Embracing Uncertainty: Is It Really That Hard?

Shaun Martin, WWF US

Call me crazy, but I have no idea how long I will live and yet I am still planning for my retirement. Nor do I know what illnesses may come my way or when they will occur, but I have health insurance to cover a multitude of possibilities. Surely some would believe I am behaving foolishly. Every two weeks I dutifully contribute hard-earned income to my retirement and healthcare plans when I could use that money to pay for much more urgent needs, like the root canal I am about to have. But for me there is just so much uncertainty about the future I cannot help but prepare for the unknown and the unexpected.

If more people viewed climate change adaptation like we think about our personal futures, we would be in much better shape. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Instead we get comments like this one, which I recently received and modified only slightly.

Maybe we should include climate change considerations throughout our entire strategy, but that’s arguable, even if we had hard data – which we don’t. And some significant threats, such as poaching, will not be affected by climate change in the short- to medium-term. Most information on the effects of climate change is speculative or theoretical, making it hard to predict site-specific combinations of impacts like warmer and drier vs warmer and wetter vs seasonal shifts in precipitation, as well as effects on plant phenology, community composition, shifting vegetation zones, and then on wild herbivores, livestock, communities and so on up the food chain.

It is rare that I meet a fellow adaptationist who hasn’t encountered this sort of thinking from a colleague whom they thought should know better. There is nothing incorrect about this person’s statement, but he is missing the larger point. It is precisely because we don’t know how climate change will affect everything around us that we need to pay extra attention to it. We need to include weather and climate variables in monitoring and evaluation, create lots of contingency plans, and develop flexible strategies that can accommodate multiple plausible futures.

Most people want perfect information and certainty before they make decisions and take action. But just imagine someone who refuses to plan for their own future unless a doctor tell can them the exact date and cause of their death. Ridiculous, right? Yet we all know well-educated and highly-respected experts who continue to believe that the uncertainty around climate change is reason enough to not consider how it might affect our goals and aspirations and prepare accordingly. Yes, sometimes in spite of our best intentions to save the world, we are our own worst enemies.

So what can we do about this? How can we give people a new way to think about climate change in ways that stimulate innovation and ultimately lead to adaptation action?

I recently conducted a workshop for some 70 WWF staff and partners in Cambodia. After introducing the audience to the basics of climate and adaptation, we tried a new and simple exercise. Rather than look at climate models and projections to predict the future and thereby plan an appropriate course of action (something one should never do), we used climate projections, development trends, and WWF’s current conservation strategy to develop a plausible scenario for what the Eastern Plains landscape in Cambodia might look like sometime in the future. We assumed some elements of the conservation plan (like a REDD+ project) were successful while others (stopping gold mines), were not. We then added a few climate variables that everyone could believe were possible. The scenario looked something like this.

  1. Two additional gold mines are operational. (Gold mines need a lot of water!)
  2. A successful REDD+ project is providing funds to support community development, primary education and health care.
  3. A successful tourism industry based on wildlife, forests, waterfalls, and traditional culture has been established.
  4. The population in the area has doubled by in-migration of people seeking work in ecotourism and gold mines and to escape worsening climate in other parts of the country, particularly the low land areas of Cambodia, as well as continued high birth rates and improved life expectancy.
  5. Years that have 30 days of high temperatures above 40oC are common.
  6. The dry season is typically longer by 3 weeks.
  7. The start of the wet season is unpredictable, is shorter by 3 weeks, but produces 20 percent more rainfall above averages from the late 20th century.
Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) mother and baby, taken by camera trap in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary at Eastern Plains Landscape, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia.

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) mother and baby, taken by camera trap in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary at Eastern Plains Landscape, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia.

Participants then worked into small groups to discuss how these conditions might affect the Eastern Plains landscape by answering these questions.

  1. Compared to the situation today, how would people’s livelihoods be affected? What activities might be at risk?
  2. How might gold mining operations be affected by changes in rainfall?
  3. What would happen to the REDD forests?
  4. What would happen to conservation targets – species, landscapes, ecosystem services, etc?
  5. What would happen to ecotourism?
  6. Using your answers to questions 1-5, what might be the likely human responses to these impacts?
  7. How would these human responses further affect conservation targets?
  8. What strategies and activities could potentially help reduce negative impacts to communities, livelihoods, ecosystems, and species?

We only had 75 minutes to do this exercise and I had no idea if it would work. However, I was encouraged by the results. Discussions were lively. Rather than throwing up their hands about what they should do in the face of information like, there is a 50 percent certainty that annual precipitation will increase by 20 to 30 percent between 2050 and 2070 while the annual average temperature will be 1.8oC above pre-industrial, the scenario enabled participants to use their expertise to envision likely impacts and identify things they didn’t think about in their current conservation plans. They determined that increased temperatures and drier conditions might lead to increased forest fires, putting the REDD+ project at risk and along with it biodiversity and ecosystem services and funding for education and health. Crops and agricultural practices might need to change. Tourists would stop visiting the area if temperatures were too hot. Suddenly it was much easier to envision what could be done now and in the future should of any of these conditions become reality.

So will my friends in Cambodia use this new way of thinking to build a better, climate-smart conservation strategy? I certainly hope so, but I really don’t know. Old ways of thinking are hard to escape and it will take a lot more than 75 minutes to instill durable change. But I am hopeful that as we continue to develop new ways to for people to embrace uncertainty, we will see fewer and fewer of our colleagues avoid thinking about climate change until they have all the facts.

Now, time to check how my retirement fund is doing.