by Judith Curry
The urgent need for an ethical framework is heightened by the recognition that negative consequences can arise when climate services are not used to robustly translate science into the decision-making context or when services are deployed in ways that (implicitly or explicitly) bias an outcome.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has prepared a draft document Call for an Ethical Framework for Climate Services, with highlights at this [link].
Clarification: Rob Wilby emailed me that the document is not a WMO initiative but something that emerged from the community of practice.
Climate services have the potential to contribute to human security by improving our ability to enhance societal benefits, and reduce losses, related to climate.
Climate services offer tools, products and information to help users anticipate and address the immediate, intensifying and potentially dangerous impacts of climate variability and change. Developed in collaboration between information users and providers, climate services are built on human relationships that open the process to a range of ethical conundrums. Climate information providers and the scientific products they generate operate from a position of trust and should be held to the highest ethical standard. Climate service providers that do not consider the consequences of their actions and information may implicitly contribute to poor decision-making and to maladaptation, with all the attendant implications.
This being said, the rapidly developing domain of climate services lacks a cohesive ethical framework to guide its development and application.
The urgent need for an ethical framework is heightened by the recognition that negative consequences can arise when climate services are not used to robustly translate science into the decision-making context or when services are deployed in ways that (implicitly or explicitly) bias an outcome. The need is intensified by the growing pressure from development investors and implementing agencies to operationalize climate research, which is driving a range of evolving practices of dissimilar rigor. This increases the scope for misuse, malpractice and maladaptation.
An Ethical Framework for Climate Services
We propose an ethical framework based on integrity, transparency, humility and collaboration.
Integrity is about conduct in practice. All too often integrity and honesty can become suppressed in the contexts of personal interests, commercial pressures and competitive practices aimed at gaining advantage. Integrity is essential to ensuring that climate services do not, through perplexity or exaggeration of knowledge, contribute to the disadvantaging of those they seek to serve. It warrants mention that honesty about ones ignorance is central to integrity.
Transparency lies at the heart of building trust between communities. Opaqueness about a climate service provider’s methods, sources or approaches to interpretation can contribute to inflated perceptions of the value of information. Over time, this can lead to a breakdown of trust in the individual climate service provider, and within the broader services community.
Humility here means presenting information as no more or less than it is, not promising more than can be delivered, nor obscuring an underlying reality of uncertainty. Humility thus reflects a commitment to present the true value of a product, process or service as honestly and transparently as possible. This raises the challenge to the purveyor of a service to be cognisant of its strengths and limitations.
Collaboration is the cornerstone of climate services. Openness to collaboration entails listening to user needs, allowing for their input and engaging in a process of co-production of climate services to ensure that the outputs of this process address real-world problems, decision contexts and capacities; it also ensures that climate services are based on state-of- the-art products and the exchange of best practices.
Principles of Practice
Climate service providers should communicate value judgments – Value judgments are an implicit but often unacknowledged part of risk analysis. Values inform our choices of data sets, models, methods and analysis techniques. They play a central role in the decision to engage in risk analysis; they condition the sorts of risks examined, the kinds of data considered relevant and valid, the risk management techniques considered, and the optimal response options in the context of other non-climate stressors. Ethical climate service providers should clearly and explicitly give the rationale for value judgments so users can both understand the basis for decisions made, and appropriately assess the extent to which those judgments are consistent with their own worldview or ethical standards.
Climate service providers should engage with their own community of practice – Climate services are rapidly developing, which imposes a responsibility for practitioners to continually update their skills and knowledge – including reaching out to their own community to learn about new methodologies and techniques.
Climate service providers should engage in the co-exploration of knowledge – Providers will not have experience in the particular context of every user, nor will they understand the challenges that each user faces or the circumstances that inform their decisions. To accommodate this, climate information providers should be open to learning from users in order to understand the context in which they work and to operate as equal partners in improving user capacity for effective decision-making.
Climate service providers should understand climate as an additional stressor – The risks associated with climate variability and changes are part of a multidimensional suite of threats facing states, businesses, communities and individuals at any one time. Good climate service providers will understand this, embedding a holistic sense of climate-in-context into their analyses and speaking honestly about it when presenting their products. This increases the likelihood that any action taken as a result of the service will maximize benefits and increase resilience to multiple climate/non-climatic pressures.
