The story of the climate information provider who provides the best information available, the practitioner who does not know about it or how to use it, and the policymaker who struggles to reconcile the two is far too common
Adaptation means equipping decision-makers with the best possible information in the face of a changing climate. This includes decision-makers at the highest levels — policymakers or government officials, all the way down to those at the most grassroots levels — male and female farmers, pastoralists, and stakeholders who support them.
Across the scale, their decisions are impacted by both long-term climate change trends (such as increasing global temperatures) and shorter-term manifestations of climate variability (such as droughts, floods, and other extreme events).
The ability to access and understand the full range of information available, at multiple timescales, is critical for addressing the different layers of risk. Focusing singularly on long-term climate change is like preparing to climb a mountain looking only through binoculars: it may keep the top of the mountain in sight, but won’t help prepare for the hills and valleys along the way.
Nonetheless, climate information is too often not available or actionable at the most local levels, leaving with the least adaptive capacity with little recourse to actualize adaptive measures.
How do we ensure that the full range of climate services is available and usable at the local level and can support locally-led adaptation?
To answer this question, we need to first acknowledge the deep disconnect that persists amongst adaptation practitioners, climate information providers, and policy makers. The story of the climate information provider who provides the best information available, the practitioner who does not know about it or how to use it, and the policymaker who struggles to reconcile the two is far too common. Climate services, which move beyond the generation of climate information to collaboratively tailor, communicate, and build capacity around its use, have increasingly emerged as the means through which all of these actors can coalesce in their respective roles to ensure climate information is actually accessible, usable, ultimately meaningful to decision-makers.
However, while there are numerous examples of climate services supporting adaptation at different levels, such services often still struggle to reach the last mile and integrate the voices of local communities, especially those of women and underrepresented groups, into the tools and products intended to serve them. Despite a growing focus on co-production, products and services still tend to be developed in consultation with, rather than led by, local stakeholders. The stakeholders targeted by international projects are often intermediaries mandated to work with communities, such as agriculture extension officers that belong to an official government channel, rather than communities themselves. Efforts towards locally-led adaptation tend to center around inclusion rather than leadership. Moreover, these efforts still tend to disproportionately reach men, leading to an imbalance in the recognition of gender-differentiated needs.
Shifting not just the narrative but most importantly the practice to ensure climate services directly or indirectly targeting local communities are truly co-produced with them will require overcoming three main types of challenges: 1) Technical challenges, driven by the lack of awareness and capacity around existing data and data needs; 2) Institutional challenges, evidenced by a lack of transdisciplinary convening mechanisms to foster exchanges and collaboration across diverse categories of actors; and 3) Funding challenges, that often prevent full recognition and participation of those directly impacted by the services being designed.
The lack of awareness of existing data is reflected in the general perception from the user community that “data is missing”, despite constant improvements in the range and the quality of data products developed by national meteorological agencies, such as the quality-controlled ENACTS dataset (launched by BMD and IRI in Bangladesh in 2019) merging station and satellite data to address the challenges associated with the limited number of station data points.
In this virtual age of information where a plethora of data from multiple (often unverified) sources can be found online and where digital tools are booming, too much information can lead to information not being understood or used, if it is not accompanied with capacity building and appropriate translation of data into useful products.
Focusing more efforts and resources on capacity building of local actors on the basics of climate and climate services to improve awareness of existing data, robust understanding of climate risk and uncertainty, ability to identify and communicate information needs, and capacity to access and integrate data into decisions is a critical first step to address technical challenges.
Another common challenge is that climate services providers and users do not always understand each others’ needs, because it falls outside of their defined mandate and area of expertise. Decision-makers may struggle to identify or voice the type of information they need because they lack understanding of existing climate data and its characteristics, while climate scientists may not be able to communicate information in a way that is useable by decision makers because of a limited understanding of the daily decisions made on the ground, and particularly the diversity of decisions across gender, groups and sectors.
