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Managing uncertainties in flood risk and climate change assessment: An exploratory study

Final Report Summary - MAN-U (Managing uncertainties in flood risk and climate change assessment: an exploratory study)

With some degree of climate change now acknowledged to be inevitable, the focus of policy debate is shifting towards adaptation and questions about how to cope best with climate impacts on specific regions and localities. While considerable technical progress has been made in improving methods for regional-scale climate change assessments, much less attention has been devoted to understanding and overcoming the organisational and institutional challenges related to translating climate change science into policy making and, hence, the development of implementable adaptation options. It is these challenges that MAN-U aims to address.

Taking the case of flooding, which is likely to be among the most serious impacts of climate change in the United Kingdom (UK) as indeed across the European Union (EU) more generally, MAN-U focused on the perspective of organisations involved in or responsible for the development and implementation of long-term strategic risk-based management plans in river catchments and coastal shorelines in England. Its overall aim is to explore how flooding, the risks from climate change, and the uncertainties attributed to knowledge of them are framed, whether and how those framings are contested by different science and policy actors involved in flood risk assessment, and how the development of adaptation actions and strategies is influenced as a result. To that end it achieved the following specific objectives:

- It explored the policy context influencing and defining the organisational set-up (e.g. actors involved, resources, responsibilities), the technical conduct and / or the possible conflicts and diverging interests of parties involved flood risk and climate change assessment. Its empirical focus was on so called catchment flood management plans (CFMPs), strategic flood risk assessments (SFRAs) and shoreline management plans (SMPs).
- It analysed how flooding, the risks from climate change, and the uncertainties attributed to knowledge of them are framed and contested by different science and policy actors involved in the production and use of CFMPs, SFRAs and SMPs).
- It identified the implications of those framings and debates about them for the development of adaptation actions and strategies.
- It put great effort in disseminating its results through publications and conference papers.

During the one year period (3 November 2012) of the project, research activity focused on:
(a) reviewing the academic literatures;
(b) collecting an archive of relevant policy documents;
(c) conducting 30 interviews with scientists, policy-makers and practitioners;
(d) analysing the resulting empirical data about the development and implementation of adaptation strategies and actions.

Conceptually, the analysis drew on work in risk governance to consider how the transformation of future flood hazards from climate change into predictable and therefore actionable risks through strategic management and adaptation plans (e.g. CFMPs, SFRAs, SMPs) results in the creation of new institutional risks for the organisations responsible for managing flood hazards. These institutional risks, understood here as the risks of blame and reputational damage, not only affect the management of first order flood hazards but also feedback on the kind of climate science that is commissioned and used by policy-makers and administrators.

One of the major challenges in adaptation is dealing with the uncertainties about future climate change, and research showed how the concern with institutional risk, along with other organisational factors, resulted in these challenges being handled differently in planning for fluvial as against coastal flooding. In the case of fluvial flooding, scientific uncertainties about the impacts of future climate change on peak flows were managed simply by adding a 20 % allowance to current peak flows. Although scientists and, to a lesser extent, policy-makers acknowledged the uncertainty of this arbitrary 20 % allowance, they regarded a single number as more institutionally robust than the alternatives, which would have been to ignore climate change altogether, or to overwhelm the operational planning process by requiring each CFMPs and SFRAs to derive its own local correction figures, which would have been inconsistent and thus open to dispute. The relevance and meaning of the number is thus grounded in the pragmatic demands of institutional planning rather than in its scientific soundness. Research found that office holders and administrators stick closely to concrete guidance provided by DEFRA on how to operationalise and proceduralise the consequences of climate change in their assessments. They hardly engage with underlying methodological issues (e.g. inherent uncertainties in climate change projects) or question concrete outputs of the projected scenarios. This blindness to the uncertainties of climate change science only works because the institutionalised regulatory environment is quite rigid and clearly defines operational routines. The institutional architecture sets out both the context of incorporating climate change (i.e. strong regulatory framework) as well as the specific object of how to incorporate the risks arising from climate change into a management framework (i.e. 20 % allowance) contributing to an institutional environment that hardly holds ready any potential for institutional risks for operation administrations. The situation is very different in the management of coastal erosion processes and sea-level rise. First, it is not a single figure that is provided, but rather an exponential curve; second the projections are differentiated according to different sub-regions. Furthermore, the underlying evidence is framed as more certain as with regard to river floods. Yet, although the evidence for assuming a certain increase in sea-level risk are framed as more certain, the institutional environment is framed as more uncertain, as underlying morphological and geological processes are framed as more uncertain by decision-makers. Furthermore, the very institutional setting is more contingent leaving more space for individual decision-making processes that are not predefined by the formal institutional context. Therefore organisations are faced with an institutional environment that holds ready much potential for institutional, secondary risks.

The results of the analysis underline the relevance of gaining an in-depth understanding of how the institutional set-up (inducing regulatory and normative aspects) influences not only the framing of scientific uncertainties but also the development of adaptation actions and strategies. Particularly for practitioners working at the operational level the inclusion of climate change into assessment and adaptation management actions seem to require easy understandable and easy implementable outputs from climate change projections ideally accompanied by clear guidance on of how such outputs should be considered in adaptation actions and strategies. On a more general level, the results suggest that there is a need to recognise the institutional complexities in which climate and adaptation science is used. Quite often these challenges are ignored in climate adaptation research.