Some researchers from the University of Melbourne have recently published an interesting paper entitled “The problem of fit: scenario planning and climate change adaptation in the public sector” in Environment and Planning C. The paper reports some of the findings of the ‘Scenarios for Climate Adaptation’ project which explored the use of scenario planning to support climate change adaptation within the public sector in Victoria, Australia. (For information on the project see project website)
The authors assert that “[i]n many ways, scenario planning is a logical fit with adaptation, being designed to understand and manage multifaceted long-term threats such as climate change and being applicable to both incremental and transformational visions of the adaptation challenge”. However, the findings of the study raised questions about whether this “logical fit” is how things actually work out in-practice.
One of the related findings – which won’t be a surprise to most practitioners – is that the research participants reported that scenarios projects typically “have a weak influence on subsequent adaptation decision making”. The authors comment that “[t]o the extent that the value of scenario planning is judged by its impact on decision making, this represents a serious shortcoming” (p.653).
They surveyed 52 people working at the policy–research–practice nexus around climate change adaptation in Victoria. Most respondents stated that “poor linkage between outcomes of the project and decision making” is a “significant problem”, and 2/3 of respondents also said a “lack of information about how best to use scenarios” is a “significant problem”.
A range of fairly unsurprising reasons related to ‘Practical difficulties in implementation’ and ‘Strategic neglect due to being a poor form or unwanted source of evidence’ (e.g. credibility concerns) were raised by participants.
Where the paper gets more interesting is in the additional explanation that is provided for these issues. The authors link these issues to the focus on evidence-based decision-making, especially within governmental contexts. For instance in the introduction they write:
Yet, multifaceted uncertainty about the complex changes underway means that the expected source of information about the future—prediction— is no longer (if it has ever been) a reliable guide to what lies ahead… As an actor purportedly committed to rational evidence-based action and seeking to lead and encourage adaptation, government consequently faces an epistemological and governance predicament.
Whilst they note a that “the ‘information useability gap’ is common to many policy-oriented knowledge production processes, including the production and use of climate information in general” (p. 654), they argue the failure to penetrate decision making “may actually serve the important purpose of illuminating epistemological and political barriers to adaptation that arise out of outdated expectations about the form, content, and purpose of appropriate evidence for decision making” (pp.654-55).
In essence, they suggest that in some senses “scenarios are an especially poor fit with the evidence-based decision-making ideal” (p.655), which they contend is based on a predictive paradigm. They quote Tara Fenwick who asserts that “evidence-based knowledge is not about adapting with emerging complexity, but about prediction and control”. The argument is that scenario planning won’t have strong impact in a public sector context unless “we rethink rationalistic assumptions within government and as such reframe adaptation as a matter of altering as much as ‘fitting to’ ones (institutional as well as physical) environment” (p.655).
What are your thoughts on this explanation and line of argument? Mine are mixed. Yes, there are issues with the epistemic status and use of anticipatory knowledge and ‘predict-and-plan’ style cultures, and often an associated need for ‘institutional adaptation’. But I think this analysis fails to consider a wide range of important reasons why scenarios can have a weak influence on subsequent decision-making – e.g. those known to get in the way of evidence-based public policy (of any kind!), and those related to politics, conflicting interests, values and ideology. Studies have also shown that climate change adaptation decisions are often also strongly shaped by identity, place attachment and related factors. In some (or maybe most) cases, weak influence on decision-making may be better explained by socio-political factors and not as an epistemological problem. Still, it’s an interesting study worth reviewing.