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A question of vulnerability

by Dr. David Arthur Davies

Dr. David Arthur Davies, of the United Kingdom, has been Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WHO) since 1955. His publications include various meteorological studies and articles on international cooperative programmes in meteorology. He was interviewed by cores at his Organization's Geneva headquarters last August.

Q: Do you feel that people who are formulating policies on food and agriculture nationally and internationally are paying enough attention to climatic indicators? Are climate considerations being included in long-range projections?

A: There is undoubtedly widespread interest in climate and climate variability. This has arisen because so be a major responsibility for us and these data are used in all countries of the world. But much more needs to be done. The important thing about this recent expansion of interest in climate is that, with general development in economic and social fields- indeed, in some cases because of this development-many human activities have become much more dependent on climatic factors and hence more vulnerable to climatic variability. These are the considerations underlying the World Climate Programme that we are now preparing. By taking climate information into account, it will be possible to see in a much clearer way the agricultural possibilities of the developing countries. We have been trying to develop agroclimatic surveys in these regions. Of course, these cannot be done solely by meteorologists many human activities - and particularly agriculture- are becoming increasingly climate sensitive. To some extent, I think this has been generated by certain major disasters related to climate variability, such as the recent drought in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa. Another important factor is the greatly increased attention being given to the dangers of man's activities, especially atmospheric pollution, causing possible harmful changes in the climate.

Over the centuries, much information on the world's climate has been accumulated, but it was only about a century ago that our predecessor, the International Meteorological Organization, undertook the first systematic collection of standardized climatological data. This continues to or climatologists; agriculturists are needed too. We have organized several such surveys jointly with FAO and Unesco. The most recent one, just published, is a very interesting study on the Andes problem, the agroclimatic possibilities in South America. We did another one for the East African highlands region. Personally, I believe that one of the most useful things we can do is to try and give to the developing countries an indication of their agricultural possibilities from the point of view of climate. We can make governments much more aware of the importance of climate and at the same time show them the wider possibilities for agricultural development in their own countries.

Q: Have long-range projections, such as those prepared by the Club of Rome, given enough attention to the possibilities of climatic change?

A: Climatic change is a difficult and complex subject. We have had a group of experts considering this for several years, and we have come to the conclusion that it depends upon the time scale one is talking about. If you are talking in geological terms, then of course in 100 000 years you will have natural change. I don't believe many countries are much concerned about this. What they are concerned about is whether the sort of disaster that happened in the SudanoSahelian zone is likely to occur again in the next 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. For this reason, we tend to use the term climatic variability rather than climatic change. Frankly, we do not know the extent to which we can predict climatic change or climatic variability.

The programme we are developing has three distinct elements. One of these is a basic research element to find out to what extent we will be able to make predictions of climatic variability. On the other hand, we do know a good deal about climate already and I think we can do much more than we are doing now, provided the countries of the world are willing to make the effort. But, until this research programme gets under way, it would be wrong for us to claim that we can or will ever be able to predict climatic change in the sense that we could announce now that there is going to be a dry spell in the year 2000.

Q: You've mentioned the Sudano-Sahelian crisis. What are the prospects for technology ameliorating the impact of unfavourable climate upon food production?

A: Food production depends upon many complex factors and climate of course is only one of these, albeit a very important one. In general, the crops grown in any region are those that are suited to the climatic conditions of that area. But, as we all know, there may be wide climatic variations, and the question arises as to what can be done to ensure that, during the unfavourable periods in these variations, the inevitable difficulties are overcome or at least minimized. Much of the technology that could soften the impact of unfavourable climate is outside the field of WMO's responsibility; for example, the use of fertilizers, the introduction of drought-resistant crops, the use of irrigation, and so on. But in almost all these cases' such developments would be greatly facilitated by improved data and advice on climate and climate variability.

Q: Is there available technology for monitoring climatic variability and weather patterns that is not being fully employed now?

