The Danger of Privatizing Climate Data

by Elsa Rollier

Climate change has become a daily topic of discussion. Whether it is to address a new climate catastrophe, new alarming scientific reports, or to debate its causes and solutions, climate change is constantly being covered in the media, and one could therefore think that access to climate information and data is rather easy. In other words, climate data could be regarded as some kind of public good, accessible to anyone willing to do their research. While it is true that a huge amount of information about climate change is public and easily accessible, climate data is also undergoing a process of privatization. This situation has given rise to debates about the potential benefits or dangers of this process concerning climate change assessment, adaptation and mitigation. In other words: how dangerous is the privatization of climate data?

As climate scientist Justin S. Mankin points out in a recent article, climate science and information are facing a process of “commodification” (Mankin, 2024). Indeed, the business of “climate services” or “climate analytics”- i.e. the data, analyses and models (such as weather forecasts, heat warnings or flood alerts) needed to comprehend and react to climate issues – is experiencing a significant growth, leading a to lot of capital being invested in that field (Mankin, 2024; Teirstein, 2023). For instance, the market of climate risk analytics is expected to experience a growth of “more than $4 billion globally by 2027” (Mankin, 2024). Indeed, the demand for climate data by investors or companies wishing to learn how and to what extent climate change will affect them financially is effectively expanding, creating massive potential for profits that climate services companies clearly sense (Dembecki, 2019). The commodification of climate science has therefore created a “market where climate data and risk models are treated as products to be bought and sold “ (Verhulst, 2024). This shift has deeply changed our way of creating and using science, for climate services providers to focus on specific local data customized for particular actors, instead of focusing on more national or global impacts of climate risks (Dembecki, 2019).

Some private actors defend this profit-oriented approach by arguing that having a more narrow and local risk assessment is an effective way for cities, companies and states to be better prepared for climate risks (Dembecki, 2019). For instance, climate services company Jupiter executive Rich Sorkin argues that companies like his are innovative, whereas government and academic institutions can be too cautious: “We’re years ahead of what the public sector is doing” (Dembecki, 2019). For him, the competition of companies in the private sector for profit can actually lead to the adoption of new technologies (Dembecki, 2019). Also, some of these private actors nuance the idea that the growth of the climate services market replaces traditional academic research (Dembecki, 2019). However, as Mankin points out, numerous members of the scientific community choose to work in high-revenue consulting or start-up jobs, instead of national labs or academic jobs; seen as too “slow-moving” regarding the acceleration of climate change and the urgency of the issue (Mankin, 2024).

In addition, some private actors also point out that public research and data about climate change, as well as the multiple warnings climate scientists have issued, have not triggered the global action necessary to avoid climate dangers (Dembecki, 2019). Another argument advanced by some private actors is that if private investors and corporations learn about the specific local climate risks and dangers they face that could have negative financial consequences for them; they will be incentivized not only to protect their individual goods, but also to push for larger scale climate solutions (Dembecki, 2019). As CEO of climate services company Four Twenty Seven Emilie Mazzacurati argues: “We need both global policy action, and we need corporations to prepare for specific impacts, […] The realization of how complex [and costly] those impacts are … should help motivate greater policy engagement.” (Dembecki, 2019). Indeed, some argue that: “When you change the narrative and you start discussing the impact that climate change will have on them rather than how evil they are … then you have a completely different conversation,”, which is “likely to trigger action” (Dembecki, 2019). But how much action does this dynamic actually trigger? Probably not as much as these actors would like. To illustrate this, Dembecki takes the example of the oil company Royal Dutch Shell, which in 2017, after learning about the negative financial consequences a shift towards lower-carbon energy could have on their business, chose to divest $7.25 billion from Canada’s oil sands. However, this action did not stop the company from spending $53 billion to buy fossil fuel company BG Group, while still making most of its profit through the fossil fuel industry (Dembecki, 2019).

