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“We Got in the Pilot Program to Learn from It:” Features of Social Learning in Drought Contexts along the Arkansas River in Colorado

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  • 1 a Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
  • | 2 b Western Water Assessment, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 3 c National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
  • | 4 d National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.
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Abstract

Unintended consequences from decisions made in one part of a social–ecological system in response to climate hazards can magnify vulnerabilities for others in the same system. Yet anticipating or identifying these cascades and spillovers in real time is difficult. Social learning is an important component of adaptation that has the ability to facilitate adaptive capacity by mobilizing multiple actors around a common resource to manage collectively in ways that build local knowledge, reflective practices, and a broader understanding of contexts for decisions. While the foundations of social learning in resource management have been theorized in the literature, empirical examples of unintended consequences that trigger social learning are few. This article analyzes two cases of drought decisions made along the Arkansas River basin in Colorado; in each, social learning occurred after actors experienced unanticipated impacts from others’ decisions. Methods include interviews with actors, both individual and institutional representatives of different sectors (recreation, agriculture, etc.), and a review of relevant historical and policy documents. The study identifies four features of social learning that aided actors’ responses to unanticipated consequences: governance structures that facilitated more holistic river management; relationship boundaries that expanded beyond small-scale decisions to capture interactions and emergent problems; knowledge of others’ previous experience, whether direct or indirect; and creation of spaces for safer experimentation with adaptation changes. Results identify empirical examples of actors who successfully learned to adapt together to unexpected consequences and thus may provide insight for others collectively managing drought extremes.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Jen Henderson, jen.henderson@ttu.edu

Abstract

Unintended consequences from decisions made in one part of a social–ecological system in response to climate hazards can magnify vulnerabilities for others in the same system. Yet anticipating or identifying these cascades and spillovers in real time is difficult. Social learning is an important component of adaptation that has the ability to facilitate adaptive capacity by mobilizing multiple actors around a common resource to manage collectively in ways that build local knowledge, reflective practices, and a broader understanding of contexts for decisions. While the foundations of social learning in resource management have been theorized in the literature, empirical examples of unintended consequences that trigger social learning are few. This article analyzes two cases of drought decisions made along the Arkansas River basin in Colorado; in each, social learning occurred after actors experienced unanticipated impacts from others’ decisions. Methods include interviews with actors, both individual and institutional representatives of different sectors (recreation, agriculture, etc.), and a review of relevant historical and policy documents. The study identifies four features of social learning that aided actors’ responses to unanticipated consequences: governance structures that facilitated more holistic river management; relationship boundaries that expanded beyond small-scale decisions to capture interactions and emergent problems; knowledge of others’ previous experience, whether direct or indirect; and creation of spaces for safer experimentation with adaptation changes. Results identify empirical examples of actors who successfully learned to adapt together to unexpected consequences and thus may provide insight for others collectively managing drought extremes.

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Corresponding author: Jen Henderson, jen.henderson@ttu.edu
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