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Here's a collaborative approach that at-risk communities can use to move forward with adaptation. Help us implement it!



To help catalyze effective climate change adaptation, we propose a professionally facilitated collaborative problem-solving process that at-risk communities—particularly coastal communities—can follow to formulate shared judgments about how to adapt now in the face of long-term climate change risks. This process builds upon the Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) to group decision-making developed by the Consensus Building Institute and draws on the lessons we have learned from our decades of experience mediating science-intensive public policy disputes. Our proposed collaborative approach to climate risk management includes the following components: 1) the assistance of a trained facilitation team; 2) a careful assessment of stakeholder concerns; 3) supported joint fact finding; 4) convening of a representative group of stakeholders, appointed by local government, to generate an adaptation plan; and 5) on-going assistance for local and regional government to ensure that proposals generated through this process are implemented.

A key part of this proposal, we propose to--if we are selected for a Climate CoLab grand prize--implement our proposed collaborative adaptation process in a pilot community. To identify this pilot community our team will host a competition through which all New England towns and cities can apply. We will use the $10,000 grand prize to seed this work and use our own funds to cover the remaining costs.

We recognize that not every community is prepared to proceed with this proposed collaborative adaptation process and that it may be necessary to undertake an up-front public education campaign in order build a political foundation for collective problem-solving. If the community that wins our competition needs this kind of preparatory assistance, the MIT Science Impact Collaborative will organize, at its own cost, a three-month public education effort using the tools and techniques we are currently developing for this purpose.

Category of the action


What actions do you propose?


Cities and towns throughout the United States face a variety of climate change risks, including sea level rise, increased storm intensity, more frequent drought, and the spread of disease vectors.  These effects, where they occur, will have significant and potentially devastating impacts on infrastructure, water resources, human health, and ecosystem services (IPCC, 2007; USGCRP, 2009). While the exact impacts of climate change are uncertain, there are many proactive actions that municipalities can take now to reduce their vulnerability and increase their resilience. Most fundamentally, at-risk communities can integrate climate change projections into their everyday infrastructure maintenance policies, land use decisions, and emergency preparedness planning. Additionally, they can invest in new infrastructure such as bigger stormwater pipes, use green infrastructure along coastlines to help absorb the shock of big storms, and take other protective measures such as restricting coastal development and moving at-risk development out of flood-prone zones (Rosenzweig and Solecki, 2001; Tobey et al, 2010).

Undertaking adaptation strategies like these, even no-regrets options that increase resilience while accomplishing other short-term community objectives, require that at-risk municipalities reach agreement on actions to take despite differing perspectives about what ought to be done. To accomplish this, they will need to take scientific and technical assessments seriously, which —given the uncertain nature of climate change—has thus far proven difficult.  Additionally, effective adaptation will require inter-agency and regional collaboration, which can be challenging to achieve, particularly in tough economic times (Susskind, 2010; Moser and Boykoff, 2013).  In sum, adaptation planning will require collective risk management in the face of significant uncertainty and limited resources. This, in turn, will demand new forms of stakeholder engagement and collaborative decision-making (Few et al, 2007; Susskind and Rumore, 2013).

Recognizing this, we propose a professionally facilitated collaborative problem-solving process that at-risk communities, coastal or otherwise, can use now to reach agreement about how to prepare for and adapt to climate change risks.

Our proposed approach

The Consensus Building Institute (CBI) and others have, over the last several decades, developed a collaborative decision-making approach that can be used to address “wicked” problems, i.e., difficult public policy choices that seem to have no clear answer or simple solution (Rittel and Weber, 1973).  This approach, generally known as consensus building or the Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) (Susskind et al, 1999; Susskind and Cruikshank, 2006), has been used to assist in dealing with problems  ranging from transboundary water management (Islam and Susskind, 2012) to renewable energy facility siting (Kunreuther and Susskind, 1991). We are confident that this approach, if properly applied, can facilitate more effective climate change adaptation.

Fundamentally, MGA involves professionally facilitated multi-stakeholder engagement in a process of joint problem-solving. When applied to climate change adaptation it includes:

