Managing Uncertainty: the Responsibility of Rhetoricians with Scientists

-making decisions for climate change adaptation strategies in coastal cities-

 from “Understanding the Economics of Adaptation” in The Economics of Climate Change:

The Stern Review

Adaptation is the “only way to deal with the unavoidable impacts of climate change to which the world is already committed, and additionally offers an opportunity to adjust economic activity in vulnerable sectors and support sustainable development” (458). Adaptation operates at two levels: planning, or building capacity, and implementation, or delivering actions. Tampa Bay is one of many coastal cities, like NYC, that remains vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because adaptation is still largely at the building stage; the stage in which scientists and policy-makers are “creating the information and conditions that are needed to support adaptation.” For example, at Resilient Tampa Bay, dubbed “a knowledge exchange with Dutch experts,” ( scientists, local policy-makers, Dutch and local environmental engineers and risk analysts, as well as rhetoricians (Herndl, Santos, Zoetewey, myself; discussed the potential impacts of climate change in the Tampa Bay area and (the Dutch) suggested options for adaptation (i.e. undertaking impact studies and identifying vulnerabilities; Stern p. 458-9). The next steps for Tampa Bay, post-knowledge exchange, are to pilot specific actions and accumulate the resources necessary to implement actions. Implementation, or delivering actions, is the second phase of adaptation – and one that, for coastal cities like Tampa Bay – necessitates investing in physical infrastructure, like resilience engineering, to protect against specific climate risks like floods and managing sea level rise and storm surges.

In addition to the science/engineering of climate change adaptation strategies, like resilience engineering, economics is – of course – a major factor influencing building capacity and delivering actions in response to climate change. “Decisions about the timing and amount of adaptation require that costs and benefits be compared” (462). The problem, at least at the moment, is that in a cost- benefit analysis, “the adaptation route that is chosen should yield the highest net benefit, having taken into account the risks and uncertainties surrounding climate change” (462). In order for risk analysts like Arno Willems (Resilient Tampa Bay; to advise city planners about a specific/projected cost, given speculated risk, they must decide on a “good enough/safe enough” projection of the certainty of climate change impacts. As Stern argues, more quantitative information on the costs and benefits of economy-wide adaptation is required. “Additionally, for coastal cities, some studies indicate that efficient adaptation could reduce climate damages substantially” (464). In order to move forward building adaptive capacity in Tampa Bay, we need this data; we need the best-possible estimates and projections, especially in the context of uncertainty about climate change. Moving forward building adaptive capacity doesn’t mean fast-forwarding to investing in physical infrastructure (i.e. resilience engineering) to protect against specific climate risks (storm surge, sea level rise, urban flooding). It does mean moving forward by first articulating the options for adaptation and undertaking impact studies and identifying vulnerabilities; where the Resilient Tampa Bay knowledge exchange left off. In my opinion, this is where we ought to focus climate change research/funding– on the development of risk management frameworks that map costs and benefits as sufficiently as possible, given that uncertainty can’t ever be eliminated from climate change, or any other, sciences.

Stern argues that barriers to adaptation can be summarized as three reasons: uncertainty and imperfect information, missing and misaligned markets, and financial constraints. The remainder of this posting will address the first reason, uncertainty and imperfect information.

It’s unfortunate that in current climate change conversations, “high-quality” information = “certain” or “perfect” information; the only type of information that is considered useful for articulating the costs and benefits of investing in adaptation. If “high-quality” means “certain/perfect,” and it is unlikely that certain/perfect information will ever exist, then how it is possible for productive conversations about climate change adaptation, like Resilient Tampa Bay, to move forward in building capacity and investing in physical infrastructure to respond to coastal cities’ vulnerabilities to climate change? If certain (Scientific)* information doesn’t exist, then will it continue to be difficult/impossible for individuals/firms to “weigh up the costs and benefits of investing in adaptation” (466). Stern is hopeful: “The uncertainty will never be resolved, but should become more constrained as an understanding of the system improves” (466). Just how it can “become more constrained” isn’t articulated; however, from my perspective, as a rhetorician, a key strategy for “constraining” uncertainty about climate change lies in linguistic framing and in rhetoric about scientific issues of contingency, of which climate change is arguably #1. Lakoff (“Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment”; Environmental Communication 2010) writes that introducing a new frame is successful (only) if it makes sense in terms of the existing system of frames, if it works emotionally and if it is introduced in a communication system that allows for sufficient spread over the population, sufficient repetition, and sufficient trust in the messengers (Lakoff 72) . What, then, are the possibilities for re-framing uncertainty in order to constrain it and – therefore – enable risk analysts to develop “high-quality” models of costs and benefits of climate change adaptation strategies, like resilience engineering, that will be attractive and achievable?

Climate change adaptation isn’t a Science (solution)* it’s a strategy for managing uncertainty, what I perceive as the foundational ethic of practicing the sciences; managing uncertainties. Stern emphasizes that it is important to recognize the limits of adaptation … it cannot by itself solve the problems posed by high and rapidly increasing temperatures, etc. (469). If the most paralyzing aspect of climate change is its identity as “uncertain,” then rhetoricians of science have a responsibility in managing uncertainty, too: a responsibility for improving the terms of the debate. Even more explicitly, they have a responsibility for re-framing “uncertainty” with a frame that has the power to motivate the implementation of adaptive strategies. If the terms of the debate with scientific/engineering strategies can enable decision-makers’ confidence in moving forward with delivering adaptation technologies, then the imperative of the sciences as the management of uncertainty can be accomplished as the negotiation of ecological and social priorities that shape policy in responsive, flexible, and economically productive ways.

*My interpretations of “Science” and “the sciences” are motivated by a Latourian way of understanding “the sciences” as an alternative approach to “Science.” To explain, whereas the goal of “Science” is to eliminate uncertainty, the sciences value the capacity to debate in respect of uncertainties, and to negotiate ways of using the terms of scientific debates as ways out of the paralysis that has resulted from demanding certainty from Science.


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

One response to “Managing Uncertainty: the Responsibility of Rhetoricians with Scientists

  • Arno Willems

    Hi Karen,

    to my opinion you’re right on the spot with your statement that moving forward should be done by first articulating the options for adaptation and undertaking impact studies and identifying vulnerabilities. And the first step should indeed be the development of risk management frameworks that map costs and benefits as sufficiently as possible, given that uncertainty can’t ever be eliminated from climate change, or any other, sciences. After all, managing flood risks is all about getting to grips with uncertainties!

    I also agree with you that a key strategy for “constraining” uncertainty about climate change lies in linguistic framing. It’s one the most important aspects in risk perception of people, as Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky showed in their Prospect theory (Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 1979; 47: 263-291), for which they recieved the Economy Nobel Price in 2002, and later in their research about framing (Choices, values and frames. Am Psychol, 1983; 39: 341-350).

    However, it’s not the only “key strategy”. It’s also about the way of modelling the uncertainties and making the decision makers understand and accept uncertainties. In fact, we should change the deteministic way of thinking of decision makers. The way of modelling could be of significant help. The best way of modelling these kind of uncertainties is using Bayesian statistics, in which the impact of (either perfect or imperfect) information on the uncertainties can be taken into account. Combining Bayesian statistics with techniques like “Value of information” could even help to determine if it’s sensible to build flood protection a.s.a.p. or that we should better wait for extra information (about f.i. sea level rise). It turns out that most of the time waiting is the best adaptive strategy.

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