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Planning for climate change across the US Great Plains: Concerns and insights from government decision-makers

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While both international and national efforts are being made to assess climate change and mitigate effects, primary impacts will likely be regional. The US Great Plains region is home to a mosaic of unique ecosystems which are at risk from climate change. An exploratory survey of over 900 Great Plains government officials shows concerns for specific natural resources but not global climate change. Local government decision-makers are important sources of initiation for environmental policy; however, less than 20 % of jurisdictions surveyed have developed plans for adapting to or mitigating potential climate change impacts. The continental extremes of seasonal and annual climate variability of the Great Plains can mask the effects of global climate change and likely influences its’ residents lack of concern. The study findings indicate a need to reframe the discussion away from climate change skepticism, toward a focus on possible impacts within current resource management priorities such as drought, so that proactive planning can be addressed.
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Planning for climate change across the US Great Plains:
Concerns and insights from government decision-makers
Authors:
Rebecca J. Romsdahl1, Lorilie Atkinson2, Jeannie Schultz3
1Department of Earth System Science & Policy
University of North Dakota
4149 University Avenue, Stop 9011
Grand Forks, ND 58202-9011
USA
romsdahl@aero.und.edu
Author for correspondence
2US Department of Agriculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Grand Forks Field Office
4775 Technology Circle #1B
Grand Forks, ND 58203-5635
USA
Lorilie.Atkinson@nd.usda.gov
3AE2S (Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc.)
4050 Garden View Drive, Suite 200
Grand Forks, ND 58201
USA
(Final version published by the Journal of Environmental Studies & Sciences, Vol. 3:1 p. 1-14.
DOI: 10.1007/s13412-012-0078-8)
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Abstract
While both international and national efforts are being made to assess climate change and mitigate
effects, primary impacts will likely be regional. The US Great Plains region is home to a mosaic of unique
ecosystems which are at risk from climate change. An exploratory survey of over 900 Great Plains
government officials shows concerns for specific natural resources but not global climate change. Local
government decision-makers are important sources of initiation for environmental policy; however, less
than 20% of jurisdictions surveyed have developed plans for adapting to or mitigating potential climate
change impacts. The continental extremes of seasonal and annual climate variability of the Great Plains
can mask the effects of global climate change and likely influences its’ residents lack of concern. The
study findings indicate a need to reframe the discussion away from climate change uncertainty, toward
a focus on possible impacts within current resource management priorities such as drought or water
quality, so that proactive planning can be addressed.
Key words
Global climate change, US Great Plains, Government decision-makers, Natural resources management,
Attitudes about climate change
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1. Introduction
Scientific consensus on the anthropogenic influence contributing to global climate change has
raised public awareness of this significant environmental issue (Brody et al., 2007; Leiserowitz, 2005,
2006). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change as “any change in
climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity” (IPCC, 2007). The
IPCC report (2007) confirms that while climate change is fundamentally a biophysical phenomenon, the
recent increase in warming is attributable to human activity.
While climate change is certainly a global issue, and both international and national attempts
are being made to monitor and reduce its effects, the primary impacts of climate change for humans will
depend on where they live. The IPCC notes that “there is high confidence that recent regional changes
in temperature have had discernible impacts on many physical and biological systems” (IPCC, 2007). A
recent report released by the United States Global Change Research Program details how the US Great
Plains (GP) are already experiencing impacts from climate change.
The average temperature in the Great Plains already has increased roughly 1.5°F relative to a
1960s and 1970s baseline. By the end of the century, temperatures are projected to continue to
increase by 2.5°F to more than 13°F compared with the 1960 to 1979 baseline, depending on
future emissions of heat-trapping gases (Karl et al., 2009).
The GP region has numerous ecological features at risk from climate change impacts (e.g. short, mixed,
and tall grass prairie ecosystems, agriculture, prairie pothole wetlands, and spread of invasive species)
(NEON 2010). Despite strong scientific agreement about the cause of global climate change, significant
at-risk features, and evidence that effects are already being observed, most local government entities
have not begun to plan for potential impacts from climate change (Pew, 2010). In addition, traditional
state and local planning processes are insufficient to address the uncertainties and complexities
involved in climate change projections, especially given the competing preferences and priorities in
choosing mitigation and adaptation options (Frazier et al., 2010).
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This paper presents results and discussion from an exploratory survey of 939 GP government
decision-makers. This study was conducted to assess whether or not planning is taking place in GP
localities and what challenges they may be facing; the results are not surprising but they are sobering.
The survey sought to identify respondents’ personal attitudes about: 1) climate change, including how
concerned and how well informed they feel; and 2) possible barriers to planning for climate change
impacts. This study diverges from general polling of climate change perceptions in two ways; first by
focusing on government decision-makers instead of the public at large and second, by utilizing ecological
boundaries of the GP region rather than traditional geo-political boundaries (Jones, 2010; Leiserowitz et
al., 2010; Newport, 2010). The survey results show that a lack of concern regarding climate change is
prevalent among GP government officials and is acting as one of many barriers to local governmental
planning to address climate change at this regional level. We argue that the discussion of climate
change must be reframed so that it is not a separate issue, but instead it is considered within current
natural resource management priorities (e.g. drought/flood planning). This strategy is being utilized by
a small number of respondents who indicate their office is planning for climate change impacts. By
reframing the issue, decision-makers could encourage more proactive planning for potential impacts in
the region.