A: Over the years, we have accumulated vast quantities of climatic data, so we do have some indication of how the climate has varied in the past. This is extremely valuable, of course, but we think that much more needs to be done. The system for collecting climate data must be reorganized. We have new kinds of information, especially from satellites, which have opened up new possibilities. We have the possibility of developing new techniques because we are now using high-speed computers that can analyse all this data. In the past, most meteorological services tended to focus on the operational aspects, the weather rather than the climate. This has been highly organized under the World Weather Watch programme of WMO. But now I think it is becoming increasingly understood that the climate side needs more attention. In the long run, it may be of more fundamental importance to economic and social progress.

Q: Are the nations most vulnerable to climatic variation, for example the Sahelian states, capable of using the information that is now available from modern technology, such as satellites and computers?

A: The experience of WMO in its technical cooperation programme suggests that these countries will not be slow in applying any future benefits that such programmes may make available. One of the first things that was done when meteorological satellites were introduced was to equip them with a system that would take pictures of the world's weather and transmit these pictures automatically and immediately to any place on the earth's surface, where they could be received with simple equipment. In WMO, we have always tried to use these new developments to help the developing countries. This automatic picture transmission service has been in use now for many years, and we have helped the developing countries to get the necessary equipment. Most countries in the world now have it. In this respect, most countries came into the space age at a single jump.

At the moment the service is used mainly for operational purposes, but this is important to developing countries because in many cases they do not as yet have the advanced network of land stations and other conventional facilities. As regards the use of computers, this is not so simple. But it is not because developing countries are not able to obtain or use computers. It has nothing to do with developed or developing status. It is just the geographical distribution of these countries and the way that nature operates. The weather prevailing in the temperate latitudes can be put in the form of mathematical models that can be used by the computer to produce prognostic weather: maps. But we have still not worked out satisfactory models for the tropical regions where most of the developing countries are located. So there are some inherent and purely scientific reasons why computers are not in the same advanced state as in the developed countries.

One of the best examples of the sort of assistance that WMO can give to developing countries is the project we have been working on for years on the water balance of Lake Victoria, one of the finest projects UNDP has ever had, in my opinion. We have all the countries of this region working together. When the project was inaugurated, it was remarked that it would be difficult to find any other gathering of these same countries in the present political situation, which I thought was a great compliment to the sort of international cooperation that WMO can generate. This project is of great importance because Lake Victoria supplies water to one third of the whole African continent. Now, after many years of study, we know a great deal more about the whole water system in that part of the world.

Q: Is there a significant shortage of research funding in this field?

A: I shall be able to answer that question much more specifically after our Congress next April when the plan for the World Climate Programme, including the research component, will be discussed and, I hope, approved. There is a tremendous interest in all countries of the world, including the United States, where there is a bill about to be adopted on a national climate programme that will include a research component. There is no lack of understanding of the importance of this. In the U.S.S.R., I understand they have just upgraded the hydrometeorological administration to the level of a state committee. The significance of these things is no less well appreciated in smaller countries. The UN Economic and Social Council has just adopted unanimously a resolution recognizing the importance of this World Climate Programme to economic and social development. The sponsors of the resolution were all developing countries: Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, etc. This, I think, is an indication that the developing countries are well aware that what we are doing really means something to them. But the extent to which they will back this up with financial resources remains to be seen.

Of course, it is not just a question of putting a lot of money into a big bag to be used by WMO for research purposes. With most of our programmes, it is the countries themselves that have to provide the facilities and make the necessary scientific and technological efforts. For example, we have no budget for satellites at all. In fact, the outlay for satellites would be many times greater than the whole of our budget. But we organize the global system of satellites and it is the countries themselves, in this case the United States, the U.S.S.R., Japan and the West European countries under the European Space Agency, that are now fulfilling the plan by launching their satellites in a fully coordinated system.

Q: If you had to identify two or three particular areas of research to which you would give top priority, what these be?

