Role of climate information in decision-making

Importance of considering climate change in decision-making

Climate impacts many aspects of society. We used to rely on historical climate trends to inform our decision-making. Scientists now agree that the Earth’s climate is changing. As Canadians, we need to change the way we make decisions in order to account for climate change.

A changing climate comes with both opportunities and risks.

Examples of opportunities include:

  • increases in the length of the growing season in Canada due to warmer projected temperatures, leading to greater agricultural production
  • reductions in household energy bills during the winter months due to projected warmer temperatures

Examples of risks include:

  • an increase in flooding of low-lying coastal areas from rising sea levels
  • changes in traditional Indigenous and northern hunting routes due to the rapid decrease in Arctic sea ice
  • increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as intense precipitation, which often result in high costs to fix damage in affected areas
  • longer droughts and forest fire seasons from an increase in temperature
  • greater spread of pests, such as ticks carrying Lyme disease, due to winters that don’t get cold enough to limit their range

By incorporating information about possible future changes in climate conditions into your decision-making, you can take advantage of opportunities and decrease your level of risk.

Where to begin incorporating climate information

To start, you need to discover how the climate interacts with your area of interest. You can do this by using these main types of climate information:

  • historical climate data
  • records of past impacts related to severe weather or climate conditions

By combining these two types of information, you can determine how past conditions have impacted your area of interest. Once you understand these interactions, you can start to plan for future changes in climate.

Find historical climate data in the library of climate resources.

Including future climate data in decision-making

We need to think about what the future climate might look like in order to make climate-smart decisions. For the near-future this can be done using seasonal climate forecasts. For longer timeframes, we use climate projections that are constructed based on two distinct elements:  

There is no single best climate model. The most effective way of accounting for the range of results from climate models is by using an ensemble of results from several climate models. Using an ensemble lets you better account for uncertainty from model calculations in your decision-making. This increases the likelihood that you will be prepared for future climate conditions.

You should also include results based on several emissions scenarios. This will help you account for uncertainty about the amount of greenhouse gases humans will emit in the future.

Choosing the ensemble of models that is most appropriate for your decision-making context will depend on several factors. For example, if you are concerned about a large area, the Global Climate Models may provide the best basis for an ensemble. Alternately, if your area of concern is localized or requires information at higher resolution, downscaled models may be better options, although downscaling may come with tradeoffs.

Another factor to consider when choosing an ensemble is what type of data is available from the climate models in the ensemble. For example, if extreme weather events are of concern, you should choose ensemble results that include information on extremes.

Find future climate data in the library of climate resources.

If you are unsure how to select suitable climate data and information for your decision-making context, contact the Climate Services Support Desk for help.

Acknowledging uncertainty in decision-making

Many of the decisions you make are intended to provide benefits well into the future. Without uncertainty, decisions would be more straightforward. However, the existence of uncertainties should not prevent you from using information about the future in your decision-making. For example, stock market forecasts involve very high uncertainty. However, many people choose to use these forecasts to inform how they invest their money.

It is important to keep in mind that while climate change is an important factor to consider in your decision-making process, it is not the only factor. Money, culture, and society are other major elements of making a decision, each with associated uncertainties that need to be considered.

The decisions you make ultimately depend on the amount of uncertainty you are willing to accept and the nature of the eventual consequences. There are several decision-making strategies you can use to include climate information. You should choose a strategy based on your level of risk tolerance.

Examples of strategies include but are not limited to:

  1. strategy to mitigate high-risks: planning for the worst-case outcome from multiple elements, often at a higher cost
  2. strategy to avoid under-adaptation: planning to protect against climate impacts as your number one priority
  3. strategy to avoid over-adaptation: balancing the need to adapt to climate change against the costs of taking adaptive actions
  4. no regrets strategy: weighing the advantages and disadvantages of all possible options, including the option to do nothing

Find guidance resources in the library of climate resources.

Related links

Sources
  • Charron, I. 2016. A Guidebook on Climate Scenarios: Using Climate Information to Guide Adaptation Research and Decisions. Montreal, QC: Ouranos.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, USA: Cambridge University Press, pp. 195-228.
  • U.S. National Research Council. 2009. Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate. Washington, DC. The National Academies Press.
  • Willows, Robert; Reynard, Nick; Meadowcroft, Ian; Connell, Richenda. 2003. “Climate adaptation: Risk, uncertainty and decision-making. Part 2.”  Climate Impacts Programme: 41-87.
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