World Resource Institute

Question One: Does climate change require new approaches to making decisions?

Is the way we currently plan for the future and react to unexpected change sufficient to accommodate the uncertainty, scale, long lead time, and complexity associated with climate impacts?

As a result of the unprecedented rate of human-induced climate change, there is now widespread consensus that unless a range of adaptation efforts are embraced, the risks posed by climate change on people and ecosystems are likely to be more disruptive and damaging.  The question policymakers, planners, and investors are increasingly facing is: is the way we currently plan for the future and react to unexpected change sufficient to accommodate the uncertainty, scale, long lead time, and complexity associated with climate impacts? For example, do current decision - making processes allow an energy planner in South America take into account future glacial meltwater loss that may not manifest itself for years - when planning new hydroelectric plants to meet future electricity needs?

Sector Examples of Decision Types that will Need to Incorporate Short- and Long-term Climate Risks
  • National Agriculture Plan
  • Crop Management Plan
  • National Energy Policy/Strategy
Natural Resources Management
  • Coastal Zone Management Plan
  • Forest Management Plan
  • Protected Areas Plan
  • National Invasive Species Management Plan
  • Management Plans for Marine and Recreational Fishing
Urban Planning/Infrastructure
  • National Transportation Plan
  • Road Maintenance Finance Plan
  • National Highway Plan
  • National Water Policy
  • Integrated Water Resource Management Plan

The arguments in favor of new decision-making practices revolve primarily around the distinctive characteristics of the climate change problem itself and the perceived inadequacies in current planning processes. Impacts are not only unique in time and space, but also can present conditions never experienced before. Even though some impacts will not be felt for several decades, there is the need to address the risks they may present well in advance of their onset. In addition, the uncertainty, the surprises, and the heightened change and variability posed by climate change can present significant challenges to existing modes of planning and policymaking.

The nature of possible interventions themselves also poses challenges to decision makers. Some will be controversial, especially when faced with balancing short- and long-term goals. Interventions could also result in unintended, unanticipated results, and yet due to the irreversible nature of some potential climate impacts, the decision maker has little opportunity to retry solutions. The lack of any central decision-making authority for climate change in some governments themselves may also hinder effective preparation for climate risks.

On the other hand, the unique characteristics of climate change risks may be overstated or misrepresented. A number of other environmental challenges, such as the persistence of toxics or ecosystem degradation, also have long-term consequences that are difficult to fully predict or anticipate, and yet do not seem to pose great obstacles to decision makers. Other potential disruptions, such as those posed by earthquakes, present significant uncertainty and require upfront investments, and decision-making processes have been established to contend with such risks.

From this perspective, the major difference between addressing climate risks and other problems is perhaps a matter of scale, with climate change manifesting itself globally and across all sectors. Additionally, one might argue that since climate change has been recognized as a problem for over 20 years (to one degree or another), many decision-making processes have already had the opportunity to begin to incorporate climate risks. Instead of a failure of decision- making processes themselves, perhaps a lack of institutional capacities (especially for implementation) or other factors may explain why some governments are relatively farther along than others.

Or perhaps it is simply too early to tell. Given that most adaptation efforts are in their infancy, we need more operational history before we are able to judge whether new processes for decision making in a changing climate are necessary.

These differing viewpoints raise important questions for discussion: are current decision-making practices used by governments able to incorporate the long-term nature, surprises, heightened change and variability, and the uncertainty of a changing climate, or does such decision making require an entirely new approach? If so, what needs to change? And why? If not, how should current practices be harnessed to plan for and react to climate risks today and in the future?

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