Adaptation to a variable and changing climate: challenges and opportunities for National Meteorological and Hydrological Services

Scientific Lecture delivered to the 61st session of the WMO Executive Council
(EC-XLI), Geneva, 11 June 2009

By John W. Zillman



  Dr John Zillman
John Zillman is Chairman of the Steering Committee for the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and of the World Climate Conference-3 International Organizing Committee (WIOC). He was Director of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology from 1978 to 2003 and President of WMO from 1995 to 2003. He was President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering from 2003 to 2006 and President of the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences in 2005. Also in 2005, he was awarded the 50th IMO Prize. He is currently a Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne.


The challenge of adapting to a variable and changing climate is far from new but few who undertook their basic meteorological training in the 1950s and 1960s or who spent their early careers in climate records sections of National Meteorological Services (NMSs), adding daily rainfall totals and averaging monthly temperatures, could have foreseen that, within half a century, climate would be mainstream in national and international affairs.

The problem of human-induced climate change must now be seen, in many respects, as the emerging scientific and geopolitical challenge of the 21st century; and, though its implications confront the governments of both developing and developed countries with an almost diabolical challenge (Garnaut, 2009), it does, in fact, present the scientific community with unprecedented opportunities to contribute to the future well-being of humanity.

And it is, unambiguously, an opportunity, as well as a challenge, for the science and institutions of meteorology.  From the earliest times, and certainly throughout the lifetime of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), climatology has been regarded as an integral part of meteorology (Davies, 1990).  While climate issues now extend far beyond the traditional boundaries of atmospheric science to embrace oceanography, hydrology and a range of other physical, biological and social sciences, conventional meteorological observations, research and services remain central to the 21st century challenges of detecting, monitoring, understanding, modelling, predicting, mitigating and adapting to human-induced climate change.  Climate has always been, and must remain, a core responsibility of WMO.

Indeed, the WMO community can take great credit for having recognized, very early in the piece, and having drawn global attention to both:

  • The opportunities to better use climate information to help society to learn to live with the variability and extremes of climate; and
  • The need to foresee and avert adverse human impacts on climate.

The growth of public and political awareness of the climate issue over the past 30 years, and of the need for scientific understanding and information to address it, has been dramatic (Bolim, 2007; Houghton, 2009; Zillman, 2009). The forthcoming World Climate Conference-3 (WCC-3) is aimed at shaping the global strategy for providing comprehensive climate science and services in support of a wise and well-informed international response to the formidable challenges of climate change.

Given the long and proud record of meteorological science and services in the emergence of the climate issue and the traditional role of most National Meteorological Services (NMSs) as their countries’ national climate authorities, NMSs should be superbly placed to meet the now almost insatiable community need for climate information.

But it is arguable that, over the past 10-15 years, we have collectively failed to play the role that might have been expected of us and that at least some NMSs have missed the climate boat; and more seriously now, as WCC-3 approaches, that not all NMSs are as well prepared as they should be to play the lead role that will be expected of them in the implementation of the new global framework for climate services that seems likely to emerge from the Conference.

The need for a strong global response from the world’s NMSs is urgent. The opportunities are everywhere. But climate service provision is now a very crowded and competitive field and there are many players, some far less well equipped than the NMSs to do so, who are gearing up for the task. My purpose in this lecture is to try to identify the most urgent challenges and the most promising opportunities for National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) to play their proper and essential role in supporting their governments’ and national communities’ adaptation to a variable and changing climate.

I am, as I am painfully aware, already some five years out of date in my understanding of the issues facing NMHSs around the world and I know, even from the discussions at this session of the Executive Council (EC), that there have been many important developments over the past few years that, were I to understand them better, might largely allay my concerns on the readiness of NMHSs to grasp the opportunities presented by WCC-3. But I am also acutely conscious that many of the challenges of the climate issue have been around for a long time so I will be presumptuous enough to assume that there may still be some lessons from the past that could be useful, at least as a point of departure, in addressing the current challenges and opportunities of adapting to climate variability and change.

This is not a scientific lecture in the strict sense of the words and I hope that the Executive Council would not expect that of me.  I have assumed, however, that the Council would expect, and allow, me to offer some personal reflections on the challenges and opportunities facing NMHSs, selectively, and a little more forthrightly than would have been appropriate in the formal business of the session.

The classical perspective on climate

It is probably true to say that, until the 1950s, the study of climate was essentially a descriptive science (Flohn, 1970).

Certainly, Hadley (1735) and others had attempted to explain the large-scale global features of climate in physical terms and much practical use was made, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, of climate observations for agricultural and water resource planning and the like.  But the major preoccupation, in the climatological community, was with standardisation of observational practices, collection and processing of climate records, preparation of long-term climate normals and ensuring that all the records were safely filed away for posterity.

Within NMSs, climatology was essentially a back-room affair and the results of the climatologists’ work were shelves full of folders of daily, monthly and annual rainfall and temperature records.  Every decade or so, the latest records were used to update the “normals” and the climate maps for the country or the region.  World climates were mapped, described and classified in various ways.