While the climate services framework emphasizes co-production and seeks to address this information asymmetry between producers and users of climate information, it cannot be assumed that such co-productive interactions will naturally occur. The climate adaptation community therefore needs to be intentional about developing institutional mechanisms setting up the spaces, resources, and enabling environments that allow these groups to interact, exchange and collaborate at different levels, as the local relevance of climate services depends on it. Furthermore, it must ensure representativity reflecting important differences within targeted user groups, including and especially gender, and acknowledge how such differences come to bear on the exploitation and use of climate information.
In an exponentially more virtual world, digital tools help improve the dissemination of information from providers to users, making climate services more widely available. However, the relevance of the information distributed still remains dependent on the level of understanding of the needs of the end-users, who are still often not truly part of the design, development or implementation processes.
The value of co-production has increasingly gained recognition, including by donors, unfortunately the architecture of many competitive grants and some of the financial requirements of international organizations often limit the potential for true co-production or locally-led adaptation at its most local level. A funding model covering an international organization to offer fully funded services to solve a local problem, without funding available for local actors, as imposed by many grants, implies that their involvement in the development of those solutions will either be unfunded, or absent.
Without a recognition of (i) the necessary involvement of local partners in all phases of the design of a solution intended to them, and (ii) the necessary funding of that involvement, the project may strive at collecting generous inputs, but the level of local leadership is bound to be limited. Similarly, consortiums including local partners often rely on international organizations to lead a grant application to increase chances of success. It is not uncommon that financial requirements impose on the leading organization to request the largest portion of the funds, leaving the smallest portion to be spent in the country and split between local partners.
Such funding structures need to evolve to equally recognize and fund the climate expertise and information production mandate of local meteorological agencies, the field expertise of intended users of the services (communities themselves and organizations or intermediaries working with them), the policy and operationalization expertise of relevant government representatives, and the technical and capacity building expertise of international organizations.
The importance of climate services to support adaptation and take full advantage of the range of existing climate information has been demonstrated around the world, including in several sessions of the last Gobeshona conference illustrating examples in Bangladesh, East Africa and Latin America. To be sustainable, climate services must be embedded in official government channels and co-produced with the relevant mandated country organizations. As a result, efforts to include local partners in the development of climate services tend to focus on national level partners and intermediaries working with communities, and projects rely on those intermediaries to convey local needs to the project team and communicate information to farmers.
There is an opportunity for the climate services community and the locally-led adaptation community to join forces to improve the inclusion of local institutions and communities into climate services design and implementation decisions, with a particular focus on improving women participation, recognizing that whether and how women are included has direct implications on the reach of the services and the perpetuation of inequities that limit adaptation.
Funding mechanisms exist in all shapes and forms, yet some have proven more challenging to support LLA and adequately fund local partners than others, and the experience gained from those may support joint advocacy efforts to reshape funding for LLA. Engaging locally at scale is beyond the scope of many development projects due to resources needed, but initial pilots demonstrating proof of concept along the value chain and across the 4 pillars of climate services can then be scaled up in partnership with national entities with the capacity and mandate to implement activities broadly at the local-scale nationally.
Initiatives such as such as the Bangladesh Academy for Climate Services, the Mesas Tecnicas Agroclimaticas in Latin America, the Groupes Techniques de Travail in West Africa or the National Framework for Climate services already aim at bringing together users and providers of climate information. A collective effort to assess and share the lessons learned from those initiatives and the challenges and opportunities they faced to reach and include local institutions and communities would provide useful ground to explore the improvement and scaling of institutional mechanisms that can effectively support sustainable climate services that truly support locally led adaptation.
Mélody Braun is a Senior Staff Associate at the International Research Institute(IRI) for Climate and Society. She is the Bangladesh country lead for the Columbia University/IRI Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today for Tomorrow (ACToday).
Ashley Curtis is the training focal point for IRI and Bangladesh country manager for the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today for Tomorrow (ACToday) project.
Carmen González Romero is the country manager for the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) team in the Columbia World Project ACToday,
Amanda Grossi works as ACToday Country Manager for Ethiopia and Senegal. She also contributes to the management and scale-up of the Enhancing National Climate Services (ENACTS) initiative led by IRI.