Fostering climate dialogue by introducing students to uncertainty in decision-making

Monday, 15 December 2014
Tracy Ewen, Nans Addor, Leigh Johnson, Arzu Coltekin, Curdin Derungs and Veruska Muccione, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Uncertainty is present in all fields of climate research, spanning from climate projections, to assessing regional impacts and vulnerabilities to adaptation policy and decision-making. The complex and interdisciplinary nature of climate information, however, makes the decision-making process challenging. This process is further hindered by a lack of institutionalized dialogue between climate researchers, decision-makers and user groups. Forums that facilitate such dialogue would allow these groups to actively engage with each other to improve decisions. In parallel, introducing students to these challenges is one way to foster such climate dialogue.

We present the design and outcome of an innovative workshop-seminar series we convened at the University of Zurich to demonstrate the pedagogical importance of such forums. An initial two-day workshop brought together 50 participants, including bachelor, master and PhD students and academic staff, and nine speakers from academia, industry, government, and philanthropy. The main objectives were to provide participants with tools to communicate uncertainty in their current or future research projects, to foster exchange between practitioners, students and scientists from different backgrounds and finally to expose students to multidisciplinary collaborations and real-world problems involving decisions under uncertainty.

An opinion survey conducted before and after the workshop enabled us to observe changes in participants’ perspectives on what information and tools should be exchanged between researchers and decision-makers to better address uncertainty. Responses demonstrated a marked shift from a pre-workshop vertical conceptualization of researcher-user group interaction to a post-workshop horizontal mode: in the former, researchers were portrayed as bestowing data-based products to decision-makers, while in the latter, both sets of actors engaged in frequent communication, exchanging their needs and expertise. Drawing on examples from the course evaluation, we seek to encourage the organization of similar events, introducing students to these challenges at an early stage of their education and career as a first step towards improving future dialogue.