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How does climate data become wisdom in decision making?

by Kate Lonsdale

The need for specific technical information

It was stressed that access to good information was key to policy development on adaptation within organisations. 

'Access to high-quality scientific information in a format useful to practitioners is vital if we, as a company, are to stay 'ahead of the game'

Similarly, conflicting advice from a variety of sources was said to act as a major barrier to changes in practice. Often the information that interviewees felt they needed for decision making purposes but which was unavailable was specific technical information.  They were convinced about the need to consider adaptation but felt stalled by the dearth of tailored information available.

'We need a better understanding of how buildings actually perform in the 'real world', as in many cases, there are significant differences between theory and practice. There is a push for increased use of natural ventilation in buildings. However, in the case of schools for instance, this can cause significant problems associated with acoustics.  There is a need for monitoring and ideas for how to judge 'best practice' if the results of previous practice are unknown'.

Several commented on the need for access to data and evidence-based case examples to provide confidence for decision makers.  Although London was badly affected by the heat wave of 2003, one interviewee believes it was not just the high temperatures that were the only cause but that other factors had a part to play as London did not have as high temperatures as other areas, but had higher losses.

There is an obvious need for improved 'evidence-based' responses - in London's case this would require more weather stations across the conurbation, time series data being more easily available from satellite sources, and more immediate data on potentially climate-related deaths (currently such information can take a year to be published and reach the public realm).

The spatial component of vulnerability to heat waves is more significant, compared to other extreme events such as floods, and patterns can be diffuse and be affected by many complicated variables, therefore there is a pressing need to identify those who are most vulnerable to heat stress.

Another interviewee commented:

The health dimension could potentially be a major driver of adaptation activity, however due to the newness of the agenda there is an obvious need to build knowledge and ensure responses are evidence-based.



Information overload

A number of interviewees made the point that it was not a lack of data that was the problem but, in fact too much data that was difficult to filter without expert guidance.

Policymakers have access to various types of data/information to support decision-making, eg data and analysis from research institutions, context-specific climate models, EU-funded projects sharing info on best practises (eg ADAM).

A number of respondents spoke of a sense of being overwhelmed by this information.

'there are too many documents which often confuse rather than help'. 

'Local Authorities don't want more guidance but need to know how to use climate change information in the 'real world'.'

There was also the concern that there is not much best practice to draw on.  Practical information on, for example, what are the good 'hooks' to use for making a case for adaptation in an organisation?'  and 'how can learning be embedded effectively?' are needed.

In the Berlin learning example interviewees talked about an increasing volume of data and information, generated and disseminated by a multitude of formal and informal sources.  This serves to increase awareness and knowledge about the risks posed by climate change and the urgent need for adaptation measures, and to support decision-making and concrete action in that direction. However, much of the scientific information being generated is felt to be inaccessible and incomprehensible and unhelpful to policy makers, professionals and the public.  It requires translation into non scientific language and targeted to each audience and packaged with lay knowledge and experience. It also tends to be focussed at a national rather than local or regional level.   


Characteristics of usable information and guidance

 'Guidance needs to be made more relevant to end users and communicated in a way that makes sense - the business case for example.'

This message is conceptually simple but not necessarily commonly applied.  Start where people are, and understand their current drivers and constraints as they see it.  Guidance that tells them where they 'should' be will not be considered as helpful if no clear link can be made to how things exist now and how the to bridge 'how things should be' with 'how things are now'.

Several respondents mentioned how important it was that written information should be designed with the end user in mind. One interviewee suggested that when preparing written material for a specific group (urban planners were the example given) those responsible should spend time shadowing an 'end user' in order to get a better appreciation of the kind of decisions that are being made and the constraints of time, resources etc. that are experienced in the real world. 

A critical role of the London Climate Change Partnership is getting the adaptation message across to stakeholders tailored in a way that is suitable for the intended audience. The question of 'who' is seen as particularly important (who is affected, who is involved in the process of adaptation, and who is responsible for delivery of measures etc). In their experience a good understanding of 'actors' is vital in facilitating a more effective adaptation process.  For example, the development checklist published by the London Climate Change Partnership in 2005 (LCCP, 2005) and has been praised by a couple of the interviewees we spoke to for its ease of use and adaptability to different contexts.

One of the key adaptation issues for many organisations is dealing with the complexity of understanding and responding to climate change information. In many instances, there is often contradictory evidence facing decision-makers and that there was a pressing need for trustworthy, authoritative guidance that can explain what the limits of the science is and suggest ways to make robust decisions given this uncertainty.  The ASCCUE project was highlighted as a good example of how scientific information could be provided in a format that was useful for decision-makers.


