This is the second installment of a two-post series on uncertainty and climate change. Read the first here.

We can’t predict the future with precision, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for it.

This is particularly true in the field of climate change, where we know that human activity is changing the climate, but we don’t always know exactly where or how impacts will occur, or how severe they’ll be (check out our previous blog post for a more comprehensive understanding of climate change uncertainty). But rather than using uncertainty as an excuse for inaction, policymakers and others must embrace it, incorporate it into their decision-making and make the best plans now to protect vulnerable communities from future events.

Two Approaches to Navigating Uncertainty

Several frameworks exist for incorporating uncertainty into the decisions of policymakers and planners.

Two of the main ones are the resilient and adaptive approaches. The first works well over a variety of possible outcomes, and involves techniques such as Robust Decision Making (RDM). RDM is an analytic methodology for planners that begins with a decision to act, and then looks at climate models, socioeconomic data and other relevant information to identify the best strategy over a variety of future scenarios. For example, RDM probability models could determine that an extensive drought in a specific region may last four to eight months, with the latter being more likely. Planners might then undertake drought preparations for six months or more in light of these forecasts, and thus be ready for multiple scenarios.

An adaptive approach is more flexible, and usually responds to triggers and can be modified as events unfold. One technique under this approach includes Iterative Risk Management, a participatory technique that allows for flexible and reversible decision-making even when risks and thresholds are unclear. Planners took an Iterative Risk Management approach to the Thames Estuary 2100 Project, a response to the region’s 1953 flood catastrophe, which caused a heavy loss of life and property. More than a million people call the Thames floodplain home, and the area comprises about £200 billion in property. So planners developed a system that allows river barriers and defenses to be raised or lowered at any time, providing flexible protection against sea level rise and tidal flooding.

Oroville Dam’s spillway collapses, halting the hydroelectric plant’s operations. Photo by California National Guard/Flickr
Oroville Dam’s spillway collapses, halting the hydroelectric plant’s operations. Photo by California National Guard/Flickr

4 Important Considerations for Effectively Dealing with Uncertainty

But regardless of which approach decision-makers take, four factors should be considered:

  1. Awareness. Before doing anything else, it’s important to acknowledge that uncertainty exists, and learn how to communicate about it to relevant stakeholders. Uncertainty may be difficult to perceive and measure, but this doesn’t mean it’s not present—nor does it justify inaction. We know that the majority of dams in the United States, for example, are past their 50-year designated lifespans, and about 17 percent of the country’s 87,000 dams are “high hazard” ones that will have catastrophic consequences for communities, rivers and wildlife if they fail.

    There may be uncertainties about when they will burst, which ones are more at risk, and what the impact will be, but these uncertainties should be acknowledged and then tackled head-on. That way, repairs can be prioritized or, if evacuations do become necessary, those affected may suffer less shock and have an easier time evacuating in an organized manner. As the breach of the Oroville Dam in California showed us this past February, burying our heads in the sand because we don’t know when disaster will strike won’t stop it from happening.

  2. Flexibility. It’s often crucial to have a strategy capable of being dynamic and adaptive as the situation changes, since that is often the case when it comes to the effects of climate change. Being able to respond quickly is paramount—whether the response is to smoothly evacuate thousands of citizens into shelters in an emergency or to more proactively strengthen levies and increase the drainage rate of water pumps as tidal or fluvial flooding intensifies.

  3. Robustness. Any effective climate strategy should be able to withstand different pressures without breaking. Decentralized energy grids are a good way of protecting against large-scale power outages caused by a tornado or other extreme weather event. Planners can advise farmers to diversify their livelihoods as much as possible to withstand the income and food losses from a bad crop year, a prolonged drought or severe flooding. Receiving income from fishing, handcrafts and other non-farm services could help buffer against a financial crisis and increase resilience.

  4. Context. Adaptation to climate change is ultimately local and depends on local realities, circumstances, cultural norms, perspectives and resources. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Countries in Western Africa, for example, don’t yet have the technological capacity and financial resources to design and disseminate drought-resistant crops, as countries in Europe or richer nations have. Policymakers might therefore be better served by promoting agroforestry, a more resilient, less expensive and more successful endeavor in this context for dealing with the uncertain future of climate and weather changes. Mitigation strategies can also be highly context-dependent; one nation might be better off reducing emissions through reforestation or green infrastructure, while another may choose cap-and-trade or investing in renewable energies.

The best way to manage and incorporate uncertainty into decision-making is still evolving, with more research to be done. Nevertheless, climate change uncertainty is a reality, one that we can’t afford to ignore. Decision-makers can’t wait for perfect information. Rather, they need to take what they know and formulate the best plan possible using all the tools at their disposal.