Next Article in Journal
Behavioral Patterns That Influence the Financing Choice Models of Small Enterprises in Ecuador through Latent Class Analysis
Previous Article in Journal
Screening of Efficient Phenol-Degrading Bacteria and Analysis of Their Degradation Characteristics
Previous Article in Special Issue
Slowing Down Climate Services: Climate Change as a Matter of Concern
Font Type:
Arial Georgia Verdana
Font Size:
Aa Aa Aa
Line Spacing:
Column Width:

Climate Services: Critique, Integration, and Reimagination

Washington, DC Center, New York University, Washington, DC 20005, USA
Climate Impacts Group, College of the Environment, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2023, 15(8), 6789;
Submission received: 10 April 2023 / Accepted: 13 April 2023 / Published: 18 April 2023
As an ideal, sustainable development—or sustainability—integrates economic growth, social equity, and enduring environmental quality. Studies of sustainability are multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, and reflexive—some would claim transdisciplinary. More broadly, sustainable development has been characterized as a societal process of learning, adaptation, and creation. Climate change represents a clear and pressing challenge toward efforts to forge a sustainable future. This Special Issue is premised on the proposition that the effort to develop and apply climate services is—or at least ought to be—part and parcel of the larger enterprise of sustainable development.
For this project, we sought critical input from scholars and practitioners outside the climate services community, and especially pieces co-authored by information users and their technical/scientific partners. We insisted that contributions reflect the voice, perspective, and existential situation of climate service users. Entitled “Sustainability and Climate Services: Critique, Integration, and Reimagination”, the purpose of this Special Issue is to empower unconventional thinking in the hopes of accelerating the relevance of climate services at a time when many communities, public and private organizations, tribes, and all level of government agencies are pursuing programs of climate adaptation and resilience. It is our hope that this body of work will provide outside-the-box critique and help to identify and facilitate a ‘next generation’ of weather- and climate-related services, both more relevant information products, but also services that may go beyond the conventional scientific orientation of providing information products.
Summary of Contributed Papers: The Special Issue is a collection of ten research articles, reviews, and viewpoints covering a wide variety of circumstantial, experiential, and geographic variation. It includes the work of 33 authors from three sovereign tribal nations (Tlingit, Haida, Sitka), Chile, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States. The authors are academic and institutional researchers, federal agency program managers, water utility employees, consultants, scientists affiliated with environmental and social advocacy groups, and local and tribal government officials. The articles cover research and interpretive analyses focused on large- and medium-sized U.S. municipalities; small communities in France and the U.S.; a remote village in southeastern Alaska; student-led educational activities in developed, emerging, and developing countries world-wide; agrarian communities in East Africa; federal resource management programs in the U.S.; the operations of a large U.S. water and solid waste management utility; regional and community level activists in Northern Germany; and geographically non-specific research dealing with the potential for nature-based solutions in a wide range of climate change and sustainability challenges.
Short summaries of each essay follow below:
A paper by Robert Lempert, Lisa Busch, and colleagues describes a community-level co-design process among academic, state, and federal scientists; citizens and local officials; and potentially impacted tribal council members to develop a landslide warning system for Sitka, Alaska—a small, remote coastal town (Contribution 1). The decentralized system features an online dashboard which displays current and forecasted risk levels to help residents make their own risk management decisions. This case study addresses questions including: what activities did the project team conduct, what did these activities intend to accomplish, and did these activities accomplish what they intended? The paper describes the co-design process, the associated changes in system design and research activities, and formal and informal evaluations of the system and process. Overall, the co-design process appears to have generated a warning system the Sitka community finds valuable, helped to align system design with local knowledge and community values, significantly modified the scientists’ research agendas, and helped navigate sensitivities such as the effect of landslide exposure maps on property values. Other communities in southeastern Alaska are now adopting this engagement approach. The paper concludes with broader implications for the role of community-level, participatory co-design, and risk governance for climate services.
