The climate information problem

How do we provide the information that society needs to make decisions on climate mitigation and adaptation, with only a limited number of scientists and experts?

A great thing about working in climate science, is that people care what you find out. The benefits that climate science might offer to society come to mind often when I’m working, which is a help when I have to use IDL1

Towards adaptation

One important trend in climate science is the expansion in science useful to inform adaptation. For many years, the fundamental research in climate science has been used to inform mitigation policy2. In effect, this has involved answering a single, big question, for a really small set of decision makers. The decision makers were the governments of the world, the question was “do we really need to stop emitting so much CO2?”, and the answer was, broadly, “yes”3.

During this research, it became apparent that the Earth has been merrily storing energy in the oceans for quite a while now, and that even dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions aren’t enough to stop the climate changing for a good number of decades. On top of that, it turns out that human society isn’t particularly well adapted to the natural variability of the climate anyway. Human systems will be obliged to adapt to a changing climate over the next few decades, whatever the greenhouse gas emissions turn out to be.

The adaptation problem is different from the mitigation problem. The timescales are much shorter; mostly months and years, perhaps a small number of decades for big infrastructure problems. There are a huge number of decision makers; from individuals, through companies, industry, local government, all the way to national governments, and supranational bodies. At the same time, there are an enormous number of ‘domains’ that are impacted by the climate; agriculture, water, urban planning, insurance, shipping, … you’re bored already, and that’s just some of the human systems. Every part of the Earth-human system is affected by climate change, and the people who work and live in that system might benefit from information on how it will change. The need for climate information is growing massively then, along with the diversification of the types of information needed for all those different decision makers and domains.


This complexity and diversity leads to some really interesting challenges. Each climate impacts and adaptation problem is essentially unique, and relies on deep expert knowledge, both in the problem domain, and the climate domain, to avoid poor decision making. When you meet with people who work in industry, or health, whatever, you realise just how deep their knowledge of their particular domain is. They often have lots of data (although less often, the tools to analyse it effectively), lots of experience in keeping the lights on, and a good gut feeling for how they can improve things. What they often don’t have is a real feel for how the climate impacts them, and how that might change in the near future. This is understandable, as often, there are many more pressing issues than climate and climate change on their mind. This is mirrored in the climate scientist’s relative lack of knowledge about the domain, and what the domain expert knows is important. The climate information problem has gone from being one-to-one, to many-to-many, as information flows in both directions.

Climate impacts problems can drive really interesting science, beneficial to both the climate scientist (how much do we know about important climate change?), and the domain expert (how do I integrate climate information into my decision making?). The danger is that a lack of interaction between the climate scientist and domain expert might lead to poor analysis and decision making. What happens when there simply aren’t enough climate scientists to go round?

All of this was brought to mind during a lecture that I heard recently from Darius Campbell, head of climate change at DEFRA. It was heartening to hear that the department’s policy on climate adaptation is to make sure that the right science is done, and then to make sure that it is available to those that need it. They don’t want to regulate, they want to inform, and let individual decision makers plan their own strategy4.

So, is the scientific community delivering the right climate science? This is probably an essay in itself, so I’ll duck the question for the moment. There is a lot of climate information that is well known within climate science, that hasn’t got to the people that might find it useful; I’ll focus on that.

A major technical challenge is to make sure that climate information gets to those people and institutions that need it, in order to “own” their personal climate risk5. They need to understand the uncertainties involved, and recognise when it is appropriate to use the climate information. They need the information presented in a form that makes sense to them, via a medium that they can use, and that is cost effective. As with the information itself, the communication channel tends to be different for each individual user.

Strategies, then

There can be no single optimal strategy for presenting climate information to interested users, but what can we do? I’ll outline three approaches that span a range of interactivity and cost to scientists (I’m thinking from a scientist’s perspective here).

At one end, is simple data provision. Why don’t we just pump out every climate observation and model run to the web, and let the interested parties ingest them and use them as they like? While I think we should be doing this anyway (people are smart), this misses real opportunities to ‘add value’ (sorry) to the data. I’m of the firm belief that much of the really useful information about climate lies within the minds of those that know it best, rather than within any particular climate model. Providing only raw data misses opportunities to access that information, as well as ignoring scientifically interesting domain problems. As mentioned before, the risks of misunderstanding and inappropriate use of information here are huge.