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2. Background
2.1 What climate change would mean for the US Great Plains
The GP regional landscape has a relatively low topographic relief spreading east from the Rocky
Mountains (Covich et al., 1997; Wishart, 2004). The region is characterized by a strong north-south
temperature gradient and east-west precipitation gradient (Joyce et al., 2001). The vegetation is a
mosaic of native grasslands and cropland, which are strongly linked to the temperature and
precipitation gradients (Burke et al., 1991; Covich et al, 1997; Joyce et al. 2001). Along the western
edge, in the High Plains, evapotranspiration exceeds precipitation for much of the growing season (Bock,
1991). This contributes to the precipitation gradient and puts the GP continually on the verge of
drought, which could exacerbate climate change impacts in the region (Bock, 1991).
The similar climatic, cultural, and economic conditions that unite the north, central, and
southern geographic regions under the moniker ‘Great Plains,’ may diverge under global climate change
conditions (Cunfer, 2005). Currently, the northern portion of the plains are experiencing warmer
temperatures especially in winter, while central and southern plains can anticipate warmer
temperatures during summer (Joyce et al., 2001). Seasonal precipitation levels are predicted to change,
most notably during winter and spring (Joyce et al. 2001). Additionally, precipitation levels are expected
to increase in the north, while the central and southern plains precipitation will likely decrease (Joyce et
al., 2001; Karl et al., 2009).
The GP agrarian-immigrant culture has been recognized as influential in shaping the regional
economy and lifestyle, however, the impact of nature and the environment should not be
underestimated (Cunfer, 2005; Wishart, 2004). The relationship between the GP and its inhabitants is
characterized by the close tie of the people to the land (Wunder, 2009). Largely day-to-day existence,
and continued economic prosperity is determined by natural forces; rain for crops, absence of hail, and
mild winters to name a few. This adaptation to the regional climate variability, however, may have a
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negative influence on residents’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the risks presented by global
climate change.
In the US National Assessment, Joyce et al. (2001) point to three environmental parameters of
climate change that will likely have the greatest effect on the GP: increased carbon dioxide, increased
temperature, and altered precipitation. The Assessment analyzed these three parameters in regional
scenarios. Results suggest annual precipitation increases of approximately 13 percent by the 2090s;
however, rising air temperatures resulting in increased evaporation will likely outweigh any moisture
surplus, causing a decline in soil moisture for most GP ecosystems (Joyce et al. 2001).
Due to the commonalities of ecology and socioeconomic structure across the GP, several key
issues were compiled in the Assessment to identify the most likely concerns associated with climate
variability and change:
Changes in the timing and quantity of water could exacerbate the current conflicts surrounding
water allocation and use in the GP.
Potential shifts in climate variability may increase the risks associated with farming, ranching,
and wildland management.
Invasive species may have unanticipated indirect impacts on the GP ecology and economy.
Rural communities already stressed by their declining populations and shrinking economic base,
are dependent on the competitive advantage of their agricultural products in domestic and
foreign markets. (Joyce et al. 2001)
In 2002, the Central Great Plains Regional Assessment Group issued a report identifying several GP
stakeholder concerns. First, variability in climate and extreme events garnered more concern than
average precipitation or temperature changes. Second, concern exists about the ability of the region to
adapt to impacts resulting from climate change. Third, the quantity, quality, and distribution of water
remain important to stakeholders (Ojima et al., 2002). The survey results in our study confirm that
water quality and quantity, rainfall patterns, and the influence these have on the agricultural economy
continue to be concerns identified by government decision-makers across the GP.
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3. Methodology and results
3.1 The survey
The geographic boundaries for the survey were determined using the domains generated by the
National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). NEON domains are based on climate and ecology,
thereby providing ecological boundaries rather than traditional geo-political boundaries. In order to
identify the survey boundaries, determinations were made that if the NEON boundary line crossed into a
state’s county, that county was included in the survey. The use of NEON boundaries aided the
researchers in more accurately defining the study region, allowing portions of states that are
ecologically part of the GP to be included, while excluding those sections of states that have various
other dominant eco-regions.
Invitations to participate in this GP survey were sent to 4,893 government decision-makers in 12
GP states. Adjusting for 281 bad addresses and 228 who declined to participate, the sample number
was 4,384. These decision-makers represent state, regional, county/local, and tribal government
officials. The survey population was chosen based on government job titles using publicly available
contact information. Positions were chosen by titles that indicated responsibilities for natural resources,
and public health and safety; plus county commissioners and tribal chairs due to the decision authority
they hold over land use.