  1. Facilitator selection: A governmental agency or set of agencies—i.e., the municipal convener or conveners—needs to select a professionally trained facilitation team to undertake a stakeholder assessment and support the preparation of an adaptation or risk management approach.
  2. Stakeholder assessment: The facilitation team begins by conducting a substantial number of confidential interviews with key stakeholders to determine how people perceive climate change risks, which stakeholder interests and concerns are at play, and what barriers to adaptation are most significant. Based on this effort, the facilitation team maps stakeholder interests and prepares a detailed roadmap for moving forward that all stakeholders need to review and approve. This map informs the rest of the MGA process.
  3. Process design: In partnership with the convening agency or agencies, the professional facilitation team draws on the stakeholder assessment to suggest a detailed agenda of issues that need to be addressed, joint fact finding and scientific risk assessment that will need to be done, a timetable, a budget, and prospective ground rules for the decision-making process.  All parties consulted in the course of the stakeholder assessment must be given an opportunity to comment on the process design.
  4. Convening and facilitating a multi-stakeholder problem-solving process: The trained facilitation team works with a group of key stakeholder representatives, invited by the convener to engage in deliberations regarding the items on the adaptation planning agenda.
  5. Joint fact finding: As part of the collective problem solving process, the facilitation team helps stakeholders clarify what kind of scientific information and advice they need to effectively develop adaptation strategies, and assists them in commissioning whatever scientific, technical, and economic studies might be required.
  6. Consensus building: The facilitation team, working within the timetable and budget approved at the outset, helps the participants come as close as they can to reaching unanimous agreement on the elements of an adaptation plan. This will likely include steps to reduce municipal vulnerability and enhance community resilience through “no regrets” actions including infrastructure investment, land use and development regulation, new building codes, land and water conservation, and emergency preparedness. The agreement reached by the group is presented as a proposal to the convening agency for formal action.


From idea to implementation: helping a New England town reach agreement on implementing a climate risk management or adaptation plan

The MIT Science Impact Collaborative and the not-for-profit Consensus Building Institute are committed to helping at-risk towns implement consensus building efforts to deal with the climate risks they face.  If we are selected as the grand prize winner of the Climate CoLab contest, we will host a competition in which cities and towns in New England will be invited to nominate themselves to be a pilot for our proposed process. We will advertise the competition widely, review nominations from communities that apply, and offer to facilitate a collective climate risk management effort in the winning municipality.

CBI has decades of experience facilitating processes of this kind in the context of other science-intensive environmental planning and land use situations, as well as recent experience working on climate change adaptation planning in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine.  CBI also has experience conducting the type of competition we are proposing.

If selected for the grand prize in the enabling adaptation Climate CoLab category, we will use the $10,000 prize to help fund this pilot process.  We will ask the selected community to make a modest investment in the enterprise (e.g., $10,000) and we will cover all remaining costs through our own existing grants, funds, and additional fund-raising. We estimate that this process will cost approximately $50,000.

The MIT Science Impact Collaborative will document the pilot effort (see details below) and devote substantial effort to sharing the results online. The intent of this pilot is to demonstrate the extent to which the Mutual Gains Approach, or consensus building, offers a way to help at-risk communities reach collective climate risk management decisions, even in the face of substantial political disagreement, uncertainty, and limited resources.

Building the foundation for this type of collective problem-solving

Not every at-risk community is ready to engage in the type of facilitated problem-solving we propose, even if their elected officials would like to move in this direction. Within at-risk communities, there is often disagreement about the extent to which climate change is a problem, very different perspectives about what risk management efforts—if any—should be undertaken, and significant concerns about the availability of technical and financial resources (Moser and Boykoff, 2013). Therefore, in some communities it may be necessary to conduct widespread public education in order build a political foundation for the collective problem-solving approach we are proposing.

Recognizing this, we are currently experimenting with role-play simulations, a type of experiential learning exercise, as a way of building public understanding of and support for climate change adaptation. Based on our research in four New England coastal communities, we believe that the widespread use of these exercises in at-risk communities can lay the groundwork for facilitated adaptation planning effort (Susskind and Rumore, 2013; NECAP, 2013). If the community that wins our competition wants this kind of front-end preparatory assistance, the MIT Science Impact Collaborative will organize a three-month public education effort using this technique.

Sharing the results of the pilot effort

Since the intent of this pilot effort will be to explore and demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach, we will carefully document the implementation of this process in our pilot town or city. We will do this both in video and written form.  All documentation of the approach will be made publically available online. The Consensus Building Institute will also produce a story about the pilot that will be widely distributed to encourage other coastal towns and cities to consider doing something similar.

Potential limitations and challenges to this approach

We are confident that the facilitated, collaborative climate risk management approach we are proposing is realistic. We are also confident that, if properly implemented, this approach can produce short-term and long-term human and ecosystem protection as well as a variety of cost-savings. However, the approach we are suggesting is not without its limitations or challenges. To succeed, cities and towns will have to generate commitments from a wide range of stakeholders. Unless groups and organizations are prepared to commit their time, a collaborative approach to climate risk management is not possible. To undertake this approach, cities and towns will also need to find some local funding or in-kind support. In addition, if agreement can be reached on better ways to use infrastructure improvement funds to enhance resilience, the relevant political bodies will need to approve these expenditures.  Implementation of any adaptation strategy will also demand ongoing attention and revision. This means that people, even those who disagree with each other, will have to work together over time. 

Fortunately, trained facilitators who are available through the Consensus Building Institute and similar organizations can provide the necessary assistance to overcome these challenges, for example through building widespread understanding and support for collective risk management through the role-play simulation-based engagement process explained above. Additionally, there are foundations and local business organizations with the resources to help and CBI and similar organizations are skilled at identifying innovative funding mechanisms to make collaborative adaptive management possible.

