Why Does Access to Good Climate Data Matter?

By Kyra Bell-Pasht1 and Dana Krechowicz2

Over the course of human history, weather patterns have greatly influenced the growth of commerce and communities. But in a world experiencing climate change, past assumptions about the weather no longer hold true. Local, regional and national governments, as well as businesses, are grappling with their role as decision-makers. Climate data may be available but it is often hard to find, understand and apply to decision-making. Both private and public sector decision-makers need accessible, credible and relevant climate information to increase resilience to the more intense and frequent weather extremes scientists foresee as a potential consequence of climate change. 
Climate scientists around the world are contributing to simulation models of the future climate. Their aim is to produce critical information to assist decision-makers struggling to effectively plan for the future, but much of their output remains beyond the understanding of end-users, thus cannot be integrated into policies. However, the WMO-led Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) and its partners are advancing the production of tailored local, regional and national climate information service for users in both public and private sectors.


Private and public sector needs

Climate information services are relevant for everything from design standards for homes, commercial buildings and infrastructure to business structuring and financing. Climate data are essential inputs for government officials responsible for the management of public finances, assets, such as electricity grids, government buildings and roads, and services such as emergency response and assistance. In the private sector, decision-making on input sourcing, facility siting, insurance needs, employee health and much more can be strengthened by gaining a better understanding of future climate. The insurance industry is one sector that is already relatively advanced in sourcing and applying climate data in their decision-making processes. However, companies in all fields need to prepare for climate change and could benefit from tailored climate information services.
Overall, decision-makers from both private and public sectors typically want climate data that cover their local area to as fine a scale as possible in formats that they can easily understand and incorporate into existing decision-making frameworks. In most cases, however, there is a gap between what is currently available and what they need. Climate information services can also carry a heavy price tag that some cannot afford, leaving them unprepared for climate change.
Potential climate model users also face several other challenges: many do not have the expertise to choose the best model (or ensemble of models), nor the adequate knowledge of science to apply them; and model scales may lack required details or not take local climate features into account.3 On the other hand, uncertainty increases as modelled data is downscaled, which may cause some end-users to dismiss the data altogether and to opt for seemingly low-regret decisions, such as doing nothing. 


Climate data landscape 

Many national meteorological centres and research institutions run climate models that provide data for the public and private sector that are useful. But users must remember that climate prediction information is not definitive, there is always a probability. Many model outputs are free and openly accessible, but one needs high-level skills and advanced computing to run these and to analyse the outputs. 
 

The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) of the World Climate Research Programme makes model outputs freely and openly accessible for those with the advanced understanding required to use them. More than 20 models participated in the most recent CMIP intercomparison. Each had its own strengths and weaknesses: some are better at predicting tropical processes like El Nino, some Arctic sea-ice melt. To some extent, the best model for a decision-maker really depends on his need, thus they should be part of the process of generating climate information. 


Delivering climate services for end-users 

Through the GFCS, WMO and its Members are playing an active role in ensuring climate data availability so that end users are getting access to the information they need in a format they can use. The GFCS User Interface Platform provides a structured means for users, researchers and climate service providers to interact at the global, regional and national levels to ensure that user needs for climate services are met. In the GFCS, the need to make climate-related decisions is the driver for providers and users to develop more useful climate information products. 

Some countries have taken a lead in making useable climate information freely accessible. For example, in the United States, federal and state governments – in addition to the federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which produce and disseminate climate science – fund six regional climate data centres that produce local climate data and work with end-users to help them use the information. The federal climate data initiative includes a one-stop online portal for climate data among other solutions to increase data access and usability. 


Case Study from Canada 

In Canada, Environment Canada is the main producer and disseminator of foundational climate science and future projections, but rare are the stakeholders with the ability to decipher and translate the raw data they publish. At the provincial level, two provinces, British Columbia and Quebec, have set up their own arms- length “climate services” organizations. These partially or fully government-funded organizations work closely with end-users to understand their needs and provide them with pertinent climate information services. Some municipalities, individually or in cooperation, have begun to source their own tailored climate data. 

An Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) Roundtableearlier this year explored the state of climate data in Ontario and explored possible solutions for meeting end-user needs:

  • Endorsement of regional models – To help navigate the patchwork of climate data based on different sets of climate models or applying different down-scaling techniques, end users would benefit from officially-endorsed local climate models. However, governments may be reluctant to pick one model over another as they may then be liable if predictions based on the chosen model prove inaccurate.
  • Guidance – Some communities have funded arms-length organizations that provide affordable climate data services. Such organizations assist end users in incorporating local climate data into their decision-making and adaptation planning processes. Government science departments can also offer guidance, in the form of websites, documents, workshops and/ or training to end users on how to use climate data.
  • Translation & communication – Much of the currently available climate information is raw scientific data, which is not user-friendly. It needs to be translated into lay terminology and delivered in a way that end users can understand and apply. Some climate services organizations make use of historical data and anecdotes, for example, “we used to ice skate here” to engage end users.
  • Resource pooling - It is possible to downscale global and regional climate models to a finer scale – even to the 1 km2 level – but it is very costly and unaffordable for most individual end users. Those with fewer resources could collaborate with other users or seek the assistance of non-profit or government organizations. For example, small neighbouring municipalities could pool their resources to obtain and share downscaled climate data.


A role for private and public sectors 

Governments have a responsibility to ensure their communities are resilient to climate variability and change and that both their public and private sectors have access to the information they need to adapt. As such, governments have a key role to play. However, the private sector has unique capabilities and can offer innovative approaches for climate data management and for creating interactive user-friendly technology platforms that are better leveraged to ensure climate information services reach a broader audience and are effectively applied to decision-making. Many private sector companies may be end users of data. Others may be service providers, either independently or in partnership with the government.

The costs of extreme, high-intensity weather events are rising, and expensive decisions about how and what to build are being made every day, often based on out-dated assumptions about the climate. The cost of climate research and coordinating efforts to produce credible and useable climate information should be set against the costs – and consequences – of uninformed decision-making. 


1 Policy and Decision Analyst, Climate Change Policy, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Canada
2 Senior Policy & Decision Analyst, Climate Change Policy, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Canada
3 Ryan Ness, M.Sc., P.Eng., Toronto Region Conservation Authority, Connecting the Dots on Climate Data in Ontario (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2015) p.12
To see videos from the Roundtable and read the Roundtable report ‘Connecting the Dots on Climate Data in Ontario’, visit: www.eco.on.ca.

 

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