Envisioning Positive Futures: A Resilience Approach to Long-term Climate Planning under Uncertainty

By Katharina Davis

As many are settling into accepting extreme weather events and chronic stresses as the new normal, it has become clear that events we expected to occur in the ‘far future’ have arrived and are bound to intensify. If we couple these developments with other accelerated changes of our era – rapid population growth, urbanization and migration, along with surging connectivity and digitization, and severe degradation of our environment, we could see reason to be alarmed.

And yet, most of these phenomena and mega trends are driven by human action for better or worse. This means that we have the power to correct course and achieve unimaginable positive futures. While we all may have different visions of what those would entail, we would likely strive for prosperity for all, for a future where people and planet are thriving through symbiosis, and technologies responsibly enhance our human connections, and thus our feeling as ‘one’.

Resilience scholars and practitioners have long grappled with the issue of how to plan for uncertainty and achieve positive futures for sustainable development.  Here are five key insights we can learn from the resilience approach:

Dream big, then establish pathways

Given current drivers, the future can look dire and getting even short-term plans off the ground are a challenging feat. But the key is to use positive future scenarios to create a vision for sustainable development, 

before back-casting to the present and identifying potential pathways and milestones to achieve such futures.  This approach allows all possibilities, trade-offs and pitfalls to emerge. Flexibility is integrated into the vision by keeping it broad to continuously cope with changes.

These far-out futures could be radically different from what we could expect from business as usual scenarios and require transformational changes/transitions -- something we cannot possibly achieve with short-term, incremental planning. Long-term Climate Strategies, a proposed deliverable from the Paris Climate Agreement, could offer countries an incentive to engage in such planning processes to design long-term visions for a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.

People’s Capacities first, then technology

In an age of accelerated change and surprise events, persistence, adaptability, and transformability of our societies are a must. While there is a need for pre-emptively mitigating risk drivers and anticipating changes from mega trends, there is even a bigger need to learn how to adapt to, and capitalize on, these changes on a continuous basis. This requires expanding our focus from deterministic adaptation and mitigation interventions towards building adaptive capacities and the dynamic societal arrangements in systems.

Disruptions and surprises can have many sources and enable us to leap forward or fall back – dynamic, adaptive capacities will allow us to navigate the sea of disruptive technological, social, and environmental changes. This is why integrated governance systems and the development of strong, yet flexible, networks should be at the core of long-term climate strategies.

Diversify and expand your bandwidth

Risk diversification is a hallmark of resilience. As we plan for zero-carbon transitions in our lifeline sectors, such as energy, water, agriculture and transport, we need to consider how they will hold up against mega trends such as climate change, population growth and disruptive technologies. The same is true for our governance and socio-ecological networks that glue our systems together.

Diversity, decentralization, and redundancy form key features of resilient systems. "Duplicate" or "backup" systems are at odds with today's emphasis on "efficiency". However, in resilience, these backup nodes are seen as vital to ensure continuation and self-repair of the whole system even if certain elements fail. Equally important is securing certain bandwidths to avoid system overload and disruptions. As countries develop sectoral plans and related governance networks, such considerations should be a key part of the long-term climate strategy planning process.

Prepare for failure

Rapid changes and chance events can quickly derail the best mitigation or adaptation measure, at times resulting in disasters at every scale. We therefore need to rethink what we consider as a failure. In an era of high uncertainty, we need to shift the focus to managing the impact of failure rather than simply lowering probability of failure.

In other words, rather than designing fail-proof or ‘climate-proof’ interventions that aim to reduce the probability of failing but may have significant impact after a failure, we need to focus on managing outcomes through “Safe to Fail” interventions that lower the consequences. This approach is closely linked to the notion of diversity (above), where a given problem is best approached from various angles to achieve a holistic solution and weather uncertainties.

Think systems-wide

Every intervention to address climate change ultimately begs the questions: (1) what issue is being addressed (2) for whom, and (3) who is carrying the burden of the action or transition? Selecting which sectors, infrastructure, geographical areas and/or population groups to prioritize can be one of the most vexing challenges when crafting climate plans. Long-term priorities can become obscured by short-term priorities that can then adversely impact climate and development goals.

This is why long-term visioning – 2050 and beyond – becomes so crucial. Those aspirations can help countries define clear pathways in which the health of the entire system and sub-systems are considered. As such, long-term visions are best co-produced through a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to ensure that all voices are heard, with trade-offs skillfully addressed through smart development policies that carefully (re)balance the inter-system relations.

Conclusion

The resilience approach offers valuable insights on how to proceed and enable in the short term the path for long-term climate planning under high uncertainty. Envisioning positive futures, anticipating changes, and strengthening adaptive capacities of our systems is key to transformational change. This approach can inspire 2050 long-term climate strategies that result in equitable and green futures for all.