Adaptation Pathways

An Overview

One of the challenges of pursuing adaptation strategy development is the need to adjust decisions over time as new information and conditions emerge. Adjusting to these factors requires a flexible and robust approach to managing deep uncertainty. Adaptation Pathways is an approach to adaptation strategy development that allows decision makers to build adaptation capacity, prioritize strategies, stagger investment, maintain flexibility, and communicate critical climate adaptation concepts that a community should understand as it pursues adaptation goals.1, 2, 3, 4 If a community has resources, including access to experts, time, funding, or other resources, for a potentially more robust strategy development process, the Adaptation Pathways approach is an opportunity to enhance or expand strategy development and the community’s adaptation planning framework.

Although the Adaptation Pathways approach is an alternative approach to the traditional predict-and-plan method described in the APG, much of the guidance provided in the APG can also support an Adaptation Pathways approach. This appendix provides additional information on Adaptation Pathways, including comparisons or considerations for integrating it with the guidance provided in the APG.

Adaptation Pathways could be incorporated in any of the planning mechanism categories noted in the APG. Pathways could provide a framework and guidelines in comprehensive plans or focused plans and can also provide a framework for laying out implementation programs and the monitoring and evaluation processes needed to provide ongoing feedback on whether to stick with a particular adaptation strategy.

Contrasting Adaptation Pathways with Traditional Approaches to Adaptation

This APG generally follows a predict-and-plan approach, meaning that planners try to understand what the future will look like to the extent possible and develop a plan around the optimal adaptation strategies to implement in the near-term, as well as specific strategies to implement in the future. When using Adaptation Pathways, communities are instead taking a monitor-then-act approach. Users select a portfolio of strategies (even if one strategy is to maintain the status quo), then monitor performance. Once a predetermined threshold is reached, communities can evaluate and select additional strategy options are evaluated. Communities can add new adaptation strategies for consideration as they become available over time.

A key difference between these approaches is that the traditional approach plans for a single expected future, whereas the Adaptation Pathways approach identifies a suite of strategies that is suitable for addressing a range of potential future conditions.

Adaptation Pathways and Timing

Phase 1 discusses the importance of identifying time frames to support the scenarios assessed in Phase 2, the strategies developed in Phase 3, and the monitoring and implementation in Phase 4. Time frames might look different if a community is taking an Adaptation Pathways approach. In this case, it is not necessary to commit to implementing specific adaptation strategies by a certain date. As further described in this appendix, actions have a ”sell-by” date when predefined thresholds are exceeded. It is vital that a community identify and monitor suitable metrics to track, so that the organization can take appropriate action when the community is close to exceeding a threshold.

Stakeholder Engagement Around Adaptation Pathways

When applying Adaptation Pathways, it is helpful to emphasize the gradual nature of the approach. All decisions do not need to be made now, and it is not essential to try to predict future scenarios with precision. This graduated implementation feature can be advantageous in stakeholder engagements. Stakeholders can feel overwhelmed if they feel pressured to accurately predict future scenarios and make major investment decisions now. Emphasizing gradual implementation can make adaptation less intimidating and consequently achieve better buy-in from stakeholders. Stakeholders are able to focus on immediate next steps, advising decision makers on how to effectively monitor conditions, what sort of thresholds should trigger action, and other smaller steps of implementation. The stakeholder outreach and engagement approach integrated throughout Phases 1 to 4 of this APG can also apply to the Adaptation Pathways approach.

Identifying Strategies for Adaptation Pathways

Phase 3 of this APG presents an approach to preparing an adaptation framework and strategies using the predict-and-plan approach, and identification of feasible adaptation strategies is also needed when using Adaptation Pathways. However, rather than selecting a static set of adaptation strategies to implement today, organizations identify a suite of potential adaptation strategies that can be implemented over time and can address a range of possible future conditions.

The community then identifies thresholds or future conditions that would trigger implementation of a new strategy and monitor these thresholds over time, enabling it to respond as conditions change. The different sequences of adaptation strategies over time form adaptation “pathways.” This approach enables communities to prepare for addressing a broad range of plausible futures while maintaining flexibility. For example, a community might determine that once sea levels rise by 0.2 foot they will begin expanding wetland vegetation to protect a coastal walkway, and once sea levels rise by 0.5 foot and the walkway will soon become regularly flooded, they will rebuild or reroute the coastal walkway. Thresholds can be measurements of climate statistics such as precipitation levels or extreme heat days, or they can measurements of socioeconomic data or other pieces of information, such as the percent of community residents who are senior citizens. As with all metrics, the thresholds used in an Adaptation Pathways approach should be easy to monitor and report on.

Communities need to understand relative pros/cons of different strategies and situations under which one strategy would be preferable over another. They also need to identify strategies that allow for a pathway that is both flexible and robust. Flexibility is the ability of a particular pathway to accommodate future change. Robust pathways are effective across a wide range of potential future scenarios.

At the early stage of the Adaptation Pathways approach, communities need not commit to one specific strategy or strategies for the long term; rather, they should identify a portfolio of potential strategies. As conditions and information change, the organization can evaluate whether their current course of action remains optimal or whether corrective action must be taken to maximize community resilience.

When using the Adaptation Pathways approach, prioritizing adaptation strategies is not as important as establishing a robust monitoring and evaluation system. In many cases, immediate action might not be necessary (or the appropriate immediate action is known to be a short-term solution only). However, it is essential that a community develop and implement a plan for monitoring thresholds that trigger a re-evaluation of the appropriate actions. During re-evaluation, prioritization factors are used to select the appropriate strategy or set of strategies to pursue going forward.

The Adaptation Pathways approach can identify, evaluate, prioritize, and sequence over time multiple adaptation strategies. Strategies not chosen for implementation in the short-term can be used later in the sequence, allowing adaptation to be a process of continual adjustment see Figure B.1). The range of options left for the future gives decision-makers flexibility, allowing decisions to be responsive to changing conditions and iterative. The following concepts allow for understanding of climate adaptation both in city government and the broader community.

    Climate change is advancing and increasing the frequency and severity of climate-related hazards and other effects. A single action does not address a climate effect indefinitely. The sell-by date is the point at which a strategy is no longer effective. In addition, communities change over time, and community change (physical form, economy, community characteristics, etc.) can further diminish strategies’ effectiveness. Acknowledging that strategies have a finite period of effectiveness allows a community to better understand climate change adaptation and the steps needed to address effects over longer periods. These steps include identification and implementation of multiple strategies arranged in a sequence.

Steps to Taking an Adaptation Pathways Approach

The core tenant of the Adaptation Pathways approach is that all strategies have a finite period of effectiveness that ought to be defined. The process of formulating specific adaptation strategies under this tenet has four main steps.

    This step has two parts. First, explicitly describe the effect being addressed. Second, detail the effect, the desired outcome. This information is the basis for defining an objective that combines effect specificity and desired outcome. The objective makes it simpler to be identify specific strategies that address the projected effect and meet community needs (Step 2). Also, specifically defining both the effect and desired outcome alleviates some of the challenge posed by uncertainty.