Tailoring climate information to meet adaptation decision-making needs: Insights from the HazardSupport project’s first phase

Published: 31st August 2017 16:12Last Updated: 28th September 2017 16:16
Storm Simone 2013, Hallands Väderö. Photo: svt.se

Storm Simone 2013, Hallands Väderö. Photo: svt.se

Introduction

Climate change will likely lead to increased frequency and intensity of extreme natural events such as storms, floods, fires and heat waves. Despite major advances in climate projections, climate impact studies, climate services and adaptation research related to the occurrence of natural hazards, use of this knowledge in societal planning is still limited.

The first research phase of SEI’s HazardSupport project shows that, to inform society and to motivate adaptation action, scientific materials that can easily be communicated to people at all levels of society are urgently needed.

HazardSupport (2015-2020) is a Swedish Civil Contingency Agency (MSB) funded project that addresses climate change impacts relevant in Sweden today and in the future. The project is a collaboration between SEI and SMHI and aims to reduce society’s vulnerability to natural hazards and weather-related events and to enhance the resilience and build long-term adaptive capacity among all sectors in society. To meet ongoing and future climate changes, previous research has found that knowledge and information are crucial for climate adaptation measures to be implemented.

The project, which investigates the needs and use of climate services for adaptation to natural hazards in both public and private settings, focuses on cases studies on three different geographical locations with three different natural hazards: (1) urban/riverine/lake flooding in Karlstad (2) heat waves in Stockholm, and (3) storm surge induced coastal flooding on the Swedish west coast.

The first phase of the project offers a number of preliminary insights from its recently completed, initial phase of research. These are provided below.

Methods and Tools

The three case studies are characterized by different geographical locations and types of natural hazard. They also involve different stakeholder groups with different adaptation needs and responsibilities regarding planning for and making decisions about adaptation to natural hazards.

To understand and identify stakeholder needs we used a participatory research methodology, containing a series of focus group meetings, larger workshops, surveys and complementary interviews in each case study site. The first focus group meeting in 2016 aimed to get an overall understanding of the current situation in relation to social challenges, challenges related to risk and vulnerability to natural disasters in a future climate as well as to investigate limitations in current climate data. During the first focus group meeting a survey was conducted with participants from all case studies to gain deeper insight into their expectations on their involvement in the project, including the role of the researchers, their role as case study participants, the research process and the project's final result. The second focus group meeting in late 2016 aimed to deepen the discussion of existing data and climate information needs regarding the natural hazard in each case study.

To follow up on the findings from these focus groups, in the first half of 2017 we have conducted interviews with the focus groups participants. These aimed to further elicit the needs for and challenges surrounding current climate information and the factors that limit the use of climate information in adaptation decision-making. In all, 32 interviews were conducted, including researchers and participants from each case study.

Key findings: Challenges for using climate information in decision making

While results are preliminary, data suggest three important cross-sector challenges that need to be addressed to move adaptation forward:

  • It is crucial to understand that the decision-maker, whom also in many cases is the implementer of climate adaptation measures, need to motivate and advocate the action to an executive board that often has other diverging interests than the one held by the implementer, communicate the action within their organizations as well as to deliver sound and understandable arguments on adaptation actions to the wider public.
  • Transparency in methods and input data is crucial for intermediaries (such as consultancies) to convert the climate science into actionable, concrete and local adaptation measures.
  • Decision-makers find it difficult to act on climate information due to the uncertainties in the results delivered by scientists. However, and important to note, is that with climate science comes uncertainties due to climate's natural variablility, which means that even with perfect methods and models, science cannot give a fixed number or answer in 100% certainty. Complicating this further is the uncertainity in the global climate politics, where international agreements and emissions standards that are still subject to negotiations.

Overall, the result finds that decision-makers need and want climate data to be clear, understandable, applicable, easy to access, communicate, and interpret. As mentioned above, these needs and wants might not be able to be met by scientists in precise numbers but it does show an important component of change needed. Because climate adaptation measures need to be executed at different levels in society – from individuals, the business sector, municipalities, and governmental agencies to the national government, climate scientists and decicion-makers needs to collaborate and learn from each other to meet in a space where action can happen. 

Specifically, scientists would benefit in their research process to take into account knowledge of the decision-makers’ local context, including present organizational and political constraints. Other key findings from the results to be aware of are:

Conflict of interest – both within organisations and in society at large - present major challenges and constraints to the usage of climate data. Adaptation to climate change is still a young political and organisational activity. Short-term and long-term time perspectives can conflict. It is difficult to know how to deal with uncertainty in the context of various time perspectives. 

Roles and responsibilities for climate adaptation are unclear. The lack of guidance of what measures and actions should be taken, which can be sourced back to the unclear Swedish national climate adaptation strategy, which is still not in place. There is a general perception that legal frameworks are not sufficient and that there is a lack of guidelines or legal precedent on how to act to a future risk. There are no guidelines clarifying the relationship or responsibility between the individual and the municipality, neither is the relationship between insurers, municipalities and the state clear.

There is a conflict between the regional decision-making bodies and local municipality needs or desires. This creates a tension between the strategic Swedish County Administrative Boards (CABs), which set the guidelines through a regional adaptation plan, and action-oriented municipalities.

Karlstad experienced a phenomenon expressed as “somebody else-ism” (“nånannanism”), which means that individuals in society demand the municipality to deal with the induced risks caused by climate change, while individuals see themselves to carry little or no responsibility to minimise the risks. These uncertainties in responsibilities and roles create an environment which means that no one takes actions or the responsibility for the adaptation agenda.

Knowledge and communication present challenges. Uncertainties inherent in climate materials make it difficult to understand how to use the materials for planning and decision making. A general comment was made that uncertainties in climate projections are a challenge since it is hard to motivate for a measure or action that is costly or unconventional based on ambiguous materials. This is a reason why governments often request tools or clearer guidelines from climate scientists. 

Next steps

The findings of the first phase of the project will be the subject of further investigation during the second half of 2017 and 2018. 

We welcome feedback, comments and lessons learnt from previous projects - please contact Sandra Tenggren or leave your comments below.

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