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How to factor in uncertainty?

Because the lack of perfect information is a common feature in all areas of science and policymaking, uncertainty management is an integrated part of risk management. Decision-makers should be aware of the degree of uncertainty associated with specific data sources so that they can consider the range of plausible developments in their decisions, but uncertainties must not prevent decisions from being made (EEA 2017).

How to account for uncertainty in adaptation decision-making?

The importance of uncertainties about climate change and its impacts for a particular adaptation decision depends on factors such as the time horizon and reversibility of the decision, the relative importance of climate factors for the decision, and the costs of buffering the decision against uncertain developments (EEA 2017).

Different approaches have been developed to deal with uncertainty in planning. Some useful approaches and principles to employ when making adaptation decisions with inherent uncertainty in the underlying knowledge may include:

Scenario Planning

Faced with uncertainty, decision makers may choose to consider multiple plausible outcomes. This is the approach taken by scenario analyses. Scenarios present a set of different, plausible future conditions (or ‘states of the world'). Decision analysis is then undertaken to compare how well alternative policy decisions perform under these different future conditions. In addition to providing a useful description of uncertainty, scenarios can also bring clarity regarding the trade-offs made within the decision-making process.

Useful resource:

MEDIATION Toolbox (see Scenario analysis)

Adaptive Management

Adaptive management involves the selection of a strategy that can be modified to achieve better performance as one learns more about the issues at hand and how the future is unfolding. A key feature of adaptive management is that decision makers seek strategies that can be modified once new insights are gained from experience and research. Learning, experimenting and evaluation are key elements of this approach and should be actively planned for in decision-making.

Useful resource:

Adaptive management of natural habitats

Robust or Resilient Strategies

This approach identifies the range of possible future circumstances that one might face, and then seeks to identify strategies that will work reasonably well across that range. A robust strategy can be defined as one that performs well over a very wide range of alternative futures.

Useful resource:

Economic approaches for assessing climate change adaptation options under uncertainty

Options that minimize implementation costs

During the planning of climate adaptation under uncertainty different types of options are available for decision-makers. The most appropriate option will depend on the nature of the decision being made, the sensitivity of that decision to specific climate impacts and the level of risk that can be tolerated. However, when selecting adaptation options decision-makers can opt to give priority to   those that minimize their implantation costs. These may include:

  • Low-regret (“limited-” or “no-regret'')
    • Options that yield benefits even in absence of climate change and where the costs of the adaptation are relatively low vis-à-vis the benefits of acting.
  • Win-win (-win)
    • Options that have the desired result in terms of minimising climate risks or exploiting potential opportunities but also have other social, environmental and/or economic benefits.
  • Reversibility, flexibility and safety margins
    • Favouring reversible and flexible options enables amendments to be made later; Adding proper ‘‘safety margins'' to new investments ensures that responses are resilient to a range of future climate impacts.
  • Soft strategies
    • Promoting ‘soft’ adaptation strategies (i.e. non-infrastructural options) includes building adaptive capacity that ensures an organisation is better able to cope with a range of climate impacts (e.g. through more effective forward planning, gathering and dissemination of intelligence, creation of a favourable institutional framework).
  • Delay action or decision
    • Delaying actions or decisions (not be confused with ‘ignoring the future’) may be appropriate as part of an active long-term adaptation strategy where it has been determined that there is no significant benefit in taking a particular action immediately or more information is required to make a decision.

Useful resource:

Adaptation options



Other main topics:

1. What is meant by uncertainty?

2. How are uncertainties communicated?