There is a growing consensus that to effectively adapt to climate change, cities need user-friendly tools and reliable high-resolution biophysical and socio-economic data for analysis, mapping, modeling, and visualization. A study by Elena Lioubimtseva and Charlotte da Cunha examines the availability of various types of information used in climate adaptation plans of 40 municipalities with populations of less than 300,000 people in the United States and France (Contribution 2). The authors argue that non-climatic spatial data, such as population demographic and socio-economic patterns, urban infrastructure, and environmental data, must be integrated with climate tools and datasets to inform effective vulnerability assessments and equitable adaptation planning goals. Most climate adaptation plans examined in this study fail to address the existing structural inequalities and environmental injustices in urban infrastructure and land use, with challenges such as methodological and ideological barriers, data quality issues, and a lack of meaningful community connections. Adaptation methodological approaches should be reassessed in the context of much-needed societal transformation. Lessons learned from this and associated studies offer valuable insights for the potential development of national and state-level climate adaptation information services for cities.
Aparna Bamzai-Dodson and Renee McPherson explore how the discipline and professional practice of project and program evaluation might be engaged to help assure the applicability, relevance, and overall usability of climate services (Contribution 3). To achieve the intended societal impact, scientists are using climate services to engage directly with stakeholders to better understand their needs and inform knowledge production. However, the wide variety of climate-services outcomes—ranging from establishing collegial relationships with stakeholders to obtaining specific information for inclusion into a pre-existing decision process—do not directly connect to traditional methods of measuring scientific impact (e.g., publication citations, journal impact factor). In this paper, Bamzai-Dodson and McPherson describe how concepts and methods from project-program evaluation can be used to examine the societal impacts of climate services. Working with desired outcomes in mind, those who conduct and fund applied climate research would benefit from the inclusion and execution of evaluation activities at the beginning of project development.
Drawing on the author’s research in East Africa, Edward Carr’s article explores the potential for climate services to catalyze and foster transformational adaptation (Contribution 4). Carr argues that weather and climate information are not, in and of themselves, tools for transformation. When designed and delivered without careful identification of the intended users of the service and the needs that service addresses, they can fail to catalyze change among the users of that information. At worst, they can reinforce the status quo and drive maladaptive outcomes. He goes on to argue that for climate services to serve as agents of transformational adaptation, the climate services community will have to change how it understands the users of these services and their needs. Building climate services around contemporary understandings of how people make decisions about their lives and livelihoods offers designers and implementers of climate services opportunities to create services that catalyze transformational adaptation.
Arsum Pathak, Laura Hilberg and others explore how the application of nature-based systems (NbS) can enhance community resilience by providing both climate adaptation and mitigation outcomes (Contribution 5). While NbS do not necessarily represent new “technology” or methods, the planned incorporation of these approaches into climate adaptation efforts is often considered novel, particularly within the climate services sector where interventions have historically prioritized structural infrastructure approaches. Pathak, Hilberg and colleagues argue that NbS can offer an effective replacement for or complement many traditional infrastructure applications. Additionally, natural and nature-based systems can respond to climate change in a manner that engineered solutions often cannot, providing long-term holistic adaptation and mitigation success with additional sustainability benefits to ecosystem services such as improved air and water quality, carbon sequestration, outdoor recreation, and biodiversity protection. This article supports implementation of NbS through a set of seven “key considerations” for their use in community-based adaptation.