Therefore, it is wise to question who actually gains from the development of this private climate services market, and whether the self-interest of powerful private actors actually aligns with society’s general interest. As Svenja Keele, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, affirms: “We need to be alert to the possibility that [climate] service delivery models — couched in the language of entrepreneurialism, efficiency, utility, customization, and flexibilization — merely entrench the status quo … rather than support transformational and equitable responses to climate change” (Dembecki, 2019). This reality is even acknowledged by private actors such as Sorkin: “We don’t really see underdeveloped communities or countries as profit generators for us”, admitting that the approach of the private sector isn’t likely to help most vulnerable communities (Dembecki, 2019). Accordingly, the risk of privatizing climate data is to render information about climate risks inaccessible to disadvantaged communities – who are also the most affected by climate change (Mankin, 2024). Indeed, in this situation, only people who have the resources to pay for expensive private risk analyses and assessment will have access to the necessary information to prepare themselves, or to navigate through the complex public data already available (Mankin, 2024). On the other hand, people who do not have the money to afford such analyses will remain exposed to climate risks without having the right tools to prepare for them (Mankin, 2024). This could indeed have very serious consequences, as Mankin illustrates through the example of “AccuWeather”, a weather data company offering public and free weather forecasts, as well as premium “customized” forecasts for clients paying a fee (Mankin, 2024). One of the company’s clients, a railroad company called “Union Pacific”, used AccuWeather’s customized service and was warned of an approaching tornado, which it was, therefore, able to avoid (Mankin, 2024). However, that same tornado caused the death of a dozen people in a town that did not pay for AccuWeather’s customized data and did not, therefore, have access to the proper information to prepare themselves for this climate danger (Mankin, 2024). In addition, another risk of depending on the private sector to access climate data is that information coming from private companies does not face the same “scrutiny” as public science, which could lead to a lack of transparency concerning the efficacy and risks of their models (Mankin, 2024).

The importance of having access to climate data led Mankin to evoke the concept of a “right to science” (Mankin, 2024). Indeed, as he points out, the UN Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which was adopted by almost 200 countries, aims to strengthen “the global response to climate change by increasing the ability of all to adapt and build resilience, and reduce vulnerability.”(Mankin, 2024). This includes the right to access the information necessary to adapt to climate change, which could be considered a fundamental right for humanity (Mankin, 2024). Providing such access would demand various efforts from private and public actors. Some, like Verhulst, introduced the concept of “data collaboratives”, where private and public actors create innovative partnerships in order to make data more accessible to serve public interest goals (Verhulst, 2024). Another solution to provide publicly available climate information could be websites where people would “quickly access a clear climate risk assessment for where they live based on validated, transparent and reproducible science without entering their credit card information to pay for it” (Mankin 2024). Universities could also “develop and make available customized information on local climate threats and how to best manage them” while building connections with their communities (Mankin 2024). In other words “The goal should be to create an ecosystem where data is not just a commodity to be traded but a resource to empower communities and science and foster a more informed, equitable world” (Verhulst, 2024).

The private sector will obviously very likely continue to produce data and services relating to climate. But it is important that it is not the only or the primary actor to do so. Climate data serves multiple purposes and its accessibility is essential for communities to be able to assess their exposure to climate risks, prepare for and manage it. Providing public access to understandable climate risk data and assessments to everyone regardless of resources is therefore necessary. As Mankin points out: “Global warming is a collective tragedy, and so its solutions, especially around information for adapting to the risks it portends, must be a public good” (Mankin, 2024).

Works Cited

Mankin, J. S. (2024, January 20). The people have a right to climate data. The New York Times.

Hardoon, D. (n.d.). To leave no one behind, we must use data to address climate inequalities. Development Initiatives.

Teirstein, Z. (2023, November 27). Climate data saves lives. most countries can’t access it. Canada’s National Observer. t-access-it

Verhulst, S. G. (2024, January 23). Are we entering a “Data winter”? Medium.

Dembicki, G. (2019, September 30). Climate data is being privatized. will the public lose out?. Undark Magazine.

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