Those in the meteorological community who had done a little geology at university were aware that the climate was believed to have fluctuated over millions of years but, for all intents and purposes, climate was seen as stable and unchanging on human time scales - all we had to do was to build up a long enough record to ensure that we had got an adequate sample for statistical purposes.  This was the era of classical descriptive climatology (Landsberg, 1945).

The emergence of the climate issue

The emergence of climate as an issue in world affairs can be traced to the convergence of five key influences in the 1950s (Zillman, 2009):

  • major post-war advances in atmospheric science;
  • initiation of the Mauna Loa observations of atmospheric carbon dioxide;
  • the dawn of the space age and of awareness of the finite limits of the resources of the planet;
  • the advent of digital computers; and
  • the embracing of the newly established UN framework for international cooperation among nations.

These lead to the establishment of the World Weather Watch and GARP (Global Atmospheric Research Programme) in the 1960s, the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), the convening of the first World Climate Conference (WCC-1) and establishment of the World Climate Programme (WCP) in 1979, the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, the Second World Climate Conference (WCC-2) in 1990 and the re-structuring of the World Climate Programme in 1991, and the establishment of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and negotiation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 (Figure 1).

figure 1

Figure 1—The emergence and evolution of the climate issue following UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions in 1961 which led to the establishment of the World Weather Watch and GARP (Global Atmospheric Research Programme) with their twin focus on weather and climate.  These led on to the first (WCC-1) and second (WCC-2) World Climate Conferences and the establishment of the World Climate Programme, the IPCC, GCOS and the UNFCCC


These developments have catapulted ‘climate’ from the narrow preserve of the Climate Sections of NMSs to a priority issue for most arms of national governments and the business of economists, accountants, lawyers, diplomats and global think tanks.

But, so important has climate become, that, in some quarters, it is now no longer seen as having much connection to meteorology or the work of the NMHSs.  ‘Climate Institutes’ turn out to be environmental lobby groups for greenhouse gas reduction and government ‘Climate Departments’ are focussed not on climate as the meteorological community knows and understands it but on national energy policies, emissions trading schemes, carbon accounting, carbon taxes and the like.

In these circumstances, it behoves us to think hard about what the flight of climate from its long established home in meteorology means for the future role of NMHSs and the extent to which they are geared to deliver well on the parts of the climate agenda that remain unambiguously their responsibility at the national level.

Climate as part of meteorology

From the earliest days of recognition of meteorology as the science of the atmosphere, it has been understood, within the discipline, as encompassing both weather and climate (Meteorological Office, 1972; WMO, 1992).

The founding fathers of modern meteorology were acutely conscious of the concept of climate as "average weather" and the first initiatives towards an international framework for cooperation in meteorology were strongly driven by the desire to establish the long-term climatology for the world’s oceans for very practical purposes (Maury, 1855).

The International Meteorological Organization (IMO) established its Commission for Climatology (CCl) in 1929 and, even in the face of the burgeoning needs for operational weather forecasting, especially for aviation, following World War II, the newly-established World Meteorological Organization (WMO) of the early 1950s saw fit to re-establish the CCl, as an intergovernmental body, and to increase still further its focus on the world-wide collection of climate observations, understanding the nature and mechanisms of climate and the practical application of climate information to the needs of society.

When concern first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s on the prospect of human interference with climate, it was, appropriately, to the WMO that the UN General Assembly turned for advice and there was no disagreement in the UN system, in the late 1970s, that it was for WMO to take the lead in convening the World Climate Conference and establishing the World Climate Programme (Zillman, 1980).

I believe that it is important to continue to remind ourselves and everyone else, that climate is an integral part of the science of meteorology.  I commend the WMO use of ‘Weather-Climate-Water as its by-line and I strongly discourage our slipping into the use of terms like ‘meteorology and climatology" which suggests, to those outside the field, that climatology is something new and additional to meteorology rather than being a centrally important component of the discipline.  I suggest that when, as meteorologists, we feel the need, in public, to mention both, we revert, whenever possible, to the earlier WMO discipline of referring either to ‘meteorology/climatology’ or to ‘meteorology, including climatology’.

The adaptation imperative

As I asserted at the beginning, there is nothing new about the challenge of living with a variable and changing climate. It has been one of the most formidable and ubiquitous challenges for society since humans first walked the Earth. And much of the work of NMSs and of the IMO/WMO Commission for Climatology, since it was first established in the year that I was born, has been focused on collecting, supplying and applying climate information to help the many climate-sensitive sectors of society to plan for, and better manage, the risks and impacts of the natural variability and extremes of climate.

What is new is the threat of human-induced climate change, resulting from the build-up of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning and the like. This has added new and daunting challenges for science and society and it was this human-induced change which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established to avert, or, at least, mitigate. (I observe, parenthetically, that one of the greatest sources of confusion in the climate change debate over the past 20 years, and in the formulation of strategy for dealing with it, has resulted from the different definitions of the term “climate change” employed by the IPCC and the UNFCCC, with the IPCC definition including all change and variability, whatever their cause, and the UNFCCC using the term solely to refer to the human-induced component of change. I believe that, until we achieve harmonization of the IPCC and UNFCCC terminology, we would all help greatly, when speaking of “climate change”, if we make clear in which sense we are using the term.)

