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Climate Services as a Public Good?

Communicating weather and climate information to people is often done by governmental institutions and usually through free channels like radio, public broadcasting channels or social media. One might therefore assume that the information is available to anyone who wants it. However, as will be discussed in this article, publicly and freely available might not be equivalent to an actual public good. 

What Is a Public Good? 

A public good is, as the name alludes to, a good that benefits the public. Nonetheless, there are two main criteria for something to be defined as a public good. 

First, it must be non-excludable, which means that no one can be excluded from using it. Take oxygen, for example. When I wait for the bus in the morning, I breathe in the air around me, but I cannot prevent the person standing next to me from breathing the air as well. If somebody benefits from a public good, it does not reduce the amount available for others. Second, the good must be non-rivalrousIf I listen to the radio, it does not prevent my neighbour from listening to it as well, provided we each have our own devices, of course. Once a public good is provided, you cannot stop anyone from benefitting from the good. These are the two criteria that make something a public good. 

Why Does This Apply to Climate Services? 

Regions that are vulnerable to climate shocks, like East Africa, need weather and climate information. In the East African region, people are highly dependent on natural resources, and most energy sources are highly climate-dependent. The economy is also very much based on agriculture and is vulnerable to extreme weather events, like drought or flood. 

So how do people get climate and weather information in East Africa? Radio is the most commonly used tool for the dissemination of information. This is an essential tool that is used for many purposes, including promoting social and behavioural change within communities. It is the most reliable medium of communication in many parts of the region, and there are several hundred radio stations in the area. Other mediums, like the internet, is less reliable due to lack of infrastructure.  

A lot has been done in this field in the last few years. In Kenya, for instance, the ACREI project is working with the general media to simplify weather and climate information for end-users. Additionally, they are working to break down the language barrier that prevents many people from getting the information they need. Weather and climate information will reach a lot more people by translating it into local languages. 

Challenges and Potential Solutions

Although the number of radio stations in East Africa has increased coverage of climate and weather information significantly, there are a few issues to discuss, related mostly to finances and resources. 

The media is an important way to get information out to the general public. However, when the finances are limited, reporters cannot physically go and visit communities to discuss weather and climate issues that affect them directly. Even though the radio stations are supposed to provide weather and climate information, they are financially restricted. That raises the question of whether or not climate services meet the criteria non-excludable to qualify as a public good. 

So, what possible solutions are there to this issue? One suggested solution is to form a closer collaboration between civil society organisations and community radio stations in the region. This can provide in-kind support to solve the issue of resources, for example, connected to travelling around to smaller communities in the region. Furthermore, having partnerships with the private sector for them to sponsor climate information has also proven to be a successful model.

On a more structural level, a positive development is the sharing of weather data. In April 2021, the data available on MET Norway’s weather app Yr was approved as a digital public good. What does that entail? The data must be accessible, understandable, and user-friendly. Furthermore, user support must be available to ensure dialogue between developers and end-users. Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, the data and services must be in an understandable language, easy to find, and the content must be relevant to users. The relevant to users point could potentially be improved if local radio reporters were able to travel around in the community to find out what kind of information is most relevant to them. This will help improve the forecasts and climate information that the radio provides to the community. 

As of now, one can argue that climate services cannot be defined as a public good by definition. However, a combination of the publicly available data from MET services, Copernicus, ICPAC etc., together with a collaboration between radio stations, civil society and the private sector might change that, so that climate and weather information is truly available to everyone who needs it in the region.