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“I know, therefore I adapt?” Complexities of individual adaptation to climate-induced forest dieback in Alaska

Lauren E. Oakes, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University
Nicole M. Ardoin, Graduate School of Education and Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University
Eric F. Lambin, School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University; Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University


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Individual actions to avoid, benefit from, or cope with climate change impacts partly shape adaptation; much research on adaptation has focused at the systems level, overlooking drivers of individual responses. Theoretical frameworks and empirical studies of environmental behavior identify a complex web of cognitive, affective, and evaluative factors that motivate stewardship. We explore the relationship between knowledge of, and adaptation to, widespread, climate-induced tree mortality to understand the cognitive (i.e., knowledge and learning), affective (i.e., attitudes and place attachment), and evaluative (i.e., use values) factors that influence how individuals respond to climate-change impacts. From 43 semistructured interviews with forest managers and users in a temperate forest, we identified distinct responses to local, climate-induced environmental changes that we then categorized as either behavioral or psychological adaptations. Interviewees developed a depth of knowledge about the dieback through a combination of direct, place-based experiences and indirect, mediated learning through social interactions. Knowing that the dieback was associated with climate change led to different adaptive responses among the interviewees, although knowledge alone did not explain this variation. Forest users reported psychological adaptations to process negative attitudes; these adaptations were spurred by knowledge of the causes, losses of intangible values, and impacts to a species to which they held attachment. Behavioral adaptations exclusive to a high level of knowledge included actions such as using the forests to educate others or changing transportation behaviors to reduce personal energy consumption. Managers integrated awareness of the dieback and its dynamics across spatial scales into current management objectives. Our findings suggest that adaptive management may occur from the bottom up, as individual managers implement new practices in advance of policies. As knowledge of climate-change impacts in local environments increases, resource users may benefit from programs and educational interventions that facilitate coping strategies.

Key words

attitudes; climate change; forest management; individual adaptation; knowledge; place attachment; use values

Copyright © 2016 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