A: Certainly one of the most important would be to study whether in fact man's own activities will affect climate or not, whether carbon dioxide will increase, whether chlorofluoromethanes will affect the ozone in the stratosphere. There are some indications of an increase in carbon dioxide, but we still don't know the role of the oceans. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans in one place and given out in another. The whole question of the carbon dioxide cycle is far more complex than just how much we push into the atmosphere from industries and in other ways. Studies in this area are needed.

I think the same applies to the pollutants in the stratosphere. The ozone layer up there does have important effects on the weather and the climate on the earth's surface. The question of ozone is a very difficult one. I'm not sure we even understand what nature is doing. There is a natural process of creation and destruction of ozone. Normal oxygen is in two atoms together, but you can have it in one, or you cap have it in three, which is ozone. There is a constant linking up of single atoms with the pairs, making ozone, but it is very unstable and is changed back again by the ultraviolet rays, which are absorbed to some extent. If we did not have this creation of ozone, or if we interfered with the natural process, we might have other more subtle and perhaps even more significant changes, because the absorption of ultraviolet rays is a source of heat for the whole stratosphere. If this heat source were cut off for any reason, it might be very awkward.

It is important that we think about these things and get as much information as we can. But the simple truth is that at the moment we don't know all we would like to know. We think the situation is such that we should concentrate a great effort on research. There is an awful lot of guesswork, intelligent guesswork. We have already started with a systematic programme for measuring these things, and there will be a research programme to study whether there is any real danger or whether in fact the danger has already begun.

Q: What results do you expect from the World Climate Conference next February?

A: The original plan was to try to call a conference at the ministerial level. The purpose would have been to call the attention of ministers and decision-makers to the importance of taking into account these climatic factors in establishing their national policies and programmes. Some of us thought that it would be wiser for us as meteorologists and scientists to take stock ourselves of what we knew before we tried to sell the project, as it were, to the ministers. And this is how the conference developed, as a kind of a preliminary to a possible ministerial-level conference the following year. In fact, we still envisage that possibility.

The World Climate Programme was conceived as the response of WMO to this enormous increase of interest in the climate because of natural disasters, which show that modern economies are highly climate sensitive. In some cases, it is because of economic development that they are so climate sensitive. We are not just trying to predict climatic variability. What we are trying to do is to see whether the bad periods in what would be considered normal variability can now be accepted. For example, in a relatively sparsely populated region where agriculture is the main economic factor, an unfavourable period may be faced without undue difficulty; but if, in the same region, there is subsequently a great increase in the human and cattle populations, the next unfavourable period may create a major disaster. So it is not so much the climate itself changing, as it is the socioeconomic conditions changing. It is a question of vulnerability, due not so much to overall climatic change, but to the changes in socioeconomic conditions between bad periods.

Q: Let's suppose that future research over the next few years began to confirm the suggestions that man's activities are having a considerable impact on the climate and climatic variability. What do you foresee then? Does this call for some totally new kind of international agreement? If governments agreed that human activity was having an unfortunate effect upon climate, what kind of scenario would you expect?

A: I feel sure that if the need were clearly recognized among the nations of the world, they would come to some agreement, presumably through the United Nations. But this, of course, goes far beyond mere climatology and meteorology or the responsibilities of WMO, though we would certainly have to be involved in some way. The decisions governments would be expected to take would be based on judgements of climatic experts. As far as WMO is concerned, we have the fullest possible cooperation between developed and developing countries.

As regards the decisions to be taken, here again the developing countries would be fully involved in the decision making process insofar as WMO activities are concerned. As regards other kinds of decisions affecting agriculture or industry or any other sphere of human activity, it is not possible for me to attempt a forecast, except perhaps to say that the basic importance of food production suggests to me that the developing countries will need to be closely involved in any international decision-making process.

Q: Do you think that mankind's deliberate attempts to alter weather patterns will become an international legal problem?

A: I think the UN has already solved this problem in a formal treaty signed over a year ago in which all signatory nations undertook not to engage in any weather modification or anything that would modify the environment itself to the detriment of the neighbouring countries. There is a sense of responsibility really evident.