Before the Flood: Modelling Hybridity at the Science-Policy Interface

Martin Mahony

Yesterday the UK Met Office reported that 2012 was the country’s second wettest year on record. The announcement was much anticipated, partly due to the simultaneous flooding of large swathes of rural and urban Britain which has seen everything from inundated homes to seals swimming in lakes 50 miles from the coastline. A competitive spirit seemed to grip the media, as we eagerly awaited confirmation that what had been experienced over the course of 2012 was some kind of state of exception – a radical departure from the everyday interactions of humans and their environments.

Climate change inevitably entered the debate, although recent weather events in the UK and the US (i.e. Hurricane Sandy) have meant that much of the discussion has been about adaptation to new trends and extremes, rather than about the potential to mitigate the causes of climate change (see Climate Central’s discussion of newspaper trends).  Adaptation to climate change sees the sciences of the weather coming into contact with concerns about human health, land-use change, agriculture, energy supply, and a host of other topics which have long been of interest to both human and physical geographers alike.

Scientific models which claim to offer the prospect of knowing and perhaps controlling the future exercise a particular power over such debates (see for example an analysis in Transactions by Mike Hulme and myself of a particularly widely-used regional climate model). In a new essay in Transactions, Nick Green explores the potential of agent-based modelling to inform policy-making about land-use change. These computational tools consist of various ‘agents’ representing things such as households, individuals and businesses. By simulating the interactions of these entities, the models can offer plausible pictures of how land-use patterns may change over time, thus potentially informing decisions about things like flood defences. However, the predictive skill of such models is still questionable, and the interpretation of their results requires a complex interplay of different forms of reasoning across the conventional science-policy boundary; mathematical logic must combine with personal intuition and subjective judgement if the models’ fuzzy outputs are to be used appropriately in the fuzzy world of environmental policy-making.

In a 2011 paper, Stuart Lane and colleagues report a project in which the relations between scientific models, scientists, stakeholders and members of the public were fundamentally re-ordered. After a history of failed flood management practices in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, the researchers instigated a collaborative knowledge-making exercise in which expert knowledge was combined with what was found to be widely-distributed and sophisticated knowledge of the local hydrology among Ryedale residents. New forms of knowledge emerged, some of which were codified into model form. The authors argue that in situations where trust in experts and institutions is contested, ‘science’ is not best served by seeking to extract it from ‘politics’. By embracing the hybridity of science and politics (e.g. through making destabilizing political interventions through new ways of producing scientific knowledge), political empowerment can proceed in tandem with robust environmental decision-making.

If indeed our wet 2012 is a harbinger of a wetter future, innovative approaches to knowledge production and decision-making will be central to society’s adaptation to a changing climate. Geographers can provide not only the necessary technical tools and skills, but also the broader methods needed to ensure that decision-making  is always informed, inclusive, and just.

2012 second wettest year on record for UKThe Guardian

Seal spotted swimming in flooded Cambridgeshire field 50 miles inlandThe Guardian

Martin Mahony & Mike Hulme, 2012, Model Migrations: Mobility and Boundary Crossings in Regional Climate PredictionTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 197-211

Nick Green, 2013, A Policymaker’s Puzzle, or How to Cross the Boundary from Agent-based Model to Land-use Policymaking?,  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 2-6

Stuart Lane et al., 2011 Doing Flood Risk Science Differently: An Experiment in Radical Scientific MethodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 15-36

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