Shift from using historical data:

Traditionally decision making has been retrospective and now needs to be proactive. 

Financial learning example

Various interviewees brought out concerns about basing decisions on historical climate data.  Commonly used by industry are the 'test reference year' (locality specific and based on historical data) and the 'design year' (based on an average derived over a longer time period), however both of these different approaches have significant limitations in that they don't take future predictions of climate into account.


This is likely to be critically important for London's development, especially those developers that cater for the vulnerable amongst the population (schools, hospitals etc). Overheating criteria need to be more explicitly considered in practical applications, for instance the use of scenarios in CIBSE guidance (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers), however it is clear that adapting existing buildings may be more problematic. Some buildings, for example schools, are being built to average years between 1980 - 1990 and are not suitable even for today's climate, let along a future hotter climate.'


'A significant problem is that many buildings are still being designed to guidance which is based on the climate of the 1970s with little consideration of future conditions. Indeed, the over-use of glass in public buildings may be problematic in the future (the implications for schools were mentioned in this regard). Emphasis is being placed on insulation and improving energy efficiency in buildings for winter, however little provision is being made for keeping houses cool in summer in the UK.'

quotes from 2 separate interviews for the UK urban learning example

Similarly, the calculation of insurance premiums have traditionally been based on historical data which has potentially serious consequences for the industry. However, climate change considerations are now, to some extent, being included in UK insurance schemes with companies, basing premium levels according to the actual address of private and commercial properties by using the indicative flood risk maps produced by the Environment Agency, refined with other data on terrain elevation and presence of flood defences to map flood risk.


The need for other kinds of knowledge

The driver for the weADAPT platform, discussed in the weADAPT learning example, was the recognition, that although there is now quite a lot of data available about climate change, and fairly sophisticated understanding about likely impacts, there is still relatively little adaptation action.  Although awareness of the threat of climate change is well developed there is still confusion, or lack of confidence, about how to translate this information into usable knowledge to support decision making in a specific context.  Thus, the platform, as well as providing data and tools, also encourages people in a position to take action on adaptation to share their concerns, experiences, successes and failures and queries and thus build a space for 'knowledge of action'.  weADAPT recognises that usable information is not limited to scientific information and encourages contributions from practitioners with other forms of information, experience and knowledge.  weADAPT recognises the importance of communicating information in different ways (visually through maps, videos, diagrams, also accounts of experience) and not just academic explanations. 

With weADAPT using platforms like Google Earth as an entry point for interrogating the database, information will be available in a new format that will encourage new connections between the information and enabling new enquiries to emerge.  Once information is visible, widely known, and easy to understand it becomes possible to see the gaps in information and service delivery and enable people to feel empowered to propose specific solutions.


Learning from theory

What is the link between data, information, knowledge and wisdom?

In climate change adaptation it is often not information that is missing but knowledge.  Information is present but 'overload' is a problem.  Ways to filter what is available in order to make it usable and to facilitate the transfer of information into knowledge is what is required.  This could be through boundary organisations or 'infomediaries' who can translate the raw data and make it accessible to different groups e.g. UK Climate Impacts Programme.  These organisations can also provide safe spaces to explore the implications of the information for a given context, sharing experiences with other end users and to put it into a contextual frame work in order to answer the question 'what does this information mean for me in my situation?'.   In order to really learn the implications of new information, spaces to experiment are needed where you can try something out and then standing back to reflect on what the impact and implications of that intervention were.

We often confuse the meanings of the words 'data', 'information' and 'knowledge'.  Data has no meaning and information is organised or interpreted data (Drucker, 2001) i.e. information is the result of some human intervention in the organisation of raw data to create an end product for a particular purpose that is explicit and ready to be transferred to others (Pasteur, 2004).  Knowledge is created by accumulating information.  The transformation of information to knowledge implies the aggregation of different pieces of information, structuring and the filtering out parts that seem irrelevant.  Knowledge is thus a product of a mix of experiences, values, contextual information, and intuition and provides a framework with which to evaluate and incorporate new experiences and new information (Davenport and Prusak, 1997).  It is this knowledge that gives people their capacity for effective action. 


Figure 5: Data to wisdom

Clark D. (2004)

A significant amount of knowledge exists in tacit form (Polanyi, 1983).  Tacit knowledge is highly personal and thus difficult to formalise.   As it is dependent on the experience, values and emotions of an individual it is difficult to share with others.  Some can be made explicit through words, numbers, formulae or principles etc. but we always know more than we can verbalise and can verbalise more than we can write down (Snowden, 2002). 

