Climate risk narratives: An iterative reflective process for co-producing and integrating climate knowledge

Submitted by Lena Grobusch | published 7th Jun 2021 | last updated 4th Jan 2022
Map of FRACTAL partner cities with Tier 1 cities highlighted.

Map of FRACTAL partner cities with Tier 1 cities highlighted.


The challenges associated with integrating climate information into real-world decision-making are both significant and well documented. The Future Resilience for African CiTies And their Lands (FRACTAL) project has the overarching objective of improving urban climate resilience in southern Africa through the effective integration of climate science information into urban decision-making. 

A particularly useful element that has emerged from many FRACTAL city engagements is the Climate Risk Narrative (CRN). These are narrative descriptions of a context under different plausible climate futures. They qualitatively integrate climate science evidence with local socio-economic, environmental, and built environment contextual knowledge and information. They are intended to describe climate related risks which are meaningful for communities and decision makers in a specific context. 

CRNs have emerged as “boundary objects”, collaborative learning tools that facilitate engagement across disciplinary or practice boundaries and allow for diverse perspectives and interpretation of information, including lack of consensus. Importantly, CRNs were not originally envisaged or understood as boundary objects. Rather they were originally introduced to initiate conversations between climate scientists and decision makers, and as a means of communicating uncertain climate projections in ways that make the information contextually relevant and meaningful to encourage engagement and uptake.

Understanding their role as boundary objects has enabled further conceptualization around how CRNs are produced and used in co-production and trans-disciplinary engagements. This paper then examines the initial and developing hypotheses that CRNs are useful in communicating and integrating knowledge on climate risk, what we have learned within the FRACTAL project about their application as boundary objects, their limitations and caveats, and recommendations on their application more generally in climate services co-production processes.

START have created a podcast focussing on the implementation and lessons learnt from the FRACTAL project. Access the podcast here

Climate Risk Narratives were used for decision-making in Windhoek. Read more about this process here and here. The third FRACTAL learning webinar discussed Climate Risk Narratives - read a summary of the discussion here

*Download the full publication from the right hand column. The key messages from the publication are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

Methods and Tools

The Climate Risk Narrative emerged from FRACTAL city engagements in the cities of Windhoek, Lusaka, Maputo, Harare, Gaborone and Blantyre, which all exhibit characteristics and challenges associated with rapidly growing cities in developing economies. These city engagements took place in the form of Learning Labs, face-to-face series of workshops that provided the core engagement activity between a wide diversity of relevant stakeholders and researchers. They were designed to be open ended, with no predetermined objective, and reflexive, whereby participants continually re-evaluated and redirected the content and structure.

FRACTAL has applied CRNs within 3 primary focus cities (Windhoek, Lusaka, Maputo) and 3 secondary focus cities (Harare, Gaborone, Blantyre) and their supporting regions using a range of approaches. In the former, initial CRNs were developed by climate scientists in the project because, at the time, CRNs were still understood as climate information communication and conversation starting tools. Desktop research on trends in relevant socio-economic components, including population growth and urbanization, determined potential impacts of the different climate futures on key sectors such as water supply, health, agriculture.

CRNs were introduced into city Learning Labs where local city experts from government, NGOs, civil society and academia were able to engage with them through various participatory processes. Discussion on the narratives was used to further develop them, particularly with respect to local contextual information, potential impacts and societal responses, and to evolve thinking on how they were used as an integration tool. Incorporating the CRNs into this learning process has been a significant step forward and it is this step that has allowed their true value to emerge as they are taken up in developing city strategic and implementation plans. 

CRNs were also applied for climate change projections for the City of Cape Town, South Africa.


Discussions within subsequent Labs frequently referred back to the CRNs and they became a point of common understanding, reflecting the participants' shared concerns and ambitions for their city. This shared understanding allowed the FRACTAL team to engage more deeply with the participants, including in the development of the City of Windhoek’s Integrated Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (ICCSAP), which was being formulated by the city council. For example, a CRN infographic, targeted at the sectors in the ICCSAP, (Fig. 4 below, pg. 7 in the paper) was co-developed at the request of a city council partner after reflection on the CRN process and feedback at the Learning Lab. The infographic was subsequently used in a training session of members of the council on “Transformational Leadership in Climate Change” and will be included in the ICCSAP due for imminent publication. Future work on the CRNs in Windhoek will aim to integrate the ICCSAP and other existing development plans. These CRNs will describe different versions of the city with and without specific actions, allowing the City of Windhoek to reflect on and demonstrate the importance of their development plans.

Fig. 4. Climate Risk Narrative infographic developed through the FRACTAL Windhoek Learning Lab process (page 7).


Key findings and lessons learned

The experiences of applying CRNs across varying contexts and within various processes has provided strong evidence that the integration of climate information into decision-making should be rooted in deep engagement that respects and values multiple types and elements of knowledge and encourages deliberation around diverse perspectives and agendas. Therefore, while improved approaches to communicating climate science including visualisations and other creative methods are important, the challenge extends beyond communication and rests in developing new understanding and knowledge amongst climate scientists, other scientists, decision makers and other contextual experts.

Other learning emerging out of FRACTAL provides greater detail on the nature and value of these engagement processes and the various elements that are at play. However, CRNs have proved to be an important “golden thread” through these processes. At the same time CRNs have their limitations and should be applied thoughtfully and reflexively. How the narratives reflect on different stakeholders should be considered critically. The purpose and limits of CRNs should also be clearly communicated up front. It must be clear to all involved how the narratives are constructed, the nature of the evidence supporting them including uncertainties and assumptions, and their role as conversation starters and knowledge integrators rather than definitive predictions of the future.