A paper by Alfredo Pena-Vega, Marianne Cohen and colleagues contributes to a critical re-reading of the notion of climate services by problematizing the discontinuity between young people’s commitment to climate change and the lack of a unified, action-oriented vision regarding climate policy among governments (Contribution 6). This essay reminds us that the activities of young people can help to build civic awareness and drive action to arrest climate change. In this sense, climate services, directed to young people, could contribute to the design of a sustainable future. To help actualize this vision, the authors propose a ‘dialogical link’ between the enterprise of climate services and the ways in which distinct groups of young people come to visualize and develop relationships with their environments, organize themselves, and then take action to transform reality.
Anna Boqué Ciurana, Melisa Ménendez and others describe an interesting episode of co-production and explore climate service provision through a recreational lens (Contribution 7). Surfing is one of the most popular activities in coastal tourism resorts; but the sport depends strongly on met-ocean weather conditions, particularly on surface wind-generated waves that reach the coast. This study provides examples of how users’ needs, and user perspectives can be captured and operationalized by climate data specialists to develop useful information addressing human and social needs. This paper describes the research team’s collaborations with the surfing community to co-define a series of indices to quantify surfing days, surfing days stratified by surfers’ levels of skill, and other useful types of information. A hindcasting exercise was undertaken to illustrate the potential applicability of the indices in a real-world context, specifically Somo Beach near Cantabria, Spain.
Ann Grodnik-Nagle, Ashima Sukhdev, and others chronicle the evolution of Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) as a ‘beyond climate-ready’ organization (Contribution 8). This utility has explored the impacts of climate change and supported climate adaptation work since 1997. Faced with threats such as sea level rise, drought, wildfires, and extreme precipitation events, SPU has worked to “mainstream” climate science throughout its strategic and capital investment planning, management, operations, staffing, institutional culture, and more. This paper provides a descriptive, chronologically ordered account of how SPU’s climate-change-related work has evolved to become an aspect of a broader social and environmental sustainability orientation, aimed at resilience against climate impacts, but also addressing a diverse palate of services, including greenhouse gas emissions reduction, carbon sequestration, water and waste circularity, green infrastructure, ecosystem and species stewardship, green and blue workforce development, service affordability, an intergenerational perspective, and environmental justice. The authors frame this transition as a movement from a core focus on risk management toward a proactive and integrated mode of sustainable operations. Acknowledging that SPU’s journey has been enabled by a co-productive approach to climate services, the authors end the essay with questions and speculations about how the climate services enterprise can be broadened and diversified to help SPU and other progressive utilities to pursue their goal of attaining sustainable operations.
For whom is climate change a matter of concern, how does climate change come to matter, and what do the answers to questions such as these mean for the practice of climate services? The essay by Werner Krauß builds upon the proposition that climate change always happens somewhere, in some place, and that there is a difference between results gained from a model or a dataset and the actual changes caused by climate in real world places (Contribution 9). This distinction draws upon Bruno Latour’s conception of political ecology, in which he challenged the separation of science on the one side and society, law, culture, or politics on the other, and in so doing, shifted attention from data and methods to the assemblies of actors that are involved in any given issue where climate data come to matter. In this article, Krauß argues that climate services should imagine new forms of provider/user encounters to develop more effective forms of climate protection. Adopting the moniker of ‘slow science,’ Krauß points toward a more inclusive and participatory approach, based on long-term ethnographic and participatory research in coastal landscapes of Northern Germany.
Finally, the piece by Charles Herrick and Jason Vogel provides findings from an interpretive reanalysis of a series of case studies of community-based climate adaptation sponsored by the Kresge Foundation between 2014 and 2016 (Contribution 10). The essay draws on the political science and international relations literature to identify and characterize a “regime” of U.S. federal policies that drive and enable climate change adaptation programs and activities at the local level. The authors find that a wide variety of federal policies are used by localities to either compel and/or support adaptation objectives and propose that the enterprise of climate services may need to move beyond existing models of co-production to embrace an ‘apprenticeship’ model, immersing technical information providers in the milieu of policy and governance so that they might learn to recognize factors that influence the applicability, usefulness, and uptake of climate products and services.
