The Ethics of Climate Services


Dr Rob Lawlor (Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre), Dr Marta Bruno Soares (School of Earth and Environment and UK Met Office): Professor Suraje Dessai (School of Earth and Environment)

Project description

In recent years, a lot has been written about the ethical issues relating to climate change. To date, however, there has been little discussion of the ethical issues relating to climate services (for an exception see Adams, Eitland et al. 2015). The aim of this scholarship is to support a PhD researcher to develop a thorough and interdisciplinary exploration of the ethical issues relating to this emerging area.

Climate services involve the generation, provision, and contextualization of information and knowledge derived from climate research for decision making at all levels of society (Vaughan and Dessai, 2014). For example, public service providers, such as the UK Met Office, provide valuable information as a public service, while private consultancy firms provide clients with information in a commercial context. The UK Met Office, the University of Leeds and other partners recently developed a climate service for land management decisions in Southwest UK (Bruno Soares, 2017; Falloon et al. 2018).

These services can be extremely valuable. The understanding of the climate, and the ability to make predictions and to model scenarios, can allow businesses to make informed decisions to increase productivity, and can allow communities to adapt to new challenges, to plan for droughts, etc. Ultimately, climate services have the potential not only to benefit businesses and clients, but also have the potential to minimise risk (and ultimately save lives) and to improve people’s quality of life, as individuals and communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. For example, the Forecast-based Financing (FbF) programme aims “to anticipate disasters, prevent their impact, if possible, and reduce human suffering and losses.”

The aim of this PhD project will be to further develop an understanding of the ethical issues relating to climate services, developing in depth ethical understanding of the full range of ethical considerations in several contexts. For example, looking at the bigger picture, there are issues of distributive justice and the political infrastructure: given the importance of climate services (and the potential to contribute to inequality if the services are only available to those who can afford them) is it justifiable to leave the provision of climate services to the private sector, or do governments have an obligation to provide climate services as a public service (and to what extent)? Considering international justice, should wealthier nations help to provide climate services to developing nations? Ultimately though, regardless of whether governments do provide climate services as a public service, some climate services are likely to be offered commercially, in particular as business-to-business-services. In this context, there are a number of ethical issues to consider.

As such, this PhD can relate to a range of ethical questions and topics, including:

  • Should providers of climate services be considered professionals (in the sense in which medics, lawyers and engineers are professionals, with duties to the public good)?
  • Integrity, transparency and conflicts of interest. Communication: how do you convey complex information to a non-expert audience without confusing them or misleading them?
  • What is the best way to communicate issues relating to risk and uncertainty?
  • Moral duty to act in the public interest, particularly in relation to the interests of those who cannot afford the services, and therefore would not be potential customers if businesses are only interested in selling a service for profit?
  • Regulation: to what extent – and how – should climate services be regulated?
  • If the provision of climate services to some and not others will contribute significantly to inequality (between those who can afford it and those who cannot) should efforts be made to limit the inequalities that would result? For example: Should climate services be provided only by the state? Should there at least be a minimal provision of climate services?
  • Should some essential climate services (for example those most crucial to people’s well-being, health and safety, or their livelihoods) be treated more like the public services, rather than being seen as appropriate areas of business?

Please note that, because of the interdisciplinary nature of this project, candidates with different expertise (e.g. philosophical ethics, climate change) are invited to apply. This PhD will involve supervisors from both the ethics centre (IDEA) and Sustainability Research Institute (SRI). As such, we have the resources to support you in one of the areas if you have expertise in one but not the other.


  • Adams, P., E. Eitland, B. Hewitson, C. Vaughan, R. Wilby and S. Zebiak (2015). Toward an ethical framework for climate services: A White Paper of the Climate Services Partnership Working Group on Climate Services Ethics.
  • Bruno Soares, M. (2017). “Assessing the usability and potential value of seasonal climate forecasts in land management decisions in the southwest UK: challenges and reflections.” Adv. Sci. Res. 14: 175-180.
  • Falloon, P., M. B. Soares, R. Manzanas, D. San-Martin, F. Liggins, I. Taylor, R. Kahana, J. Wilding, C. Jones, R. Comer, E. de Vreede, W. Som de Cerff, C. Buontempo, A. Brookshaw, S. Stanley, R. Middleham, D. Pittams, E. Lawrence, E. Bate, H. Peter, K. Uzell and M. Richards (2018). “The land management tool: Developing a climate service in Southwest UK.” Climate Services 9: 86-100.
  • Skelton, M., J. J. Porter, S. Dessai, D. N. Bresch and R. Knutti (2017). “The social and scientific values that shape national climate scenarios: a comparison of the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK.” Regional Environmental Change 17(8): 2325-2338.
  • Vaughan, C. and S. Dessai (2014). “Climate services for society: origins, institutional arrangements, and design elements for an evaluation framework.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5(5): 587-603.
  • Webber, S. (2017). “Circulating climate services: Commercializing science for climate change adaptation in Pacific Islands.” Geoforum 85: 82-91.

Entry requirements

  • Applicants must hold at least a good first degree in a discipline relevant to the project (e.g., environmental social science or philosophy).
  • It is desirable that applicants have a relevant Master’s level qualification (e.g., in environmental social science or philosophy).
  • It is desirable that applicants can demonstrate a clear aptitude for the study of applied ethics – though this needn’t be in the form a qualification in ethics or philosophy.
  • It is desirable that applicants can demonstrate an interest in, and knowledge of, a wide range of disciplines. (Though, again, this needn’t be in the form of formal qualifications.)
  • Applicants whose first language is not English must meet the English Language requirements. IELTS: 6.5 overall with not less than 6.0 in any individual skill.

How to apply

We are open to a range of proposals in the area of ethics and climate services, but proposals should include elements that would draw on the expertise of both the SRI and the IDEA centre, preferably in a way that draws different disciplines together, and makes use of the different areas of expertise.

The candidate should submit their own proposals (up to 1,000 words), explaining how the project would draw on the expertise and different disciplines of the two host centres.

There is no requirement to have a precisely even split of supervisions with the IDEA centre and the SRI. However, the project should allow for a significant contribution from each centre.

Informal enquiries about PhD proposals may be made to Dr Rob Lawlor from IDEA, email and Professor Suraje Dessai from SRI, email

Additional information

Applicants should provide with their application:

  • a 1,000 word PhD proposal;
  • a sample of written work; and,
  • a 300 word statement setting out the ways in which they see themselves contributing to the life and broader success of the Priestley International Centre for Climate, IDEA centre and the SRI.
  • The award is conditional on successful application for admission to study for a PhD in SRI.