Honest Conversations: Climate Change and Uncertainty

By Sara S. Moore

Uncertainty is hard. Planning for uncertain events, particularly highly uncertain and dangerous events, is even more difficult. Even certain events with uncertain timing, like an earthquake on a fault line, can stop people in their tracks. People don’t want to plan for terrible things. I once attended a doctoral seminar at UC Berkeley (on the Hayward Fault) on climate change adaptation and asked the room, in the middle of complaining about the stubbornness of climate change denialists, how many had earthquake preparedness kits at home. The answer: less than a third. We all live in some degree of denial about highly uncertain, dangerous events. They are just too scary to think through.

Those of us who are trying to move governments to plan for climate change need to understand the roots of denial. One of those roots is fear. There is fear surrounding the uncertainty of climate change. What if the sky isn’t falling? What if the sky is falling, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it? As an astute climate change planner, you might say: you don’t need to have certainty of a future fire before buying a fire insurance policy. Why would you wait for perfect certainty to plan for climate change? However, governments around the world still point to the uncertainty of the timing and severity of climate change as a reason to avoid committing scarce resources to climate change preparedness.

I recently attended a conference held by the Institute at the Golden Gate on using parklands as a venue for climate change communication. We were told to find people where they are, create opportunities for two-way conversations, and hear their concerns and observations. I would add to that the importance of acknowledging the uncertainty of climate change, not to overstate (or understate) the science. So how do you engage with people, acknowledging their fears, in a way that helps us start planning for climate change?

Back in June, WWF’s Shaun Martin wrote on how uncertainty can be a barrier to climate change planning, and how the scenario-development exercise he led helped people get past uncertainty paralysis. Scenario planning, pioneered by the U.S. military and developed for wider use in the 1970’s by the Global Business Network, is being used more and more to create a space to talk about climate change. Scenario planning provides a framework for a group to develop multiple plausible futures based on discussion of relative certainties, including many kinds of information, from quantitative scientific projections to personal observations about the changing land. This way, communities can talk through responses to worst case scenarios that feel plausible and imminent, grounded in scientific knowns and unknowns, defining our nightmares to move forward into envisioning solutions.

People plan around uncertainty all the time, but we don’t stop to consider the kinds of uncertainties we negotiate. In typical planning, one focuses on the certainties and goes from there. With climate change, nothing is 100% certain regarding severity or timing (or both). However, some situations are more certain than others, and therefore easier to plan for. In scenario planning, participants are asked to focus on the factors with the highest uncertainty (also called “deep uncertainty”), where the direction of change or the point at which a critical threshold will be exceeded is unknown. Then, of these, participants are asked to focus on the highest-consequence factors. This allows people to enter the imaginary space of a range of futures which would be ignored in a common planning process focusing on certainties. Playing this out, participants can envision the interactions of multiple factors (such as a future with decreasing rainfall, increasing severe wind storms, and chronic budget shortfalls). The scenarios are built correctly, engaging with the right amount of deep uncertainty, if the participants come up with solutions that surprise them, or give them ‘aha’ moments.

In January 2011, I organized a scenario planning workshop for 35 resource managers in Marin, California. The participants came from the public and private non-profit sectors, representing local, county, and national landscape management institutions. There were water district managers, fire district managers, invasive plant detection experts, researchers, and more. At the end of the day, we had our ‘aha’ moment: fire and water managers need to work more closely across a larger region to plan for long-term change. Two years later, I’m working with the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative  and North Bay Watershed Association to make these crosssector, multi-county planning discussions happen. The managers we engage in planning these discussions continue to affirm that we can no longer plan for one natural system separate from another.

The dream is certainty; the reality is that we can’t always reduce climate change uncertainty, and the fear that stems from this can paralyze us. However, we can define our worst-case scenarios, thinking through the consequences of the most critical uncertainties (and how the consequences interact). Scenario planning is not a panacea for all the barriers to climate change preparedness, but it can help us address our biggest nightmares, and hopefully navigate past uncertainty.