World Resource Institute

Information Roundtable: Information Needs for Adaptation to Climate Change

At a one-day workshop at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC on December 16, 2010, participants discussed the role of information in adaptation. The workshop was designed to build upon findings from the information component of WRI’s National Adaptive Capacity Framework pilot assessments and ARIA project, as well as the WRR 2010-2011 typology of decision-making attributes.

Introduction: Understanding the Information Base for Adaptation

A broad set of stakeholders needs access to good information to make decisions in a changing climate. Yet there are different opinions around the types of information needed and the appropriate forms, both in terms of sources and users. Moreover, there is no single answer to what really qualifies as “good information” to support adaptation.

The most obvious answer – namely, accurate, local-level projections of climate change impacts – is not so easily achieved. Climate projections “downscaled” to regional levels or lower are expensive to produce, and carry high levels of uncertainty. Many scientists and decision-makers have begun to question whether detailed downscaled projections represent the best information investment, and are calling for approaches to adaptation that do not require them. .

Recognizing that information for adaptation decision-making is – and will be for the foreseeable future – imperfect, the workshop explored key questions about information needs in two issue areas: .

Decision-making under conditions of incomplete information.

  • What are the alternatives to high-resolution data, given the expense and uncertainty that often limit availability and utility of desired data?
  • What types of information about a given climate change risk are needed before decision-makers can take account of the risk in plans and policies?
  • Given the uncertainty of climate change and the likelihood of surprises, what types of information can support policy adjustment if decisions need to be changed to contend with novel circumstances?

Accelerating information collection, analysis, and dissemination.

  • What are the most important factors in making sure that information for adaptation continuously improves? Are there networks, policy models, or legal reforms that hold promise for supporting this process?
  • On the “receiving end” of the information process, what new skills, resources, rights, or procedures may stakeholders need for making decisions in a changing climate?
  • How do the answers to each of the above two questions vary by country? Are there different entry points for each country to spur this change?

The workshop utilized country case studies from Nepal, Ghana, Bolivia, and Ireland, together with two sets of break-out group discussions and a simulation game.

Conclusions: Types of Information Needed

More than just information about climate change is needed to support adaptation decisions. Workshop discussions highlighted the following types of information:

  • Historical Information. Information on the ‘pre-climate change’ baseline is critical to understanding adaptation needs and options, and to tracking progress. Good baselines require a cross-disciplinary approach: climatic, social, environmental, and economic data all matter.
  • Risk Information. Information that helps with identification and characterization of climate risks is important. Decision-makers need to understand what is happening (or may happen) and who (or what area) is affected. This is not just a matter of climate projections – other systems for anticipation (projections of economic growth, natural resource use or demographic change, for example) also provide critical information for understanding risk. However, characterizing risk is insufficient -- risks ultimately also will need to be prioritized. The prioritization process requires a different set of information – including information on options, costs, benefits, resources available to address risks, and stakeholder preferences. (see below)
  • Adaptation Options Information. Evaluation of adaptation options requires information on: the menu of available adaptation options (including inaction), the costs and benefits of options under a range of future scenarios, and the distribution of costs and benefits among stakeholders. A potentially powerful type of information regards ‘co-benefits’ – the benefits to economic development, environmental protection, or other priorities – that may accrue from an activity, in addition to the benefit of adaptation. Also important is information on feasibility and resources (financial, human, natural) that may be available to support implementation of options.
  • Stakeholder Information. Effective adaptation decision-making must reflect the needs and priorities of those affected by climate risks, and by adaptation activities. This requires information about – and importantly, from – stakeholders: Who cares about a particular adaptation decision? Who is responsible for it, and who holds them to account? Who is affected, and where? What do they value? What are their points of view on a particular risk?

Conclusions: Processes for Improving Application of Information

Often, critical aspects of information for adaptation relate not to the type of information, but rather to processes for gathering, analyzing, disseminating, and providing access to information. Workshop discussions highlighted the following procedural issues:

