The science of the atmosphere, meteorology, has a very long history. Since ancient times, the observation of time must have been part of daily concerns, especially in rural societies. Aristotle even wrote a treatise on the subject which, although far removed from modern scientific conceptions, testifies to the very ancient interest in observing the sky and more precisely in observing the weather.
However, it is only from the 17th century that scientists understood that predicting the weather would never be possible if we were limited to observing the sky from only one place. It became obvious from that time on that it would be from simultaneous observation everywhere at the same time (i.e. what we call today « synoptic observation ») that we could hope one day to be able to understand, or even anticipate, the movements of the atmosphere and especially dangerous meteorological phenomena, such as thunderstorms, storms, etc. But at least the means of communication had to allow the rapid transmission of this information. It is thus much later that the synoptic observation was gradually set up, relying on means of observation and communication more and more powerful in precision and speed. This was to make possible real progress in the understanding of the global behavior of the atmosphere.
This article does not pretend to describe all aspects of the history of this discipline, which has become so popular that it may seem trivial (whereas it is the result of scientific and technical efforts spanning several generations), but to trace certain recent and little-known institutional aspects, not only of the general public, but even among certain professional actors.
If we disregard a few short-lived attempts to organize worldwide networks of sky observations in the Old Regime(1), the beginning of modern meteorology and climatology can be set at the year 1853. It was in fact that year in Brussels that a dozen countries adopted the following two principles: on the one hand, to agree on the observation methods and on the other hand, to share them. This first World Conference was followed by others(2) which successively led to international cooperation between more and more countries until the contemporary era, which today sees nearly 200 countries gathered within the World Meteorological Organization(3) managing the shared operational transfer of some of their observation data.
A DEGRADED EXEMPLARY COOPERATION
From the 1990s onwards, the European Commission imposed the « liberalization » of certain public services, i.e. opening them to competition. This was the case among others in the National Meteorological Services (NMSs) of the member countries. The directives aimed to establish de facto competition between these national public services and between the private weather service companies (SMPs) that were beginning to emerge (the latter, barely born in Europe, were rushing to the door, sniffing out a good deal by seeking to wrest a promising new market from the public service).
This new market was (and still is) in full expansion thanks to, among other things
a) To the advent of operational satellites which followed one another after the first launches in the 1960s(4) and which now provide almost complete coverage in the observation of the Globe (including over the oceans). At that time, their financing was not owed to the EU but came directly from cooperation agreements between contributing states.
b) Numerical forecasting models, integrating more and more data and solving more and more rapidly their management implied by the equations of the dynamics of the atmosphere. Today, the computers on which these models run have a computing power of the order of magnitude of 10 billion operations per second.
These models, too, are the result of scientific research funded by taxpayers in different countries. One of the most widely used models in the world is the so-called « European » model, which was implemented in 1975 on a global scale and is continually updated today through research involving researchers from more than 30 countries. There are other large-scale numerical models that are the result of national research (in France, the Arpège model, in the USA the ETA model, etc.).
The outputs of these models (called runs), under certain negotiated conditions, can be made available to users in countries other than the one or ones that financed them. Finally, there are numerical models known as « fine mesh » and on a smaller scale than the global scale in which several NMSs participate, some of which are not part of the European Union (the Aladin consortium, which is developing the homonymous fine mesh model, includes, for example, the contribution of the Moroccan Meteorological Service(5)).
Since the 1980s, progress in weather forecasting has been significant and forecasts have acquired an undeniable economic value, providing decision support in certain areas that are particularly sensitive to the vagaries of the weather (energy production and supply, gas or electricity supply and demand, river management, drinking water production, agriculture, tourism, etc., all activities that are useful to the community and that depend heavily on the vagaries of the weather). On the other hand, the media, mainly audio-visual, traditionally offering weather reports that are very popular with the general public, were increasingly courted by advertising agencies. The presence of advertising in prime time prompted the media to renew the presentation of their newscasts by integrating more and more imagery and by formatting their content to meet the public’s supposed demand.
Relying on competition since the 1990s and thus on the abolition of the monopoly of the MNCs, the European Commission nevertheless authorizes, but under rather strict conditions, the maintenance of cooperation between the MNCs, a traditional cooperation which, as mentioned above, has existed in a certain way since the middle of the 19th century.
Within the EU’s MNCs, it was therefore necessary, from the last decade of the 20th century, to organize themselves according to this new vision, which broke with the long tradition of cooperation between the public services of all the countries of the planet, and to integrate a new culture of commercializing information. The traditional « users » (including the States and their various health services…), in the name of this new vision that was imposed, became « clients » of public or private companies (the former Director of the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium used to say that the main « client » of his institution was precisely the State).
