Making Friends With Uncertainty

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Laura Hoffman-Hernandez, C+S ’18

Sofia Martínez, Latin America Lead in FIST explains an index insurance game to farmers in southern Honduras,
May 2015. (Source: Elisabeth Gawthrop/IRI)

Humans desire for certainty is rooted in the way our brains function. We are programmed to create patterns from our outside world, store them as memories and make predictions. It is the primary function of our neo-cortex.

Renowned American psychologist, Abraham Maslow—best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—included safety and security as a basic human need. In other words, we need our world to be predictable to feel secure. However, the reality of the universe is that it is chaotic and messy. This is especially evident in the climate service sector. The role of a scientists is to find patterns in the chaos, which is what I’m been trying to do this summer.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Financial Instrument Sector Team (FIST, a great acronym) at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI, a less exciting acronym). The IRI is at the forefront of producing climate information to support real world decision-making. This requires collaboration between climate scientists, health experts, social scientists and economists to make sense of complex and dynamical systems.FIST’s role is to help people deal with climate risk through financial tools such as index insurance and index-based disaster risk management.

So here I am, working with the FIST team, generally feeling a sense of uncertainty as I figure out how I, a psychology graduate, can contribute to a team made up of mostly programmers and economists. The work I have done at the IRI was based on the needs of the team which ranged from creating educational materials like IRI Data Library manuals to download satellite Information. I even helped make a new index using ENSO and satellite data for Peruvian farmers. I also helped summarize a dense technical document that analyzed a new methodology for validating hydrological disasters (seriously, I had only taken one statistics course during my undergrad and often wondered how I ended up in this role!). I worry a lot about making mistakes and whether the work I produce is really relevant or helpful for people on the ground. I am reassured talking to my team members who I feel are open with me as they share their feelings of navigating this space of great uncertainty while managing to work with different levels of stakeholders from financial institutions, ministries, to cooperatives to farmers to local experts.

Sitting through the technical aspects of the job are important for me to learn and understand. However, I was happy when I was asked to create a literature review on how people’s perception to climate disasters affect their behavior. Yay! My old friends the brain and behavior are becoming friends with my new friends climate and finance. I am currently working on creating a framework that addresses how our brain processes information, specifically how our analytical (objective, conscience) and experiential (intuition based on past experiences) mental systems influence each other. The framework also look at how personal dispositions affect our perceptions, including how differences in socio-economic status, gender and education level affect the way we see the world.

In order to better understand how people adapt, it is important to understand how people think and behave and what factors contribute to that. How secure do farmers feel when planting a certain crop? Or purchasing insurance? How can we better address the risk that they face under climate change as certain types of disasters become more common while the response is often messy and vague. How can IRI meaningfully address people’s needs and provide a sense of security?

I am learning that despite the progress we have made addressing the needs of farmers, there are still many barriers to overcome. In our world of chaos, understanding the needs of different people requires looking at them from an array of disciplines. I still feel uncomfortable with uncertainty, but then I remember how innovation stems from exploring the unknown and mistakes are part of the process.

Whether it is the general sense of uncertainty that comes from creating a new, innovative insurance package or being able to communicate risk and financial tools to different sectors or even my personal feelings of uncertainty within my new role in the team, I am learning to be comfortable with this sense of uncertainty! The reality is that we cannot predict every meteorological event or what choices people will make, but I do think that through a more holistic approach and building partnerships, we can meaningfully create more resilient pathways for those who are most vulnerable to climate change.

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