The survey was conducted in three phases; each phase included three follow-up contacts. The
first phase covered all of North Dakota in 2007 (the entire state of ND is within the Northern Plains,
NEON domain 9). The second phase covered the additional counties in the Northern Plains in 2008. The
final phase added the Central and Southern Plains (NEON domains 10, 11) in 2009 (see Figure 1).
Although NEON domain 6 (see Figure 1), which is geographically most of Iowa, Illinois, and parts of
seven other Midwest states, is also ecologically part of the GP region and historically dominated by tall-
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grass prairie, this domain was excluded from the exploratory survey due to constraints in time and
funding.
[INSERT Figure 1]
The survey employed a mixed-format questionnaire
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to assess levels of consideration and
planning for climate change impacts in respondents’ offices and respondents’ personal attitudes about
climate change. Of the 4,384 decision-makers contacted, 939 responded, for a completion rate of 21
percent.
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3.2 Survey results
The typical respondent in our GP survey is an elected official, male, age 45-64, and has attained
an education level of at least a two-year associate degree (see Table 1). Their younger contemporaries
typically possess a higher level of education (bachelor or graduate degree). The respondents report an
average of 17 years in government employment, and an average of 10 years at their current position.
Unless indicated otherwise, the reported percentages are based on the total of 939 respondents.
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[INSERT Table 1]
Even though no question asked directly about causes of climate change, 46% (n=156) of
respondents provided written comments with strong opinions emphasizing uncertainty and rejecting
anthropogenic causes; the following are representative.
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The questionnaire was adapted from a 2006 survey conducted with California coastal managers by Susanne
Moser and John Tribbia. Please see the following link for more information about the California survey:
http://www.isse.ucar.edu/moser/california/ (Accessed: 4 April 2011).
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The low response rate can be attributed to a variety of factors, including: 1) fewer responses were completed
from counties geographically farther away from the research University; 2) the second survey phase was
conducted in the summer, which is field season for natural resource managers, so some may not have taken time
to participate; 3) the questionnaire was lengthy- 40 questions- which may have deterred some from responding;
and 4) climate change is still a controversial topic in the GP, so it is expected that many ignored the survey because
of the subject matter.
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Because this was an exploratory survey, no correlations analysis was sought or conducted.
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Climate change has been occurring since time began, that's why we had the ice age, the humid
age, etc. It's a slow ongoing process that politicians are using to further stupid agendas that
don't amount to squat.
Too many people making money or fame off of the Climate Change fear. It is not totally
accepted by the science community. Some misrepresentation has been put out there as fact.
Not sure we can trust what some people are showing as fact.
I do not think that there is a sound science that backs climate change due to CO2 inputs into
the environment, or is it a natural cycle that we are in. Is it man made or a natural cycle?
The evidence on climate change is unclear. Problems in measuring temperatures across the
globe make the results questionable. Anecdotal information is conflicting. Climate models have
proven to be unreliable. Trends in CO2 relative to temperature are disputed as to cause and
effect. Even if climate change is occurring, there is no hard evidence that it is human-caused.
(GP survey respondents)
The GP survey also sought to capture respondents’ personal level of concern regarding climate
change. Their self-reported low levels of concern provide insight on respondents’ lack of willingness to
support climate change planning to prepare their jurisdictions for future impacts (see Figure 2).
[INSERT Figure 2]
The highest number of respondents (n=311), 37%, in Figure 2 report being concerned about climate
change, which is similar to a recent national public opinion poll where 38% of respondents indicate they
are somewhat worried about global warming (Leiserowitz, et al. 2010b). However, the majority of
respondents, a cluster of 52%, express little or no concern: 26% identify feeling not very concerned or
not concerned at all; and another 26% indicate neutral feelings. When these regional percentages are
compared to national poll data, we see similarly low percentages in analogous question topics. The Pew
Center national survey (2009a) reports that only 35% of respondents indicate they believe global
warming is a very serious problem while 17% indicate it is not a problem.
In addition to general concern about global climate change, we asked GP respondents about
their concern for impacts on specific natural resource management issues. Four of the top five
moderate - high possibility impacts relate to water. Respondents are concerned about: 73% changed
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rainfall patterns, 72% agriculture production, 66% changed water availability, 60% changed water
quality; the fifth issue was 61% impacts on the local economy.
Another factor that influences peoples’ attitudes and concern about climate change is how well-
informed they feel about the subject. In our GP survey, 61% of decision-makers indicate they feel
moderately informed and 20% well informed. Of those 61%, however, only 33% also indicate they
believe climate change is happening now and we are already experiencing impacts. This is significantly
lower than the 55% of fairly well informed respondents in a recent national Gallup poll who indicate
they feel the effects of global warming are already occurring (Jones, 2010).
By job title, the highest numbers of respondents were elected officials (n=215), environmental
specialist/extension (n=99), soil conservation (n=83), and parks/recreation (n=71). Within these
positions, elected officials and environmental specialists have the lowest levels of concern, 86% and 35%
respectively, indicate they are not very concerned or not concerned at all about climate change. This
may be explained by the fact that 39-40% of respondents in these job titles, as well as soil conservation,
believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon that should be prepared for similar to floods, etc.
