By Robert Naylor, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester
In the summer of 2019, when the idea of doing a PhD during a global pandemic was furthest from my mind, I had the pleasure of attending the Meteorological Technology World Expo in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a dynamic, somewhat chaotic event that reflected a rapidly growing market for weather products. There were companies that manufactured weather balloons, rain gauges, anemometers, aluminium masts, instrument shelters, radars, lidars, and all other kinds of gadgets. Other companies sold services, offering solutions in, for example, instrument installation, environmental measuring, data management, and calibration. Some simply sold information, often drawing from their existing monitoring networks; ‘only well-informed decision makers can face these challenges [climate change, environmental protection, conscious management of natural resources] and form adequate strategies to overcome them’ claimed one advertisement.[i] With around 150 companies attending in its eighth year, the expo was a showcase of a relatively young industry that was on the up.
However, there were growing pains, reflected by frustrations that were expressed to an inconsequential PhD student wearing an ill-fitting suit. Sales representatives from a well-established brand complained bitterly about sharing a venue with, in their words, a ‘nutcase’ entrepreneur who had somehow lucked out on a UN contract. An engineer from another company took me aside and launched a tirade against a Chinese competitor whom he claimed had stolen his technology – it must be said, the two featureless boxes did look very similar from the outside. Elsewhere, the contrasts were stark. Vaisala, a company with a market capitalization of over a billion dollars, took up the same page space in the showguide as family firms run from sheds. I had expected to feel completely out of my depth at the conference – I was astonished to find that half the stallholders felt the same, feeling the wrath of more established players for cramping their style.
At around lunchtime on the first day, the chaos on the expo floor began to find direction, as company representatives began moving towards a hall at the side of the venue. Swept along, I followed, somehow finding a seat. In the hall, the chaos had been replaced by a scene of perfect order. We looked upon a square of seated delegates with little country tags, speaking with rehearsed, grandiose voices in the way that only United Nations delegates can. This was a side-event of the 18th Session of the World Meteorological Organization Congress on the topic ‘public-private-academic sectors engagement’.[ii] The content of the meeting was unimportant (one delegate spent his time highlighting his close personal relationship with his country’s somewhat despotic head of state). What was significant was the fact that the meeting was happening at all – the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had never before so publicly embraced the private sector.
It was no accident that the expo had taken place at the same time of the WMO congressional session. Graham Johnson, the managing director of the expo, highlighted how ‘the co-timing took a great deal of communication and a willingness to compromise on both sides, but I think it’s an excellent example of how the public and private sectors are very much starting to join forces.’[iii] This was reflected by conversations I had with high level members of the WMO and industry. The future of the ‘weather enterprise’, so they said, was a closer integration of its three main components – the public, private, and academic sectors. Only by doing this could the weather enterprise face the challenges of the future such as climate change. This reflects the published views of Alan Thorpe, the former Director-General of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, and David Rogers of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery of the World Bank, who claim that the reduction in public funds for meteorology must be partly compensated for and remedied through closer integration with the private sector.[iv] For the dominant group within the World Meteorological Organization in 2019, private markets were an important part of the solution to challenges such as climate change.
However, when I sat down with the stallholders and asked them who their clients were, this façade quickly came crashing down. One bored-looking young man was absolutely delighted to have someone to talk to. He excitedly showed me an online tool for monitoring the UK’s electricity generation, emphasising the large contribution of offshore wind. This excitement was echoed in his company’s advertising material that highlighted the instruments that they supplied to offshore windfarms – making them very much part of the weather enterprise future. Upon further interrogation, however, the man admitted that ninety percent of the business’s revenue came from the oil and gas industry. Perhaps the weather enterprise is not as clean as its promoters hope.
I felt like I should challenge some of the views being put to me, much to the annoyance of some. I asked a senior WMO figure why climate change formed such a large part of the expo’s message, when so much of the damage done by adverse atmospheric events resulted from unplanned development in countries that could not afford the services on display.[v] ‘You’re asking the right questions!’ he laughed, clapping me on the shoulder before walking away. I suddenly got a strange feeling that I may have outstayed my welcome.
