Topic Guide. Adaptation: Decision making under uncertainty


The purpose of this Topic Guide is to stimulate thinking about two major issues: first, how climate change may alter the long-term outcomes of development interventions today and second, how such interventions can be better designed from the outset to have outcomes that enhance climate resilience and are themselves robust and adaptable to long-term stresses, like climate change.

The Topic Guide is written for DFID staff, but is relevant to all development professionals. It is suitable for both non-experts and experts on climate change. It is not a comprehensive manual, but aims to provide sufficient information to enable development professionals to take some practical steps in their day-to-day work, as well as know where to look for more information.

The Topic Guide offers an overview of the latest thinking on how to manage the changing and uncertain climate in development decisions today. The key premise is that climate change will affect the long-term outcomes of many development interventions. Indeed, interventions that are beneficial today may prove to be damaging in the long term if they do not take account of climate change. This gives a strong rationale for ensuring that programmes and projects are robust and adaptable to climate change. Importantly, climate change and its uncertainties should not be an after-thought in development interventions – they must be addressed from the outset of the process and throughout the project cycle.

The specific challenge addressed in this Topic Guide is that the future climate is deeply uncertain. This is not just a scientific issue – it has real implications for DFID. If uncertainty is not tackled properly from the outset today, there is a significant risk of taking not enough, too many or the wrong types of interventions. This could mean a lower value for money of investments, or in extreme cases, wasted investments or adverse outcomes.

The central message from this Topic Guide is that accounting for the changing and uncertain climate need not be complicated and should not paralyse action. This Topic Guide introduces a range of concepts and tools for dealing with the changing and uncertain climate in designing and implementing development interventions – many are suitable for all development professionals, but in the final chapter we also include a set of more involved methods for those interested in quantitative options appraisal.

The Topic Guide begins with a brief introduction to the main issues concerning climate change adaptation and climate-resilient development from a DFID perspective. Section II then introduces climate uncertainty and explains where this is important in development interventions, giving a number of case studies. Sections III and IV then consider what practical steps development professionals can take to address the changing and uncertain nature of climate in their work. The first part discusses the design and implementation of policies and programmes that are robust to uncertainty. The second part focuses on more technical issues for quantitative options appraisal. A document map is provided to help direct readers to appropriate points in the Topic Guide.


Ranger, N. Topic Guide. Adaptation: Decision making under uncertainty. Evidence on Demand, UK (2013) 86 pp. [DOI:]

Topic Guide. Adaptation: Decision making under uncertainty

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