It is informative and satisfying to look back on the Declaration of the 1979 (First) World Climate Conference, which insightfully foreshadowed both the adaptation and mitigation dimensions of the subsequent climate change debate.

“Having regard to the all-pervading influence of climate on human society and on many fields of human activity and endeavour, the Conference finds that it is now urgently necessary for the nations of the world

  • To take full advantage of man’s present knowledge of climate;
  • To take steps to improve significantly that knowledge; and
  • To foresee and to prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.”

It is even more satisfying to look back on the early years of the World Climate Programme (WCP) 1979-1991 to see how thoroughly the World Climate Data and Applications Programmes focused on the challenges of adaptation to climate in the food, water, energy, health and other social and economic sectors. Through the initiation of National Climate Programmes and in other ways, many NMSs made a major contribution to increasing community awareness of the need to adapt to climate (change).

While the initial focus of the UNFCCC bodies in the early 1990s was almost entirely on mitigation, there was a rising tide of opinion in the professional climate community that, regardless of whether it was of natural or human origin, more attention was needed to the challenges of adapting to climate change. Using as their definition of adaptation “all adjustments in behaviour or economic structure that reduce the vulnerability of society to changes in the climate system”, the participants at the May 1995, St Petersburg International Conference on Climate Change Adaptation called on the Parties to the UNFCCC “to pay more attention to the options to adapt to climate change, while continuing their efforts to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations”. They also called on IPCC “to provide more guidance on the options available to countries to adapt to climate change and to assess their adaptations”.


For its Third Assessment Report (TAR), initiated in 1997 and completed in 2001, IPCC included “adaptation” explicitly in the title of one of its Working Groups (Working Group II) for the first time and adaptation became a major theme in the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) in 2007. But it was not until the 2005 initiation of its Nairobi Work Programme that the UNFCCC, which had hitherto focused almost exclusively on mitigation strategy under the Kyoto Protocol, really shifted its priority attention to adaptation.

Now, four years later, as negotiations proceed this week in Bonn on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention, the Parties are considering how to give effect to the call in the 2007 Bali Action Plan for “enhanced action on adaptation, including consideration of international cooperation to support urgent implementation of adaptation action; risk management and risk reduction strategies; disaster reduction strategies and means to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries …………..”

I think it is fair to say that adaptation to climate change (in its broadest sense) is now seen, at the highest level of most governments, as a national imperative for the coming decades.

The need for climate services

I also believe it is fair to say that the need for climate observations, research, information, prediction, projection, and services in support of adaptation is now increasingly understood but still seriously under-supported at the political level in most countries.

There is no doubt that the original World Climate Programme was well framed to meet this emerging need and, in its early years, was extremely successful in doing so. The World Climate Data Programme and World Climate Applications Programme through their projects such as DARE (Data Rescue) and CLICOM (Climate Computing) were instrumental in helping many developing and developed countries to repair and build their national climate data banks and make the information available in appropriate forms for a wide range of applications in all the major impact sectors. The deep involvement of WMO partner agencies and programmes such as FAO, WHO, UNESCO, UNEP and UNDP in the early years of the World Climate Programme, and the establishment of similarly broadly based National Climate Programmes in many countries, were especially influential in this regard.

By 1990, however, under the influence of the economic restructuring and public sector downsizing initiatives of the Reagan-Thatcher era, many countries found themselves unable to expand, or even to maintain, their basic observing networks, data archives and information services to meet the burgeoning need. The deteriorating state of observing networks worldwide was recognized by the 1990 Second World Climate Conference (WCC-2) which triggered the establishment of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) as a WMO-led interagency initiative to strengthen and build on the World Weather Watch Global Observing System and other key atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial observing networks to meet the rapidly growing need. An obligation on Parties to the UNFCCC to support “research and systematic observation” was, in parallel, built into Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention.

The demands on the climate research community, especially through the WMO-IOC-ICSU World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), which had already become intense in the second half of the 1980s, continued to increase through the 1990s with pressure for more and more sophisticated models capable of providing both skilful climate forecasts on monthly to decadal time scales and detailed regional climate projections on decadal to centennial time scales. The international climate research community, with modest but well targeted funding, have so far, responded impressively to the user community’s expectations and demands.


The area of greatest unmet need, however, has been in building up the infrastructure and skills for provision of comprehensive user-focussed climate services. While the reconstitution of the two applications-oriented components of the World Climate Programme with an explicit “services” emphasis in 1991 led to some outstandingly successful service-focused initiatives such as CLIPS (Climate Information and Prediction Services), the Regional Climate Outlook Forums (RCOFs) and the World Agrometeorological Information Service (WAMIS) with major benefits in many countries, the failure to mobilize significant new resources for climate services in the early 1990s, and especially the failure to gain the necessary support for the convening of a third World Climate Conference in the late 1990s to resource the ill-starred Climate Agenda, has left climate services in support of adaptation as perhaps the most urgently needed but least well-supported legacy of the explosive growth in political concern with climate issues through the 1990s. Recent initiatives such as the Climate for Development in Africa (ClimDev Africa) Programme hold great promise but are yet to get properly underway.

