However, environmental uncertainty is not an opaque label for things ‘we do not understand’ and by an extension it is not a cause for inaction.
|Rich Pancost's old farm, US Midwest|
We had about 30 head of cattle on our small Ohio dairy farm , and my brother, parents and I needed to put aside 4000 bales of hay every summer. I loved that job – I remember the smell of drying hay and the fat bumble bees buzzing in the clover. I remember being with my family, the satisfaction of completed work and the closeness that came from achieving things together. But it was hard and uncertain work, my father cutting the grass, raking it and baling it, quickly over successive hot days so that it would dry before a summer rain shower could strip away the nutrients. Or worse: before an extended few days of rain saturated the mowed hay on the ground, causing it to become fungus-ridden and rotting it away in the field. We could work with a prediction of rain and we could work with a prediction of no rain or even drought. But we could not work with an overly uncertain prediction. Even worse were wrong (i.e. overly certain) predictions. We navigated the probabilistic terrain of the daily weather forecasts somewhat by instinct, but the stakes were high, and just three or four bad decisions in a summer would have been financially catastrophic. The farm is long gone but my Mom is still addicted to the weather reports.
We worked hard and put away 4000 bales each summer even though we would probably only need 3500, because we had to err on the side of caution in case there was an early winter. Or a long winter.
That is environmental uncertainty – and risk management – to me. Cutting the hay when the forecast predicts a 35% chance of rain and watching 400 bales of alfalfa rot in the field. Renting more land than we would likely need. Working 20% harder than necessary – just in case.
All of us understand this, whether it be maintaining the garden, managing the allotment or planning a holiday. This is part of human history: sound, profitable, secure decision-making has always required a confrontation with environmental uncertainty; consequently, almost all societies have strived to mitigate risks by understanding the environment, managing essential resources, and building up our own resilience.
|From IPCC 2013, Working Group 1|
But we are also learning much more about ourselves and our environment, and this perhaps makes the future a bit more certain than it might otherwise be. Currently the Met Office is improving our prediction tools and tailoring specific advice to farmers; engineers are learning how we might mitigate or even adapt to this uncertainty; and we are developing methods to limit our dependence on fossil fuel and thus the associated climate change. And we are learning how to make sound decisions in the face of it. To achieve these objectives, the Cabot Institute and similar entities are bringing together a wide variety of scientists, social scientists, managers and engineers, all of whom share expertise with the community and industry. That expertise includes those who deal specifically with quantifying uncertainty, the underlying psychology and sociology of decision making, and the clash of ethical and pragmatic ideas that inform policy making. The world’s population is growing and with it our basic food, water and energy needs; to provide for those needs, we must make our future more certain but also more resilient and adaptable.
This blog was written by Professor Rich Pancost, Cabot Institute Director, University of Bristol