In the middle, is consultancy. For each interesting domain problem, you pair a small group of climate scientists, with a small group of domain experts, share data, methods, and understanding, and work through the problem. This works really well (we’ve tried it), you get good science and understanding out at the end, and generally, the customers are happy. The problem is that it isn’t really scalable. At the moment, there simply aren’t enough climate scientists to go round – and you don’t really want to divert too many resources away from doing fundamental research, and consultancy skills are difficult to recruit in the first place. Many potential users of climate information are in countries or organisations that simply cannot bear the expense of hiring a bunch of climate consultants in the first place.

And so, the most expensive, time consuming, and ultimately, rewarding strategy is capacity building. The solution to a world with a vast number of varied domain problems and information needs, is to help people generate the information they need themselves. This will involve lots of training of scientists, but also the free sharing of code, data, and even computing power. We need to spread the knowledge and tools that we have, to those that might find them useful.

The time when a small scientific community locked itself away, and came back with ‘the answers’ to the climate problem is long gone. The future looks much more interactive.



1) Having said that, people might be surprised how unengaged many climate scientists are when it comes to climate policy – It just doesn’t come up that often in conversations, except perhaps in the abstract. The majority of climate scientists I know are driven by an interest in finding out how the Earth system works, more than any notion of doing good for society. I’m convinced that the notion of the ‘activist climate scientist’ is little more than a myth, or at least, very rare.

2) I wouldn’t say that the science has all been completely directed towards informing mitigation policy, more that the timescales that climate modellers have been interested in are multidecadal or centennial in nature.

3) For some value of “yes”. This statement is a hideous generalisation of course, but maybe we’ll have that argument another day.

4) For this to work well, you need to make sure that any scientific uncertainty is explicity included in the climate information. This was made crystal clear by Darius during the question and answer session after the lecture: if there is genuine uncertainty about what the climate might do, they need to hear about it.

5) I believe that was the phrase

Thanks to Richard Betts for commenting on an earlier version of this post.


  1. Hi Doug,Thoughtful post!I agree that we need to be more interactive. The only way we can provide relevant information is to understand the vulnerabilities that people/businesses/ecosystems have, before deciding (i) whether climate change is important (in many cases the signal of change will be far smaller than natural variability and they just need to adapt to the variability), and (ii) whether robust (‘no regret’) decisions can be made in the face of uncertainty. My concern about the current rush to ‘climate services’ is that we just don’t (at the moment) have the resources to do a ‘proper’ job on informing specific users in this way. I think the Thames Estuary 2100 project was a great example of planning for all eventualities, but it took a great deal of effort!cheers,Ed.

  2. Doug McNeall · · Reply

    Hi Ed, thanks for responding.I agree – a useful lead in to adaptation is in showing the concerned parties how sensitive they are to the *current* climate variability, and how they can be more efficient or effective by thinking about that.The Thames Estuary 2100 project is a great template, but was enormous. A lot of decision makers are going to be dealing with much smaller scales, and more complex climate/domain interactions. We can certainly apply many of the principles from that project at a smaller scale though.I’m not sure about a ‘rush’ to climate services, mind! It seems to be taking *ages*. I’d agree that we don’t have the resources at the moment, but I’d argue that the way to solve that might not be with more climate scientists, but by training others to think about the climate.cheers,Doug

  3. "it turns out that human society isn’t particularly well adapted to the natural variability of the climate anyway"Compared to what?In getting on for four decades, the variations in the climate have caused me no more than occasional inconvenience and expense… And some disappointment. No doubt other people living in different circumstances have difference experiences. But ruling out wealth as the factor that produces a different experience, I can see people enduring colder, warmer, drier, wetter, windier and so on, extremes in much the same way as I have endured the climate of central England. I’ve known more people die prematurely from suicide, drug overdoses, genetic diseases and road traffic accidents than from weather extremes (none). The inconveniences I see people suffer come much less. for example, from climate destroying their homes than from changes in the market that make buying or renting a home difficult. Getting to work is less of a challenge than finding work in the first place. And while the price of food may be sensitive to changes in climate, most people’s concern is to consume less of it than finding it in the first place. Less and less of our time is consumed coping with the elements. We have exchanged problems of subsistence for problems of an entirely different kind. That looks like being well-adapted to climate to me. There are many other problems with the above. For instance, who are these ‘decision makers’, and how did they get there, and how did they decide on their priorities? A proper attempt at understanding society’s relationship with the climate would ask those questions *before* embarking on the above discussion.

