Nine lives of uncertainty in decision-making: strategies for dealing with uncertainty in environmental governance

A.R.P.J. Dewulf*, G.R. Biesbroek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Governing complex environmental issues involves intensive interaction between public and private actors. These governance processes are fraught with uncertainties about, for example, the current state of environmental affairs, the relevant set of decision alternatives, the reactions of other actors to proposed solutions or the future developments likely to affect an issue. Uncertainty comes in different shapes and sizes and different strands in the literature, which has placed emphasis either on the substance of the issue (e.g. in environmental sciences) or on the decision-making process (e.g. policy sciences). In this paper, we bring together these different strands of literature on uncertainty to present a novel analytical framework. We build on the argument that the nature of uncertainty consists of three types: epistemic uncertainty (involving the lack of knowledge about a particular system), ontological uncertainty (irreducible unpredictability due to inherently complex system behavior) and ambiguity (conflicts between fundamentally different frames about the issue at hand). Scholars have also argued the importance of differentiating between three different objects of uncertainty: substantive uncertainty (uncertainty about the content of decisions or policy issues), strategic uncertainty (uncertainty about the actions of other actors in the strategic game of decision-making) and institutional uncertainty (uncertainty about the rules of the game in decision-making). The framework is useful for analyzing and addressing the nine lives of uncertainty in decisionmaking. Better understanding of the range of uncertainties is crucial to design more robust policies and governance arrangements and to deal with wicked environmental problems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)441-458
JournalPolicy and Society
Early online date16 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2018


  • Uncertainty
  • ambiguity
  • wicked problems
  • decisionmaking
  • environmental governance

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