NECAP Reflections

July 24, 2014

When your research project aims to have a real-world impact, you’ve got to work with real-world actors.  No, not the Hollywood kind.  I mean the citizens, professionals, and public officials that live, work, and play where the research is taking place.  These actors don’t read any scripts.  They don’t need to. They know their town, their streets, their neighbors, their laws, their politics, their rivers, and their beaches better than anyone else.  And they’re a researcher’s best friends.

When it comes to addressing complex issues like climate change, it’s all hands on deck.  Everyone will be affected by the problems, and everyone has something to contribute to the solutions.  For a researcher trying to develop tools to help communities prepare for climate impacts, the number of actors involved is daunting and exciting all at once – daunting because you know that there will be conflicting interests among the actors and diverse personalities, and exciting because you know that, through working together, communities can generate creative solutions that address all facets of the problem. 

Climate change impacts are likely to hit New England hard.  Floods, heatwaves, floods, sea level rise, and…did I mention floods?*  That’s why we’ve been working directly with citizens and experts in New England coastal towns to help them develop climate resilience strategies that are best suited for their locality and the specific challenges they face.  Bringing together National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) staff, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning students and faculty, Consensus-Building Institute (CBI) practitioners, University of New Hampshire (UNH) scientists and engineers, and municipal leaders from four coastal New England cities and towns, we have collectively embarked on a mission to find out how these vulnerable communities can brace themselves for the real and figurative “storms” that lie ahead. 

Our first step was to add more actors to the troupe.  We conducted a Stakeholder Assessment by collecting impressions and ideas from individuals and groups that have a role to play in local decisions around climate adaptation.  Our second step was to add even more actors to the crew.  We organized a series of workshops to engage over 100 people in each town in an exercise about local climate adaptation decision-making.  And now we want to add even more actors to the stage.  After nearly two years of research and data collection, we have results that we’re excited to share with these communities and with the world (stay tuned!). 

Planning for the potentially calamitous impacts of climate change requires collaboration, ingenuity, and courage.  It’s because of the active involvement of so many people in this project that we are now able to draw research conclusions that could help these towns and others confront that climate calamity with strength rooted in cooperation and community. Thanks to everyone in Barnstable, Dover, Cranston, and Wells who participated in our workshops last fall, and to all the people we’ve interviewed over the past year.  And thanks to our partner NERR sites, town staff, CBI specialists, and UNH experts for helping us bring this project to fruition.  Finally, thanks to the faculty and graduate students at MIT for their focused efforts on this project, day-in and day-out.  We may not be movie stars, but we’re all acting in the context of one of the most important stories of our time.  And efforts like this could mean the difference between a happy ending and an epic tragedy.

-Lisa Young