Consultants and the business of climate services: implications of shifting from public to private science

Abstract

There has been a global trend away from delivering ‘climate information’ towards producing ‘climate services’ for decision-makers. The rationale for this shift is said to be the demand for timely and actionable climate knowledge, whilst the means of its delivery involves a shift from public good to more privatised forms of climate science. This paper identifies important implications of this shift to climate services by examining the role of consultants, drawing on an in-depth study of adaptation consultants in Australia. The role of consultants is instructive, not just because these private sector experts are engaged in climate services, but also because publicly funded climate science agencies are increasingly encouraged to behave as consulting firms do. Four imperatives of knowledge businesses—to be client-focussed, solutions-oriented, resource-efficient and self-replicating—are described. The paper argues that an emphasis on climate services shifts the incentives for climate science away from the public interest towards the ongoing pursuit of profit. There is a subsequent diversion of effort away from publicly accessible and transparent climate information to private knowledge for discrete clients. Climate services also emphasise knowledge for climate solutions as opposed to the politically charged identification of climate risks. The paper concludes with a warning that the trend towards climate services undermines the knowledge required for societies to adequately respond to the scale, speed and severity of climate change. At the heart of this issue is a climate services paradox: how to achieve customisation without exclusion.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Albeit a public good that many have argued does not fairly represent or equally benefit all communities, and embodies its own exclusionary practices.

  2. 2.

    In its more general form, coproduction refers to a process of collaboration between scientists and policymakers to jointly formulate actionable knowledge for decision-making. This can mean collaboration on framing the problem, on investigation methods or on analysis. For discussion of coproduction of climate knowledge, see for example Hegger et al. (2012); Meadow et al. (2015). Within Science and Technology Studies, coproduction has a more specific meaning, and refers to the simultaneous production of scientific knowledge and social order in modern societies (Jasanoff 2004; Lovbrand 2011).

  3. 3.

    It is increasingly common to see consultants characterised as ‘intermediaries’ operating at the science-policy interface (e.g. Meyer and Kearnes 2013; Phelps and Wood 2017) or between ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ in information markets (e.g. Bessy and Chauvin 2013). The term generally refers to something that connects or transports meaning between two or more actors, but there are disciplinary differences in the term’s usage. Within Management and Organisation Studies, for example, intermediaries are typically human actors assumed to intervene in and influence the relationship between two actors, whilst in Science & Technology Studies, the intermediary can be a human actor or a technical artefact (like a report or information technology) and meaning is left untransformed in the intermediation process.

  4. 4.

    The focus of this research was on consultancies advising on core adaptation planning and policy within Australian governments. This excludes, for example, consultancy firms who provide adaptation advice as supplementary to their core expertise on non-climate projects or policy. There is scope to expand this research to consider consulting advisors on sectoral adaptation policy (e.g. adaptation in water policy or agricultural policy).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge the receipt of an Australian Postgraduate Award that supported this research project, and the supervisory guidance from Professor Ruth Fincher and Associate Professor Lauren Rickards. This article has benefitted from generous readings by Dr. Sophie Webber, Dr. Sonia Graham, Dr. Sarah Rogers and Elissa Waters as well as three anonymous reviewers although all errors remain the author’s own.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Putting Climate Services in Contexts: Advancing Multi-disciplinary Understandings” edited by Sophie Webber

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Keele, S. Consultants and the business of climate services: implications of shifting from public to private science. Climatic Change 157, 9–26 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-019-02385-x

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