated to participate by their concern for the environment and their desire to learn more about climate change. However, they also found that participants were more interested in the process of collaborating with community members than specifically working on climate issues. Interviewees indicated that they were primarily interested in discussing ways their communities could adapt to local climate change impacts, such as increased frequency and severity of flooding. They were less inclined to discuss climate change mitigation actions, such as reducing fossil fuel use. Further, they preferred not to discuss climate science (as it related to mitigation) given the contentious nature of the topic.

Organizationally, the study found that participants were committed to serving longer terms if they had meaningful roles in the group and if they felt accepted by other group members. Group leaders stated that they wanted to be considered facilitators of a collaborative effort rather than administrative leaders.

From an epistemological perspective, participants indicated that their involvement in local adaptation groups enabled them to learn more about their communities, adaptation strategies, and scientific issues related to the impacts of climate change. Participants expressed appreciation for the rich discussions generated during group meetings, and they indicated that they valued both scientific/technical expertise and local historical perspectives. Participants used the two types of knowledge to complement and support their assertions throughout group work.

Finally, participants indicated that group discussions focused primarily on local adaptation to climate change, rather than global mitigation. To avoid contentious discussions, the groups did not discuss climate change itself, but rather they focused on the local impacts of climate change. In this way they ensured that members did not have to agree on the drivers of climate change to participate.

The study was limited in several ways. The authors did not include the age of participants, which could be an important consideration since climate change beliefs vary generationally. Additionally, the findings of this study are specific to the four cases examined; the same study in a different location with a different group of people would likely yield different results. Additionally, the short-term nature of this study did not provide any insights into the long-term impacts of collaborative adaptation work.

The authors recommend increasing group participation by identifying stakeholders interested in climate change adaptation and framing the group as a learning opportunity. They also recommend that group organizers market the group as a collaborative experience. Finally, the authors recommend that groups prioritize learning more about the causes and long-term impacts of climate change rather than focusing exclusively on adaptation efforts.

The Bottom Line

The authors conducted interviews with 39 participants from four climate change adaptation groups in coastal communities in Oregon and Maine. They found that the groups attracted participants interested in a collaborative experience and in learning about local climate change adaptation. The authors recommend that similar groups initiate more discussions about the drivers of climate change (without minimizing discussions of local adaptation issues) to improve the capacity of climate change adaptation groups.