Researchers focussed on tackling the difficult environmental decisions

9 April 2020

Professor Iain White.

A team of University of Waikato researchers, led by Professor Iain White, have received $625,000 in funding from the National Science Challenge on Resilience to Nature's Challenges, to tackle New Zealand’s difficult decisions around natural hazards and climate change.

Their project, 'De-Risking Resilience', scheduled to run over 4.5 years, will look at difficult environmental planning decisions and the way the science we create influences decision-making in very uneven ways, depending on the socio-political context.

The team intend to analyse this interface between science and society, and focus on how difficult decisions, which may be uncertain or complex, can be made politically safer.

The team also includes Dr Christina Hanna and Dr Raven Cretney from Waikato University, along with Dr Sarah Beaven from the University of Canterbury.

“Over decades of research, we have an awful lot of data on climate and environmental change to make the argument compelling, yet systemic change is still hard to do,” says Professor Iain White.

“We want to understand why that is; why are some decisions more difficult than others, and how and why do issues like immediate political risk mediate decisions on long-term climate risk?”.

Professor Iain White says that there can be a tendency to see inaction, “as a ‘deficit’ issue, that we need more science, certainty or policy and then things will happen. But in reality, we know enough to act, and for many risks we will never be certain.

“There’s something very interesting about how and why science and data influences action, or not, and why certain types of science influence better than others.

“For example, some issues have more political risks. A mayor on a three-year term might not want to address a decision that could have ramifications for the next 50 years, or that could open them up to political critique. How can different ways of doing or communicating science make decision-making function more effectively?”.

As part of this research, the team will select a range of case studies involving real science and risks, where the threat is real and significant, but action has not yet been taken.

“While we haven’t selected the case studies yet, we’re aiming to look at issues such as an eruption of Mt Taranaki, sea level rise in the Hauraki Plains, or other areas experiencing coastal retreat.

“We know there’s really good science about what could happen if Mt Taranaki erupts, but how can this information better help reduce the long-term risk to people and places? We’re going to work with communities and try and open up the politics about alternative futures, and while there’s not one right answer, it’s about looking through the options.”

For each case, Professor White says they’ll use different approaches to make the politics and decision-making work.

“We’ll stocktake the tools and approaches used by scientists to action change, to create a blueprint for how these difficult decisions can be made less difficult in future.”

The project has just got underway, with much of the planning taking place during the lockdown period before the team starts working with communities and institutions around each chosen case study.

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