Q&A: Countries need nuanced climate science to plan for the future

Science and Development Network

By Anika Makri

National adaptation plans are slow to materialise without country-specific models, says WMO’s Elena Manaenkova.

Elena Manaenkova is a meteorologist trained in physics and mathematics, currently serving as deputy secretary general at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“My whole life is in weather and climate and water,” she says in an interview with SciDev.Net at Chatham House in London, after two days of discussions about the future of climate change action.

Established nearly 150 years ago, the WMO is a UN agency that specialises in weather, climate and water resources. This includes forecasting, monitoring and developing technical regulations.

Manaenkova has seen the agency’s work evolve over 16 years in a number of positions, including director of research and chair of a UN Working Group on Climate Change. Here, she talks about how science has affected climate action over the decades and why national action plans need more scientific input.

How has the science that attributes climate change to human activity evolved over the years?

The WMO started seeing that the surface of the planet is warming a century ago. At that time [there] was no robust attribution science, there was just detection [how the change observed now is different from a reference period of 30 years]. That was the beginning.

Two years ago, we celebrated 30 years of the IPCC. The progress has been tremendous. The first, second and third assessments tried to register the signal of anthropogenic effects on climate change. [These] were not conclusive. However, starting with the assessment for 2007, the conclusion on attribution was that climate change is likely affected by human activities. That was a moment when negotiations started converging into the type of [political] agreement necessary. And the last assessment in 2015 - report five - was completely clear on the human signal. Now, the IPCC is in the middle of the sixth assessment report, which will be released in 2022.

What helps right now in taking stronger climate action is that the assessments have more and more precision and clarity. You can see nuances related to coastal areas, communities who live in high mountains, those who are drought-prone. The assessment also becomes clearer in terms of risks and consequences which cannot be avoided.

“The climate system is so complex that it's not easy to say for a particular location what will happen in the next 10 years,”

Is this kind of analysis possible at regional and local levels too?

It is quite a crystal [clear] picture globally. However, when we go to the regions, let alone the more local scale, the IPCC is not able to produce similar assessments. It's not impossible, but it requires [running] massive models. The climate system is so complex that it's not easy to say for a particular location what will happen in the next 10 years.

Instead of waiting for when every country will be capable of downscaling this information [according] to their needs, we're helping with [seasonal] predictions, or annual and inter-annual variability. But right now countries need to make decisions for the longer term - which agriculture practices to apply, where populations should settle. All those nuances are coming through very clearly from the IPCC assessment reports, but they're not necessarily country specific, or don't give enough guidance on how to plan for the future. That's why there is only a dozen national adaptation plans available right now. They need a basis [to set] national scenarios.

What's the problem - is this a matter of data or capacity?

We need to have sufficient regionalised models. The WMO doesn't produce them routinely for all countries. It's hardly possible for each country to have a capability to do it themselves. And is really not necessary. What's necessary is that the knowledge which we generate gets available, and understood, and utilised by the countries.

You’ve spoken about the volume of data needed to run these models – is that also a challenge?

Yes. These IPCC assessments are supported by the Coupled Model Inter-comparison Project – the IPCC takes those projections to look at future scenarios. Right now, the amount of data circulating amongst [the models] is five petabytes. And what we need for the sixth assessment is a much finer spatial resolution with additional information, which would explode the amount of data five-fold up to 20 petabytes. So just massive information, which they struggle to technically produce. And the cost of the system alone is about US$3 billion.

WMO is also working with countries through the Green Climate Fund. Can you explain how?

We created the Global Framework for Climate Services, and the ability of countries to access seasonal inter-annual information is becoming better and better. What we are missing at the WMO right now is the ability to quickly connect with a myriad of users in the domains which are not our traditional clients - the health sector, the energy sector, land, transportation, water management. They [all] need to utilise even probabilistic information in a season or in the year ahead.

So we created a framework to start looking at making these connections. We're not a development agency. But now we realise we will be much more helpful if we put our hands on the places where most of those projects get generated. So with the Green Climate Fund, we came to an agreement [last year] that we will provide expert advice. We are hoping that any project which is now going on through the Green Climate Fund machinery would first have a proper science basis. That’s how we try to influence the investment.

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