Building off the title of this Special Issue of Sustainability, we briefly summarize and synthesize this collection of papers in terms of critique, integration, and reimagination.
For a long time, the entry point for most communities and decision makers concerned about climate change was to ask “what does the science tell us is going to happen”? Consequently, even though some effort was made to bring social and policy sciences to bearin the climate services enterprise, the demand for technical advances, such as downscaled climate model projections and climate impacts science, drove much of the climate services agenda in its first decade and a half. By the 2000s, “users” of climate information were becoming more sophisticated, starting with a handful of utilities and municipalities before expanding to other sectors. While this demand-driven innovation is being recognized in peer-reviewed discussions of climate services, many—perhaps most—authors continue to presume, even privilege a top-down, science-first flow of knowledge production and innovation. As explored in the Krauss essay, this privileging of science and information as a precursor to action is consistent with and may inadvertently reinforce the conventional norms of modern capitalistic societies driven by a scientific management paradigm, particularly the reliance on science as the foundation for policies made through central administrative authorities.
While the parlance and methodological orientation of co-production seems well-established within the climate services community, this collection makes it clear that opportunities remain to reexamine approaches and basic, orienting assumptions. As Herrick and Vogel write, “The literature on climate services takes it as an article of faith that local scale adaptation is being impeded, constrained, or blocked entirely by mismatches and incongruities between available information and the perceived needs of local decision makers and stakeholders. Careful review suggests the opposite. Indeed, none of the case materials reviewed in our analysis indicate the kind of stark bifurcation between knowledge users and knowledge producers that has become a fixture of the climate services literature. Stakeholder interviews provide little evidence of a debilitating distraction due to policy actors insisting upon answers to questions that the scientific community is unable to provide”. As papers by Boqué Ciurana et al., Carr, Grodnik-Nagel et al., Herrick and Vogel, Krauss, and Lempert et al. illustrate, a hard and fast distinction between knowledge producers and knowledge users seems neither realistic nor especially helpful. Indeed, such a distinction may serve to shield climate services providers from ‘users’ demanding a reasonable level of accountability from the climate services community. A compelling example of this comes from Boqué Ciurana et al., in which we learn that some members of the research team are avid surfers—both conducting rigorous science, but also acting in the interest of a closely held personal value. The lack of meaningful epistemic separation between the user and producer is especially marked when discussions advance beyond climate readiness to address sustainability. Sustainability is always a composite of values, knowledge, natural conditions, technological capabilities and constraints, and stakeholder lifeworld experience. Within such a milieu, there is no one who is simply and purely a knowledge user or a knowledge producer.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this bifurcation between information users and producers is to isolate normative considerations into the realm of the user and thus insulate the producer from value-based critiques. It is clear, for example, from Grodnik-Nagle et al., that a clear value orientation is driving Seattle Public Utilities’ efforts toward sustainability and that they are looking for partners in the climate services community to assist them in achieving the sustainable future they envision. However, can the climate services enterprise be responsive to such a challenge if we remain steadfast in our commitment to being ‘honest brokers’ of scientific information and thus hold normative commitments at arms-length? What does such an arms-length relationship with normative considerations mean in light of Carr’s considerations about climate services—without a normative grounding—perhaps resulting in maladaptation for something as fundamental as food production in developing and food-stressed nations? The emerging prevalence of climate justice considerations in climate services brings such normative issues to the fore as well. The contributions to this Special Issue suggest that this is an topic whose time has come.