There is certainly no lack of understanding in the service provider community of the extent of the need or how it could best be met, given the resources to do so. For anyone who may feel that user-focused climate services is a new concept, unfamiliar to the service providers of the past, I commend the magisterial essay “Climate services for a changing world” by Reid Basher of New Zealand in the January 1997 issue of the WMO Bulletin.



And I would, here, to add my own words of caution for those who believe that service- provider-oriented organizations like NMSs have only to pass the driver’s seat to the potential user-sector organizations to specify their needs in order to achieve success. In my experience of meteorological service provision and application, at all levels, from international programmes to individual citizens, effective service provision and application is an intensely iterative process. It will not work if it is either excessively user-driven or provider-driven. The inevitable answer to “What do you need?” is “What can you give me?” and it is only after several, sometimes many, iterations down that path that the service becomes well defined and the benefits realized from its provision and application.

There are, of course, enormous challenges in turning scientific progress, whether it be in observational data collection and interpretation or predictive modelling, into useful climate services. There is an urgent need for a major injection of resources into international climate science programmes and especially into the national research and service communities which implement them, to do the fundamental development and extension work that is needed to deliver the ultimate benefits of progress in climate science to society.

And this has to be done in a way that takes advantage of, and builds on, what already exists and avoids the all-too-common attempt to reinvent the climate service wheel through ignorance of the arrangements and services that are already in place.

I would like to think that the present negotiations on Long-term Cooperative Action under the UNFCCC, coupled with the WMO-UNESCO “Climate knowledge” mandate under the “UN System delivering as one” and the forthcoming WCC-3 will enable us, not just to make up the lost progress of the past decade, but to open up genuine new frontiers in climate service provision and application in support of adaptation to climate variability and change.

The role of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs)

I would like, now, to turn explicitly to the role of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs).

I will maintain the traditional WMO distinction between:

  • NMSs, which are responsible at the national level for meteorology or for meteorology and operational hydrology; and
  • NHSs which are responsible only for operational hydrology;

with the abbreviation NMHSs used only in the plural as shorthand, as it was originally intended, for “NMSs and NHSs”.

I should say at the outset that, just as I regard climatology as an integral part of the science and practice of meteorology, so too I believe we must regard climate as unambiguously part of the core responsibility of NMSs.

Indeed, many of the NMSs of WMO’s now 188 Member States and Territories owe their origins to their assigned responsibility for assembling and safeguarding the national climate record, often initiated long before the pressures for day-to-day aviation and public weather forecasting forced them into their more publicly visible role as “Weather Bureaux” or “National Weather Services”.

Though determination of the scope of each NMS is clearly the responsibility of its national government, I believe the generic NMS role breaks down into four essential components:

  • Operation of the basic national meteorological observation, information, modelling and prediction infrastructure for both weather and climate purposes;
  • Research to advance knowledge and scientific understanding of the national weather and climate;
  • Provision of basic (public good) services to the community and (depending on national policy) a range of special value adding (private good) services to specific clients and customers; including provision of advice to their governments and national communities on meteorological and related matters; and
  • Coordination of national activities carried out as part of the programmes of the WMO.

It is surprisingly little understood, outside the NMS community, and even within what could nowadays reasonably be referred to as the professional climate community, that most NMSs (even many of those that operate under the title of “National Weather Service”) have long carried the “National Climate Service” responsibility within their countries alongside their more publicly visible weather services. It has not been for lack of awareness of their climate responsibilities within the NMSs themselves. Indeed, a wide- ranging survey of the role and operation of NMS, undertaken by WMO in 2000-2001 revealed that, in some 95 per cent of countries, the NMS carried sole or national lead responsibility for the provision of climate services; and, from the 128 permanent representatives who responded, “provision of climate services” was rated essentially equally with “provision of weather services” as an issue at the national level. In Regions I, II and IV, climate services were regarded as a more important issue than weather services (Zillman, 2003).

While I certainly won’t buy into the 2009 version of the 1990s debate on whether NMSs should be primarily tax payer-funded or primarily commercial operations, I believe that all NMSs carry their governments’ obligation under the WMO Convention to freely exchange national meteorological and related data, for both weather and climate purposes, as part of their contribution to an increasingly important global public good.

There is no doubt that, with free and unrestricted international exchange of climate and related data becoming widely established under the GEO (Group on Earth Observations) umbrella, many more value-adding climate service providers are going to emerge in the private sector, academia and elsewhere. That can only be welcomed. But I believe there are two strong international trends that are conspiring to reaffirm the essentiality of those NMSs that have not yet done so, stepping up to the challenge of providing their countries core National Climate Service as well as its National Weather Service.

The first is the rapidly increasing awareness of the need for more, and more detailed, more frequent and more comprehensive observations for both weather and climate purposes. While, in some countries, it has been the historical practice to operate parallel meteorological networks for weather and climate, with weather observations less rigorously quality-controlled but collected in real-time, and climate observations collected by mail for quality control and archival, few, if any, countries can still afford such extensive duplication of effort. I believe there is an inevitable trend towards a unified basic national observation infrastructure. Even for satellite observations, there is now increasing convergence of the observational systems for weather and climate.

