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FEATURE: Uncertain times

Anna Steynor, Bruce Hewitson and Chris Jack of the University of Cape Town’s Climate System Analysis Group explain why scientists providing climate change forecasts must engage with those people who need the information to make decisions for society

At a recent training event, one participant approached us at the tea break to whisper: “I know you scientists have to remain cautious in what you say to us but I’ve been sent here to bring back the answer, so you can tell me the number we should be planning for.” When we responded that actually, no, we couldn’t give her an absolute answer, she was incredulous. She responded, off-handedly, that no one would therefore plan for climate change because they hadn’t got the resources to deal with “uncertainty”.

This exchange exemplifies the void that exists between scientists who provide information about climate change and users who have to make decisions pertinent to society based on that data. The Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town is trying to bridge this science-society divide by actively engaging with users who rely on climate information for decision-making. Success in this is central to making climate science defensibly applicable in “real” world situations.

Despite many years of “climate services” activities founded on good intentions, the global science community is only now beginning to explore the very substantial challenges required to achieve this success. The problem is that clear and simple messages relevant to users’ decision-making criteria are inherently at odds with the nuanced complexities in the climate information. We believe the climate science community must focus on making these uncertainties explicit to the users, despite the fact that users are often reluctant to confront the obstacle of having to deal with a range of plausible future climate projections.

We have encountered the misconception that science has “the answer” time and time again. We understand that people find it hard to incorporate uncertain information into decision-making. However, with a mindset change, we believe that managing uncertainty in climate projections is possible. Humans make decisions in the face of uncertainty all the time, so why is climate change any different? The first challenge is to communicate why it is a good thing to clearly define that uncertainty.

A spectrum of critical issues remains poorly addressed in the climate services community. Who is responsible for translating the science for decision makers? By what authority do they do so? Where does accountability lie when implicit agendas promote one party’s interests over another? How much knowledge should a decision maker have about the information being communicated? What is the ethical position of scientists seeking to promote their research in a competitive funding environment, where the end users’ uptake validates the scientists’ advancement? Seeking the various answers to these hard questions will require scientists and information users to first understand each other’s positions.

Hence, when we begin to try and engage users, we tend not to mention climate change at all. The words “climate” and “change” seem to immediately elicit an emotive, preconceived response in many users. So, we reverse the process. Instead of finding “the answer” the user is expecting, we talk about concepts of vulnerability within the context of a suite of climate and non-climate stressors. By starting this way, the notion of climate vulnerability works its way into the discussion.

This helps users who are overly worried about climate change to gain a perspective of their real vulnerability. Meanwhile, those who are inclined to be dismissive may realise that they are actually at risk from climate change. For some people, knowing their current vulnerability is enough information to act. However, for a large majority, they then want to know how their vulnerability may change in the face of climate change.

At this point, we usually introduce an interactive decision-making exercise that provides users with increasing amounts of non-climatic information. They must use this to make a decision, within a particular scenario. Invariably, as they receive more information, they begin to filter the data based on their vulnerabilities and the challenge in question. Some information is discarded as being not important, while other information is found to be useful. This exercise proves the value of providing a range of information as opposed to one definitive number, “the answer”. We find that when we introduce the concept of uncertainty in making climate projections, there are many nodding heads in the room agreeing that making such uncertainty transparent is a good thing.

This by no means solves the problems of: how users should tackle using the projections in decision-making; what the best ways are to represent the uncertainty graphically, so it is easily understood; what the sources of uncertainty are and whether they can be reduced; or how users would react if given conflicting information as the exercise progressed, which is often the case when making the uncertainties explicit in climate projections. However, it does at least start to address the first hurdle of the users’ unwillingness to even consider using ranges of climate information. We therefore feel the cornerstone to effective and robust use of climate information in decision-making is sustained and informed user engagement.

Importantly, such learning is also a two-way process. Involving the users in development of the science will go a long way to informing them on the constraints of climate information as well as enlightening the providers as to the real needs of the users. This is a delicate and fine balancing act; we need to be cautious when delivering the information. However, communication that emphasises uncertainty at the expense of what we robustly understand risks engendering paralysis through user apathy. Engagements should thus be finely managed and ongoing to ensure a long-term, productive relationship between users and providers.

The takeaway lesson? Make haste slowly, be humble in one’s knowledge and understand one’s responsibility.


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