The Value of Knowing Our Value

April 12, 2013 · 4 comments

by Ellen Klicka, AMS Policy Program

Sometimes articulating the right question is the tipping point on the path to the right solution.

At last week’s AMS Washington Forum, members of the weather, water and climate enterprise and other leaders assembled to discuss the pressing issues the community is facing. Speakers and attendees alike posed questions, shared insights and then posed better questions.

The first panel took a focused look at progressing towards a better understanding of the economic value of the weather and climate enterprise.

One question that is as good as any to begin an exploration is, “Why do we want to estimate the value of the enterprise?” Forum participants frequently revisited this point during the forum. What follows are themes raised throughout the three-day dialogue.

As a community, weather, water and climate organizations and professionals do not justify in quantitative terms their value to society as effectively as other enterprises. Where can this community say it fits in?

The difficulties created by increasingly tight federal budgets are inescapable. Some say if the enterprise does not step forward to demonstrate why its labor is vital to the nation, decision makers with less knowledge will have no choice but to set priorities on their own. Others believe that framing of the issue is divisive, pitting segments of the community against each other for finite resources.

In either case, quantifying the value of the weather and climate enterprise requires a paradigm shift from evaluating the costs of weather to focusing instead on the benefits of weather and climate information.

Part of the challenge stems from the cumbersome and imprecise nature of the steps involved in calculating even the smallest microcosm of the enterprise. If investigators did arrive at a total dollar value or benefit-to-cost ratio of investment in the enterprise, how confident could anyone be in its basis?

The Weather Enterprise Economic Evaluation Team, under the auspices of the AMS Commission on the Weather and Climate Enterprise, will complete a draft request for proposals by this summer to commission the largest study of this kind ever undertaken.

While most members of the enterprise are scientists, the tools of economics will be valuable to this study. For example, an examination of marginal values brings to light the gains from increased investment. Where is the biggest bang for your buck for one extra dollar? Logic points to the biggest need: getting the public to understand and use forecast information effectively so they take appropriate action.

These recent discussions on valuation have not been the first among the AMS membership, and they won’t be the last. The themes of the next enterprise-wide gathering—the AMS Summer Community Meeting in Boulder, Colorado, on August 12-15–include improving weather forecasts; supporting ground transportation, aviation, and conventional and renewable energy; and, yes, determining the economic value of the weather and climate enterprise.

Until then, ponder this multiple choice question:

How good do we want to be as a nation?

A. No worse than we are today
B. As good as we can be (with no realistic limitations on resources)
C. As good as we can afford to be at a fixed cost-benefit ratio
D. As good as or better than other nations at a similar economic development stage