The “shrinking planet” concept we used for the title of the 20th Anniversary Symposium refers at once to two related phenomena — the fact that humankind is consuming natural resources faster than they can be regenerated, and the vanishing barriers between people of different nations and cultures due to social media and global markets. We’re living at a time when humans’ interactions with the earth and with each other are increasingly complex and collective action is necessary. Add to that complexity the volatile and ubiquitous impacts of climate change, and it becomes clear that existing institutions and decision making processes are not up to the task. 

Not surprisingly, climate change surfaced repeatedly throughout the conference as a critical factor in understanding the challenges around food, water, energy, and the role of technology. In the water breakout, panelists argued that every challenge associated with water, from scarcity to flooding, is complicated by climate change. Lisa Van Atta, the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Assistant Regional Administrator, posed the question of whether and how our regulatory frameworks and tools may be inadequate for dealing with climate change volatility and uncertainty. She said her agency, for example, is responsible for implementing the rules and regulations of the Endangered Species Act, but the ESA may not be the right tool to address global climate change and the associated impacts. She cited corals in the Indo-Pacific as a specific example of species that are being severely impacted by ocean acidification and ocean warming, but even if or when these species are listed under the ESA, NOAA’s role in influencing decisions related to carbon emissions is limited at best. 

Franklin Holley of the Agricultural Field Project with WWF also cited adaptation to climate change as a complicated, but unavoidable activity in their work in the global food system. She emphasized the immediacy of the challenges and said that WWF recognizes the opportunity to plan for climate change is past. The job at hand is to adapt to the changing conditions, while working to alter the future. 

Mitigation was naturally the focus of the discussion about climate change in the energy session. Rebecca Pearl-Martinez of IUCN argued that mitigation outcomes improve as women’s participation increases in climate related decision-making, from the highest levels of diplomatic agenda setting and policymaking, to large-scale energy production, to every day decisions made at local and hyper-local levels. Catherine Finneran, Senior Director of the MA Clean Energy Center also focused on social, rather than strictly technical challenges associated with climate change. She said the Center is tasked with a dual goal – to reduce emissions while catalyzing economic development and job creation. This noble pursuit has met its match in public opposition to wind turbines in Massachusetts, where even in the face of rising costs for traditional energy sources and the presence of state-funded projects that come at little or no cost to local taxpayers, the Center has faced significant conflict. She said stakeholders feel their concerns have not been heard, and a general distrust of government has led to a lack of openness and cooperation between governments and stakeholders in the wind-turbine siting process. Ms. Finneran said the Center is finding (partly through processes in CBI has led over the last couple of years) that open data collection, and an increase in transparency in the process make a difference. 

Is Climate Change a Collaboration Enigma?

One of the questions all people interested in collaboration should be asking is whether there is something unique about the process challenges and opportunities posed by climate change, relative to any other complex planning endeavor. Are the collaborative dynamics around climate different due to the magnitude of the issue? Does the degree of uncertainty associated with climate change require special tools or strategies? Are the time horizons through which we attempt to understand climate so incomprehensible to the average stakeholder that we need new and unique ways to engage them? The scenarios and challenges presented by our speakers at the 20th Anniversary Symposium clearly offer opportunities for improvement through collaboration, but they also illustrate some of the inherent limits. How does a collaborative approach solve the regulatory issues in the Pacific? If women are not adequately represented in high-level decision-making on climate policy, do we know enough about effectively engaging women to build their influence? There are clues that we need to innovate for climate collaboration, and we look forward to finding ways to do that as we continue the conversation.