The second relates to the convergent influence of information technology. It is fairly clear that, in an era of increasing interoperability of information systems across disciplines and institutions, the data assimilation systems and prediction models used for weather and climate purposes are rapidly converging and, given the enormous computing needs of earth system models, it will be increasingly necessary to pool resources at the national level.

I believe, therefore, that it will be in the interests of all countries, more strongly than in the past, to move towards an integrated end-to-end environmental science service system providing seamless weather, climate, water and other environmental services as shown schematically in Figure 2.  To take the lead at the national level represents a major challenge, but also an enormous opportunity, for NMHSs in both developing and developed countries.

figure 2





Figure 2—The conceptual framework for integrated earth system observation, research and modelling supporting seamless weather, climate and other environmental service provision at the national level

At least in principle, on economic grounds (Zillman and Freebairn, 2001), the move towards common national observational and information infrastructure, supporting an increasing range and volume of services, must enhance the prospects of eventually increased government funding for the underpinning infrastructure.  And, in the short term, I believe that NMSs have a clear opportunity and obligation to take the lead in GCOS implementation at the national level in support of climate services, by working with their sister organizations responsible for hydrological, oceanographic and other climate-relevant earth system observations.

The increasing emphasis on integrated climate services in support of adaptation, under the auspices of the UNFCCC, further increases the opportunities and the challenges for NMSs to become active players in their countries’ delegations to sessions of the UNFCCC bodies.  The process is time consuming and political.  But it is, at least, worth considering the potential benefits of greater NMS engagement in the Convention processes.  It has been pleasing to observe the political and resource spin off for some developing country NMSs whose Directors have been entrusted with national lead roles under the Convention.

I have so far referred almost exclusively to NMSs. But NHSs and National Ocean Services (NOSs), where they exist, as well as a range of other environmental science agencies, carry essential national roles both as providers of climate-relevant observations and as providers and users of climate services in support of adaptation in the water, ocean, coastal and other sectors. They face almost the same challenges and they have a major role to play.

The Australian experience

The Australian experience in responding to the rise of the climate issue is part success story, part failure.  In response to the establishment of the WCP in 1979, we re-grouped most of the climate-related activities of the Bureau of Meteorology into a National Climate Centre developed a Climate Services Programme and focussed significant research effort on the development of skilful climate outlooks.  The concept of a National Climate Service was well received in the Australian community and the role of the National Climate Centre is generally well respected and its services widely used.

We also tried, in the late 1980s, to put in place a formal cross-agency National Climate Programme.  Though generally strongly supported by other Government Departments, it did not command the necessary level of political priority at the key moment and was overtaken by narrower and more politically focussed initiatives on greenhouse policy.  The default outcome for Australia was something of a ‘poor man’s National Climate Programme’ where the Bureau of Meteorology coordinates, on a biennial basis, a comprehensive summary of national activities carried out in conjunction with all four components of the WCP, GCOS and the IPCC.  These reports have served as a powerful mechanism for communication and coordination but lack the integrating influence of a politically endorsed and separately funded National Climate Programme.

The contribution of the World Climate Programme

 After its first decade of operation, the World Climate Programme was judged an enormous success (Bruce, 1991).  Its original objectives were focussed on providing the knowledge base and practical support to countries for better living with climate and three of its four components proved extremely effective in getting the necessary data systems, research and service provision arrangements in place in individual countries.  The sectorally focussed efforts of WCP-Food, WCP-Water and WCP-Energy greatly increased awareness of the value of climate information for decision-making in these key sectors and WCP projects such as CLICOM (Climate Computing) and CLIPS (Climate Information and Prediction Services) helped many developing countries to quickly take advantage of new developments in climate data processing  and climate prediction.

Unfortunately, in our efforts, in the early 90s, to sharpen the focus and increase the momentum of the WCP through the initiation of ‘The Climate Agenda’, we somehow allowed the overall effectiveness of the WCP to run down and its vital peak coordination mechanisms, except for research, to weaken or lapse.  Some great progress has continued under the overall banner of the WCP but, whether due to shortage of Secretariat resources or for other reasons, it has not delivered fully on its promise.

Is the WCP still the right international framework for the future?  In my view, absolutely yes, but it certainly needs restructuring and re-invigoration.  It remains a compelling brand name for its sponsors and an extremely valuable mechanism for the generation, sharing and application of climate knowledge.  Our collective challenge for the future is to provide the leadership and support the much stronger engagement of national experts in WCP activities.

The Commission for Climatology

A potentially powerful but much underused mechanism for dealing with the challenges of climate change is the WMO Commission for Climatology (CCl) now in its 80th year.

The Commission’s terms of reference charge it with wide ranging responsibilities for international coordination in all the key climate-related functions of NMHSs.  Unfortunately the work of the Commission and its sister Commission for Agricultural Meteorology (CAgM) has not been as strongly supported as it should have by many Members and the secretariat support for its work has been under-resources for many decades.

I believe there is a huge opportunity for NMSs to use the CCl mechanism to reaffirm and reinforce their own national climate role over the next few years.  It would be entirely appropriate for CCl to serve as the integrating mechanism to drive forward the Climate Information Services component of the proposed new ‘Global Framework for Climate Services’ that seems likely to emerge from WCC-3 but it will need strong leadership, proactive national engagement in the Commission and greatly strengthened secretariat support.