There is no doubt that good-quality weather forecasts save lives, giving people precious time to prepare for disasters. However, there is a lack of critical analyses on the deeply skewed nature of private weather information that can only be accessed by those with the deepest pockets. Does the ‘weather enterprise’ mean higher-quality weather information for all, or does it simply mean publicly funded meteorological research being bent towards corporate interests? There is an opportunity for historians of meteorology to make important contributions to this debate.
My ongoing PhD concerns the use of atmospheric information in the UK utilities industries over the past century, and the story has made me ever more uneasy about my experience in 2019. Atmospheric information is often used by corporations to optimise supply systems – there is no point supplying copious amounts of ice cream to retailers if the temperature drops below freezing. What this means in practice is that atmospheric information contributes towards a wider corporate drive to reduce redundancy and storage in supply systems in the name of profit – think about how Amazon warehouses are increasingly dynamic spaces. In turn, this means that when an unexpected external event occurs (as many have argued will become more common under climate change), there is less redundancy in supply systems to take the strain.[vi] As a concrete example, climate information was carefully used in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to minimise the storage built into the UK gas National Transmission System.[vii] Such storage would have cushioned the price-rises that UK consumers are currently facing.[viii]
In conclusion, what matters is not just the quality or quantity of atmospheric information in tackling issues like climate change, but how the information is used. This is what is often missing from current high-level discussions that silo the meteorological from the sociological, and markets from people. Historians of meteorology have an important role to play in this debate.
My PhD is funded by an Economic and Social Research Council CASE fellowship partnered with the Royal Meteorological Society. NWSSDTP Grant Number ES/P000665/1.
Almeida, Isis. “U.K.’s Lack of Gas Plan Leaves Country at Mercy of Global Market.” Financial Post, September 21, 2021, sec. FP Energy.
Lyness, F. K. “Consistent Forecasting of Severe Winter Gas Demand.” The Journal of the Operational Research Society 32, no. 5 (1981): 347–59.
“Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide.” UKi Media & Events, 2019.
Mohleji, Shalini, and Roger Pielke. “Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008.” Natural Hazards Review 15, no. 4 (November 2014).
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Climate-Resilient Supply Chains: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief. Edited by John Ben Soileau, Steven Stichter, and Joe Alper. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2022.
Rogers, David P., Vladimir V. Tsirkunov, Haleh Kootval, Alice Soares, Daniel Kull, Anna-Maria Bogdanova, and Makoto Suwa. Weathering the Change. World Bank, Washington, DC, 2019.
Thorpe, Alan, and David Rogers. “The Future of the Global Weather Enterprise: Opportunities and Risks.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99, no. 10 (October 1, 2018): 2003–8.
[i] “Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide” (UKi Media & Events, 2019), 53.
[ii] “Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide,” 14.
[iii] “Meteorological Technology World Expo 2019 Showguide,” 3.
[iv] Alan Thorpe and David Rogers, “The Future of the Global Weather Enterprise: Opportunities and Risks,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99, no. 10 (October 1, 2018): 2003–8; David P. Rogers et al., Weathering the Change (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2019).
[v] Shalini Mohleji and Roger Pielke, “Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008,” Natural Hazards Review 15, no. 4 (November 2014).
[vi] For more discussion: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Climate-Resilient Supply Chains: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief, ed. John Ben Soileau, Steven Stichter, and Joe Alper (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2022).
[vii] F. K. Lyness, “Consistent Forecasting of Severe Winter Gas Demand,” The Journal of the Operational Research Society 32, no. 5 (1981): 347–59.
[viii] Isis Almeida, “U.K.’s Lack of Gas Plan Leaves Country at Mercy of Global Market,” Financial Post, September 21, 2021, sec. FP Energy.