As Lioubimtseva and da Cunha observe, “The integration of climate and weather data with social, economic, cultural, and environmental data is paramount [for the characterization and evaluation of] present and future human vulnerability to climate change, addressing disproportionate socioeconomic risk to climate impacts, and engaging overburdened communities in the planning process”. As examples outlined in this issue illustrate, sustainability can be site- or situation-specific, making it nearly impossible to stipulate in advance how much of any given knowledge domain will be necessary to inform a particular effort to pursue sustainable operations. As Grodnik-Nagle et al. illustrate, the quest for sustainable modes of operation entails a multi-generational perspective and integrates economic vitality, social equity, and environmental stewardship. Sustainability initiatives involve the combination of scientific characterizations and projections, technological and engineering applications, professional standards and expectations, and clearly articulated commitments to value-based objectives. Within Seattle Public Utilities, sustainability initiatives involve dozens of disciplines and topical domains, including physiological factors that influence the population-level dynamics of endangered species; capillary theory and compost engineering design; socio-cultural determinants for equitable, generational planning; hydro-geological variables that affect watershed functions; principles of sustainable landscape design that emphasize native species; and financial forecasting and modeling capabilities that can help to actualize concepts such as intergenerational planning. The quest for sustainable or resilient operations, then, requires a co-productive enterprise that accommodates, and indeed draws in, scientific and technical inputs across a far broader range of knowledge and competencies than can be provided by the ‘traditional’ disciplines of climate science—i.e., climate model projections.
Ultimately, as suggested by the ‘apprenticeship model’ of Herrick and Vogel, climate service practitioners have as much to learn from the people they work with as those people have to learn from climate services practitioners. The longest-lived climate services organizations have been around for a quarter century or more. In their early years, these organizations served important—mostly scientific—purposes, as illustrated in the historical account provided by Grodnik-Nagle and colleagues. However, as suggested by that same history, those original purposes—largely scientific translation and awareness raising—have been either accomplished, internalized by the service ‘user’, or transcended by more practical considerations of implementing solutions to ever more pressing climate-related challenges. In a meaningful sense, the original climate services enterprise has “solved” its original challenge of getting people to take climate change seriously. Now, it may be time to listen more closely to long-standing collaborators to understand what they need to amplify and accelerate their efforts at addressing climate change and making intentional decisions about which of those needs can and should be taken on by the climate services community. This suggestion seems to be something more than what is conventionally implied by the term ‘co-production’, as it may move beyond simply agreeing to conduct science together and may include common value orientations, normative commitments, and/or explicit co-efforts at policy implementation.
Sustainability implies social, economic, and cultural transformation. To move beyond ‘climate readiness’, climate service providers need to expand their networks and prepare to interact with numerous other disciplines. Such a shift will likely have methodological implications, networking implications, organizational implications, and ontological implications. Climate services providers are the ‘proprietors’ of a critical set of resources in efforts to achieve sustainability. In other words, the climate service community can use its methods and outputs to help drive change. Climate service practitioners should imagine working as advocates for sustainable futures, or at least contemplate and anticipate how their unique work products can be effectively deployed in an advocacy context.
Diversity, equity, inclusiveness, and social justice are becoming increasingly important with respect to the development, availability, and delivery of government-sponsored infrastructure and services, including, and perhaps especially, sustainability initiatives and climate change adaptation planning. Papers in this collection make it clear that equity-related concerns are stark and lingering. As Pathak and colleagues emphasize, attention to NbS tends to benefit predominantly white and comparatively affluent communities. In a similar vein, Lioubimtseva and da Cunha emphasize that adaptation plans often lack “air quality monitoring in locations and at scales that can indicate the potential for systemic inequalities in climate adaptation and sustainability planning”. Climate service providers should imagine how the enterprise might change if its leaders and practitioners came to see themselves as provocateurs in the battle of social justice. While some climate services providers may recoil at the presumed loss of so-called ‘credibility’ associated with such a suggestion, it is worth thinking explicitly about both what is gained as well as what is lost—especially given the alarming intensification of climate impacts.