The role of the IPCC

The origin, role, operation and output of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been comprehensively documented in many places (eg Bolin, 2007; Zillman, 2007) and are well known, if not always well understood.

What is much less well known is the extent to which the original motivation of the 1987 WMO Congress in establishing the IPCC was influenced by the expectation of many developing country NMSs that WMO would provide them with the necessary authoritative information to advise their governments on how to address the threat of climate change.

The reality, 20 years on, is that, while some NMSs have become deeply engaged in the IPCC process and have served as effective conduits to their governments for authoritative IPCC advice on climate change, many others heave been sidelined by the process that was set up to help them.  Many governments have interpreted the IPCC as part of the policy process, rather than as a scientific assessment mechanism to inform the policy process, and environmental policy departments have taken over the role of interface between the IPCC and national governments.  To some extent, this reflects what has happened at the international level where the IPCC has developed a higher profile and become better linked to national governments and international climate policy mechanisms than its sponsors, WMO and UNEP, who established it to help them play that role.  This is not necessarily all bad and much credit is due to WMO and UNEP for what the IPCC has achieved as the provider of a vitally important climate service to society.

It is important, however, to continually remind governments that the scientific advice of the IPCC is only as good as the observations, research and modelling on which its assessments are based.  If the IPCC is to continue to play its role, the fundamental underpinning research and observational efforts of WCRP and GCOS must be strongly supported.  If the NMSs are to play their role, they must work hard at becoming, and being seen to have become, the providers of the underpinning research and observations and the most authoritative source of advice on the outcome of the IPCC assessments within their countries.

The influence of the UNFCCC

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has become the principal international mechanism for helping countries to address both the adaptation and mitigation challenges of climate change.

The major challenge for NMHSs is to become, or remain, sufficiently engaged with the UNFCCC mechanism to play their proper role as the primary observation and research providers fulfilling Parties’ obligations under Article 5 of the Convention.

This, in turn, presents them with three formidable but extremely important challenges:

  • To play their part as authoritative providers of (systematic) observations and scientific advice to their national governments;
  • To be seen as essential members of national delegations to the UNFCCC COP and its Subsidiary Bodies; and
  • Through their representation on national delegations to COP, SBSTA and the like, to help strengthen international support through UNFCCC and related activities, for the key climate related programmes of WMO and its partner agencies.

The UN System Delivering as One 

The 2008 "UN System Delivering as One on Climate Change" provides an important opportunity for NMHSs because it establishes a coherent international framework for action by the UN system that clearly recognises the place of "climate knowledge" in the overall strategy on the climate issue.  But, while WMO can help a little, NMHSs will need to take a proactive role at the national level in establishing their place as the national providers of "climate knowledge".

A particular challenge for NMSs will be to ensure that their role is sufficiently clearly recognised by their governments in contributing national input to initiatives under the "UN System Delivering as One on Climate Knowledge".

Climate for Development in Africa 

I would like to mention the Climate for Development in Africa (ClimDev Africa) initiative, not because it can yet be described at a success story but because of its enormous potential to strengthen the African NMSs across the board, if we can collectively help it achieve its agreed core objectives.

ClimDev Africa was conceived in an intensely user-driven environment without, I would have to say, anything like adequate understanding, amongst many of those involved, of what is actually involved in effective service provision. I believe that the report of the inaugural ClimDev Workshop in April 2006 set out a viable strategy and that the protracted follow-up work by the various African institutions has produced a realistic Implementation Plan and, most importantly, a role for the WMO and GCOS Secretariats that should enable them to help ensure that the expected new resources are wisely used.

But, like many other such initiatives, it is likely to include a strong competitive element which, given free rein, could end up spreading the new resources too thinly and unselectively and doing more hard than good in the long term.  The challenge for the African NMHSs will be to make their case for funding of their essential climate infrastructure so compellingly that they cannot be passed over.  And the task for WMO will be to help the NMHSs in getting their proposals and plans together quickly and in a well coordinated way.

The Espoo and Madrid Conferences

Many of the important challenges and opportunities for NMHSs in helping societies to live with climate variability and change were canvassed in two important WMO Conferences in 2006 and 2007:

  • Espoo Conference on Living with Climate Variability and Change: Understanding the Uncertainties and Managing the Risks (17-21 July, 2006, Espoo, Finland); and
  • Madrid Conference on Secure and Sustainable Living: Social and Economic Benefits of Weather, Climate and Water Services (19-22 March 2007, Madrid, Spain).

In the ‘Espoo Statement’ (WMO, 2009a) the participants recognised that the processes of delivering effective climate risk management works best if it is:

  • driven by the needs and requirements expressed by relevant decision sectors;
  • developed within real-world decision contexts;
  • enabled through facilitating institutions and policies;
  • based on environmental, sectoral and socioeconomic data;
  • based on tailored climate information;
  • supported by local capacity;
  • included in planning strategies that incorporate incentives; and
  • supported by sector-specific services from National Meteorological and Hydrological Services and related institutions.

