Decision-making for an uncertain future: can climate information help?

by 08th Oct 2014
Women participating in a climate vulnerability and capacity analysis (CVCA) in Gorouol, Niger Women participating in a climate vulnerability and capacity analysis (CVCA) in Gorouol, Niger © CARE

Information about past, present and future climate conditions can be a key tool for communities to plan for and adapt to climate change. But critics question the value of climate science, claiming it is too complex, overly technical and not practical enough to be useful. Why does climate science provoke such strong reactions? And how can we unlock the potential value of accessible and usable climate information?

Climate information – data about past, present and future climate conditions from both local and scientific sources – is a topic which is receiving increasing attention within the development community, not least at the fourth Climate Change and Development in Africa conference opening in Morocco today (8 October). As a Climate Scientist working for a development NGO, it is clear to me that climate information can have an extremely valuable role when it to comes to helping communities adapt to the changes they are already experiencing. So why does it provoke such strong reactions?

First, climate change is a complex phenomenon and the related science is complicated. Understanding it involves using patterns from the past 20 to 30 years to predict climatic variation in the short-term and season by season, and also looking at changes in past trends – put simply, the general direction in which the climate has been developing or shifting – to predict how the climate will change 50 years or more into the future.

Second, planning for the unknown is difficult. Visualising the short- or long-term impacts of predicted climate change on daily life is challenging enough, particularly when scientists are often quoted as saying they expect to see ‘increasingly volatile and unpredictable’ weather patterns and related climatic events. With so many unknowns, choosing which adaptation and resilience initiatives to invest in, and when, can be tough.

Third, uncertainty is seen as a problem best avoided. Part of the complexity of climate science is that available information often has varying levels of accuracy and certainty. In the financial world, uncertainty and risk are fully accepted features of business. But ‘uncertain’ information about the future of our global climate is considered a barrier even though, when it comes to making plans which are climate resilient, uncertain information is more useful than having no information at all.

Fourth, climate information is supply-driven not demand-driven. Information produced by climate scientists is often driven by those who produce it, not by those who use it, so it does not always tally with what users need. As a result, turning complex data into practical, user-friendly information for adaptation and resilience can be a struggle.

Making climate information accessible and usable

So how can these challenges be overcome in order to realise the inherent value of climate information that we all keep talking about? The secret is making climate information accessible and usable – here are some reflections based on the experiences of CARE’s Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa (ALP) on how to do that:

Focus on the community: Community-based adaptation approaches identify climate vulnerabilities, capacities and challenges, recognise the diversity within different livelihoods and systems and help to ensure services are tailored to people’s needs. Community voices, experiences and expertise contribute locally relevant solutions to existing and new climate risks and challenges, for example, during seasonal forecast discussions in Kenya.

Facilitate interaction among multiple stakeholders: Bringing together users of climate information (eg pastoralists, farmers), producers (eg climate scientists) and intermediaries (eg NGOs and agricultural extension services) enables different climate knowledge and interpretations to be understood, improves synergy and coordination amongst actors, and promotes consensus building and trust between diverse groups. Collective interpretation of climate information by concerned stakeholders enables locally-tailored climate information services and the joint production of new and innovative solutions to help manage an uncertain climate.  

Downscale and localise climate information so that it relates to local contexts and specific user needs – which is what people want, but is rarely available due to the poor coverage of local weather stations and historical information gaps. Downscaling (generating locally-relevant information from global to national scale climate predictions) can be enhanced through community climate records. For example, in Garissa in Kenya, memories of past seasons and their outcomes and using community-managed rain gauges helps to generate a picture of the local climate and how it is changing. 

Combine different knowledge sources: Combining local and scientific climate information recognises the value of local knowledge in generating locally relevant information. When local records, knowledge and forecasting expertise are combined with available past data and meteorological forecasts, a more accurate localised forecast of the future climate can be developed. Joint interpretation of local and scientific climate information unpacks the complexity of the information, and generates better understanding and trust in both sources of information and in the recommended actions based on the forecasts.

Build flexibility into decision-making: Faced with uncertainty and a continually changing climate, adaptation is not simply about moving to new technologies. Nor is resilience a stable future state. What is critical is to ensure vulnerable people have the capacity to continuously absorb and adapt to changes, and transform their lives in relation to the changing climate. A key ingredient is flexibility, at all levels of decision-making, planning, resource allocation and action. Approaches involving two-way learning and feedback promote flexibility and enable systems that factor in uncertainty, respond to changing needs and identify new solutions, for example, creating advisories (locally relevant livelihood options based on scenarios of possible future climate impacts). Participatory scenario planning (PSP) promoted by CARE’s Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa is an example of this approach.

If we continue to factor in these principles when discussing the reality of using climate information, then hopefully we can look beyond the rhetoric and ensure that climate information is a useful tool for decision-making in the face of uncertainty.

Many of the issues in this blog are reflected in a new ALP publication: Facing Uncertainty: the value of climate information for adaptation, risk reduction and resilience in Africa.

Maurine Ambani is participating in the Climate Change and Development in Africa conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, 8-10 October.

Maurine Ambani

Maurine Ambani is the Climate Communications Advisor for the Adaptation Learning Programme (ALP), implemented by CARE International. She has been instrumental in developing Participatory Scenario Planning as an approach for using climate information in adaptation and development. Before joining ALP, she was a junior research fellow with the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Center (ICPAC).

Maurine has an MSc in Meteorology from the University of Nairobi.