Climate of Uncertainty: Civic Scenarios for Decision Making

Wicked problems like climate change stress both our ordinary sense-making capacities and our most sophisticated policy tools. While there is overwhelming consensus in the climate science community that human-induced climate change is under way, the specific rates and degrees of change as well as the distribution of impacts are still at best incompletely understood. Uncertainty presents not only scientific challenges but social, political and economic quandaries as well. The normal uncertainty that is part of emerging scientific understandings is being used to question the integrity of the science and challenging the role of science in public life. How do citizens and policymakers prepare for climate change in the face of both the uncertainties of local and regional impact and a political climate that challenges the very role of science in public life?

We will delve into a case study of a project conducted in cooperation with the City of Saint Paul to develop scenarios with a diverse range of stakeholders to help them think through the varied, plausible implications of climate change. This project is a unique collaboration between CSPO and the Science Museum of Minnesota, two entities joined by a commitment to civic dialogue and the need for science policy to be better connected to the concerns of broader publics. We believe scenarios can both support policymakers’ needs and engage the public. We will draw out and reflect upon the strengths and limitations of the approach in supporting new habits of mind that can nimbly navigate alternative futures, ambiguous signals, path dependencies, and take action under conditions of imperfect knowledge. The City of St. Paul case study is also useful in reflecting upon the potential for scenario planning to help large public audiences across the U.S. to grapple with the complexities and uncertainties of climate change.