Climate risk narratives

Stage 5

Exploring what is happening in the wider society and trying to foresee the many different plausible futures from multiple emerging trends allows communities most at risk to shape their risk-informed development plans.

Horizon scanning and recognising mega-trends can help inform and capture new risk drivers and other external forces of change. It can also help capture the changing nature of climate, and other risk drivers, in the context of the community at risk.

The climate risk narrative (CRN) process is suggested as the main method to achieve this.


Climate risk narrative (CRN) processes bring together stakeholders to analyse different types of evidence (including scientific climate information, practical and experiential knowledge, local and traditional knowledge and perspectives from different stakeholders) to consider a range of potential climate futures.

CRN does not seek a perfect solution to complex climate issues, but should spark important conversations that can inspire climate planning and action. The collaborative co-production of  CRNs enables a process for exploring elements of socio-ecological systems, including current (and potential future) drivers of climate risk. Moreover, these co-production processes can help to identify information gaps that undermine resilient planning (e.g. scientific climate change projections), as well as mechanisms for plugging these gaps.

Guiding principles

Co-production is key to extracting valuable information from the mix of evidence (above) available to scenario plan and eventually inform decision making and action. This co-production is founded on three core principles:

  • Humility: Being willing to acknowledge ignorance while not withholding expertise and to recognize knowledge and expertise in those outside of the science community.
  • Dialogue: conversations between equal partners are critical and ensure fair consideration of all perspectives in decision making
  • Trust: Knowing and trusting each other’s roles and contributions to the process

CRNs base their scenario planning on three key concepts that provide a framework for the information that is presented:

  • Added value: Not all facts, knowledge, understanding, expertise, adds value to a particular context. In particular, being a “scientific result” does not automatically add value. Value must be placed on other types of knowledge as well (if it is relevant to the discussion)
  • Assumptions and choices with consequences: Building on the principle of transparency and provenance, a rigorous interrogation of assumptions and choices made, and unpacking of the potential consequences
  • Good enough: In direct response to “decisions are urgent”, a consideration of what amount of knowledge or information is sufficient to inform a decision is important. Related to added value in that more, or “better” information, may not substantively add value to a decision, group agreement on sufficient or “good enough” information to proceed is needed

Step 1

Collectively identify a “significant issue” that resonates with all stakeholders

While a key value of CRNs is building a systemic picture of change, it is important to start the process by identifying a key development issue or challenge that resonates with all stakeholders. Just as with the Messy Map, this issue can have multiple facets. For example, flooding can be a significant issue but have multiple facets ranging from infrastructure through to health and livelihoods.

Gather a variety of issues from the group and then prioritise the most urgent of these issues through participatory processes. To do this, ask participants to spend a few moments thinking about development issues that worry them most (at this point in time), then to write them down ( one per sticky note). Arrange these sticky notes into themes and present these themes back to the group for validation. Once the various themes are agreed on, use a voting process to prioritise the most prominent issue across the group.

It is also sometimes helpful to use processes like “voting with your feet” where you ask participants to position themselves in the room based on which significant issue they mostly strongly align with. You can assign ends of the room or corners of the room to different issues and then ask people to try to position themselves according to their priorities. This can help create a collaborative dynamic.

Step 2

Participatory process to identify key systemic risks

Through methods such as mess mapping unpack the significant issue into different facets or elements, and points of concern, including how these elements interact with each other. This mapping should include both natural/physical elements as well as social/institutional elements such as key institutions, policies, plans, etc.

The process is messy because there will be multiple perspectives on how elements interact and which are the key points of concern. While conversations around these are very valuable, the objective should not be to eliminate diverse perspectives but rather to incorporate them into the uncertainties captured by the CRNs.

Participants should come up with a messy map that has different factors, institutions and elements that relate to the significant issue, including descriptions of key divergent or diverse perspectives.

Step 3

Participatory exploration of plausible climate futures

A useful starting point for investigating plausible future climate is to think about past climate events and how they have impacted elements on the significant issue. Building a table such as the one below can help to capture the evidence in a structured way.

Weather event
Resulting impacts
Weather event 1Flooding in January 2022Crop was destroyed before it could be harvestedForced to import food at higher costs
Weather event 2Multi-year droughtUrban water supply contrainedBusinesses forced to close, jobs lost

Step 4

Introduce broad scale and high level climate change narratives

Adding possible narratives such as higher temperatures and decreased rainfall, higher temperatures and increased rainfall, etc. into the process, will help participants to think through all possible scenarios relevant to the local context. You may want to focus particularly on climate indices that have had an impact on the significant issue in the past (although be careful not to neglect other climate indices that may be yet to result in impacts in your local area).