Sometimes artificially, a distinction had to be made between what was strictly public service (organizing 24-hour vigilance, warning of meteorological phenomena that threaten the safety of people and property, pollution alerts, etc.) and what could be considered commercial activities that could be subject to competition (selling meteorological data to gas and electricity suppliers, for example, who, at the time of the European directives, were still in the business of providing services to the public).) and what could be similar to commercial activities likely to be subject to competition (selling meteorological data to gas and electricity suppliers, for example, which, at the time of these European directives, were still partially public companies in several countries, including Belgium) within the framework of the « re-use » of public data.
In fact, the first concrete result of this liberalization has been to complicate (and sometimes even make impossible) the pursuit of certain cooperation agreements between European public services (agreements that have still been able to come into being, but forcing the MNCs to accommodate themselves willy-nilly to these European directives, and in any case with greater difficulty than before). Some meteorological public services (in Belgium and elsewhere) operated real restructurings of their activities to conform to their new institutional environment (one does not share one’s data with a competitor…).
The hiring of lawyers and commercial agents within public entities is only one aspect of this reorientation. Moreover, in Belgium, certain « natural » cooperations that existed between different public entities could suddenly appear as obstacles to » free and undistorted competition « , which is now a new dogma promising progress. Thus, the regional services in charge of road spreading, for example, traditionally supplied with meteorological information mainly by the national defense services, were encouraged to obtain information from other sources or to create « weather-road » services specific to their region.
Adapting to this new institutional reality, the European NMSs, seeking against all odds to defend their existence mainly justified by their public service missions but not wishing to deprive society in general of their proven experience and know-how, created, among other things, an economic interest group, ECOMET(6). The prices of their weather services, which are considered to be commercial, will now have to be calculated by including a contribution to the infrastructure that allows meteorology to exist, much like the liberalization of the railways in the United Kingdom or the liberalization of telecommunication services. Meteorology had thus become within the EU a business like any other or almost. Public meteorological services are now competing with private companies and sometimes with each other to capture or maintain their market share.
This new policy imposed by the European directives on the MNCs was openly presented as a new vision of the future of the world and a new legal order of liberalization that claimed to have as its goal » torelieve the taxpayer » and « to Itis also, admittedly less openly, put forward as a means of resisting on a large scale the capture of the « meteorological market » in Europe by companies from outside Europe (USA, Canada, among others).
WHEN THE PRIVATE SECTOR BENEFITS FROM PUBLIC INVESTMENTS
As for recent or past innovation in meteorology, it is obviously mainly due to cooperation between scientists (mostly financed in European countries by national taxpayers and more recently by European funds, themselves financed by EU members). If private companies have undoubtedly contributed to certain innovations, it is almost exclusively for what concerns the packaging of meteorological messages (imagery) or for computer developments, which are undoubtedly useful but not very innovative on the strictly scientific level. In addition, technicians contracted by the utilities also contribute to these developments. These commitments, « these costs », were partially met by developing commercial activities within the NMSs that could compete with the services developed by the private meteorological companies. However, in some EU countries, such as Belgium, each commercial « victory » of the public services that brought back a contract coveted by a private competitor almost inevitably led to a justification for a decrease in public funding, transforming, in fact, some MNCs into a « mixed » company and into a public service… that was put to the sword.
As for the relief of the taxpayer, this is difficult to evaluate. The inter-governmental organizations related to meteorology (the European Centre for Medium-Range Forecasting, created in the 1970s, the European Satellite Meteorological Agency, founded in 1986) are financed by the taxpayers of each country in general in proportion to the GDP according to agreed rules of cooperation. They existed and continue to exist according to inter-governmental conventions that include countries that are not part of the EU. Some private companies have developed activities in the traditional weather market (media mainly but not only) and, more questionable in principle, in the new so-called » weather derivatives » market(7), in reality a speculative market. Some of these companies have become multinationals that have captured almost the entire media market in the EU.
In short, contrary to a widespread idea (and maintained by the EU communicators), the European Union has not lived up to its claim of being the operational organization of weather and climate services. International cooperation between sovereign countries in these areas largely preceded EU interventions. These, however, have tended to complicate rather than accompany cooperation efforts which, fortunately, have been able to continue beyond the EU’s institutional borders. These efforts had had some merit and some success long before them. Let’s bet that they will be able to continue if the EU ends up disintegrating.
Today, weather forecasts are on all TV channels, social networks and smartphone applications. It seems to be a matter of course to have access to this type of information in real time, a personalized weather forecast right at home. However, one can see that there is a certain cacophony in this world. Indeed, by consulting different sources, one can notice differences not only in the presentation but also in the content. The user does not necessarily find his way around, often not knowing where to turn. This diversity is the result of a progressive disappearance of rigor in favor of immediacy and often sensationalism, despite the progress made in the discipline. How many times on private platforms do we announce ten days in advance and without precaution very spectacular extreme phenomena which do not necessarily occur but whose premature announcement has consequences in the organization of certain sectors. Only a team of specialists experienced in nuancing these premature announcements is able to take into account uncertainties in numerical meteorology. It is probably less media-friendly. Yet this is the task that utility forecasting teams strive to achieve in what has become a highly competitive environment.