In the Madrid Conference Statement and Action Plan (WMO, 2009b), the Conference participants, inter alia:

  • Stressed that much closer dialogue, partnership and multidisciplinary understanding between providers and users of weather, climate and water services are essential to improve decision-making and delivery of social and economic benefits; and
  • Encouraged NMHSs to take the initiative at the national level through outreach workshops and in other ways, in establishing improved consultation and partnership arrangements with their major user community groups.

There is much insight and wisdom in the reports from these two conferences which, if embraced by NMHSs and the WMO community generally, should help them to prepare for getting the most out of the follow-up to WCC-3.

WCC-3 and the proposed Global Framework for Climate Services

The First and Second World Climate Conferences (WCC-1 and WCC-2) have left a solid legacy of international observation, research and assessment programmes and institutions and corresponding national activities contributing to effective adaptation to climate variability and change (Figure 3).




Figure 3—The legacy of WCC-1 and WCC-2 showing the underpinning observation and research role of GCOS and the WCRP and the assessment and policy roles of the IPCC and UNFCCC.  The Data and Monitoring (WCDMP), Applications and Services (WCASP) and Impact and Response (WCIRP) components of the World climate Programme still formally exist but have been severely under-resourced to meet the expanding national and international need for climate services

But much that should have been put in place for enhanced climate service provision over the past decade has not been possible for want of the necessary institutional structures and resources. As a mechanism to help put them in place, World Climate Conference-3 is a decade overdue.

It has not been for want of trying by the WMO community.  Several attempts were made through the WMO Executive Council in the late 1990s to convene a third World Climate Conference to get the necessary institutions established and resourced but the essential unanimous political support from countries was not forthcoming.  From the closing address to the 1999 Congress (Zillman, 2000).

“There was a clear message from the Congress debates on climate and environmental issues that we want a more forward-looking and better coordinated WMO approach to climate.  We want the Global Climate Observing System to progress from planning to implementation; we want CLIPS (Climate Information and Prediction Services) to develop into an effective and widely accepted international framework for the provision of the full range of climate information and prediction services at the national level; we want a fresh look taken at how best to coordinate and advance the international Climate Agenda; and we want careful consideration to be given to the pros and cons of WMO taking the lead in the convening of a Third World Climate Conference within the next few years”.

grilEight years later, 15th Congress endorsed the convening of WCC-3 with specific guidance as to its theme which is now succinctly captured in the vision statement for the Conference:

“An international framework for climate services that links science-based climate predictions and information with the management of climate-related risks and opportunities in support of adaptation to climate variability and change in both developed and developing countries.”

There appears to be general agreement amongst WMO and its partner agencies that the significant concrete outcome from WCC-3 should be a new “Global Framework for Climate Services” (GFCS) consisting of (Figure 4):

  • A strengthened Global Climate Observing System (GCOS)
  • A strengthened and refocused World Climate Research Programme (WCRP)
  • A new World Climate Services System (WCSS) comprising:


    • A Climate Services Information System
    • A Climate Services Application Programme
figure 4




Figure 4—WCC-3 potentially completing the Global Framework for Climate Services by putting in place a new and strengthened user-focussed World Climate Services System (WCSS)

I believe that the major challenge facing WMO and its WCC-3 International Organizing Committee (WIOC) is to work with WMO’s partner agencies to prepare a detailed prospectus and implementation plan for the new GFCS including especially its information and application components in advance of the Conference; and the major challenge for NMHSs will be to engage with their key user sector partner organizations on the same timescale to develop agreed national strategies for implementation of climate services in support of adaptation in all the major climate-sensitive sectors.

There is no doubt that the activities put in place, both globally and in individual countries, over the past 30 years, under the World Climate Programme will provide a sound foundation for the new GFCS and that there are many potential opportunities, for NMHSs, to build on the regional, national and local service provision arrangements that are already in place.

It is also clear that the joint convening role assigned to WMO and UNESCO for the crosscutting “climate knowledge” component of the “UN System delivering as one on climate change” provides WMO and its partners internationally, and NMHSs and their partners nationally, with a powerful mandate to move aggressively on the enhancement of climate services and their application in support of adaptation.

There has, from time to time, been some criticism of WMO and of the NMSs of its Members for being too inwardly focussed or too slow in gearing up to meet the burgeoning requirements for climate services; criticism made, I believe, without sufficient recognition that it has been the policies of governments, including several of those offering such criticism, that have starved the WMO and NMS communities of resources and tied their hands.  I know of no evidence that WMO is not capable, given the mandate and resources, to lead and strongly support its partners in the UN system in the implementation of GFCS, just as it did so effectively over the first decade of the World Climate Programme.  I believe that the same confidence is warranted, for the same reasons, in the capacity of NMHSs, given the necessary resources, to work with their national partner and user sector communities to implement an effective national framework for climate service provision and application.

