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Could stories help us explain complex and uncertain climate information?

People responsible for making policy, investment, and engineering decisions are struggling to make sense of climate information produced by many climate scientists; especially when this information includes probabilities, uncertainty statements and other technical jargon. Over the last two years I have been working with Rwanda’s climate and environment fund, FONERWA, and have experienced first hand what poorly communicated climate science can lead to. Following a climate information workshop, one participant’s question summarised the frustration of the group, “Why should I care about the climate information if I am not aware of what the effects mean?” Without fully understanding the climate information and its impacts, FONERWA are not in a strong position to critically appraise prospective projects for climate risks and impacts. This has lead to devloping a decision support tool that will create awareness of climate risks and support a rudimentary appraisal of their projects. (more on how we have addressed this issue with FONERWA). Being able to appropriately communicate with decision makers is a critical step in order to drive change. 

Before discussing approaches to communicating climate information, it is important to address a fundamental question: ‘Why is climate science so difficult for decision makers to engage with?’ Noting that the responsibility falls on both the scientists and decision makers.

  1. In most cases, the language is too complex for decision makers without a background or education in statistical or natural sciences to understand, maybe even more so in areas where English, French or Portuguese (the three most commonly translated languages in Africa) are not the dominant languages.
  2. There is a poor understanding of where and how the information can be used to appropriately inform decisions.
  3. There is a disconnect between the decision makers needs and what is being provided by the science. Providing decision makers with information that is not appropriate for their timescales and interests/needs or that is abstractly framed only causes further confusion. If a decision maker cannot see the link between the information that is provided and the impact on his/her decision then it is unlikely to be used.
  4. Lastly, there is at times little trust between decision makers and climate scientists. All of the aforementioned points cause confusion and feed into the distrust. Similarly, weather forecasts in Africa are unreliable and decisions that have failed due to incorrect information can create deep distrust.

Effective communication is required to empower decision makers with the tools they need to make informed decisions and bridge the gap between the current state of the science and the needs of decision makers. So how do we (the climate science community) communicate complex and uncertain climate information in a way that it is accessible (in terms of language, style and visual appeal), relevant and trusted? This is a question many of the Future Climate For Africa (FCFA) consortia are grappling with.

Both the Future Resilience For African Cities And Lands (FRACTAL) and Uncertainty Reduction In Models For Understanding Development Applications (UMFULA) consortia have adopted narrative approaches to communicate with their decision makers. FRACTAL is using climate risk narratives, which are outlined in one of their recent blogs.

Narratives can be a collection of stories that highlight how things might turn out under future climate change, while still capturing the range of projected future scenarios and impacts. People already construct their own stories to process complex information; so narratives may be a more natural way to process climate information. A common example of a narrative is the IPCC emission scenarios, that explain the pathways of greenhouse gas emissions as driven by population size, economic activity, lifestyle, energy use, land-use patterns, technology and climate policy.

It is clear from FRACTAL’s work that narratives require multiple engagements over time, through co-production, in order to account for the decision maker’s needs and help to ensure that the information is relevant. This engagement over time also helps to build trust as decision makers are part of the process and understand where the information comes from.

This blog was written by Julio Araujo

This is the first blog in a series that will examine the role of narratives in bringing new climate information into processes to support resilient development actions in various African contexts.