In contrast, 53% of parks/recreation officials identify with the statement, climate change is happening
now (see Figure 3).
[INSERT Figure 3]
For those respondents who are least concerned about climate change, 57%, are located in
population areas of < 5,000 people. Of those respondents located in population areas of 50,000 or
more, 67% indicate they are concerned or very concerned about climate change. In contrast to their
reported concern, however, only 53% of these respondents believe climate change is happening now;
and only 30% of respondents in the population group of <5,000 believe it is happening now. These
results for population group are not surprising given the general trend that residents of large urban
areas are likely to be more concerned about environmental problems than small-town and rural
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residents (Arcury & Christianson, 1990, 1993; Greenbaum, 1995; Williams & Moore, 1991).
Unfortunately, these small-town and rural residents may have less capacity to adapt to climate change
impacts than residents of urban areas who have greater access to a variety of assistance services and
resources.
For respondents who agree with the statement climate change is happening now, the highest
response by age group is 46% of younger adults, 18-34 years of age; while the lowest response, 31%, is
the 65+ age group. This is notably lower than the comparable results from the Gallup poll, where
respondents who believe global warming is already occurring include: 58% of 18-29 year-olds and the
lowest is 39% in the 65+ age group (Jones 2010). For gender, males make up a higher number of
respondents in our GP survey, 72%, but only 35% believe climate change is happening now; while
females compose only 28% of respondents, but 46% believe climate change is happening now. This
difference in gender has been shown in other surveys (Greenbaum, 1995; Kellstedt et al., 2008; Zelezny
et al., 2000), including the Gallup poll where the division for respondents who say global warming is
already occurring, is 42% male and 56% female (Jones 2010). Concerning education level, the
percentage of respondents who believe that climate change is happening now rises with each degree
attained. This trend is supported by various other environmental survey studies (Greenbaum, 1995;
Pew 2009b; Van Liere & Dunlap, 1980).
Regarding level of concern, respondents across the demographic categories generally indicate
they are concerned, roughly 30-40% in any group. The one exception, of those respondents who
indicate they are not at all concerned about climate change, 54% indicate they feel well-informed about
the topic. This finding corresponds with a survey conducted by Kellstedt et al. (2008) which indicates
that self-reported “informed” respondents show less concern for climate change. Across the other
demographic categories, the majority of respondents indicate they feel moderately informed about
climate change. These self-reported knowledge levels also correspond with the Gallup poll where 60%
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of respondents who feel very well informed indicate they believe global warming is exaggerated in the
news (Jones, 2010).
To gain insight on the context of respondents’ decision-making and office priorities, we asked
respondents to indicate which factors, from a list of 13, were hurdles to their office taking action to
prepare for possible impacts from climate change (see Figure 4). The usual shortages in funding, staff
resources, and state/federal resources rank high on the list; in addition, 40% of respondents indicate
they believe the science is uncertain, while 39% feel there is a lack of public awareness / no demand for
action and a lack solution options.
[INSERT Figure 4]
The influence of a lack of public awareness / no demand for action also appears in greater than 60%
(n=156) of written responses; the following are exemplars:
The public as a whole has to believe there is a problem. With so much mixed media on the
subject, the public (as a whole) is not educated enough to decide for themselves. So depending
on who their favorite actor/actress, politician, or other public figure is, typically decides what
they believe.
Our jurisdiction and our constituents tend to believe the climate change issue is all paranoia
hype and not a serious or real threat. My last discussion was along the lines of Chicken Little and
‘The Sky is Falling’.”
This issue had been well publicized, the public has not been given balanced information and we
must be careful that we do not commit resources inappropriately that will deal with a non issue.
Weather changes rapidly, climate change is a slow process.
(GP survey respondents)
Within these barriers to planning, the following percentages are noteworthy. Monetary constraints is
considered a big barrier to planning for 42% of respondents who feel that climate change is happening
now and for the 76% of respondents who are very concerned about climate change. Of these
respondents who are very concerned about climate change, 50% indicate that lack of solution options is
a big barrier to planning in their office.
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In addition to lack of funding and other usual barriers, nearly 50% of respondents feel that
global climate change cannot be addressed because other issues are currently overwhelming the
system. “Our jurisdiction, as a body, has not even discussed climate change. We are too busy trying to
deal with current problems and financial challenges” (GP survey respondent). We asked respondents
what those current challenges include; their top five chosen issues are presented in Table 2.
[INSERT Table 2]
We also asked what policies or strategies they use to address these current challenges. The number one
strategy is providing educational information for the public (see Table 2). To gain additional insight on
their decision-making, we asked what resources respondents most commonly consult to obtain data and
information for their work. The most common source of information is colleagues in office, followed
closely by experts in local/state research institiutions, very few consult the scientific literature (see Table
2).
