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Embracing uncertainty while planning for resilience

by Mozaharul Alam (UN Environment), Rohini Kohli (UNDP) and Angus Mackay (UNITAR)
Monday, 13 November 2017 10:55 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Uncertainty plagues our world. On its own, it can destabilise nations, undermine decisions, and create poverty traps that derail global efforts to achieve the goals outlined in the Paris Agreements, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and national development plans.

Climate change raises the stakes, making it harder for decision makers to plan for the future due to rising sea levels, higher temperatures, erratic rainfall, failed crops, droughts, climate migration, and the spread of disease.

So how do we respond to a world of increasing uncertainty induced by climate change?

We would suggest that the answer lies in effective medium- to long-term adaptation planning. Key to this will be the formulation and implementation of national adaptation plans, which will support countries in achieving their Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris deal, and serve as a blueprint for future climate action.

To implement these plans, we must better understand the nature of the risk, foster greater innovation, and increase understanding and ownership of these climate action plans. All of this implies placing climate change learning at the center of the national planning process.   


National adaptation plans are more than a series of procedural steps. They require constant adjustment. At each stage, it will be crucial to learn from successes and mistakes.  

Planning is also a moving target that will need to be constantly adjusted to changing climatic realities and evolving technology, while continuing to be shaped by local contexts. For instance, weather monitoring technology has the potential to improve climate information services and early warnings across much of the developing world.

Above all this implies a need to build greater human capacity on the ground. For example, planners will need to be able to conduct and interpret assessments of climate change impacts and vulnerabilities. With an improved knowledge and skills base, national and local leaders can better prioritise climate actions that will help sustain broader societal goals.

But the reality is that while we’ve been aware of climate change for decades, climate change education – such as improving local capacity to understand climate models and climate assessments – is still very much in its infancy.


The Doing Development Differently Manifesto, a growing movement of a community of development practitioners and observers, acknowledges that all too often development initiatives fail to achieve real impact, because they fail to achieve real ownership.

For national adaptation plans to work, the very people who will be implementing these plans need the training, the tools and the technology that will allow them to build the plans – and the supporting institutions and policies – to take ownership of these initiatives.

The UN can play a key role here as a coordinator, with the capacity to share what works well with those who need it most. 

While uncertainty can never be eliminated entirely – there are plenty of wildcards that will cause speedbumps along the way – a good way to manage risk is by making multiple “small bets” to pilot and test initiatives before taking successful measures to scale.

Many climate adaptation projects are already collecting lessons learned and scaling up successes. For example the huge improvement in the availability and accuracy of climate information in Malawi is revolutionising adaptation planning, while successful water management practices in Colombia have dramatically improved food security and reduced climate risks. 

National adaptation plans are fundamental to achieving the Paris deal and the Sustainable Development Goals.

More importantly, they can help to secure a better future for the billions of people worldwide who face the rising threat of hunger, malnutrition, and uncertainty resulting from climate change. They provide a mechanism to empower those that are most vulnerable through a chain of improved knowledge, skills and decision making leading to more effective climate action.

The blog authors are experts on climate change adaptation and learning from UNDP, UN Environment and UNITAR, and coordinate and support the joint UNDP-UN Environment National Adaptation Plans Global Support Programme (NAP-GSP).

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