Thursday, 8 January 2015

CLIMATEnet Policy Discussion Forum

Linking Expert Knowledge to Generate Policy Insights on Climate Change Adaptation Under Uncertainty


Climate change is a global phenomenon which is fast becoming an inevitable reality. Each country has to develop sound policies, strategies and practices to combat impacts of climate change. Sri Lanka is not an exception. While developed countries are more concerned about mitigation of climate change through investments on low carbon technologies, developing nations are compelled to focus on adaptation measures. Global projections indicate developing countries are likely to undergo more hardships due to impacts of climate change.

Climate change impacts are complex and spread over a broad spectrum of economic sectors and geographical areas.  Among the more vulnerable sectors in Sri Lanka are agriculture, fisheries, coast conservation, irrigation, health, disaster management, power and energy and industry.  The key strategy to face the impacts of climate change is adaptation. Adaptation refers to adjustments, which are in response to actual or expected variability or change in climate in order to moderate and cope with harmful impacts or to take advantage of opportunities. Human society in general is adaptive to changing conditions. Nevertheless, wide-ranging impacts spread over vast geographical areas at relatively rapid pace call for the necessity of planned efforts of adaptation supported by well-designed policies. 

The foremost challenge for making policy decisions on adaptation is uncertainty. While many of us believe climate is changing, no one knows exactly what impact would affect us or at what time and in which location. In other words, despite broad consensus about the likelihood of climate change, its impacts are highly uncertain. In many ways, climate change can be considered as a deep uncertainty.  The key sources of climate uncertainty are: inherent natural variability due to own dynamics of climate system; scientific uncertainty due to limitations of our knowledge and uncertainty about future emissions from anthropogenic sources.  

Decisions on public policies for adaptation need information about impacts of climate change. Two major sources of information that offer clues about impacts of climate change are: analysis of historical trends in weather patterns (e.g. temperature, precipitation etc.), and future projections by climate models. Extrapolation of historical trends cannot be considered as a reliable source of information for making adaptation decisions due to inherent natural variability and uncertain future emissions. On the other hand, projections based on climate models, while providing useful insights about the likely future changes over long-term horizons (e.g. 25, 50 or 100 year horizons) are dependent on scenarios of future emissions, which are uncertain.  Hence, neither of these sources provide sufficiently reliable information for making decisions on public policies on climate change.  

Decisions on public policies on climate change adaptation involve investment of public resources.  Public resources are scarce and allocation of them needs identifying investment priorities among competing policy interests. Identifying public investment priorities is a political economic process that gives priority for politically more sensitive issues. A vague picture from climate predictions and analysis of historical trends hardly provide sufficient information to justify investments on adaptations.  Further, public policy decisions have to be made on specified timeframes and mismatch between time horizons of climate predictions and time horizons of policy decisions creates another barrier. Sometimes insufficient agreement among models also creates confusing signals to policy makers.  Overall,  historical analysis of changing weather patterns or long-term projections of climate models offer only limited support for policy decisions on adaptation, which have to compete for public resources with more politically sensitive issues in the short run.

However, lack of reliable information does not justify delaying the action. Since the existing sources do not offer sufficient information for making policy decisions on adaptation, experts’ views and judgments are necessary to bridge the resulting information gap and to convert current knowledge on climate change to policy decisions. Expert assessments are usually essential part of policy decision-making in many areas of public policy and its importance could vary subject to the availability of information. Naturally, a higher weight is given to expert judgment on issues where limited information is available and uncertainty is a critical factor.  Policy on climate change adaptation represents such an area where expert review and assessment of available information is critically important for making policy decisions.

The Context

Sri Lanka has already initiated a policy and institutional set-up to deal with climate change. This system evolves gradually and the Climate Change Secretariat (CCS) established under the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Resources (MERR) is the main government organization that looks into projects and initiatives regarding climate change. The major milestones of this national initiative include the formulation of National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) in 2012 and preparing the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for Sri Lanka: 2011 to 2016 (NCCAS: 2011-16) in 2010.   In addition, there are many stakeholder agencies that deal with different aspects of climate change in Sri Lanka.  These agencies have restricted mandates over relatively limited scopes and there are other broader issues that escape limited domains of such agencies. Such issues need to be addressed by a variety of stakeholders such as universities, think tanks, private sector agencies, CBOs and NGOs. On the other hand, being a relatively new area of interest among other conventional priorities such as poverty alleviation and infrastructure development, existing policies and strategies are not fully geared to address the issues concerning climate change.  Given this context, many gaps can be observed in policies/strategies to face the impacts of climate change.  Even though the CCS has a mandate to look after broader national interests, it needs the cooperation of different line agencies responsible for various sectors and the support of other stakeholders such as research institutes, think tanks, universities, CBOs and NGOs. The challenge for CCS is successfully rallying the support of those multiple stakeholders and coordinating their efforts. 

