Uncertainty is a key factor shaping climate and environmental policy at international, national and sub-national levels. It is usually defined as a situation characterised by indeterminacies and refers to what we cannot know for certain in terms of outcomes, effects or impacts of a particular event where the probabilities cannot be calculated (Walker et al. 2003).
Climatic changes are projected to cause an escalation in climatic variation coupled with increasing uncertainty as one moves from global to local scales (IPCC 2014). Examples include growing uncertainties around spatial and temporal patterns of rainfall, extreme temperatures as well as droughts, cyclones and floods. In the early days of climate science, uncertainty was often seen as challenging the authority of science itself, causing uneasiness among scientists. Recognised as a ‘super wicked problem’ or a monster that should be controlled or tamed, climate science was dominantly guided by the belief that more and better ways of knowing (i.e. better modelling) could address the uncertainty problem (Curry and Webster 2011; van der Sluijs 2005). However, in the past two decades, there has been a noticeable shift from a focus on reducing scientific uncertainty towards understanding and managing uncertainty (Schneider and Kuntz-Duriseti 2002).
In the Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledges that there are uncertainties that we will never know and that the best response is to understand and cope with them (IPCC 2014). This has led to the emergence of new approaches, such as robust decision-making that recognise diverse perceptions and responses to uncertainty (IPCC 2014; Ranger and Garbett-Shiels 2011) and emphasise the importance of more bottom-up methods of climate assessment and adaptation (Conway et al. 2019). Still, as argued by several authors in this special issue, techno-managerialist approaches to control uncertainty on the part of scientists and policymakers still persist in practice. These can exacerbate the vulnerabilities of marginalised people living with climate change–related uncertainties.