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Sitting through the late afternoon session of the 5th International Conference on Climate Services currently being co-hosted by CSAG and GERICS in Cape Town, the presenters were tackling the question: “What are effective climate services”. The panel discussion sessions spent some time looking at the question of determining the success of a climate service activity and how user focused this should be.

Of course the “correct” response is that measures of success should be completely user focused. Climate services are meant to be “servicing” a user need, just like financial services service peoples financial needs (arguably) or medical services service medical needs. The notion of a service presumes a demand for that service and so a sucesful service is when that demand has been met.

But as is becoming clear through many presentations during the first day of the conference, climate services are not quite so simple. For starters, climate services is struggling to shrug off a supply chain modality where science provides data that gets translated into products that users “consume”. This legacy probably largely originates through the history of climate services that largely emerged from within climate science that is good at producing data but less good at understanding the complexities of decisions and associated information needs. Climate services has also been framed by some, whether explicitly, or through implementation structures, as extended weather forecasting and so inherits many of the modalities of weather forecast products.

However, the most obscure but most important reason that climate services are not simple is that there is generally no real understanding of user need. This conference is the first time I have begun to hear statements such as “users don’t always know what they need” which is recognition of this important reality, as unpopular as such statements might be. In an attempt to be as “user focused” as possible many climate science practitioners have held users as almost sacred entities so the suggestion that users don’t know what they need sounds like a reversion back to traditional modes of engagement where the scientists know best. However it is a complex truth that very often potential users of climate information do not sufficiently understand or appreciate climate risk, whether natural or the result of a changing climate, to be able to articulate their possible climate risk information needs. While, as was also stated at the conference, the users are the prime knowledge holders, because they best understand their contexts, their knowledge and awareness of potential risks is not universal.

That stated, it is also clear that climate scientists, or knowledge brokers, or intermediaries of other sorts, are equally unable to articulate user needs. The stark truth is that prior to constructing any climate service the nature of the information required within the target context is simply not known. Hence we have ended up with concepts such as co-exploration and co-production. These describe processes where it openly acknowledged that no single discipline or knowledge holder holds all the knowledge required to define the problem let alone solve the problem. Co-exploration describes a process where scientists (of various forms) and decision makers (of various forms) jointly explore the problem context (eg. a peri-urban area of a large city) through different lenses by bringing their respective knowledge into the process as well as learning from others. The exploration may involve increasing awareness of possible climate risks, increased understanding of non-climate stresses and competing agendas and other challenges.

If the exploration process emerges with some clarity on the problem context and possible climate risks of relevance then co-production of information to inform decisions that may minimize risk or increase resilience can begin. It is possible that through this co-production process that a useful knowledge product or even an operational service may be developed and evaluated. It is also entirely possible the co-exploration may result in all parties deciding that there is no value in progressing further. That climate risk is just not important enough to consider at this point, or that climate science just cannot conceivably address the information needs at this point.

Both these outcomes, a potentially useful knowledge product or service, and a decision not to proceed, are successful processes. Other variations can also be imagined including processes that conclude that the ethical risk of mis-informing outweighs the potential benefit of informing a decision. The key point is that a successful climate service is surely one in which a good process that considers the multiplicity of knowledge holders, stresses and agendas with a strong emphasis on transparency, humility, honestly and ethics, has been pursued. “User needs” may never be met, at least not in the simplistic sense, but the process may still be considered successful. Of course, in some cases, users needs may be met in that climate science is able to provide real value to decisions that impact the livelihoods of real people. That too can be considered a success, but not so much because some user needs have been met, but because a defensible process has been followed to get to a desirable outcome.

Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value – Albert Einstein

One Response to “What is a successful climate service?”

  1. Kwesi

    Thanks CJ for the lovely piece. Interesting points raised in there…got me thinking. And that’s my favorite quote down there from Albert Einstein.