NEWS 2020-10-28

Principles to avoid policy paralysis

Global environmental change challenges are to their nature complex, and complexity seems to be somewhat of a buzzword in contemporary sustainability science. But too much focus on complex interactions can create a hurdle for appropriate policy decisions and even cause an uncertainty paralysis, signified by a failure to act even in the face of looming threats. Fret not, however, in a new article in the journal BioScience, an international group of renowned scientists offers ‘corridors of clarity’, suggesting four principles to navigate through this mist of uncertainty.

Gray Weather, Grande Jatte, ca 1886–1888, by Georges Seurat, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zooming in on details only reveals bundles of small dots of different colors. The full picture only appears when observing from a distance. Image: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo, modified by the authors.

Uncertainty can be paralysing

Despite large consequences for human well-being, both now and in the future, human institutions have largely failed to develop effective responses to global environmental change, obvious not least with global warming and loss of biodiversity. Acknowledging other factors to this inertia, such as lack of leadership or disagreements over priorities, the study, led by Beijer Fellow Steve Polasky (University of Minnesota) and involving several other Beijer Fellows and staff, focuses on the role of uncertainty and complexity.

The sources of uncertainty not only stem from science not being able yet to predict policy outcome or policy makers being uninformed and believing the outcome is uncertain, but sadly also from interest groups or companies that feel they will lose with policy reforms and deliberately seek to create doubts about scientific findings. For example, industry groups who oppose climate regulations have invested heavily in organizations that question or deny the results of mainstream climate science.

Four principles to overcome irresolution

”The principles we suggest are primarily aimed for policy makers”, explains co-author Anne-Sophie Crépin, deputy director of the Beijer Institute. “But they could also guide researchers in focusing on the areas where research could successfully help decrease uncertainty or when choosing what aspects of their research to highlight in their interactions with policy makers, to better meet their needs.”

These following four principles can be used to find “corridors of clarity”, an expression used in the article to describe “evidence-based scientific understanding of critical phenomena or causal pathways that are sufficient to justify taking policy action”.

Follow the strongest and most direct path between policy decisions on outcomes. Rather than trying to include all the variables that justify action, avoiding to dwell on uncertainty of little relevance for policy can facilitate policy decisions.  For instance, a hot topic such as plastic debris in the oceans receives much attention and research funding has followed. This research often focuses on unravelling effects that are complex as well as uncertain, such as the effect of plastic on the functioning of organisms and eco­systems. However, a more direct and less controversial reason to reduce plastic debris is the broad public concern for how plastic pollution impacts on their nature experiences and put charismatic species at risk.

Focus on finding sufficient evidence for policy purpose. It is sometimes enough to focus on more readily measurable links, rather than the complex or hard to measure ones. For example, the human health benefits can be sufficient to show that the gains of reducing the emissions of air pollutants is worth the possible costs.

Prioritize no-regrets policies by avoiding options with controversial, uncertain, or immeasurable benefits. For example, many links between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and human well-being are complex and uncertain. But actions to cut GHG emissions are justifiable even without reference to climate change. Many investments in energy efficiency, such as improved insulation and building design, make sense strictly from a private financial perspective independent of climate or other environmental benefits.

Aim for getting the big picture roughly right rather than focusing on details. Last, but not least, the authors point to the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees, when focusing intensive data collection and modelling efforts on selected parts of the problems only, before having acquired an overview of all important aspects involved. Instead, experiments at the scale of the policy issue are more persuasive to policymakers. Studies of whole ecosystems have proven valuable in cases such as acid precipitation in watersheds, and eutrophication of lakes, where narrower studies didn’t clearly predict ecosystem response.

Alas, the complexities and uncertainties of global environmental change should not be an excuse for inaction, the author team concludes. Instead, clearly communicating results that emerge from analysis of a corridor of clarity can counteract the potentially paralyzing effect of uncertainty in complex environmental issues.

This article was initiated at one of the annual Askö meetings, arranged by the Beijer Institute.

Polasky S., A.-S. Crépin, R. Biggs, S. R. Carpenter, C. Folke, G. Peterson, M. Scheffer, S. Barrett, G. Daily, P. Ehrlich, R. B. Howarth, T. Hughes, S. A. Levin, J. F. Shogren, M. Troell, B. Walker, and A. Xepapadeas. 2020. Corridors of Clarity: Four Principles to Overcome Uncertainty Paralysis in the Anthropocene. BioScience biaa115.