NEWBURYPORT — Some city leaders went back to school this week in an attempt to learn skills in dealing with climate change — and working with each other.
A "Climate Change Exercise" was conducted at the high school Thursday and hosted by the city's planning department and a department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The two-hour event was facilitated by Professor Larry Susskind, who heads the Science Impact Collaborative at MIT.
Close to two-dozen participants focused on an urban problem created by climate change. The role-playing exercise did not reference Newburyport, but Susskind's opening remarks did have a ring of reality.
"I was recently in Vermont and looked at the incredible damage created by river overflow after Hurricane Irene," Susskind said.
"We can't predict what will happen in any community, but the data shows that extreme weather events are increasing as a result of climate change."
The session was built around how a community can react to new circumstances created by unusual events.
Participants included residents, business owners, city leaders and several students. Present were members of several commissions, including planning, conservation, recreation and open space.
Planning Director Andy Port, who headed the initiative to invite local officials, said that though the seminar was not about Newburyport, it could serve as a useful exercise in dealing with conflict resolution.
Port said, "We will be updating the city's master plan next year, so this could be a good exercise in talking through problems and changes in the future."
The problem at hand was how to deal with issues created when federal guidelines expand a flood plain in a riverside city. The change means there is greater financial risk — and higher insurance payments — when a parcel once viewed as buildable is now part of a flood plain.
In the exercise, some city officials want to limit their liability by banning residential development, but a construction company with building permits in hand threatens to sue if it is blocked from building.
Participants played the roles of mayor, city planner, environmental activist, construction company official, building trades representative, affordable housing spokesperson and residents association president.
There were no right or wrong answers, but Susskind said that his work in conflict resolution suggests certain guidelines are helpful in creating constructive solutions:
All groups that are stakeholders in the issue must be brought to the table.
They should be given the same valid research material and all representatives must share research that they have amassed.
The facilitator should be recognized as credible and nonpartisan, and the group should be committed to reaching a consensus.
In Thursday's event, one of two working groups was moving toward a consensus until the matter of money came up. Members were unable to agree on which groups would pay for the increased expenses incurred by the new federal guidelines — as sometimes happens in real life.