Climate service sector needs robust standards

By Robert Wilby

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Suppliers of climate data, tools and advice must be held to account on good practice, says Robert Wilby.

At last month’s UN talks in Paris, France, world leaders committed to spend US$100 billion annually by 2020 on tackling the causes and consequences of climate change. This will hand unprecedented resources and responsibility to an emergent climate service sector: suppliers of climate data, customised tools, and advice for mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk management.

At the same time, users’ expectations about what climate science can deliver are rising as, for example, business and the re-insurance sector realise the economic benefits of ‘climate-smart’ capital investments and operations. On the face of it, this simply seems a case of increasing supply to meet demand. But it also raises problems.

Two hypothetical dilemmas

Consider the following ethical dilemma: a company dealing in climate data is selling scenarios of heavy rainfall for the 2050s and 2080s at a high resolution (less than five-kilometre scale), with no guidance on appropriate use of the information. An engineer is interested in buying the product to design an urban flood embankment to protect 50,000 people — a structure that would defend a wealthy district but lead to clearance of adjacent slums.

Several alarm bells should be ringing. The accuracy of such long-term scenarios is clearly untestable; and there might not even be any rainfall data at such tiny scales for the present-day climate. The integrity of any supplier who claims otherwise is questionable. And, the client is poorly placed to judge the value for money of that information.

Also, a supplier will generally not appreciate that climate products and services can favour one group over another. And will they recognise the potential harm of the user relying on a single view of the future?

Consider another situation. A junior civil servant proofreads a speech to be given by a superior at a high-profile debate about financing coastal flood defences for vulnerable communities. The subordinate feels that some statements about future coastal flood risk and erosion have been exaggerated.

By inflating the perceived risks, more cash could become available for sea walls at a time of austerity. This case touches on the limits to truth-telling. Is it ever acceptable to ‘bend’ reality or simplify messages about climate change to achieve a goal for the public good?

The superior might have chosen instead to apply the precautionary principle — legitimately selecting high-end sea-level rise forecasts from the government’s national scenarios. Even then the decision comes with trade-offs if public funds are diverted from other worthy causes.

Ethical framework

Laws on bribery and corruption would apply to only the more extreme cases of mismanagement of climate change projects. But with service providers now spread across public, private and academic institutions, other shared points of reference are urgently needed.

As a step in that direction, colleagues and I have recently published an ethical framework that draws on discussions held at the Third and Fourth International Conference on Climate Services. [1] The aspirational framework has six elements.

The first, which sets the tone for more practical building blocks, is a vision of greater human security despite climate change.

Second is a statement of beliefs about the value systems surrounding climate services. These shape attitudes to accountability, authority and access to information.

Third is a glossary to enable consistent use and understanding of terms loaded with assumptions or contextual considerations, such as forecast, prediction, projection or scenario.

Fourth is a declaration of core values of integrity, transparency, humility and collaboration needed to frame the development and delivery of climate services.

“The scale of investment in climate resilience (and therefore scope for misinformed action) is now so great that it is crucial to uphold a consistently high set of ethical and professional standards that go beyond the norms of scientific practice.”

Robert Wilby

Fifth is a set of 11 principles of ethical practice to guide the conduct of climate service providers.

And sixth is a set of four principles to assure the credibility and appropriate use of climate service products. One example might be a requirement that suppliers adopt a more user-centred approach to providing climate services, documenting their tools using words the client understands.

Fresh approach

So how can such a framework make a difference? Viewed through this lens, the two ethical dilemmas mentioned earlier might be approached differently.

In the first case, the rainfall data supplier would need to at least provide descriptions of the uncertainty in the scenarios, and explain why the product is fit for purpose. Ideally, they would also work with the user to explore the relative value of other sources of data, and arrive at a shared understanding of the potential outcomes of acting on their climate information.

In the second case, the senior public official would be more transparent in the speech about the value judgements behind the choice of sea-level scenarios; and also more explicit about the context in which this information is to be used.

The framework is still evolving — the authors are seeking feedback online from climate service suppliers and users. Although NGOs such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have already endorsed the process, it might still need an overarching governing body.

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