Impressions from the 2021 Southwest Adaptation Forum

Gregg Garfin
Monday, April 12, 2021

On April 6-8, 2021, the second Southwest Adaptation Forum (SWAF) was convened online, hosted by the Climate Science Alliance and the Southwest CASC, with the support and input of a dozen partner organizations and a 16-person advisory committee, consisting of registered members of Native American tribes. In my more than 30 years of conference and workshop attendance the 2021 SWAF was unique. Most folks who know me well would agree that I’m not prone to bragging, but I would say, without reservation, that the 2021 SWAF marks a milestone in the focus and tone of climate science and adaptation meetings, for reasons that I describe below. (N.B.: I was not involved in the conceptualization or development of the 2021 SWAF; like approximately 350 other people, I was an attendee). Here are a few things, among many, that stood out to me as a participant in the Forum.

The format of the 2021 SWAF fostered much excellent exchange of knowledge on climate change science, impacts, adaptation initiatives, and natural resource management challenges. But, the real focus of the 2021 SWAF was dialogue and relationships among resource managers, planners, and researchers. The 2021 SWAF sessions brought home to me, in very tangible terms, that while lack of scientific knowledge or precise estimates of future climate impacts are often cited as the impediments to making progress on adaptation to climate change, rather it is the development of relationships, trust, common articulation of questions, articulation of ground rules for working together (to sustain relationships), and common understanding of the outputs, outcomes and uses of the work that most constrain progress.

This perspective was brought home by many of the SWAF panelists, but most poignantly during a session entitled “Wisdom & Reciprocity: Collaborating with Tribal Nations.” In the session, Will Madrigal, Jr. (Tribal Capacities and Partnerships Program Manager, Climate Science Alliance; Professor of American Indian Studies/History/Language, and an enrolled member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians) expressed, in essence, that a consequence of the lack of authentic relationship between researchers and participants in the adaptation planning process, the lack of a relationship built on common respect and, even more, reciprocity among partners – mutually acknowledged equity in the give and take that leads to the conceptualization of a scientific research or planning process or the products of the research or planning process (e.g., data and reports) – a consequence is that wisdom cannot be accessed. Shared wisdom is what we all desire, as an outcome of scientific and adaptation planning partnership—a guide to action for dealing with changing environmental and social conditions. (Aside: this reminds me of the meme, often seen in the mid-2000s, of the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom continuum). While Mr. Madrigal was referring explicitly to reciprocity between secular society researchers and Tribal Nations, the same reciprocity and mutual trust-building apply to all our interactions with partners.

While scientific assessments of the future climate of the Southwest point to large changes in the average state of the climate system, we need to keep in mind that as we transition to future climate conditions, the details will also be characterized by great uncertainty and volatility and complexity. Preparedness for such change requires flexibility. Preparedness and flexibility require awareness, attention, and the foundation of trust and solid relationships to plan for, act on, and weather future conditions and still thrive. These themes were part of many SWAF panel discussions. They were brought home in concluding remarks by SW CASC Assistant Director, Anita Govert, who mentioned that the community developed during the Forum, and the authentic compassion (there’s a word not often associated with climate change science, impacts, and adaptation) expressed in the remarks of participants, panelists, and organizers will sustain us in moving forward to address future climate challenges.

So, congratulations and bravo to the organizers of the 2021 SWAF, for fostering (online!) a respectful, and based on the Zoom chat remarks, highly engaged and enthusiastic adaptation community in our region. You can find information about the 2021 SWAF here.