Initially, climate projections can be high level messages from IPCC WGII reports or the regional fact sheets. Identify where these changes have the potential to impact the key points of concern identified in step 2 and what the key uncertainties are. For example, if rainfall decreases this could drive increased failure of ground-water sources, forcing people to seek other sources of water that may have health impacts.

While there are always uncertainties involved, the focus must be on identifying critical uncertainties that require engagement with significantly different futures. For example, some uncertainty in temperature increases is often much less important than large uncertainties in changes in rainfall. This step should result in descriptions of key climate futures and critical uncertainties being set out.

Step 5

Participatory exploration of non-climate uncertainties

Often, non-climate uncertainties are as important, or more challenging than climate futures. These include urban population growth, rural-urban migration, economic and livelihood shifts, globalisation of food systems, policy and governance trajectories, etc.

GNDR set out five risk drivers alongside climate change. Similar to exploring climate impacts on the significant issue, past shifts or events can be used to explore the impact of non-climate elements on the significant issue. While there are always uncertainties involved, the focus must be on identifying critical uncertainties that require engagement with significantly different futures. This discussion should result in non-climate factors being added to the CRN.

Step 6

Collectively identify three plausible futures

Integrate and collectively deliberate over the climate and non-climate futures and critical uncertainties and identify three plausible futures that span the most critical uncertainties that are internally coherent or plausible. For example, a future characterised by strong rural-urban migration but minimal urban growth is likely not to be coherent or plausible.

Step 7

Narrative writing and refinement of climate and non-climate evidence

Collaboratively write (initially in a small group then refined by a larger group) three text narratives that describe each plausible future in the present tense and certain terms (see examples below).

The writing process provides another opportunity to collectively construct coherent statements about each future. Writing in the present tense and certain terms is important as it avoids future discounting bias and diluting of statements with opaque uncertainties.

While written narratives are recommended, it is understood that this way of documenting the narratives may not suit everyone. In that case there is potential to explore alternative means of documenting the narratives such as drawing, theatre, oral storytelling etc.

Engagement with stakeholders and disciplinary expertise (e.g National met Service or other climate service provider, other local experts), refine each narrative to ensure both plausibility and depth. For example, identify and construct supporting evidence for shifts in seasonal onset and the impact on agriculture.

Scenario 1: Hotter and drier
Scenario 2: Warmer and no rainfall
Scenario 3: Warmer and more extreme rainfall
Climate systemExtreme hot days and intense heat waves become more frequent; More frequent and severe drought eventsWarmer on average; Continued risk of flooding and drought events; Coastal flooding from rising sea levelsLess predictable rainfall, with more intense wet and dry rainfall seasons; Frequent floods and more intense droughts
ImpactsWater shortages; Hydropower? Food supply?Food supply? Hydropower?Displacement of people due to flooding and droughts; Crop failures?
Societal consequencesHunger/famine; Humanitarian crisis; Political instability and conflictHealth impact?Health impact?
ResponsesAdapt agricultural systems; Develop adequate building design standards; Use alternative energy sources; Alternative water technologyAdapt agricultural systems; Develop adequate building design standards; Use alternative energy sources; Alternative water technologyAdapt agricultural systems; Develop adequate building design standards; Alternative water technology

While these steps are presented sequentially in this document, some might need to be revisited as more evidence and knowledge surfaces, or is made available, through engagements with stakeholders, research processes and/or experiences. Ideally, the co-production of CRNs occurs iteratively over time as new evidence is collaboratively explored and integrated.

A range of participatory approaches for managing climate risk have been developed, including climate risk narratives developed by the University of Cape Town. Future Climate for Africa signpost other approaches you might try.

Serious games

Climate risk narratives

Participatory scenario/contingency planning

Risk-informed development: scenario planning

Stage five of the Risk-informed Development Guide also offers general guidance and tools on strategic foresight and scenario planning that include horizon scanning, mega-trend analysis, scenario planning, back-casting to the community’s vision.

Stage 6
Stage 4

Project partners

Our Risk-Informed Development Guide was produced as part of our Local Leadership for Global Impact project. The project and all related content was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). All content is the sole responsibility of GNDR and does not necessarily reflect the views of the BMZ.

Visit their website

Our Local Leadership for Global Impact project is implemented in partnership with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe.

Visit their website
Back to top

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to find out about upcoming webinars, member opportunities, the latest news and stories, plus jobs and new publications. Our regular e-newsletter is published quarterly and is available in English, French and Spanish.

Sign up