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Building adaptive capacity in a coastal region experiencing global change

Fred A. Johnson, U.S. Geological Survey, Wetland and Aquatic Research Center; Aarhus University, Department of Bioscience, Denmark
Mitchell J. Eaton, U.S. Geological Survey, Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center; North Carolina State University, Department of Applied Ecology
Jessica Mikels-Carrasco, D. J. Case & Associates
David Case, D. J. Case & Associates


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Coastal ecosystems in the eastern U.S. have been severely altered by human development, and climate change and other stressors are now further degrading the capacity of those ecological and social systems to remain resilient in the face of such disturbances. We sought to identify potential ways in which local conservation interests in the Lowcountry of South Carolina (USA) could participate in a social process of adaptation planning, and how that process might ultimately be broadened to engage a more diverse set of partners. We engaged participants through a combination of informal meetings, workshops, and other collaborative interactions to explore how the conservation community perceives and pursues its various missions, and how that community might confront the threats and opportunities in its future. Coproduction of knowledge and meaning were facilitated by collaborative scenario planning and strategic planning evaluation, which illuminated how the conservation community is integral to the broader governance of the region and highlighted how responses to forces of change are mediated through local culture, economics, and politics. We suggest an interpretation of conservation in which the fundamental objectives of both social and ecological systems might be prioritized in tandem, rather than narrowly focusing on environmental protection without consideration of the social landscape. Ultimately, adaptive capacity depends on the ability to act collectively, and social capital, trust, and organization greatly influence the capacity to act. Thus, we conclude that the presence of strong social networks, coordination and deliberation among diverse stakeholders, mechanisms for experiential feedback, and emphasis on social learning are key elements needed to build adaptive capacity. Central to the evolving perspective of governance of the commons is recognition that social and ecological systems are coupled; the issues and problems of one cannot be addressed without considering the consequences for the other. Moreover, a dominant theme emerging from our research and that of other scholars is the importance of culture and place attachment, which generates social cohesion and facilitates problem solving. These ideas have important implications for when, where, and how stakeholders are engaged to address the rapid changes being experienced by social-ecological systems.

Key words

adaptive capacity; climate change; coproduction; culture; panarchy; scenario planning; SWOT analysis; wicked problems

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087