Overcoming Uncertainty to Take Climate Adaptation Action

The Jackson Foundation has been supporting the Climate Conversations series since 2015. The series brings together diverse stakeholders from local government, utilities, consulting and engineering firms, and academia, and provides a space to discuss research, needs, lessons, and opportunities around climate change resilience in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. We are pleased to share this post written by Emily Wright and Nora Nickum from Cascadia Consulting Group.  Nora is a 2017 Jackson Leadership Fellow.

Many communities know that climate change is going to bring impacts; depending on where they are, those could include more heat waves, droughts, or rising sea levels. Yet those planning for climate change inevitably face a common predicament: uncertainty about exactly what’s to come and the effectiveness of different adaptation actions. While scientists have improved modeling techniques to better project how precipitation, temperature, and other climate drivers will change in the coming decades, the accuracy of projections diminishes as we look further into the future or at a finer geographic scale. We just don’t know exactly what will happen with policy and with human behavior down the road, and how that will translate into emissions—and then into climate change impacts. For some, this uncertainty can seem like a major roadblock to making decisions about what to do.

Enter Jennie Hoffman, a climate change adaptation specialist who helps agencies and organizations overcome this kind of analysis paralysis. Jennie, the Founder and Principal of Adaptation Insight, gave a presentation on August 16 as part of Cascadia Consulting’s Climate Conversations series. This series, now in its third year, is co-sponsored by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Seattle Public Utilities.

Jennie Hoffman

Jennie says that even before you can deal with uncertainty, the first challenge is to carefully frame your problem. As singer-songwriter Ani DeFranco put it, “If you don’t ask the right question, every answer feels wrong.” Framing the problem should include, among other things, identifying what’s wrong with the current situation, what triggered the desire to make a decision, and the place and time frame over which the decision-maker wants to achieve a specified goal. Explicitly considering the time frame at this stage helps create the space to factor in how future changes in climate would affect the outcome, and the costs and benefits of different courses of action over time.

The second challenge, then, is understanding the uncertainty you’re facing. What information are you uncertain about, and does it actually affect the decision you need to make? Sensitivity analysis tools like Simple Multi-Attribute Rating Technique (SMART) can help decision-makers consider how much reducing scientific uncertainty would actually improve their pending decision and where to prioritize investing in obtaining better information. Similarly, value-of-Information analysis can help to determine how much is worth spending.

Climate change considerations can arise in many points in the decision-making process, from framing the problem to determining objectives, alternatives, consequences, tradeoffs, and uncertainty. Jennie demonstrated that the science is important, but it is more critical to some decisions than it is to others. When analyses around decision sensitivity or the value of information demonstrate that additional information could really change the decision, organizations can point to that to justify investing in specific, targeted research to reduce the uncertainty. In many cases, decision-makers can move ahead with efforts to build resilience—which grow more important by the day—with the information that is available.

Emily Wright and Nora Nickum, Cascadia Consulting Group

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