The current study made an attempt to fulfil this gap by generating essential policy insights in selected impact areas through the consultation of expert knowledge and opinions. The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS), as the apex policy think tank in the country, is in an ideal position to make a significant contribution for overcoming these policy gaps.  Being a global threat with significant impacts over Sri Lanka’s economy, climate change issues naturally stand high in the research agenda of IPS.  Climate change policy studies of IPS were launched in a national workshop held in Dambulla in 2009.  Since then, IPS has adopted a collaborative and consultative approach.  IPS developed the CLIMATEnet—a web portal with blog facility—to share information /resources and exchange views with other important stakeholders.   The CLIMATEnet has provided an ideal platform for launching a policy dialogue on climate change in Sri Lanka, enabling to network with various stakeholders.


The project examined key impacts and vulnerabilities in different impact areas/sectors, including major gaps in adaptation and strategies to overcome these gaps. It also aimed to assess the information needs of respective sectors. The specific objectives can be stated as:
 1.      Identify major impacts involved in different areas/sectors with high vulnerability to climate change

2.      Identify major gaps that need to be filled for successful adaptation in key impact areas

3.      Examine suitable strategies/policies  to bridge the  gaps identified in respective impact areas/sectors with the consultation of key stakeholders 

4.      Assess the information needs of respective sectors that complement the proposed strategies and adaptation measures


The study was based on qualitative information gathered through a series of consultation meetings with experts from seven identified impact areas.    Hence, the main method used for gathering information is expert elicitations. Consultations focused on major gaps in a few critically important sectors that are vulnerable to impacts of climate change, namely:
  •          Agriculture,
  •          Fisheries and coastal resources,
  •          Water
  •          Health
  •          Energy
  •          Bio-diversity
  •         Human settlements

Consultations were carried out using a semi-structured format, suitably customized to capture the essential aspects of climate change issues in respective sectors.

Expert Elicitations 

Expert consultation (EC) has become a widely used approach in many research areas.  An expert is someone that possesses knowledge about a particular area of interest/subject as a result of training, skills, research or experience whose opinion is called on for interpretation.  This definition covers not only academics and intellectuals but practitioners such as farmers, fishers etc. who may possess specialized knowledge on their respective fields of activity gained through extensive experience. Knowledge of experts has been identified as a substantial source of information on a particular area not known by many others. Expert judgments are predictions made by experts on what may happen in a given situation using their knowledge.  Expert judgments have been found useful when:

       Complex dynamic systems are involved
       Limited ability to acquire necessary information over  a reasonable timeframe
       Decisions cannot be postponed until the necessary judgement is fully acquired

These conditions closely match the situation found in climate change adaptation and expert elicitation can be considered ideal for informing policy makers under limited information.

There are two broad approaches of expert elicitation, namely, independent individual consultations and group consultations. Group consultations include methods such as expert panels and Delphi techniques.  Delphi techniques are more structured methods of expert elicitation. In the present study, semi–structured group consultation and brainstorming approach was used. The discussions were structured in the following generic framework (Figure 1), taking the climate change impacts on selected areas one by one.

Figure 1: Generic Framework for Policy Analysis

Lists of experts from each impact area were selected from the government organizations, universities, research institutes, private sector, NGO/INGOs and community groups. A series of seven expert consultation workshops was conducted to extract the information on each impact area.  

The Outcome of the Project

The project is an exploratory study which is a part of the broader agenda of climate change research in IPS. Through this project, the IPS makes an attempt to develop a dialogue on climate change policy issues in Sri Lanka using the CLIMATEnet as a platform. The aim of the forum is to transform the scattered expert knowledge on climate change into a set of policy recommendations. At the end of each discussion, a policy brief was produced focusing on the particular impact area. This would help to fill an important gap in current national policy on climate change in Sri Lanka.  The policy briefs will be initially published in the CLIMATEnet. The first of the policy briefs is expected to be published from January 2015 and will be followed by others at monthly intervals. It is expected to prepare an edited hard copy publication at the end of the web publication of all policy briefs.  

The future IPS research on climate change will build upon the insights developed in the current study. Moreover, the project has also been designed as a networking activity with stakeholders in several other sectors. Hence, in addition to the targeted knowledge outputs, a continuous future flow of gains can be expected from networking with key stakeholders of the subject.

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