Figure 4   The knowledge continuum


Others see knowledge as simultaneously both a 'thing' that can be managed and 'flow' or a 'process of relating' (Snowden, 2005 Stacey, 2001).  ) i.e. it is not just the content of the learning but also the context and the quality of the relationships through which it flows.  This way of thinking about knowledge is not necessarily superior to 'knowledge management' but it is distinct as it offers an alternative perspective on how we often present learning taking place.  Is it through clear databases and procedures or through more informal (and intangible) processes of human interactions?  In this way of thinking, it is possible to have insights about a subject in a reductionist way (e.g. I understand the structure of this organisation from this organogram diagram) and also bring in learning from theories of complexity and chaos (e.g. by encouraging voluntary action learning groups we can enquire into the way in which this organisation is operating).  

Accumulation of knowledge results in learning which, it is hoped,  improves efficiency and, it is suggested, it is possible to achieve a further level of understanding that answers the 'why?' questions through deeper enquiry, analysis and diagnosis (Ackoff).  Wisdom, it is hoped, emerges as a result this process, although it is not inevitable.  Wisdom involves the development of judgement (what knowledge to bring into consideration in a particular decision and what to ignore) and evaluation (how to prioritise different aspects) and as it is more greatly influenced by values, ethics and aesthetics, morality etc. it brings in a longer term view.  Mechanistic systems of knowledge management are useful for capturing and sharing information and knowledge but to support the development of understanding and wisdom other factors are required.  For example, reflection on lived experience, opportunities for feedback on what you are seeing and what you have worked hard not to see (your blind spots) and the differences between your expectations of a situation and reality (described as 'espoused theory' and 'theory in practice' by Agyris and Schon).

How scientific information is transformed into knowledge in the context of policy makers was explored by Haas in his paper on 'When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process'.  The paper suggests that important criteria for usability of scientific information for policy makers (Haas, 2004) are:

  • Legitimacy: has the potential to reduce bias and this is accepted by the external community
  • Credibility: participants believe it to be true
  • Effective: capable of shaping an agenda, and improving the situation
  • Adequate: includes all the relevant facts, capable of mobilising political support for an agreement, generates solutions that can be implemented; and generates solutions that can help solve problems
  • Salience: timely and usable in policy processes
  • Value: contributes to policy, understanding

He also notes that in the policy area there is a possibility for culling (or 'editing') information in order to make a particular case.   People with access to information in this way can exert considerable power through the exclusion of information that challenges status quo or social norms or that is in some way manipulated in order to tell a particular story.  Thus questions of transparency and accountability are important.

There is a question about who information should be usable for.  There may be a tension between making the information accessible in a format that is easily comprehended by busy people and a fear from those who produced it that, in doing this, it might be over simplified or offered in way that implies (spurious) accuracy.

How much does more data really sway our judgments and our perceptions of risk?  We like to believe that our judgements are purely rational and that we make decisions based on weighing up the evidence in each case.   But the source of any information we use is very important in how we value it and how much we let it influence us.   To assume that providing 'better' information will result in better decision making is overly simplistic. It is important to understand the good reasons why people make apparently 'illogical' decisions. 

To conclude this section on theory, data and information on climate change are not in short supply but understanding what it means for a particular situation or context is often missing.  The lag in getting action on adaptation is thus not necessarily due to lack of information but due to a lack of grounded conversations that enable the development of understanding of the implications of the climate information, including conversations on how weather variables, particularly when severe, affects our lives now and how trends suggested in climate projections may exacerbate these effects.



Ackoff, R.L. (1996) On Learning and Systems that facilitate it, Center for Quality of Management Journal Vol. 5, No.2

Argyris, C., & Schon, D.  (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective.  Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley

Clark, D. (2004) (accessed May 2009)

Davenport, T.H and Prusak, L. (1997), Working Knowledge: how organisations manage what they know, Harvard Business Press.

Drucker, P. (1991), Post-capitalist Society, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Haas, P.M. (2004) 'When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process'  Journal of European Public Policy, Volume 11, No. 4, April 2004.

London Climate Change Partnership (LCCP), publications accessible at their website:

Pasteur, K (2004) Learning for Development: A Literature Review, Institute of Development Studies

Polanyi, M. (1983). The Tacit Dimension, Reprint Ed., Peter Smith, Gloucester, MA. (Original Ed.: 1966, New York, Doubleday)

Snowden, D.J. (2005), Multi-ontology sense making: a new simplicity in decision making, Management Today, Yearbook 2005, Vol 20, ed Havenga, R.

Stacey, R. (2001) Complex Responsive Processes in Organisations, Routledge


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