4. Discussion
4.1 What the Great Plains survey can tell us about planning for climate change
General polling of climate change perceptions tends to focus on broad public opinions
(Leiserowitz, 2005; Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). This exploratory survey diverges from that to the
smaller scale of state, local, and tribal government decision-makers within ecological boundaries of the
GP region rather than traditional geo-political boundaries. Studies show that local government decision-
makers are important sources of environmental policy initiation and given that climate change impacts
will likely need to be addressed more acutely at local levels, these governmental officials are crucial first-
responders in preparing for global climate change (Crow, 2010; Liu et al., 2010). Personal attitudes
about the cause and occurrence of global climate change influence government decision-makers’
support for and initiative in proactive mitigation and adaptation planning (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006;
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O’Connor et al., 1999, 2002). Our survey shows, however, that planning for climate change impacts
across the GP is being chilled by government officials’ lack of concern about the topic.
GP government decision-makers hold similar attitudes about climate change as those found in
national public opinion polls, but with much lower levels of concern about the issue. In self-reporting
how well-informed they feel, GP government decision-makers follow similar national trends where most
respondents self-identify as fairly well-informed but also report less concern about climate change
(Kellstedt et al., 2008). The majority of our survey respondents fall into the 45-64 age group (63%
n=772) with only 39% (n=676) of them believing climate change is happening now.
With only 48% of all respondents indicating they are concerned (37%) or very concerned (11%)
about the issue, GP government decision-makers are well-below national polls; in a Pew Center national
survey (2009a), 65% of the American public believes global warming is a somewhat serious (30%) or very
serious (35%) threat. The lower levels of concern among our survey respondents is especially apparent
when only three job title categories (water resources, parks/recreation, public health) show a majority
of respondents who believe climate change is happening now. The GP regional controversy can be
further illustrated by the Pew survey (2009a) where only 45% of respondents in Plains states (which
includes 6 of the 12 states in our survey) indicate they believe there is solid evidence that earth is
warming (compared to 57% nationally); this is a drop from a 53% response six months earlier (compared
to 71% nationally). The similarly low levels of concern about climate change, in the Plains states from
the Pew Center public opinion survey and in our GP survey, confirm what we hear in general
conversation; the agriculture-based communities of the GP represent a culture that is unusually
dismissive of climate change as it is currently framed.
The lower levels of concern shown in the GP region are also significant because both the Pew
Center survey and our GP survey were conducted prior to the email scandal at the University of East
Anglia which spurred a new rise of climate change controversy and growing skepticism (Jasanoff, 2010).
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In addition, the subsequent worldwide economic crisis as well as other socio-economic issues like health
care, government upheavals, and wars have been competing for public attention and have enabled so-
called “climate fatigue” to set in (Kerr, 2009); meaning the general public has grown tired of climate
change and is more focused on other issues. These competing factors likely have some influence on the
uncertainty and skepticism expressed by GP government decision-makers in this study. The low concern
among GP respondents more closely aligns to a recent survey, conducted in the wake of the East Anglia
email scandal and the global economic crash, where only 50% of American respondents indicate they
are very or somewhat worried about global warming (Leiserowitz et al., 2010b). Given the drop in
concern amongst the American public, it is very likely that concern levels have also dropped lower in the
GP study region as well.
Reasons for the lower levels of concern and the divergent attitudes among GP respondents are
likely varied and many, but an argument can be made that in addition to social and economic factors,
their personal attitudes are strongly influenced by the natural variability of seasonal and annual climate
of the region which masks potentially observable changes from global climate change (APA, 2009).
4.2 Great Plains Climate Variability and Risk Perception
The geographic location of the GP in the center of the North American continent means it is
characterized by climate extremes rather than by averages (Borchert 1950). “The climate is dry and
continental, characterized in the north by short, hot summers and long, cold winters. High winds are an
important climatic factor in this ecological region. It is also subject to periodic, intense droughts and
frosts” (CEC 1997). The extremes and variability that characterize this continental climate engender a
culture of adaptability and preparedness, as the following quotes illustrate.
Climate change is going to happen over time. We are not going to change it so not much need of
spending lots of time and money before hand. We should learn to deal with it as it happens, be
prepared for change and make other people aware that they too will need to adjust in the future.
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Most people in the county do not believe in global warming. There has been some talk because of
the number and severity of the storms this summer. Our climate changes dramatically every year as
it always has. What can be so different in the future?
(GP Survey Respondents)
The combined qualities of preparedness and adaptability contribute to the skepticism GP residents
often express toward the idea of climate change being human-caused. Risk perception research
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also
helps provide insights on climate change skepticism expressed by GP survey respondents (Brody et al.
2007; Kahan, Braman, and Cohen 2010; Leiserowitz 2006; Sterman and Sweeny Booth 2007; Swim et al.
2009). Elke Webber (2006) describes “two pathways to feeling at risk” as she explains “why global
warming does not scare us yet”. The two pathways are based on personal experience or deliberative
reasoning and are influenced by the human tendency to give greater weight to recent events when
assessing risk in our decision-making. Rare events have a smaller chance of having occurred recently so,
they are given less influence in our decision-making. But, when a rare event does occur, it has a larger
than average influence on decisions shortly thereafter; this is the volatile nature of human decisions
based on personal experience in contrast to decisions based on the pathway of deliberative reasoning.