  • Making Information ‘Actionable.’ The best information is often produced with a specific application in mind. For adaptation, information should be designed to match the timescale and geographic scale of particular decisions for which it will be used. At the same time, the newness of adaptation, the diversity of stakeholders involved, and the uncertainties associated with climate change all make it difficult to know what kinds of decisions will get taken, and how best to ensure that information supports them. This means information systems will need to be flexible and easily adjusted if they are to assure actionable information over time. On the other hand, sometimes the information required for effective action may be quite simple: for instance, in some cases understanding the direction of climate change (e.g. wetter or drier, more storms or fewer) can provide an adequate basis for decision-making, without the need for precisely quantified local climate projections.
  • Making Information User-friendly. Information may need to be ‘packaged’ differently for different governance units (e.g. a district vs. a basin authority), or to match different stakeholder skill sets (e.g. engineers vs. village elders). Information providers will need mechanisms through which a diverse set of users can articulate their information needs. Capacity-building will also be a priority, especially over the long term, so that future generations of decision-makers understand climate change and can use information appropriately for adaptation.
  • Getting Information to its Users. Ensuring that valuable information reaches stakeholders who need it often requires coordination and sharing among agencies that are not accustomed to working together. For example, information maintained by the Environment Ministry sometimes fails to reach local authorities or planners in the Finance Ministry, where many climate-relevant decisions are taken. Several countries have pioneered the creation of web-based climate information “platforms” intended to gather relevant information from several sources for access by multiple users. However, this may not be helpful in less ‘wired’ locations, where climate information will need to be packaged for specific user communities that depend upon radio, mobile phones, or other media. It also may not address core problems with existing institutional structures, flows of resources, accountability processes, and job descriptions, which often create disincentives to sharing information.
  • Making Sure Information Supports Learning. An important role of information systems for adaptation is to support feedback loops within a decision-making system. For example, when a decision is taken at the national level, information from local communities is needed to assess how well the resulting policy is supporting adaptation. The information should lead to a reassessment of the initial decision after a period of time, with an option to change the policy should it be found maladaptive. This need implies a central role for monitoring and evaluation systems, for high awareness and receptivity to information by decision-makers, and for policies and other decisions that are designed from the beginning for rapid adjustment in response to new information.

Next Steps: Moving Toward User-driven Information

Workshop participants concluded that the key to generating decision-relevant information is to put information users in the driver’s seat. Rather than simply working with whatever information is available (which often contributes to misuse of information), stakeholders need to identify what information would support their adaptation efforts, and work with information providers to see how best to meet their needs. Steps toward making this possible include:

  • Promote Dialogue Between Information Users and Producers. Too often, information is a product of scientists’ research interests, or of a path-dependence created by past information investments. Bringing information providers together for discussion with information users represents a first step toward breaking this pattern in order to re-orient information toward usefulness and decision-relevance. However, workshop participants cautioned that a single user-producer dialogue is unlikely to lead directly to change in information. Keys to the success of such dialogues include:
    • Make sure that dialogue is an on-going process, not a one-off event. It can take time to build trust and respect, and to adjust the existing incentives that lead to less-than-useful information (or to misuse of existing information)
    • Recognize that there are a lot of different users. Productive dialogue may first require a process of ‘audience segmentation,’ through which to cluster sets of similar users and identify the appropriate information producers.
    • Allow information to flow both ways. Before scientists and other ‘traditional’ providers can be expected to provide decision-relevant information, they may need greater familiarity with indigenous knowledge, in order to help understand when it may be sufficient and when it needs to be supplemented.
    • Go beyond dialogue. Engaging information users in peer review and quality control processes close to the ‘source’ can help to bake decision-relevance into information production from its inception.
  • Extend Time Horizons for Information Investment. The information agenda for adaptation is an expansive one that requires iterative change in entrenched systems, so cannot be resolved all at once. Funders interested in making a real impact in this critical area will need to invest for longer than the 2-5-year project timeframes typical of development finance. Investors will need to move beyond one-time studies and assessments to focus on supporting the ongoing process of building systems that can support decision-making over a span of decades.
  • Cultivate ‘Boundary Organizations. Much as direct, ongoing engagement between information producers and adaptation stakeholders would be ideal, we must recognize that it is likely to remain scarce. Both sides are busy with their own work; neither has a lot of time for dialogue. “Boundary organizations” that specialize in linking these two spheres can provide another solution by working with decision-makers to understand their information needs, relaying these needs to information producers, helping information users understand the limitations of the information production process, and building users’ capacity to wisely use the information that is available. However, these intermediaries – typically, NGOs, policy research institutes, and specialized semi-governmental players such as United Kingdom Climate Impacts Program or the Red Cross Climate Centre – remain relatively few in the adaptation field. Fostering incentives for building “boundary expertise,” and ensuring that boundary organizations are well resourced, could provide an important avenue for ensuring information relevant to adaptation improves rapidly.