The science of climate change is so complex and filled with uncertainties that it has been limited in its ability to inform practical policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change at both a local and global scale. Effective policies must not only be consistent with climate science but also with understanding of the people and organizations the policies are intended to influence, who may not understand or trust the science and who face many other barriers to change. Given these constraints, how can policymakers use the available evidence and information to design effective policies?
That is the question Kim Wolske, a research associate professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, and her colleagues sought to answer in a review piece in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. Wolske and her co-authors, Paul Stern of the Social and Environmental Research Institute and Michigan State University’s Tom Dietz, examine the idea that certain design principles can make climate decisions more effective. These design principles can provide a framework for making informed choices based on the best available science under challenging conditions and can be used to guide the design and implementation of policies and programs.
“Design principles can play an important role in guiding policy in situations where there is risk, uncertainty, change, and conflicting values and beliefs,” Wolske says. “All of these factors are present with climate change.”
In the paper, Wolske and her colleagues looked at design principles developed for a variety of environmental problems and risks and extracted those that seem to resonate across issues. Some design principles can help improve decision-making processes. These include investing in science to improve understanding of human-environmental systems, assessing the economic and non-economic costs and benefits of different options, and engaging in ongoing discussions with the full range of affected stakeholders. To help implement decisions, design principles include using valid information from credible sources, establishing accountability and monitoring systems to ensure agreed upon rules are enforced and updated as needed, and ensuring consistency within a governance structure.
Wolske and her colleagues suggest that design principles serve two important functions to address climate issues. First, they synthesize knowledge about effective practices for managing complex human-environment interactions even when the scientific evidence is limited. Some of these principles can be applied in different locations and across different political, social or ecological contexts. They also serve as hypotheses that can focus future scientific research to refine, or in some cases even reject, a proposed management process or decision.
“Design principles can guide climate choices, while at the same time setting a scientific agenda to inform future decisions,” Wolske says. “While design principles don’t have all the answers on what to do about climate change, they can help inform and focus the ongoing debate. In this way, they can be helpful to leaders at the upcoming COP26 summit and beyond as countries work to fulfill their commitments.”