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As evident in the excruciatingly slow progress of the UNFCCC annual COP meetings, there is a tendency for climate policy discussions to become entangled in a web of procrastination. Often, though not always, policymakers seeking to address the threats posed by climate change look towards the climate science community for guidance. Given the wealth of knowledge and seemingly clear messages issued by the climate research community advocating significant and urgent action, why is it that progress is so slow? Well maybe the lack of strong political leadership, unyielding inertia of the fossil fuel development model and general short-sightedness of lobbyists over-emphasising the potential damage to national economies resulting from carbon reduction measures aren't the only culprits. Maybe the consistent delays in climate action are in part attributable to climate scientists who continually promise improvements in the science? Though this may seem a little far-fetched in relation to GHG mitigation policy, a recent paper published in Climatic Change this week implies that a lack of urgency in climate change adaptation efforts may be a consequence of belief in future improvements to relevant climate information.

Antony Millner's paper “Climate prediction for adaptation: Who needs what?” includes the statement:agents who expect to learn something useful in the future are likely to be more patient in their adaptive action ”

Admittedly, this observation was secondary to the main thrust of the paper. Perhaps the primary conclusion of the study, which uses a simple analytical model to examine the relationship between adaptive performance, decision structure, and prediction accuracy at different temporal scales is:the constraints on the accuracy of long-term predictions in order for them to be ‘accurate enough’ are strongest for precisely those users who desire them most”

The model contains a parameter which can be considered a proxy for flexibility, α. The higher the value of α, the higher the cost of an adjustment to the adaptation option chosen. Long term climate predictions are usually only relevant for large-scale, often difficult-to-reverse, climate-sensitive decisions such as whether or not to build a dam. In relation to the model, Millner argues that because the costs of adjusting such decisions are very large, there is a need for greater prediction accuracy in order for predictions to be considered “accurate enough”. 

...but I digress. The initial point I raised, also evidenced in the Millner study, is the observation that adaptation practitioners who believe that future climate studies will improve the knowledge base are more likely to wait before enacting adaptation policies. Millner states: The problem becomes one of timing, in which one balances the benefits of acting on better quality information obtained from waiting, with the costs of foregone adaptive opportunities (Dixit and Pindyck 1994; Fankhauser et al. 1999).

The “benefits of acting on better quality information” will of course only be realised if indeed future information is of a better quality. As climate scientists responsible for the development and delivery of model forecasts to inform decision makers, we therefore have to be honest about our expectations for reducing uncertainties and/or improving confidence estimates. By promising but not delivering improvements in the information content of climate predictions, we may be inhibiting valuable progress in the deployment of adaptation initiatives. 

CSAG and many other partners in Africa are in the process of running and analysing the CORDEX African regional projections for climate change. These projections should provide a better grounding for enacting adaptation decisions in Africa as historically there has been a distinct lack of reliable regional climate information to guide decision making within Africa. Yet the final analyses of the data in certain regions may not become available for many months/years. The imminent challenge for scientists who are being asked for climate change guidance now is to be able to articulate how the CORDEX project (and other relevant climate studies) will improve the state of climate science in Africa. Surely, we do not want to delay action on climate change adaptation in vulnerable countries and communities by promising “better” information unless we are sure that the information will live up to the expectations. 

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