From probability to possibility: using scenarios to get our heads around climate change

Exploring possibilities can help us prepare for the future. AAP

Predicting the future has never been more important – or more difficult. We have a strong sense that we need to prepare, but only a limited understanding of what exactly to prepare for.

While the broad directions and causes of anthropogenic climate change are now proven beyond reasonable doubt, the precise shape and timing of specific climate change impacts and tipping points are far less clear.

So we continue to face a challenging vision of the future obscured by a fog of uncertainty. And it gets thicker the more we explore the complexity of interactions between climatic and non-climatic trends and drivers.

Story telling shines a light through the fog

Climate change adaptation requires balancing the unpredictability of specific climate change impacts with the need to take decisive, timely action.

Climate change adaptation also requires making tough decisions with long-term consequences in the context of continuing complexity and uncertainty.

Scenario planning is one way of shining a light through the fog.

Our research explores how Victorian state and local government bodies are using this tool to address the challenge of climate change.

Scenario planning involves developing and applying a small number of diverse, plausible stories about how the future will unfold.

This process of using alternative futures and pathways to test strategic choices was originally popularised by companies such as Shell, which was famously well-equipped to respond to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo due to prior imagining and careful consideration of this scenario.

In a very different context, the power of scenario planning to foster shared understanding and constructive public dialogue was highlighted by the Mont Fleur scenario process in South Africa. This helped to imagine and bring about an end to apartheid.

Trading precision for accuracy

Scenarios overall stand in contrast to the conventional idea of prediction. In the climate change adaptation field, “scenarios” are further understood in two distinct ways, both of which are useful: one as a compromised form of prediction and one as a radical alternative to it.

Is it plausible? Then write it down. jonny goldstein/Flickr

At one end of the spectrum are quantitative climate scenarios produced by climate scientists. These represent the range of uncertainty that exists about precise future climate conditions under climate change. They are derived from increasingly sophisticated modelling techniques.

The scenarios are typically presented as graphs or figures, and may be accompanied by qualitative “storylines” to aid interpretation. Sometimes they are generated by users via web-based interfaces such as the CSIRO’s OzClim tool. They are essential for providing a broad outline of what we can expect.

At the other end of the spectrum are evocative stories and images created by diverse participants. These draw on a range of inputs that may include climate scenarios along with other information, ideas and imaginings.

These stories may be purely exploratory or openly normative - that is, they might examine values, ethics and goals. They are valuable for providing detailed images of what may emerge and what we could aim for.

Recent examples of scenario planning in Victoria include the long-term, highly participatory and essentially exploratory Irrigation Futures project in the Goulburn-Broken catchment area, to more discrete, strategic visioning processes such as Towards a Post-Carbon Gippsland.

The crucial characteristic of scenarios is their focus on possibility not probability. This is in contrast to conventional prediction-based or risk management techniques such as forecasting, which provide a pinhole onto the future by extrapolating on current or assumed trends.

Scenarios trade precision for increased awareness of the future by presenting the expanse of possibilities, all grounded in plausibility.

This radial view is not a raw form of analysis awaiting the selection of a “most likely” scenario. Rather, its value is in the breadth of possibilities it accepts.

This could get a little uncomfortable

Scenario planning techniques help open our minds to the future and hold it open - forcing us to confront the uncomfortable reality that in preparing for the future we must prepare for multiple outcomes. It helps to assess the effects of our decisions in different possible futures.

Scenario planning is also about unsettling other comfortable assumptions about the future.

In the context of climate change adaptation, this involves exposing the unspoken norms underpinning the remit, purpose, possibilities and requirements of adaptation.

This process of revealing the implicit way we “frame” adaptation is important for identifying mental, cultural and institutional barriers to adaptation. It helps us understand why some climate change risks or adaptation actions are prioritised over others.

Victorian climate change adaptation policy makers and practitioners tell us they use a variety of scenario planning approaches to make decisions about climate change adaptation.

Many reported they found scenario planning particularly valuable in the early stages of climate change adaptation planning.

It is a useful tool for informing and framing climate change debates, engaging diverse stakeholders, and improving organisational and community capacity to address complex, rapidly changing policy challenges.

We’d all like a clearer picture of the future. AAP

They also reported that translating scenario planning outcomes into decisions about practical or policy action is far harder. This no doubt reflects the general preference of senior policy makers for prediction-based techniques such as forecasting and cost-benefit analysis.

Stop waiting until you’re sure

All of us have been brought up to want and expect a clear picture of what the future holds. It is entirely understandable that policy makers have a strong preference for firm, confident predictions about the future. Until recently, science has been able, at least to a degree, to provide such evidence.

But we are now living in a world which is increasingly unpredictable and characterised by complex social and ethical questions.

We have always lived with climate change, but increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means there will be an growing range of future climate possibilities and less ability to precisely predict the location, timing, extent and intensity of direct climatic impacts.

In this context, basing adaptation decisions which rely simply on prediction could increase the likelihood of maladaptive policy and investment choices. These could worsen the problem overall:for people now, for future generations and for natural species and ecosystems species.

Perhaps most maladaptive of all, action will be continually delayed in the belief that greater “certainty” will be possible at some time in the future.

As the unintended consequence of an unquestioned commitment to industrial development, climate change caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions is a wakeup call to the risks in over reliance on a prediction-oriented evidence base for action.

The new certainty is uncertainty about the future. This poses increasingly challenging ethical dilemmas in determining the best course of action to meet the needs of current and future generations.

In this context scenario planning has the potential to be a valuable tool, helping communities and policy makers make more thoughtful and “robust” choices about climate adaptation choices and investments.