Decisions in this second pathway tend to be based on formal education and analytic information, for
example, information garnered from statistical data or probability models. Most people, however,
follow the first decision pathway, personal experience, more often than the second; therefore, their
perceptions of risk relative to climate change are low.
The likelihood of seriously and noticeable adverse events as the result of global warming is bound to
be small for the foreseeable future for many regions of the world. As a result, ordinary continental
Americans and even people whose economic livelihood depends on weather and climate events
(e.g. farmers or fishermen) may not receive sufficient feedback from their daily or yearly personal
experience to develop a reaction of alarm about global warming. (Weber 2006)
4
The study of risk perception is extensive. For more studies that relate to science and decision-making, see:
(Covello, McCallum, and Pavlova 1989; Hance, Chess, and Sandman 1989; Johnson and Chess 2006; Kahan et al.
2009; Kasperson and Kasperson 1996; Margolis 1996; Slovic 2000; Slovic et al. 2004; Stern and Fineberg 1996;
Wildavsky and Dake 1990)
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The personal experience pathway of risk perception, combined with the continental variability extremes
of weather and seasonal climate, added to the media portrayal of a ‘climate change debate’ (Antilla
2005; Boykoff 2008; Boykoff and Boykoff 2007) seem to provide enough justification in the minds of
many GP decision-makers and residents for skepticism and outright denial of the scientific evidence for
human-caused climate change.
A study by Brody et al. (2007) found that “respondents appear to register climate change risk
when the threat or sense of vulnerability is most overt. For example, living adjacent to the coastline
and/or in areas of low elevation presents an obvious threat from sea level rise.” From our exploratory
survey, it is not possible to directly measure the influence of natural climate variability on respondents’
perceptions and how this may result in lower levels of concern about climate change risk or denial of the
need to plan for potential impacts. The connection can be inferred, however, from written comments;
the following are exemplars:
[O]ur state has witnessed weather extremes from the Dirty Thirties to the 1990's with an
increase in precipitation in tandem with decreased average yearly temperatures. Both of these
extremes occurred in a single life time. We have learned from these times and prepare
accordingly. Water availability changes because of political, not environmental reasons.
This area is highly variable. Historic information is used, as extremes in cold and hot each year
are not uncommon, and not new at all.
This is just a cycle that we go through every so often, we have had drought conditions a lot
worse than this several years back. I do not think we have climate change here; I have lived her
for over 50 years and there is not much difference in climate over the years. I think the people
that think there is climate change is just wanting federal dollars and higher taxes for the people
here in the USA. Over 200 years we have dealt with all sorts of weather and that is just the way
it is. Most of this climate change is just scare tactics. (GP survey respondents)
Historically, “Great Plains’ farmers and ranchers have excelled by being adaptive and by incorporating
new technologies to buffer their production against the highly variable climate” (Joyce et al., 2001). This
past adaptive capacity, however, may be limited in dealing with future climate change impacts as annual
and seasonal variability may become less predictable and trend more to the extremes.
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4.3 Overcoming barriers to action
Survey respondents in this study perceive there are significant barriers to their abilities to plan
for potential climate change impacts. These state, local, and tribal government decision-makers in the
GP do not perceive enough demand for their office to take action on climate change compared to the
current priorities overwhelming the office agenda. State and local government uncertainty about how
to address climate change impacts is a reflection of a long national trend, even among natural resource
agencies. For example, the Government Accountability Office found that a 2001 Department of Interior
directive to its agencies to “consider and analyze potential climate change effects in their management
plans and activities” has been largely ignored (Repetto, 2008). This contrasts with a recent national
survey where 46% of respondents indicate they feel local government officials should be doing more
(34%) or much more (12%) to address global warming and 50% feel state legislators should be doing
more (36%) or much more (14%) (Leiserowitz et al., 2010a). Unfortunately, the 49% of GP government
decision-makers in our survey who are personally concerned about climate change do not see policy
solutions to help them address the problem even if it were a priority for their office. These mixed
signals seem to indicate that the American public and many government officials, including GP decision-
makers, remain in a phase of ‘wishful thinking’ about climate change, where they hope the problem will
be addressed by higher levels of government, by industry, or by someone else so they do not have to
make changes themselves (Leiserowitz, 2006; Yankelovich).
Despite these mixed signals and lower levels of concern about climate change generally, GP
government decision-makers do indicate concerns for specific natural resource management issues.
The majority of respondents believe there is moderate-high possibility for climate change impacts on
water related issues, including: changes in water quantity and quality, rainfall patterns, and agriculture
production. One GP respondent offers a strategy for addressing this paradox:
19
It is my personal and professional opinion that the conservation community is on track with
addressing the issue of climate change but is way off track in assigning a cause. The public
understands the value of clean water and clean air. If the need to improve our water quality
and air quality was emphasized, most would agree. Who is going to say- dirty water and dirty
air is not a problem? By making the argument- "climate change and humans are the cause"-
significant energy is wasted trying to prove this. It is also something the public has a hard time
sinking their teeth into.” (GP survey respondent)
Concerned government decision-makers, and their advocates, could better address potential climate
change impacts. By reframing the discussion of climate change (away from the skepticism about
whether or not it is happening and whether or not it is human-caused) toward a focus on current
resource management challenges (i.e. drought, soil erosion, water quality in lakes and streams, etc. as
identified by GP respondents), more proactive planning strategies would likely result. As one GP survey
respondent states:
Our state Department of Environmental Quality is largely occupied granting livestock feeding
operation permits which keep the state in compliance with federal water quality requirements.
