What Do We Mean by Climate Services?

"Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get"

Arame Tall1

Climate services are essential for adaptation to climate variability and change. The endorsement of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS), whose intent is "to strengthen the production, availability, delivery and application of science-based climate prediction and services," by 155 nations at the 2009 World Climate Conference-III attests to this. The Global Framework aims to bridge the gap between the climate information being developed by scientists and service providers and the practical needs of end-users.1

The GFCS implementation plan targets gaps in climate services in support of four initial climate-sensitive sectors – agriculture, health, disaster reduction and water – especially for those most vulnerable. This will be achieved through the development and incorporation of science-based climate information and predictions into planning, policy and practical decision-making. Effective climate services will facilitate climate-smart decisions that will, for example, mitigate the impacts of climate-related disasters, improve food security and health outcomes, enhance water resources management, and bring better outcomes in disaster risk reduction.

As climate services continue to rise in prominence on national, regional and global agendas for climate adaptation and mitigation, it is important to re-examine what is meant by climate services and to look at the more difficult challenge.

What are climate services?

A climate service is a decision aide derived from climate information that assists individuals and organizations in society to make improved ex-ante decision-making. A climate service requires appropriate and iterative engagement to produce a timely advisory that end-users can comprehend and which can aid their decision-making and enable early action and preparedness. Climate services need to be provided to users in a seamless manner and, most of all, need to respond to user requirements.2

As indicated by the well-known adage "climate is what you expect and weather is what you get" used to distinguish between the climate and weather, climate information prepares the users for the weather they actually experience. For most users climate and weather are mutually interchangeable. It is, therefore, imperative for climate and weather services to operate in close tandem, so as to be seamless to the end-user. The seamless delivery of services from the long-to short-term time scales is critical to ensure effective and consistent use of information for various real-world decision-making contexts. Timescales are key in understanding climate services.

Who are the end-users?

The end-users perspective is a key in the tailoring of climate services. The "end-users" are in fact a heterogeneous mix of stakeholders from the national, sub-national and community levels. Each user can derive a benefit – potential or actual – in using climate services.

However, not all users are end-users. Some recipients of climate information, such as trend projections and forecasts of various climate and weather parameters, interpret, analyze and process it in light of sector-specific knowledge in order to produce a useable, tailored and integrated climate service that can be communicated to end-users. For example, agricultural experts employed by departments of agriculture may receive 10-day rainfall forecast bulletins (climate information) to which they overlay information based on their knowledge of the growing season for farmers in a given region of the country, such as stage of planting, plant phenology, etc (sector-specific knowledge), in order to produce a tailored rural advisories (climate services).

These "intermediary users" are the partners of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in producing climate services. They work hand-in-hand with forecasters to transform climate information into a climate service. They are, in practice, the national stakeholders in charge of processing climate information (input) to produce sector-tailored climate services (output).

Intermediary users or service co-producers are different from the final end-users of climate services who often do not need climate information/data, but a finished useable climate advisory service or product that they can input into their decision-making. The latter category encompasses farmers, fishermen, vulnerable communities, etc., as well as national decision-makers and planners who need finished climate information products at longer timescales (climate projections).

This distinction is important when mapping the user community in a given country and setting out to produce tailored climate services to meet decision-making needs. An ideal climate service delivery chain includes end-users both at the beginning and at the end of the service production and delivery process. Production of climate services begins with a thorough identification of the needs of each set of end-user then builds and grows through feedback and re-assessment of end-user needs.

Delivering climate services for end-users

Delivering tailored climate services that can effectively inform the decision-making is a multi-front challenge. It requires multi-disciplinary and cross-sector collaboration, and an agreed upon framework within which such collaboration can take place. Based on good practice evidence from climate service pilot projects implemented recent years by WMO and its partners in implementing the GFCS at regional and national levels, five steps have been identified to achieve this.

Step 1: Understand the demand side

What appears as an intuitive step, asking end-users what they need, is often overlooked in the design phase of initiatives aiming to deliver salient information services in support of local/national climate risk management efforts. However, end-user participation in the assessment of their climate service needs is a pre-requisite to the success of any national program aiming to build resilience to climate variability and change.

Climate service needs are minutely context specific, varying from one village to the next. Examples from the Indo-Gangetic plains of India, and Kaffrine, Senegal, targeting women farmers in the design and delivery of climate services, show how one can effectively conduct an ex-ante assessment of farmer climate service needs, using tailored participatory action research tools to gauge end-user needs ahead of project design4. A mapping of farmer adaptation and climate service needs in every target region or sector is required.

