Scenario Planning

Climate, Forests and Woodlands June 21, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF

Adapted from Waser, K., 2009, Scenario Planning and the National Park Service (Aug. 12, 2009) Southwest Climate Change Network, University of Arizona

When uncertainty is high and few opportunities exist to influence the local pressures brought by global change, scenario planning can offer a way to explore various outcomes in an effort to adapt to climate change. Scenario planning is “a systematic method for thinking creatively about possible complex and uncertain futures” (Peterson et al. 2003). The authors suggest the technique offers managers a means for developing more robust conservation stratgies in the face of climate change.

Scenario planning often involves coupling the more confident estimates for temperature projections with a variety of different possibilities for precipitation changes, such as less precipitation, no change, more precipitation, and changes in seasonal distribution of precipitation. Mahmoud and colleagues (2009) review state-of-the-art scenario development and propose a formal approach for its use in environmental decision making. They also provide suggestions for recognizing and treating the inherent uncertainty.

A six-step process for a scenario planning model is described for conservation management in a seminal article by Garry Peterson and colleagues in (2003). In a scenario planning effort at Joshua Tree National Park, the National Park Service used a six-step version of the model by combining the steps of developing and testing scenarios. The model by Garry Peterson and colleagues (2003) identifies these six steps:

1. Identify context/focal question

Given the complexity of the real world and the infinite number of possible futures, scenario planning must be focused to be effective. Involving diverse stakeholders in identifying a focal question allows the group to define the problem broadly, separating aspects of the future that are knowable from those that are not, and distinguishing which of these aspects can be influenced by the scenario makers.

2. Assess the situation

This step involves two key activities. First, the scenario builders must identify key external drivers, either ecological or social, that have a major impact on the dynamics of the system in question. Second, they must determine the linkages among the people, institutions, and ecosystems that define the system.

3. Identify alternatives

In this step, scenario builders identify plausible alternative ways that the system could evolve. Each of these alternatives should represent a path influenced by the way existing system dynamics and possible future events might interact. Such alternatives can be defined by key uncertainties that are different from each other in ways that relate directly to the focal question. They should challenge commonplace assumptions about the future in ways that are plausible. These alternatives provide a framework for constructing scenarios.

4. Build scenarios

In general, three or four scenarios are developed in this step. Limiting the number to this range allows the scenario builders to challenge and expand current thinking while avoiding the possibility of confusing the issue with too many scenarios, which can constrain their ability to explore uncertainty. The scenarios build on the alternatives previously identified by adding credible details about external forces and the way system components will react to them. The scenarios build plausible story lines that link past and present events to possible future events. Each scenario should track the key variables that have previously been identified as important to the focal question.

5. Test scenarios

Once developed, the scenarios need to be tested for internal consistency. Testing can be done by quantification, by expert opinion, against other scenarios, or — last but not least —against stakeholder and actor behavior. The plausibility of any given scenario is likely to rest most crucially on the behavior of actors and stakeholders in the system. For example, the scenario builders might systematically take the viewpoints of all such actors to explore the plausibility of their predicted behavior in a given scenario. This works especially well when these various actors and stakeholders themselves are involved in the scenario planning process.

6. Screen policies

Once plausible scenarios have been developed, they can be used to test, analyze, and create management policies. First, scenarios can be used to assess the effectiveness of current policies under the different scenario conditions. Another approach is to identify elements of current policies that would perform well across all scenarios. Scenarios can also be used to identify policies that will help make the system in question more resilient to climate change effects. This may lead to the implementation of entirely new policies.

Adapted by Melanie Lenart, University of Arizona

For more on Scenario Planning:

References cited:

Peterson, G.D., G.S. Cumming, and S.R. Carpenter, 2003. Scenario Planning: a Tool for Conservation in an Uncertain World. Conservation Biology. 17(2): 358-366.

Mahmoud, M., L. Yuqiong, H. Hartmann, S. Stewart, T. Wagener, D. Semmens, R. Stewart, H. Gupta, D. Dominguez, F. Dominguez, D. Hulse, R. Letcher, B. Rashleigh, C. Smith, R. Street, J. Ticehurst, M. Twery, H. Van Delden, R. Waldick, D. White, and L. Winter, 2009. A formal framework for scenario development in support of environmental decision-making. Environmental Modeling & Software 24: 798-808.

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