What’s in a decision?

This week’s two key news items have stuck with me: Cape Town running out of water and UK Met Office announcing we might already see an annual global temperature increase of 1.5 in the next five years. Both are good reminders that even though we have models and science to project future changes, the global system is still unpredictable and in this case it seems the models are not fast enough to keep up with current changes.

So far the discussion on climate change impacts has been future focused. For example, sea level rise projections have ended in the year 2100 and research is showing that many people do not think climate change will impact them but merely future generations. Yet, the situation in Cape Town and the news from the Met Office both indicate that change is happening faster than we think. A piece in Financial Times noted that even with all the modelling, we can still be surprised:

“South Africa’s weather services have told politicians that their models no longer work and their long-term climate change predictions have arrived 10 years early. Rather than pleading that such anomalies could not have been foreseen, city leaders must now assume that unlikely events will occur”

The UK Met Office in turn released a report noting that with the current trends in warming, there is a likelihood the global annual temperature could reach already 1.5 degrees. This in a way is timely as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is reviewing the second order draft of a Special Report on 1.5 degrees, and what such a change would mean for the world. The report is likely to cover issues relating to sustainable development but also how different sectors are impacted.

 

For someone who researches decision-making, these events raise many questions around how we know which decision at this point in time is the correct one to make. How does a city like Cape Town use this event to plan so that people have reliable access to water in the future? How do governments, which are often full of competing priorities and slow to change, react to a faster changing context? How do businesses change their practices if the resource they rely on is diminishing rapidly?

With climate change, many people argue that it is a new problem and given that, we do not have much experience to draw on what to do. Yet, at the same time, there are lots of cases that we can draw from, even if some aspects of climate change impacts remain novel. But there are ways that we can harness each others’ experiences and learn from that at a global scale.

An episode on the Hidden Brain podcast explores the different dimensions of how we behave and make decisions. In a recent episode Professor Dan Gilbert, the Harvard University scholar, explains why our decision-making processes are often flawed and where there are opportunities to improve in how we make decisions.

Dan Gilbert says that if we want to make a good decision, we should become “surregators” and seek people who have already had a particular experience with the decision that we are contemplating:

Almost any decision you’re debating, large or small, many people have already made it, and they’ve made it in both directions. There are people who are doing the things you’re only imagining”

The advice clearly relates to individuals. If you are contemplating buying a house, your decision is likely to be better if you first talk to people who own a house and learn from their experience what to avoid and what to consider.

But at a grander scale, it is about knowledge sharing and transfer. There are already many communities who have observed at first-hand impacts of climate change: coastal communities in Northern Australia, in the Pacific Islands, Asia, Africa and the Arctic. We have also many stories from the past where humanity has faced great challenges. All of this collective knowledge, whether held at individually or as a society, can provide lessons what we can do and what effective (or ineffective) adaptation to climate change looks like.

Learning from those communities and past adaptation projects is crucial because they have already been somewhere where many of us are likely to be heading. What has worked? Where and how did they fail or succeed? Collecting such knowledge is important as having access to other people’s experiences helps us to learn and reach a decision of our own.

It also reminds me of what it is being a genuine leader: to learn from your own mistakes and successes but also of those of others. Best way to do this is to reach out to those who are already where you want to be, and have access to their knowledge and experiences.

And talking about learning: Cape Town has just joined the cities of Amman, Mexico City, Greater Miami and Hull in England, to share experiences and to learn how to manage water and improve water resilience in these cities. The cities are working with Arup and testing the City Water Resilience Framework (CWRF) that can then provide lessons for other cities.

Anyone starting their PhDs or master degrees, now would be a great opportunity to really study how such mega cities are responding to water scarcity and/or flooding, what kinds of decision processes are used to decide how water is used, and what these lessons can offer to other places. How to respond effectively to faster changing trends than projected is also something IPCC will need to cover in the 6th Assessment Report. Perhaps these examples can provide those lessons that we need to really change the way we plan and think about “weather” and “climate”.

 

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