Identifying end-user needs also means valuing local sources of information. The community should be asked to identify the information gaps and needs that they have observed. Climate service projects in northern Tanzania and western Kenya5 offer promising examples of ways to integrate traditional indicators with scientific techniques for seasonal forecasting.

Following identification of the context-specific climate service needs of end-users, their continuous involvement in the production, delivery and evaluation of climate services is key to ensure adherence of delivered climate services to identified needs. This is the role of the User Interface Platform, one of the most critical components of the GFCS.

Step 2: Bridging the gap between climate forecasters and sector expertise

This is the most challenging component of climate service delivery to overcome. The lack of interaction between NMHSs and their essential partners from national technical departments – agriculture, disaster management, public health planning, etc. – hinders efforts to tailor climate information.

Various participatory processes have mediated two-way dialogues and brokered effective partnership between NMHSs and technical sector experts, based on complementary expertise. Always centered on the needs of end-users, these dialogues have brought forecasters face-to-face with expert planners and managers in climate-vulnerable sectors to identify how they can work together. As a result, multi-disciplinary working groups and national frameworks for the co-production of climate services were established. However, their numbers are limited, a lot more is needed.

The Early Warning > Early Action workshops conducted across Africa from 2009-2012 (see Tall et al., forthcoming6) provide a good example of a participatory approach. They brought together vulnerable communities, technical departments from climate-sensitive sectors, communication intermediaries and forecasters in national dialogues that identified needs and co-designed response services. Using participatory or scenario games, the workshops encourage communities and experts to work together to identify possible solutions and means of supporting end-users in managing climate risk. Facilitated discussions generated an environment of openness and trust to ensure that all participants were comfortable and felt secure enough to share and explore each other's experiences.

These games are also used to train intermediaries who can continue employing them in vulnerable communities to facilitate the translation of complex, often technical climate information into a format that can be easily understood. This is particularly important as intermediaries often work in communities where socio-cultural constructs can pose a significant challenge (see May and Tall, 20137). This trusting relationship is critical to achieve effective climate services.

The GFCS Office initiated a series of four pilot projects in West Africa in 2012 aimed at identifying the critical elements for the establishment of national frameworks for climate services for the most vulnerable users. Thus, the meteorological offices of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger carried out stakeholder mapping at the national level and reached out to key stakeholders and potential users across all climate-sensitive sectors in their individual country. National Workshops on Climate Services followed, launching dialogue between the providers and users of climate services on the appropriate institutional mechanisms for establishing a perennial framework for climate services. The interaction created a national communication chain for climate services, linking climate science and early warning information with the technical services in climate-sensitive sectors to produce targeted climate service which, in turn, linked with local end-users and the most vulnerable communities. The chain has built-in channels for feedback from end-users in order to continuously refine climate service development. It is hoped that these national frameworks will overcome the obstacles to climate information access and use. The GFCS Office aims to replicate the West Africa pilots in other regions.8

The above experiences underscore the necessity of face-to-face dialogue to bridge the gap between forecasters and other sector specific staff. However, the process has to be mediated and pro-actively inserted into efforts to develop climate services for end-users. For the interaction to be sustainable, all major players in the chain of climate services will have to discuss and agree on clearly delineate roles and responsibilities for the production, communication and delivery of climate services for end-users.

Step 3: Co-producing climate services to address end-user climate service needs

The next essential step is the production of climate forecasts and advisory services that respond to end-user needs. In the food security sector, for example, the successful development of tailored agro-climate advisories that respond to farmers' decision-making needs requires the following critical steps:

  • downscaling existing climate information to achieve local detail and bridge geographical scales;
  • adding value to climate information by complementing it with agricultural knowledge on, for example, which farm-level and agro-pastoral practices ought to be adopted to thwart predicted impacts of climate-related anomalies9; and
  • developing suites of advisory products tailored to needs within the established integrated frameworks for climate service production (e.g.: multi-disciplinary teams of climate, agricultural, soil, pest, water, seed and extension experts).

For examples, readers are invited to read the FAO article "Localizing Climate Information Products and Services for Agriculture" that present a series of case studies in the agriculture sector.

Step 4: Communicate to reach 'the last mile'

It is vital to ensure that the final advisory product is efficiently and effectively communicated. Assessments of delivery channels are necessary to ensure that vulnerable communities and national planners receive the climate support services destined to them. There are many options: rural radio, SMS, voice recorded messages, "agro-met bulletin boards" posted across strategic locations, etc. The format should be suited to local needs. For example, radio alert for farmers should be sent when they are available to hear them, in the local language and timed to inform ongoing farm operations.