Climate service providers should provide metrics of the skill of their products – Climate service providers should provide information that allows users to assess the relative usefulness of the product in the users context. Metrics may include information on the skill, bias, and/ or uncertainty associated with each product (including contradictions with other sources). The producer should also attempt to illustrate the potential added value of using a product in context, including the implications of choosing one source of information over another.
Climate service providers should articulate processes for refreshing and revising their products and information – Scientific understanding is always evolving – new methodologies are developed, errors corrected and new data are made available. It is imperative that providers engage in sustained development of products to enhance information content, and address inadequacies and inconsistencies as and where the evolving science supports this.
Climate service providers should declare any conflicts of interest and/or vested interests – Climate service providers should declare any potential conflicts of interest, so that users can understand motivations of their information providers. This may include justifying the dissemination of certain datasets and/or methodological techniques, being transparent about circumstances where providers may stand to gain financially, professionally or otherwise from the decisions that the climate services inform.
Principles of Product
Climate service products should be credible and defensible – Information on which climate service products are based should be properly sourced, and the provenance of that information must be made clear and easily accessible. The analyses that underpin climate services should rely on appropriate and well-documented methodologies; tools and methods should be justified and comparative analyses should be undertaken and made available when appropriate.
Climate service products should include detailed descriptions of uncertainty – Uncertainty in climate services may derive from different sources, including from technical issues such as initial condition uncertainty, which defines the starting point of a system; structural uncertainty, which reflects inadequacies or design attributes in tools, methods, and models; knowledge uncertainty, which reflects a lack of knowl- edge regarding the physical mechanisms that condition the climate system; or parameter uncertainty, which includes uncertainties regarding model inputs and boundary conditions. It is essential to describe the size and sources of such uncertainty as best as possible in terms that are meaningful to the intended user, and to be honest about related knowledge gaps.
Climate service products should be documented – It is critical that climate services document the information and the methods on which they are based, allowing products to be reproduced and verified by independent third parties. Meta-data and version history are important components of product documentation and should be clearly accessible in all climate service products. It should not be presumed that the best information is the latest product version.
This is a very good document, and I would like to thank co-author Rob Wilby for pointing me to this. Its not often that you see the words integrity, humility and transparency bandied about in context of climate information – instead, you hear shrieks of ‘denier’ if a scientist (e.g. moi) talks about uncertainty, or god forbid, ignorance.
Climate service providers may be academics, in the private sector, or part of national meteorological or hydrological services. However, international agencies such as the IPCC can also be regarded as providing climate services to a global organization of decision makers
My company Climate Forecast Applications Network is in the business of providing weather and climate services. Most of our clients are interested in 1-15 day weather forecasts. If you are not following these principles of practice and products for weather forecasts, you will quickly lose your customers (of course you will also lose your customers if your forecasts are frequently wrong, or poorer than market). The daily evaluation of the forecast by users, and communication of ‘busted’ forecasts to the forecast providers, provides continual feedback to both evaluate and improve the forecast products.
Seasonal forecasts are trickier, since the feedback cycle is slower. For example, if your decision making is influenced by the winter seasonal forecasts, it takes a number of years to decide whether a particular forecast product is useful (or alternatively, a single busted forecast during the the first year may result in prematurely dropping a good forecast product).
On the climate time scale, users (apart from global mitigation policy makers) are interested in regional climate variability and change on timescales out to ~2050 (i.e. much more interested in decadal timescales than century time scale). On these timescales, climate services often takes the form of a one-off report or workshop that includes future scenarios. Thus far climate service providers operating on decadal time scales haven’t had the opportunity for feedbacks on their forecasts.
For two examples of how to approach this, I refer you to Part V of the UK/US Workshop, which highlights presentations by Rob Wilby and myself. (As a sidebar, my first climate scenario projection in 2009 was for the WorldBank [link]).
Now for the IPCC, how would we grade them based on these criteria?
- Integrity: seriously downgraded for exaggerated confidence in their conclusions and failure to adequately account for minority perspectives on the importance of natural variability
- Transparency: massive failure, as highlighted by the IAC review of the IPCC. Does anyone have any idea how the ‘extremely likely’ etc. conclusions are reached?
- Humility: IPCC has massively oversold climate model projections
- Collaboration: What if the IPCC had collaborated with energy companies in the early days, on developing scenarios and assessing opportunities for cleaner energy?
Kudos and thanks to the WMO committee for addressing this issue and preparing this report.