Decision making in an uncertain climate

A recent IIED study looked at how the process of decision making can help address challenges created by the uncertainties of future climate change. Our research highlighted the benefits of moving from technocratic solutions to a process-based political approach.

Susannah Fisher's picture Ben Garside's picture
Insight by 
Susannah Fisher
Ben Garside
Susannah Fisher is a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group. Ben Garside is senior researcher in the Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
23 January 2017
Group discussions with women in Isiolo County, Kenya helped to generate specific evidence about why they and other marginalised groups are more vulnerable to climate change (Photo: Susannah Fisher, IIED)

Group discussions with women in Isiolo County, Kenya helped to generate specific evidence about why they and other marginalised groups are more vulnerable to climate change (Photo: Susannah Fisher, IIED)

The inherent uncertainties of climate change, now and in the future, present major challenges for decision making: people need to respond as their livelihoods are impacted, while businesses – unless they adjust their investments in light of an unpredictable future - face rising costs and significant losses. 

These uncertainties also make policies and programmes harder to plan and implement: policymakers and practitioners must be agile enough to learn from new experiences and adapt to unknowns. 

Our research project explored how to address these challenges by bringing together IIED's work on social learning and our TAMD framework that tracks whether countries' adaptation investments are effective in keeping development efforts on course. 

Case studies: Uganda, India and Kenya

Drawing on three case studies from Uganda, India and Kenya we asked whether and how social learning features in the processes that help communities adapt to climate change.

We looked at how far these processes could address challenges on the ground, such as the uncertain evidence around how the climate will change in the future and what the impacts will be in different locations, and the need to take a longer-term perspective given the long time frame over which climate change occurs. 

Across the case studies we found the processes within social learning – participation, engagement and capacity development – have led to changes that will help address some of the challenges of climate uncertainties. 

The processes helped to increase stakeholders' understanding of different perspectives, which led to the voices of marginalised groups being heard. Stakeholders also improved their capacity to recognise that climate change has varying impacts across multiple sectors. 

We also found that generating specific evidence around women and other marginalised groups helps to build an understanding of why these groups are more vulnerable to climate change than others. 

Through the research some of these groups learnt how to articulate their needs more clearly, enabling them to reach the right individuals within formal government structures to sort out community issues and connect to the appropriate public services such as agricultural extension. There was less evidence, however, that decision makers having a better understanding of how marginalised groups are impacted actually leads to change. 

Remaining challenges

Our research led to some tangible successes in addressing issues created by the unpredictable nature of climate change, including the need for multi-sectoral planning or how to support marginalised groups. However, real challenges remain in developing effective processes and catalysing institutional changes to address other issues around climate uncertainty.

None of the case studies were able to address two persistent issues: uncertainties in evidence around changes in future climate and the long time frame over which climate change occurs. This was due to a variety of reasons including lack of stakeholder buy-in, project timeframes and objectives, capacity, and motivation.

Calling for a more nuanced process − incorporating politics and power

This evidence calls for a concerted effort to learn more about the value of different decision making and implementation processes. It makes the case for taking a process-based approach which explicitly addresses uncertainty-based challenges.

Such an approach also builds capacity, knowledge and the relationships to support first short-term, and then longer-term decision-making and action. This avoids relying on a single 'plan', strategic document or climate information system, or creating a dichotomy between shorter and longer timeframes. 

In comparison with a purely technocratic method, the approach we suggest would also allow a more explicitly political perspective, with an appreciation of power, incentives and interactions in relation to data and decision making. 

Looking forward to uncertainty

To build knowledge about how a process-orientated adaptation approach could be made most effective in different contexts, we argue the case for further action-orientated research. This should focus on:

  • Building evidence and understanding about how process-oriented approaches to planning for adaptation can improve outcomes. This should explore key elements of process including aspects of social learning, paying extra attention to addressing the conditions needed to carry out the more challenging aspects of climate planning and implementation.

    This can in part be achieved by learning from existing experience in relation to local climate planning and looking at process factors. This helps to make learning more systematic and encourages a greater focus on the implications across disciplines, research and practice, and geographies.
  • Integrating power, politics and decision-making into the structure of how processes are designed and tracked, aiming to maximise the likelihood that these can be negotiated to ensure resilient outcomes for marginalised groups, and
  • Understanding what works in different contexts through local experimentation. This would involve working with policymakers, practitioners, and businesses to develop and test process-oriented interventions that improve planning with respect to climate uncertainties; while at the same time fostering buy-in between stakeholders – across levels and sectors – to better understand how to encourage the move from planning to mobilisation and action.

Susannah Fisher ([email protected]) is a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group. Ben Garside ([email protected]) is senior researcher in the Shaping Sustainable Markets research group.