Unpacking uncertainty in times of climate change

By Shilpi Srivastava, Hans Nicolai Adam and Lyla Mehta

Climate change undoubtedly is one of the most significant development challenges of our times. Research over the last few decades has demonstrated clearly the links between anthropogenically induced emissions and climatic changes. Despite these scientific advancements, uncertainties persist at multiple scales; with respect to future societal emissions, predictions of accuracy, frequency and scale of climatic events, or possible feedback loops.

The current extreme weather events across the globe bear testimony to such aspects of uncertainty. How should one prepare for and engage with a phenomenon that remains subject to so many dimensions of uncertainty, both at an ‘abstract’ scientific level and in the everyday lives of ordinary people? What could be the possible pathways towards a more just and fairer world under conditions of climatic uncertainty? These are the key questions explored in a recently published special issue of Regional Environmental Change, entitled ‘Unpacking uncertainty and climate change from ‘above’ and ‘below’ , edited by Lyla MehtaHans Nicolai Adam and Shilpi Srivastava.

Uncertainties experienced from ‘above’ and ‘below’

Uncertainties related to climate change have attracted widespread attention. In simple words, uncertainty refers to the inability to predict the scale, intensity and impact of climate change on human and natural environments. Referred to as a ‘super wicked problem‘ or a monster in climate-change debates, scientists increasingly acknowledge that uncertainty is here to stay and it may not be entirely possible to reduce or control it. However, there are deep differences in the ways uncertainty is perceived and understood, how it is communicated and figured in policy and decision-making. More fundamentally, how do these uncertainties play out in the everyday encounters of those living at the forefront of climate shocks and hazards, such as cyclones, floods and extreme weather events?

How far does the focus on models and scenarios factor in the lived realities of vulnerable people who bear the brunt of cumulative uncertainties from climate change, as well as the wider social, political and economic changes with which they have to live? For example, the pastoralists living in dryland Kutch (India) who experience climate change in terms of loss of pastures due to industrial enclosures, or the islanders in the Sundarbans who are subjected to the persistent anxiety of being submerged, or the indigenous communities in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment whose capacity to live with uncertainty is also shaped by the long colonial history of marginalisation and dispossession.

We focus on some of these questions in our special issue*, and argue that understandings of uncertainty from ‘above’ by experts, modellers and policymakers need to be complemented with how ordinary people, the ‘below’, understand and cope with uncertainty in everyday settings. Collectively, the contributions unpack the politics and practises of climate-related uncertainty across the scales of ‘above’ and ‘below’, from studies in India, Africa and Australia. They highlight the complexities of history, power relations and knowledge contestations among diverse actors, and demonstrate how these interactions shape climatic uncertainty and adaptation responses.

Key cross-cutting themes

The special issue covers the following:

Lived experiences of uncertainty in climate change hotspots
Uncertainty remains part and parcel of life for people living at the interface of climate change. This is captured in the diverse range of livelihoods and adaptation strategies that are context-specific and draw on local knowledge systems. It is deeply embedded in and shaped by socio-economic structures, resource struggles and contested political interests. However, in most cases, these aspects of ‘living with’ uncertainty stand in visible contrast to the dominant prescriptions about ‘controlling’ and ‘reducing’ uncertainty, as made by some bureaucratic and scientific actors.

Scientific models embedded in social practice and knowledge politics
Although models and simulations have considerable authority in framing climate change, these are very much products of social practices that are embedded in knowledge politics and policy priorities and inherent power dynamics. Local experiences are fundamental to ‘opening up’ the black box of science so that the above can ‘hear’ the practices and discourses from ‘below’.

‘Radical uncertainty’ and climate change
Although local people may be attuned to living with ecological uncertainty, climate change presents a new kind of ‘radical uncertainty’**, which limits the adaptive capacity of marginalised and poor people, especially when it interacts with wider socio-political changes around resource grabs, displacement and dispossession.

Diverse engagement for bridging different perspectives
The intractable nature of uncertainty makes diverse ways of engagement vital to bridging the divide between ‘above’ and ‘below’. These can incorporate plural knowledge(s) and imaginaries, politics, culture and history, and thus support more robust and fair responses towards climate change adaptation. There is an imminent need for hybrid and caring perspectives and interlocutors that can help bridge these different perspectives.

All the articles in the special issue converge towards the understanding that only a more inclusive and holistic understanding of uncertainty can help in fostering more care-based, people-centric and socially just strategies for adaptation. This is not only critical for improving our understanding of the nature and varied impacts of slow hazards and extreme weather events, but also building preparedness to address them.

* The articles in this special issue were initially presented at the international workshop (New Delhi, 2016) which was co-funded by the ESRC STEPS Centre and the NFR funded project ‘Climate Change, Uncertainty and Transformation

** We are grateful to our colleague Rohan D’Souza for suggesting the term ‘radical uncertainty’.

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The authors are part of a team of investigators on the TAPESTRY research project, which explores how transformation may arise ‘from below’ in marginal environments with high levels of uncertainty.

The Uncertainty from Below project aimed to compare and contrast the views of people who study uncertainty with the perspectives of those who experience it.