Few resources are devoted to other issues. When federal water law does not prescribe
standards, there are none.
Issue framing is a well-studied policy strategy with proven effectiveness (Chong and Druckman 2007;
Schneider and Ingram 1997). One example where states have taken a lead in reframing the climate
change discussion is drought. Many states in the study region have already developed official Drought
Plans, only the Dakotas and Iowa are missing from the list (NDMC, 2009). Current management
challenges, such as drought, already receive attention on policy agendas and have existing budgets.
Climate change can be addressed within these issues rather than trying to introduce it as a new crisis.
By reframing the discussion of climate change, regional and local decision-makers may be able to get
increased funding and move some current issues higher on the priority agenda.
One strategy for achieving this type of shift in discussing climate change planning can be drawn
out of the GP respondents’ sources of information for their decision-making; they rely on colleagues in
the office and experts in local/state institutions. If these innovative leaders (i.e. people who seek out
new ways of solving problems and are often sought out by colleagues who need answers to questions)
20
could be identified, they might be encouraged to guide a process of scenario planning for alternative
visions of the future; this could help integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation planning into
current management issues.
5
One innovative GP survey respondent indicates their office is already beginning to employ
scenario planning: “We will incorporate scenarios into regional and state water planning, including the
possibility of decreased water supplies and the need for additional reservoir storage”. A focus on water-
related scenario planning could be very beneficial to GP communities, whether planning for increasing
flood and drought events or management of wildlife and recreation waters. Regional analysis and
planning will be crucial in the future as climate change impacts are likely to be regional and potential
mitigation and adaptation strategies will need to be regional/local as well (Liu et al., 2010).
5. Conclusion
The Great Plains is home to a mosaic of unique ecosystems which are at risk from climate
change impacts. In addition, the region’s dependence on agriculture is likely to be greatly affected by
climate change in the near future. Despite these risks, the current situation among GP state, local, and
tribal decision-makers is that although attitudes toward climate change are similar to national public
opinion polls, our survey respondents reveal skepticism and lower levels of concern. GP decision-
makers do not perceive that global climate change is a problem within their management
5
Scenario planning research has been taking shape in various settings across the US over the past decade. The
following references can provide examples: 1) Alcoma, A.J. (Ed.) (2008). Environmental futures: The practice of
environmental scenario analysis. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 2) Baker, J.P., Hulse, D.W., Gregory, S.V., White, D., Van
Sickle, J., Berger, P.A., Dole, D. & N.H. Schumaker. (2004). Alternative futures for the Willamette River basin,
Oregon. Ecological Applications, 14(2), 313-324; 3) Brikowski, T.H. (2008). Doomed reservoirs in Kansas, USA?
Climate change and groundwater mining on the Great Plains lead to unsustainable surface water storage. Journal
of Hydrology, 354(1-4), 90-101; 4) Carpenter, S., Pingali, P., Bennett, E., Zurek, M. (Eds.) (2005). Millennium
ecosystem assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being: scenarios, Volume 2. Washington, DC: Island Press; 5)
IPCC special report Emissions Scenarios: http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/emission/index.php?idp=0
(Accessed: 14 April 2011).
21
responsibilities; and they are overwhelmingly (76%) not taking any steps to plan for expected climate
change impacts, despite expressing concern for specific potential impacts on water resources.
While survey responses indicate there are social and institutional barriers to planning for climate
change impacts, including lack of funding and perceived lack of solutions, natural climate variability of
the GP likely adds to these planning barriers by masking observable changes already taking place. The
current situation of debating the reality and cause of climate change will continue to promote reactive
crisis management when further impacts set upon the GP and other US regions. In order to successfully
mitigate impacts and adapt to changing conditions, decision-makers should acknowledge that climate
change is happening and incorporate scientific information into planning; however, since this is not
forthcoming, perhaps the planning can be achieved without that direct acknowledgement.
If climate change impacts can be reframed and considered within current natural resources
management (such as plans for floods, drought, soil erosion, or recreational water issues), there may be
less resistance and more opportunities for high-priority funding. Local government decision-makers are
important sources of initiation for environmental policy and some innovative GP survey respondents
indicate a possible route for achieving more proactive climate change planning. Respondents routinely
rely on office colleagues for information and consultation in their decision-making processes. Proactive
planning could be achieved by encouraging innovative personnel to promote scenario planning; thereby
engaging other decision-makers and affected stakeholders in developing alternative visions to plan for
their regional future in a more systematic way that does not continue to emphasize the skepticism and
division in the debate over the reality and cause of climate change.