In our view, nearly all the papers in this collection either articulate or implicitly support the notion that climate services need to ‘know their place’. From the vantage point of sustainability, climate services are but one voice in a large choir. From a practical perspective, this means that would-be climate service providers—like any other good professional—need to understand their client’s operational environment. This means that climate services providers need (i) to identify and seek to work through the professional staff and/or acculturated representatives of existing, action-oriented institutions; and (ii) become connoisseurs of existing knowledge networks and experiential lifeworld’s to figure out how to ‘fit-in,’ especially if that means going out of their comfort zone to provide information that is less than cutting-edge, qualitative, or primarily narrative. As we suggest above, this may mean that there will be situations in which climate service providers will need to work from within an explicitly ‘ideological’ frame of reference. As Carr spells this out, “[b]uilding climate services around contemporary understandings of how people make decisions about their lives and livelihoods offers designers and implementers of climate services opportunities to create services that catalyze transformational adaptation”. For example, helping underprivileged high school students to ‘problematize’ climate change in their communities (Pena-Vega et al.). In this case, metrics for good climate services would not merely include accuracy, precision, full exposition of uncertainty, and other of the old chestnuts of “good science”, but also information that can be used within the context of full-throated narratives of place-based, culturally embedded advocacy for change.
List of Contributions
  • Lempert, R.; Busch, L.; Brown, R.; Patton, A.; Turner, S.; Schmidt, J.; Young T. Community-Level, Participatory Co-Design for Landslide Warning with Implications for Climate Services.
  • Lioubimtseva, E.; da Cunha, C. The Role of Non-Climate Data in Equitable Climate Adaptation Planning: Lessons from Small French and American Cities.
  • Bamzai-Dodson, A.; McPherson, R.A. When Do Climate Services Achieve Societal Impact? Evaluations of Actionable Climate Adaptation Science.
  • Carr, E.R. Climate Services and Transformational Adaptation.
  • Pathak, A.; Hilberg, L.; Hansen, L.J.; Stein, B.A. Key Considerations for the Use of Nature-Based Solutions in Climate Services and Adaptation.
  • Pena-Vega, A.; Cohen, M.; Flores, L.M.; Le Treut, H.; Lagos, M.; Castilla, J.C.; Gaxiola, A.; Marquet, P. Young People Are Changing Their Socio-Ecological Reality to Face Climate Change: Contrasting Transformative Youth Commitment with Division and Inertia of Governments.
  • Boqué Ciurana, A.; Menendez, M.; Suarez Bilbao, M.; Aguilar, E. Exploring the Climatic Potential of Somo’s Surf Spot for Tourist Destination Management.
  • Grodnik-Nagle, A.; Sukhdev, A.; Vogel, J.; Herrick, C. Beyond Climate Ready? A History of Seattle Public Utilities’ Ongoing Evolution from Environmental and Climate Risk Management to Integrated Sustainability.
  • Krauss, W. Slowing Down Climate Services: Climate Change as a Matter of Concern
  • Herrick, C.; Vogel, J. Climate Adaptation at the Local Scale: Using Federal Climate Adaptation Policy Regimes to Enhance Climate Services.

Author Contributions

C.H. and J.V. shared equally in all aspects of producing this editorial piece. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


We thank the editorial staff at MDPI/Sustainability for their flexibility, attention to detail, and patient oversight throughout this process. We also thank the journal for providing an open-access platform as a venue for this important discussion. We have enjoyed getting to know all the contributors to this issue and greatly appreciate their rigor and willingness to discuss ideas and entertain revisions. Finally, we thank the numerous peer reviewers who shared their thoughts and time to help sharpen and improve this issue.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.
Disclaimer/Publisher’s Note: The statements, opinions and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions or products referred to in the content.

Share and Cite

MDPI and ACS Style

Herrick, C.; Vogel, J. Climate Services: Critique, Integration, and Reimagination. Sustainability 2023, 15, 6789.

AMA Style

Herrick C, Vogel J. Climate Services: Critique, Integration, and Reimagination. Sustainability. 2023; 15(8):6789.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Herrick, Charles, and Jason Vogel. 2023. "Climate Services: Critique, Integration, and Reimagination" Sustainability 15, no. 8: 6789.

Note that from the first issue of 2016, this journal uses article numbers instead of page numbers. See further details here.

Article Metrics

Back to TopTop