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Planning for climate change: how can 'scenarios' help?

Written by Natasha Grist


What does the future hold for development?

This is the fundamental question with which development planners must grapple each day as they try to improve global wellbeing.

Uncertainties abound: complex politics and diplomacy, health and epidemics, economic change and aid governance are just a few issues, with deep and far reaching impacts throughout the developing world.

But in recent years, climate change has loomed as one of the biggest threats – a threat that requires an urgent response. The serious impacts of climate change, felt most heavily in the developing world, have added an extra and major dimension to this equation of multiple stresses and unspecified tipping points.

What is so unique about climate change in this mix? Climate change creates a series of challenges in the scientific and policy arena which, combined together, makes it a uniquely threat for global wellbeing and poverty reduction goals.

There are four major climate change challenges for development planners:

  1. Scientific uncertainty

Where are the goal posts for planning? Kevin Anderson told ODI that the world can now seriously expect at least a 4ºC temperature rise, if current trends continue. But we still do not know if West Africa is going to be drier or wetter (let alone the national or sub-national scales that  planners generally  use): downscaled models are still unavailable for much of the developing world. And what are the impacts and what are the thresholds for the huge array of potential environmental and social responses? Research is emerging on these issues. But researching complexity is, by its nature, complex in itself, and is a time-consuming undertaking. Findings can be difficult for downstream users and policy makers to translate into action.

  1. Mismatch of short-term planning and funding needs with long-term strategy and science

Science is best at long term climate predictions – on the scale of 100 years+. Some government plans adopt the long term strategy (e.g. UK targets of 80% reduction of carbon emissions by 2050). But the reality is that most organisations work on a short-term funding and planning cycle of 1-3 years, so it can be a big challenge to incorporate far off projections into cycles that are so short.

  1. Awareness raising and mainstreaming within organisations

A third issue is how to raise awareness and mobilise action effectively and quickly in organisations that  may not have climate change as their primary objective but whose work will be affected by its impacts. Many humanitarian and development NGOs are facing this challenge with limited human and financial resources. And the process can also be lengthy for international organisations and governments with weighty bureaucratic systems. Who champions the issue and how can work be kick-started and followed through effectively?

  1. Sector specific and tailored responses to address  different levels of resilience and adaptive capacity

Lastly, we need detailed, sector specific, tailored downscaled impacts to respond to climate change in terms of preparedness. This can be time consuming and costly to generate.

How can qualitative and quantitative scenarios help?

Scenarios are often misunderstood and the quantitative and qualitative approaches to scenarios differ in concept, process and end purpose.

Quantitative scenarios have really come into their own on climate change, with the IPCC assessments, the Millennium Ecosystems Assessments and GEO4. More recently this work has become even more downscaled, such as the UK Foresight Project on flooding and coastal defence. Quantitative scenarios take a range of scientific and social uncertainties, collect them into plausible alternative storylines then quantify them.

But purely qualitative scenarios, which also analyse drivers of change, are used more often with visionary, motivational purpose. They have been used in the military and business and have been championed by the Global Business Network as a tool for planning for climate change, and also in a development context describing African scenarios to 2040 and scenarios for Humanitarian Futures.

At the end of the day, scenarios are tools, and the aspect of governance and ownership – who funds, promotes, creates and benefits from them – must not be overlooked in any critical analysis of their usefulness.

Please comment and discuss your experiences on the effectiveness of scenarios and future planning on climate change.