22
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Figure1.NationalEcologicalObservatoryNetworkDomainsi
ThesurveywasdistributedtothreeNEONdomains,shadedlightgray.TheNorthernPlains,Domain9
includesalargeportionofMontana,northwesternWyoming,themajorityofNorthandSouthDakotaand
westernMinnesota.TheCentralPlains,Domain10includespartsofNewMexico,Colorado,Nebraska,
Kansas,Oklahoma,andTexas.TheSouthernPlains,Domain11includescentralOklahomatothenorthand
broadenstothesouthtoincludemostofTexas.DotsindicatecitiesthathavejoinedtheUSConferenceof
Mayors’ClimateProtectionAgreementasofJune2010.ii
1 = Not concerned
2 = Not very concerned
3 = Neutral
4 = Concerned
5 = Very concerned
Figure2.Respondents’PersonalLevelofConcernaboutClimateChange
Fi
g
ure3.BeliefinClimateChan
g
eHa
pp
enin
g
Nowb
y
JobTitle
iFormoreinformationabouttheNEONdomains,pleasesee:http://neoninc.org/domains/overview(CitedJune
2010).
iiThesmallnumberofcitiesthathavesignedontothisagreementaddsgreatercontexttothelackofplanningin
theGreatPlains.FormoreinformationabouttheAgreement,pleasesee:
http://www.usmayors.org/climateprotection/ClimateChange.asp(CitedJune2010).
Figure4.PerceivedHurdlestoLocalActiononClimateChangeImpacts
Table 1. Respondents’ Demographics
Percent
Age
(n = 772)
63
21
16
are 45-64 years of age,
are younger than 45,
are older than 64
Gender
(n = 765)
72
28
male,
female
Education
(n = 770)
37
29
17
hold a bachelors degree,
hold a graduate or professional degree,
have some college, but no degree
Job Title
(n = 655)
33
15
13
11
6
6
6
4
4
3
Elected Officials, e.g. County Commis., Tribal Chair
Envmnt. Specialists, e.g. Extension, Education
Soil Conservation Managers
Parks and/or Recreation Managers
Public Health Officials
Water Resource Managers
Weed Control Managers
Disaster/Emergency Services
Infrastructure Engineer/Supervisor, e.g. Roads
Others, e.g. Zoning, Economic, Planning
Population
(n = 900)
35
20
27
18
located in populations of <5,000
in populations of 5,000 - 9,999
in populations of 10,000 - 49,999
in populations of 50,000 - >100,000
Table 2. Decision-making Context for GP Respondents
Percent
Resource Management Challenges
Drought
55
Soil erosion
55
Invasive species
49
Water quality in lakes, rivers, & wetlands
48
Pollution, non-point sources
39
Strategies, Policies, Regulations for RM Challenges
Education/information for public
54
Land use planning
41
Water quality mgmt. plans
39
Soil erosion mgmt. plans
37
Zoning requirements
33
Information Sources in Decision-making
Colleagues in office
57
Experts in local/state institutions
50
Scientific journals
16
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... This is because governance units might be willing to undertake adaption (say via disaster management) but not willing to proclaim publicly that they are doing so. On the basis of a survey of 200 local governments in the United States, Romsdahl et al. (131) found that even in conservative "red" states, public officials recognize the disruption caused by climate-induced stressors such as heat waves, irregular precipitation, droughts, and floods. In response, they are investing in adaptation but avoiding the climate label for them. ...
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... We tested the hypotheses that the prescribed fire seasons differ between the eastern and western portion of the region and that temporal effects on prescribed fire seasons and fire behavior differ between these areas. Our results inform regional prescribed fire management activities and demonstrate how weather and fuels data can be assessed in order to inform grassland adaptive management and climate change planning efforts (e.g., Grant et al. 2009, Bierbaum et al. 2013, Romsdahl et al. 2013, with regard to the use of prescribed fire. ...
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... This is because governance units might be willing to undertake adaption (say via disaster management) but not willing to proclaim publicly that they are doing so. On the basis of a survey of 200 local governments in the United States, Romsdahl et al. (131) found that even in conservative "red" states, public officials recognize the disruption caused by climate-induced stressors such as heat waves, irregular precipitation, droughts, and floods. In response, they are investing in adaptation but avoiding the climate label for them. ...
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Climate action has two pillars: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation faces collective action issues because its costs are focused on specific locations/ actors but benefits are global and nonexcludable. Adaptation, in contrast, creates local benefits, and therefore should face fewer collective action issues. However, governance units vary in the types of adaptation policies they adopt. To explain this variation, we suggest conceptualizing adaptation-as-politics because adaptation speaks to the issues of power, conflicting policy preferences, resource allocation, and administrative tensions. In examining who develops and implements adaptation, we explore whether adaptation is the old wine of disaster management in the new bottle of climate policy, and the tensions between national and local policy making. In exploring what adaptation policies are adopted, we discuss maladaptation and the distinction between hard and soft infrastructure. Finally, we examine why politicians favor visible, hard adaptation over soft adaptation, and how international influences shape local policy. 2.1
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