What Are Climate Scenarios Good For?

A just-published review of the scientific literature on scenario analysis, with a particular interest in climate scenarios, shows that those are mostly good to increase an “understanding of the challenges posed by climate change” (i.e. to support propaganda) rather than what they are supposed to, the development of “robust strategies” (“robust” in the sense of validity under the widest possible number of scenarios).

Looking back on looking forward: a review of evaluative scenario literature” (PDF)
EEA – European Environment Agency – Technical report No 3/2009 – Published: 29 Apr 2009

Faced with risk and uncertainty, environmental policy-makers are increasingly using scenario planning to guide decision‑making. The vibrancy of the field is evident in the numerous case studies conducted using diverse methodologies. Yet even well‑crafted scenarios can fail to have their intended policy impact if they present irrelevant information, lack support from relevant actors, are poorly embedded into relevant organisations or ignore key institutional context conditions. Unfortunately, the shortage of research on scenario planning and its influence means that there is limited guidance on how to optimise scenarios, in terms of both outputs and uptake by policy-makers. This technical report addresses this lack of information, presenting a review of relevant academic and non‑academic literature on the issue.

Summary of Results

  • Climate scenarios are mostly used to support further modelling and analysis but can also help frame public debates
  • Their main (only?) contribution is towards “an increasing understanding of the challenges posed by climate change and their shifting views on how best to respond
  • Scenarios can most usefully support decision‑making by helping identify robust strategies” but “the literature review for this report did not find any studies that have thoroughly tested claims that scenario analysis favours robust strategies by carrying out ex-post assessments of the performance of organisations that have conducted such analysis

Let’s call it “the curse of climate modeling”…