Meeting the challenges and grasping the opportunities

In summary, I believe there is no doubt that NMHSs are going to be facing many challenges and opportunities in seeking to play their part in the new Global Framework for Climate Services in support of adaptation to climate variability and change.  Most of the challenges will turn out to be opportunities and most of the opportunities will, doubtless, present some unforeseen challenges but I believe the WMO community as a whole are well positioned to meet them. I would summarize the key challenges for NMHSs as follows:

  • Recognition as national climate authorities. NMHSs, and especially NMSs, will have to work hard to establish and/or maintain their historical status as the national climate authorities for their countries;
  • Investment in national climate infrastructure. A critically important challenge for all NMHSs will be to convince their governments and other potential funding sources of the absolute essentiality of increasing their investment in the national climate observing networks, climate data archives and climate service provision arrangements;
  • Seamless weather and climate services. As the demand for climate prediction and information continues to increase, the challenge for NMHSs (primarily NMSs) will be to implement more integrated weather and climate prediction models and more seamless service arrangements;
  • Service provision partnerships. NMHSs can no longer expect to serve as the sole providers of climate services within their countries. It will be important for them to work with those in the academic and research sectors, as well as with the private sector, to ensure complementarity and mutual support in the provision of the total national climate service for their countries;
  • Outreach to user communities. NMHSs will need to work hard to understand and respond to the needs of users in the various climate sensitive sectors and to develop mutually beneficial working relations with them;
  • Capacity building. Much will depend on the success that NHMSs achieve in building up a cadre of enthusiastic climate experts within their ranks. Their special challenge will be to attract their best young scientists into climate service provision;
  • Strengthened involvement in the Commission for Climatology. The shared challenge of NMHSs and WMO as a whole is to build CCl into a strong intergovernmental organization for dealing with all aspects of climate service provision and application, and
  • Establishment of National Climate Programmes. A major challenge for all countries will be to find ways of coordinating climate related activities at the national level. The original concept of National Climate Programmes remains valid and NMSs will face the challenge of leading in the establishment of appropriately restructured National Climate Programmes within their countries in the wake of WCC-3.

While the challenges may seem formidable, the current global preoccupation with climate also offers many exciting opportunities for NMHSs. I would identify as amongst the most important:

  • Custodianship of the national climate record. The fact that, in almost all countries, the NMS has long been recognized as the custodian of the national climate record, provides extensive opportunities for building effectiveness and visibility in an era of rapidly escalating demand for climate information;
  • Link with WMO programmes. The status of WMO as the scientific and service focus for climate in the UN system provides NMHSs with the opportunity to draw on their involvement in WMO Programmes in establishing their own role in climate matters at the national level;
  • Progress in climate modelling and prediction. Though there are still many scientific challenges ahead in establishing a capacity for decadal and longer-term climate prediction, there have been major recent advances in climate modelling which offer great potential for NMHSs to provide climate outlooks and forecasts of a standard and value that were not achievable in the past;
  • Engagement in the IPCC IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The (AR5) is just getting under way. NMHSs now have the opportunity to become involved in the AR5 process at an early stage as a basis for a much stronger national climate outreach and advisory role in the post-AR5 environment;
  • The information needs of UNFCCC. The escalating information needs of the UNFCCC process and of Parties to the Convention in the post-Copenhagen situation, will provide strong leverage to NMHSs for upgrading their climate observation and information capabilities at the national level;
  • The value of climate information. There is an increasing number of studies demonstrating the value of climate information for decision-making in many climate sensitive sectors. NMHSs have excellent opportunities to build on those studies in demonstrating the overall value of climate information and arguing the need for substantial investment in climate service provision;
  • National arrangements for climate science and services. WMO’s lead role in sponsorship of the World Climate Programme, GCOS, the IPCC and WCC-3 provides NMHSs with the mandate and the opportunity to take a lead role in setting up appropriate national arrangements for climate, whether through the establishment of National Climate Programmes or in other ways.

The way ahead for NMHSs

At the risk of seeming presumptuous and notwithstanding the unique circumstances that apply in each individual country, I would like to offer a few general suggestions for NMHSs on the way ahead:

  • Lead in the national implementation of GCOS. This will provide valuable links with other key agencies with shared interests in observational support for adaptation to climate change;
  • Encourage wide access to the national climate record. The more use that is made of the climate record, the more it will be valued and the easier it will be to muster user support for funding for its maintenance and expansion;
  • Move towards seamless service provision arrangements. This will lead to economies of scope and scale and provide more integrated services to users;
  • Build partnerships with other national climate service providers. This will help ensure political support from other organizations for the core public good responsibilities for data collection, research and modelling;
  • Establish user-liaison mechanisms in key impact sectors. This is essential both for service development and to ensure user feedback for service improvement;
  • Recruit enthusiastic young scientists into climate services. Even one or two enthusiastic outward-oriented service provision staff can greatly enhance the overall effectiveness of the NMS in its national service provision role;
  • Increase NMHS involvement in IPCC and UNFCCC processes. These are the politically high profile climate mechanisms on the international scene. They are also essentially the “customers” of GCOS and WCRP research and have the capability to greatly enhance the effectiveness and impact of NMHSs in their climate service provider role.


I believe that the 21st century imperative of adaptation to a variable and changing climate will present all sectors of society with a growing need for reliable climate information and prediction on all time and space scales.  Meeting that need will be a formidable challenge for NMHSs and their service provision partners around the world but it also provides them with enormous opportunities to contribute, as never before, to the safety, security, health and welfare of their national communities.


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