Transforming climate science into services: Create value instead of pushing concepts

Transforming climate science into services: Create value instead of pushing concepts

By Atte Harjanne

Climate services are promoted as a solution to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and economic and political decision making. While focusing on user needs and developing new business models can indeed support climate change adaptation and mitigation, the eager talk about climate services may hide some critical challenges.

The risks of climate change have been known for long, yet the mitigation efforts have not been on par with what we know to be necessary. And even as it becomes painfully clear that we are likely to experience dramatic climate shifts in the future, we are yet to see sufficient adaptation actions either. Indeed, statistics from the insurance sector hint that many societies are not even adapted to the climate as it is, much less to what it is becoming.

This gap between information and action has spurred interest in developing new ways to bring scientific data and knowledge about climate into action. The rise of climate services can be seen as part of this development. Climate services are defined in many ways, but typically the definition boils down to ‘providing climate science based information for end-users according to their needs’. The idea of such services has been around for a while and has been actively promoted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for the about ten years, with the EU joining the choir more recently.

Discourse highlights importance and potential – but what about challenges?

In my recent paper I study how climate services have been framed by experts within the WMO community: Why are climate services needed, what are they good for and how should they be organized? Several themes recur frequently in the discourse: Climate services are necessary in the face of global climate challenges; there is major demand for climate services in several industries; climate services are economically beneficial; new technology enables new, superior services; and current ways of delivering climate information are insufficient. A quick look at the EU Roadmap for Climate Services shows that it makes use of a similar logic.

While such assumptions are not necessarily incorrect, they harbour the risk of narrowing the viewpoint too much. Providing actionable information helps only little if regulation incentivizes maladaptive behavior. Tailoring climate information sounds good, but the inherent uncertainty may still render it practically useless. User centric service development also takes time and effort on both sides – it does not only require new perspective, but learning a lot of new practices as well.

Outsiders see it differently

Based on my own experiences, I find it somewhat bold to claim that there is major market potential for climate services as they are defined now. True, there are a lot of instances in different sectors where better use of climate information can improve, for instance, efficiency or safety. But, in reality, few people outside the field have even heard the term “climate services”, let alone are able to explicitly describe their needs for climate information. Climate issues are intertwined in a multitude of decisions on different streams of activities on different time scales. From the user side, the way we experts conceptualise climate services might not make sense at all.

Climate information is valuable and climate issues need more emphasis on decision-making both in public sector and private companies. But, the development of climate services, as we call them now, should be based on actual value, not expected interest or pushing theoretical concepts forward. The language and terms we use need to resonate with their audience. Since climate services have no intrinsic value for businesses or policymakers, they have to be provided with information that helps improve or safeguard their core activities; that’s valuable for sure.  Finnish Meteorological Institute and Acclimatise are currently co-operating with a wide network of leading European research and development organizations in two European Union funded research projects that aim to do just this – to identify the value and find ways to deliver it.

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Atte Harjanne is a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.  
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Cover photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash.

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