Who will take these actions?

If we move forward with our pilot effort, our implementation team will include CBI and MIT SIC staff and will be led by:

Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, MIT; Vice Chair- Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School; Director of the MIT Science Impact Collaborative

Patrick Field, Managing Director of the Consensus Building Institute

Danya Rumore, PhD Candidate at MIT; Project Manager at the MIT Science Impact Collaborative; Associate at CBI

The implementation of this process more broadly will involve individuals and organizations trained in consensus building and process facilitation, who will faciliate the process we have proposed; local and regional decision-makers and government agency personnel, who may be involved in convening the proposed process as well as implementing adaptation strategies developed through this process; and key stakeholders at the local and regional level, who will be involved in developing adaptation strategies through the proposed process.

Where will these actions be taken?

Our proposed process can be implemented in at-risk communities, coastal or otherwise, throughout the U.S. and internationally. The process may have to be modified slightly to accommodate different cultural, institutional, and political contexts.

The pilot process and related competition that we propose will take place in New England, focusing on coastal New England towns and cities.

What are other key benefits?

We anticipate that, through engaging in our proposed consensus building approach to adaptation planning, at-risk communities will better able to move forward with collective risk management strategies. We also anticipate that going through this process will better prepare these communities' institutions and capacity for dealing with other tricky planning and policy issues. We are confident that our proposed process, if properly deployed, will increase public awareness and support for adaptation, and may also provide a platform for decision-making around mitigation and broader sustainable development issues.

If our proposal receives the grand prize and we move forward with our pilot process, we anticipate that our competition and implementation of the pilot process in the winning New England municipality will create publicity and discussion that may help move adaptation forward in other at-risk communities throughout the U.S.

What are the proposal’s costs?

While the cost of implementating our proposed collaborative adaptation process will vary somewhat from location to location, we anticipate that this process will generally cost around $30,000-50,000 per town or city, likely over a period of a couple years. Fortunately, this process--if properly implemented--is likely to save significant costs (economically, socially, and politically) down the road in terms of avoided hazards, more efficient decision-making, and stakeholder buy-in to adaptation efforts.

We anticipate that the cost of implementing our pilot process and related competition will be about $50,000.

We do not foresee any negative side effects of our proposed process or pilot.

Time line

The implementation of this process in at-risk communities may take months to years, and will in many ways be ongoing as towns and cities respond to emerging climate change impacts, socio-political changes, and related risks. However, it can be initiated immediately in towns and cities that are prepared to undertake this type of collaborative adaptation planning. In some at-risk communities, an additional  3 to 6 months of public education and engagement (as described in our proposal) may be needed to lay the foundation for our proposed approach. 

Related proposals


CBI (Consensus Building Institute) (2011) Local Communities Adapting to Climate Change: Managing Risk in Decision Making: Communities Responding to Risk. Available at: (accessed on 23 January 2012).

Few, R., K. Brown and E. Tompkins (2007) Public Participation and Climate Change Adaptation: Avoiding the Illusion of Inclusion, Climate Policy, 7: 46-59.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) (2007) Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available (accessed on 17 November, 2011)

Islam, S. and L. Susskind (2012) Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, Routledge: New York, NY.

Kunreuther, H. and L. Susskind (1991) The Facility Siting Credo: Guidelines for an Effective Facility Siting Process, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Publication Services: University of Pennsylvania.

Moser, S. and  M. Boykoff (2013) Successful Adaptation to Climate Change: Linking Science and Policy in a Rapidly Changing World, Routledge: New York, NY.

NECAP (New England Climate Adaptation Project) (2013) The Project: New England Climate Adaptation Project. Available at (accessed on 12 June, 2013).

Rittel, H. and M. Weber (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences, 4: 155-169.

Rosenzweig, C. and W. Solecki (eds.) (2001) Climate Change and the Global City: the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change: Metro East Coast, Report for the US Global Change Research Program, Columbia Earth Institute.

Susskind, L. (2010) Responding to the Risks Posed by Climate Change: Cities Have No Choice but to Adapt, Town Planning Review, 81 (3): 217-235.

Susskind, L. and J. Cruikshank (2006) Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results, Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

Susskind, L., S. McKearan and J. Thomas-Larmer (1999) The Consensus Building Handbook, Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, California

Susskind, L. and D. Rumore (2013) Collective Climate Adaptation: Can Games Make a Difference?, Solutions Journal, 4(1). Available at

Tobey, J., P. Rubinoff, D. Robadue, G. Ricci, R. Volk, J. Furlow  and G. Anderson (2010) Practicing Coastal Adaptation to Climate Change: Lessons from Integrated Coastal Management, Coastal Management, 38:317-335.

USGCRP (United States Global Climate Research Program) (2009) Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Available at on 17 January, 2012).