Using social learning to address climate uncertainties

Uncertainty about the speed and impacts of climate change makes it difficult to design and implement policies that are resilient to long-term climate shocks and stresses. Institutional processes based on social learning offer a flexible approach that can help to address uncertainty and complexity, and enable effective climate responses. 

April 2017 - ongoing
Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group inspect a decentralised wastewater treatment system which enables the recycling and reuse of water, helping mitigate the increased risks from climate uncertainties on water availability (Photo: David Dodman/IIED)

Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group inspect a decentralised wastewater treatment system which enables the recycling and reuse of water, helping mitigate the increased risks from climate uncertainties on water availability (Photo: David Dodman/IIED)

The inherent uncertainties of climate change, now and in the future, present major challenges for decision making. It is difficult to predict with certainty how climate change will impact on local livelihoods and different sectors, and to plan for these effects. Decision-makers also find it hard to engage with climate information and its associated uncertainties, given the multitude of other priorities they face and the way planning is normally done – based on historical trends and past experience.

Our work in this area looks at how process-based approaches, including social learning, can help address some of these challenges, supporting uptake of climate information and consideration of uncertainties, to encourage long-term planning that is climate resilient.

Explainer: Social learning is a process that brings together a diverse group of stakeholders to co-create new knowledge, reflect on what is working and co-generate solutions that can be updated and improved over time. Process-driven approaches are those where how decisions are made and who is involved is given primary importance. They can be compared to approaches that are driven by technical expertise or traditional authority structures. Social learning is one example of a process-based approach but there are also others, such as robust decision-making and/or participatory planning.

Decision-makers supporting or leading processes of planning for climate change have increasingly focused on the need to be participatory and introduce climate information and other evidence in manageable, usable formats.

Initiatives and research have focused on the production and use of climate information and how evidence can be fed back into ongoing processes to improve results in a changing long-term context. Despite this recognition however, real challenges have remained in developing effective processes that adequately address the long-term challenges of climate change and its respective uncertainties for all groups. 

These challenges include: 

  • A frequent divide between top-down and bottom-up processes, meaning information does not flow between levels of governance and insights from each scale do not inform the others
  • Not using evidence during ongoing processes to inform decisions 
  • Elite capture of planning processes and a lack of benefits accruing to some groups, and
  • The challenges of long timeframes and uncertain evidence, and the use of climate information in the context of short political timeframes and many urgent priorities.

What is IIED doing?

We undertook an initial scoping project to explore how to address these challenges by bringing together IIED's work on social learning and our Tracking Adaptation and Monitoring Development (TAMD) framework, which tracks whether countries' adaptation investments are effective in keeping development efforts on course.

We undertook three country case studies in UgandaIndia and Kenya to ask whether and how social learning can help address the challenges in local planning for climate change. IIED has written this up in a number of publications, and this been used as the foundation to develop a process-based approach to planning that can help support using climate information and consideration of uncertainties.

What's next?

Based on this work, we are now developing a wider programme of work that aims to:

  • Learn from and catalyse existing experience on addressing climate uncertainties to systematise learning and deliberate on implications across disciplines, research and practice and geographies
  • Develop an evidence base on the importance of different dimensions of planning processes in considering longer-term, uncertain futures and how these can be best supported in a range of contexts, such as National Adaptation Plans or local climate finance
  • Look at the conditions required for adopting some of the more challenging aspects of using climate information and reflecting on uncertainties (such as iterative reflection and challenging systems) – recognised as theoretically important but with little evidence of successful application so far, and
  • Consider the political dimensions of climate planning processes and how structural barriers can be negotiated to ensure resilient outcomes for marginalised groups in uncertain climatic futures.

Our next steps are to develop this work further with new and longstanding partners to bring together experience on these dimensions and a body of evidence to inform practice.

We'd like to hear from any organisations with experience to share on this topic, or those interested in working with us to develop this further.

Additional resources