Two important channels through which remote rural communities can be accessed and their inputs fed back to providers:

  • Information and Communications Technology platforms such as SMS or voice messaging; and
  • through partnerships with other intermediaries – media communication professionals, non-governmental organizations, community based organizations, women's associations – to serve the 'missing link' between communities at risk and forecasters.

Step 5: Assess and re-assess

Finally and most important, one needs to keep assessing adherence of provided services to local needs throughout the life span of the climate services program.

Participatory Action Research tools have proven instrumental for enabling, for example, farmer's learning and innovation to steer the continued tailoring of available climate and agricultural information to meet their needs. Farmers in the Kaffrine project, for instance, suggested new more effective channels to reach women farmers – SMS on their children's cell phones in the local Wolof language or by spreading the word at the water boreholes, where they gather each morning to fetch water. Similarly, farmers surveyed in the India's Integrated Agro-meteorological Advisory Service (IAAS), the largest of its kind in the world, suggested that agro-meteorological bulletin boards in local language be posted at strategic outposts across their villages where they can be read as the farmers go about their daily activities.

As such, re-assessments of climate service needs provide a pretext to open spaces for iterative triple loops of learning feeding into product design, and enabling social learning for more effective co-design and tailoring of services to meet the critical information needs of end-users10

Keeping focus on the needs of the most vulnerable

One cross-cutting issue in the five steps is to keep focus on the needs of the most vulnerable. It is relatively easy to scale up climate services for millions of farmers in a country, but it is quite another to reach the most vulnerable who tend to be resource poor, female and marginalized groups, constrained by the invisible boundaries of their community's socio-cultural norms. Therefore, it is important to target specifically these sub-groups in the various steps of the design and deliver of the national climate services programs.

The end-to-end approach outlined herein offers a way forward to achieving targeted climate service delivery. Together the five good practice components map out an innovative, achievable blueprint to establish an integrated framework for the production, communication and evaluation of climate services.

It is a multi-front challenge and will require concerted work across disciplines in order to be successful in equipping communities at risk with climate information and advisory services that enable them to make improved decisions under a variable and changing climate. The most difficult step will be to bridge the gap between climate forecasters and sector-specific expertise in order to move from climate information to a useable climate service. To this end, the GFCS West African pilots offer a model for future initiatives.

Supporting countries to establish such frameworks for climate services is an urgent priority. Regardless of the model adopted, climate information will need to be tailored and packaged appropriately to serve the needs of end-users in all climate sensitive sectors. In a world where exacerbated climate variability and uncertainty is projected as significant consequences of climate change, equipping policy-planners and the most vulnerable communities with early climate/weather information and advisories to anticipate climate-related shocks and changes is an urgent priority.


1 CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) - a.tall@cgiar.org

2 Hellmuth M.E., Mason S.J., Vaughan C., van Aalst M.K. and Choularton R. (eds) 2011. A Better Climate for Disaster Risk Management. International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Columbia University, New York, USA.

3 WMO pilots National Workshops in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger to support establishment of Frameworks for Climate Services at the National Level. More at: Pilot Projects on GFCS in West Africa

4 See: "Identifying farmer's information needs to manage production risk in the Indo Gangetic Plains of India" and "Communicating climate services to three target communities in Kaffrine (Sénégal)". For more info: iri.scalingup.columbia.edu.

5 See "Promoting Integration of Indigenous Knowledge and Scientific weather and climate forecasting for risk management under a changing climate in Lushoto District, Tanzania" and "Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Climate Risk Management in support of Community Based Adaptation in Nyangi, Western Kenya". For more info: iri.scalingup.columbia.edu.

6 Tall, A., P. Suarez, H. Virji, J. Padgham, Ait-Chellouche, Y., Elliott, W., F. Lucio, Visman, E. and Kniveton, D. Bridging the Gap between Climate scientists & Communities at risk in Africa: Learning from practice through National 'Early Warning > Early Action' Workshops. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Submitted).

7 Sumiko May and Arame Tall, 2013. "Developing a methodology for the communication of climate services at scale through intermediaries in Africa and South Asia- White paper for the CCAFS Expert Workshop on Climate Services, 12-14 June 2013, Nairobi, Kenya". Available online at ccafs.cgiar.org.

8 This game and others can be found here

9 An example of value-addition in practice can be found in the good practice case: "Testing the Design and Communication of Downscaled Probabilistic Seasonal Forecast & Evaluating their Impacts at Wote (eastern Kenya)". More information on this case: at iri.scalingup.columbia.edu.

10 See CGIAR Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Climate Change and Social Learning Strategy, April 2013. Available online at ccafs.cgiar.org.


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