Planning for an unknowable future: uncertainty in climate change adaptation planning Academic Article uri icon


  • © 2016, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. Uncertainty in climate projections poses a serious challenge to adaptation planning. Ignoring this uncertainty can cause adaptation plans and strategies to be ineffective and even maladaptive. As such, there is growing awareness that adaptation planning must adopt approaches that enable discovering, assessing, and addressing uncertainty. In this paper, I examine how uncertainty is managed in adaptation planning. Content analysis of 44 local climate adaptation plans in the U.S. indicates that most plans recognize uncertainty, however, very few employ approaches to address uncertainty. To better understand how uncertainty influences the planning process, I conducted informant interviews in three communities: Boulder, CO; Denver, CO and Salem, MA. These communities capture the variation across plans in content analysis scores, climate threats, and plan author. Interview results suggest that adaptation plans do not fully reflect how uncertainty is managed in the planning process. Rather than focusing on climate projections in the vulnerability assessment, which may reinforce planning for one future, communities in which interviews were conducted emphasized sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Interviewees also emphasized the importance of no-regrets strategies and an iterative adaptation process. Institutional barriers were viewed as a major challenge for adopting uncertainty approaches. For approaches, such as robust strategies and flexible strategies, to be more widely used, we must first breakdown the deeply embedded practice of planning for one future.

altmetric score

  • 13.5

author list (cited authors)

  • Woodruff, S. C.

citation count

  • 17

publication date

  • December 2016