Science-policy connections to improve responses to extreme climatic events: Briefings requested—quickly!

(part of the Spring 2014 Collaborative Explorations: Science in a Changing World series)

A Collaborative Exploration (CE) in which participants investigate science-policy connections that could improve responses to extreme climatic events..
  • In brief, CEs are an extension of Problem- or Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry and developing their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). (For more background, read the prospectus.)
  • If you want to know what a CE requires of you, review the expectations and mechanics.
    • on hangout for 1 hour each week Thursday at 4.30pm (US EST), May 8, 15, 22, 29. The URL for the first hangout will be provided only to those who register (via, which entails making a commitment to attend that 1st session and at least 2 of the other 3 hangouts.
  • If you are wondering how to define a meaningful and useful approach to the topic, let us present a scenario for the CE and hope this stimulates you to apply to participate. We will then let CE participants judge for themselves whether their inquiries are relevant.
  • Intended outcomes for participants of this CE are of two kinds:
    • a) tangible: a briefing that provides or point to key resources concerning the science-policy connections involved in improving responses to extreme climatic events; and
    • b) experiential: being impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants.

Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee breaches made clear that FEMA had suffered from political/crony appointments of inexperienced people to leadership positions and large cuts to budgets for disaster mitigation [1]. Political “accountability” should concern both sides of being responsible—accepting blame for mistakes and taking steps to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated. Subsequent disasters (not all climate-related) continue to capture headlines and demand emergency measures, but there is a need to make well-focused contributions to discussions of how to make better policy and plans for the long-term future. This view has become more widely spoken since Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast of the USA in 2012, but has been promoted by some commentators since at least the late 1980s.

Tightening long-term projections [of climate change] or highlighting their severity is not… the only means by which policy responses to climate change could be catalyzed. As political scientist Glantz has observed, extreme climate-related events, such as droughts, storms, and floods, already elicit socio-political responses that can be relatively easily studied.[3] Recent and historical cases of climatic-related "natural hazards" shed light on the impact of different emergency plans, investment in infrastructure and its maintenance, and reconstruction schemes. Policymakers, from the local level up, can learn "by analogy" from experience and prepare for future crises. Glantz' approach is valuable whether or not these crises increase in frequency (or are already increasing in frequency) as a result of global climate change. Instead of emphasizing the investigation of physical processes and waiting for uncertainty to be eliminated before action is taken from the top, this approach calls for systematic analysis of effective versus vulnerable institutional arrangements. Such discussion of specific, local responses to climate change has been occurring. Nevertheless, the vast majority of funds for global change research is currently being devoted to improving GCMs and allied climatic studies (Taylor and Buttel 1992).

In this light imagine that we--the participants in the case--have been contacted by a national policy analysis group that aims to get political authorities and political groups—which might be anywhere from the town level to the international, from the elected to the voluntary—interested in learning about how best to respond to extreme climatic events and pushing for changes in policy, budgets, organization, and so on. It should be possible to engage people who still resist the idea of human-induced climate change—after all, whatever its specific cause, events such as Hurricane Katrina, record 2005 snowfall in Boston area, Vermont floods in 2011, Superstorm Sandy, and so on have to be dealt with.

What this group is asking us is that we investigate the science-policy connections involved in improving responses to extreme climatic events. They want us to step back from specific disasters and, instead, look at whoat various levels of political organization and decision making—needs to know what kinds of things that different natural and social sciences have learned (or could learn if appropriate short- or long-term research were undertaken) and how that knowledge can be made available to them. (They are especially concerned to be guided about how to think about the uncertainties of predictions or scenarios for the future and the uncertainties about causes.)

The short time we have for the task matches the group’s interest in making an informed and informative contribution to public discussion in the aftermath of the limited results of the United Nations Climate Change conference in Warsaw in November last. Given the short time, there is no expectation that we will produce a definitive, everything-wrapped-up report. Rather, the group imagines that we can provide “briefings” that provide or point to key resources (e.g., issues, concepts, arguments, evidence, references, websites, summaries of case studies, quotes, images, organizations, people to contact, research already under way, research questions and proposals)—Exactly what might be a "resource" concerning science for someone involved in policy is up to us to decide, but surely it will vary depending on who the intended audience is for each briefing.

For an example of a briefing, see Jan Coe's handouts at and the description of her work as a student on a similar case at

Imagine, meanwhile, that the national group is soliciting others to brief them on aspects of responding to extreme climatic events that do not involve connecting science and policy.

1. Elliston, J. (2004), “Disaster in the making,” Independent Weekly, Sept. 22 (viewed 5 Sep ’05)
2. Taylor, P. J. and F. H. Buttel (1992). "How do we know we have global environmental problems? Science and the globalization of environmental discourse." Geoforum 23(3): 405-416.
3. Glantz, M. ed. (1989). Societal Responses to Regional Climactic Change: Forecasting by Analogy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.