  4. Doug McNeall · · Reply

    Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to respond."Compared to what?"Well, compared to how well we could be (cost effectively) adapted to climate variability, of course ;)I think it would be difficult to argue that human systems are perfectly adapted to climate variability, given the available information and cash. I think I made the statement too broadly. What I mean is, there are good examples in human systems, where spending more on being less vulnerable to climate would be a good investment.I think your answer reveals your framing of climate change, along with the inevitable biases that come with personal experience. I don’t mean this in an accusatory or negative way – we all have our biases. You are very focused on your personal experiences and risk analyses in the context of a rich, midlatitude society. Fair enough. If you had better, unbiased information about how climate change might affect you, you might make different judgements. Perhaps not – humans are notoriously bad at making risk judgements, based on their own experience!I agree that in the context of adaptation, the risks of climate change should be weighed in the light of other risks. I had rather hoped that the original post would get that message across. I would point out that climate change will be felt very differently in different contexts and countries – which is why I tried to highlight capacity building towards the end of the post. Wealth will be a big factor in adaptation, but sometimes there are absolute factors. It takes time and money to move or a protect a city that will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges. I think that a concrete example might help the discussion here. The European heatwave of 2003 was a very extreme event. the literature, there are plausible etimates of 70,000 excess deaths across Europe, with little evidence of harvesting effects (a dip in deaths) in the months afterwards. Many of these unecessary deaths were in wealthy, and seemingly well adapted countries. I don’t think that this kind of risk is negligible. Lessons were learned, and across Europe governments started taking emergecy heatwave plans very seriously. I think many of the deaths could have been avoided, with better information about what to do in heatwaves, combined with an accurate assessment of the probability of the event.In this context, the ‘decision makers’ that you mention are a range of people – from those responsible for public health, to individuals deciding whether to leave Granny on her own while they go on holiday in August. An assessment of their needs is certainly necessary, if climate science is going to be able to provide good information.

  5. Doug – >>, there are good examples in human systems, where spending more on being less vulnerable to climate would be a good investment.<<Nobody is against defending sociaty against the climate. Indeed, if you look at the title I have chosen to write under, it argues for exactly that — Climate Resistance. The point being that we have got so much better at existing that day-to-day life is less and less about mere subsistence. My questions relate to the necessity of making survival the organising principle of politics. I don’t need to repeat here my view that our vulnerability to climate is over-stated, and my concern that a one-size-fits-all policy for the world is dangerous. You are concerned that I refer to my own experience. And yes, the point was indeed about an experience of life in a comparatively well off economy. But it was a response to the claim that society wasn’t well adapted to climate variability. I only needed to explain my experience, and to put it into contrast with bigger problems, to demonstrate that the problem does not lie with society’s maladaptation. You rightly point out that other societies (contra ‘society’) are less well adapted to climate. I suggest they are simply less adapted full stop. The issue returns to wealth, not better or worse forms of social organisation with respect to the climate. Nonetheless, you raise the issue of the 70,000 excess deaths caused by the 2003 European heatwave. An interesting emphasis. Why not chose the 33,000 excess winter deaths that occurred in the UK alone in the winter of 2008/9, or the 22,000 excess winter deaths each year? A cold winter is a bigger problem than a hot summer. Climate, changing or not, still takes its toll, within or without variation of extremes. We should remember that these events do not take healthy young or middle aged people, but by far, the elderly. The Wikipedia article you link to quotes a Red Cross official, "The French family structure is more dislocated than elsewhere in Europe, and prevailing social attitudes hold that once older people are closed behind their apartment doors or in nursing homes, they are someone else’s problem". And " The administration of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin laid the blame on families who had left their elderly behind without caring for them, the 35-hour workweek, which affected the amount of time doctors could work and family practitioners vacationing in August."The problem of elderly people being neglected is not one of society failing to respond to climate. Older people need care for many reasons, not simply because of the weather. Old people should be able to expect air-conditioning in summer and heating in the winter. But over emphasis on climate change in public and international policy has made both of those expectations so much more difficult to deliver, for reasons that need no repetition here.In a condition of sufficient wealth, if not abundance, there would be no need of national heatwave strategies. It would simply be a matter of so many fingers sliding up the controls on so many air conditioners. If those fingers belong to ‘decision-makers’, your wider point about adaptation is lost in triviality, as is the emphasis of your post on societal decisions, informed by science. The only decision necessary to change the settings on a thermostat is ‘how do I feel’, not ‘what do scientists say’. Speaking of senior moments, your Captcha settings are too much for this dyslexic.

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