Weathervane: The UN Forecasts the next Phase of El Niño Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jan

weather (2)

Like many people in the US (and certainly in other parts of the world) I am beginning this morning by switching on the weather forecast.  In so doing, I discover that it is going to be a warm, wet and windy January day in New York, but also learn about the deep freeze in the center of the US and Canada, ongoing drought in southern Africa and Central America, un-seasonal tropical depressions in the Pacific, and much more weather-related information that is of interest to some and a warning to others.

The fascination that many of us have with weather goes beyond strategic matters such as how many layers of clothing to put on or whether or not to pack an umbrella.   As farmers know better than most of the rest of us, weather represents one of the major variables of our daily lives, a variable to which we must adjust but over which we have virtually no control.  As my weather-attentive grandmother used to share with me (ad nauseam), “whether it’s cold, or whether it’s hot, there’s going to be weather, whether or not.”

In the temperate zones, our weather adjustments are largely confined to manageable temperature and precipitation variations, though there are also increasingly dangerous weather configurations that command our interest and even our awe – hurricanes/cyclones along the coasts of states large and small; tornados, lightning storms and other violent and erratic weather systems; major shifts in surface temperatures, sometimes during the course of a single day;  patterns of drought punctuated by torrential rains creating flooding in areas where parched soil is simply incapable of absorbing so much water; rising tides caused in part by melting ice caps.

Weather can be a significant social leveler within states though not necessarily between them.  Funnel clouds don’t know to avoid wealthy neighborhoods and massive ocean weather systems do considerable damage to the largest (and smallest) shoreline homes. Our growing collective fascination with challenging weather patterns also transcends social class limitations, though we cannot emphasize enough that levels of resilience regarding weather’s effects vary dramatically, sometimes to life threatening degrees.

This past Thursday, the UN convened an event to help assess and address some of the effects of the El Niño system and its warming ocean waters that has scrambled any and all of our comfortable assumptions regarding weather patterns and their seasonal variations.  Chaired by USG and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, and involving representatives from the World Meteorological Association (WMO) and administrators of UN country teams in Guatemala, Lesotho, Ethiopia and other affected regions, the meeting was designed to bring more international attention to, as the representative of Fiji put it, “the slow onset disaster,” set in motion by this particularly robust iteration of El Niño.

The UN discussion hit many important notes.   O’Brien himself noted that this version of El Niño is not a product of the climate distress that recently resulted in the Paris agreement, but that the consequences from this weather phenomenon, as the WMO also noted, are being felt “at a higher level” because of climate change.  O’Brien stressed the growing threats of food insecurity from severe drought, from flooding, and from cyclones in and around small island states, and he called for closer partnerships between development and humanitarian officials to mitigate weather-related distress and help “under-funded” states prepare “for what we know is coming.”

For their part, the UN country team representatives focused less on what is coming and more on the damage that has already taken place, from looming malnutrition in Ethiopia and disease outbreaks in Fiji to fresh water scarcity in Lesotho that is having profoundly negative implications for health care in that country.   At the same time, Guatemala’s UN field representative cited factors such as inequality, corruption and “institutional discrimination” that continue to impede otherwise critical efforts to respond to the country’s current, weather-related vulnerabilities.

As the representative of WMO demonstrated, this El Niño event will not last forever.  Apparently, there will likely be some return to “neutral conditions” mid-year, after which we are likely to have to cope with La Niña impacts.  But it was also made clear that El Niño impacts, perhaps even the most severe of them, have not run their course, and thus significant, sustained attentiveness at UN level to emergency response preparedness is more than warranted.

As is so often the case in this world, it is the poor and marginalized who generally suffer most from chaotic, dangerous weather systems.  The UN, specifically USG O’Brien, is to be commended for holding this briefing and for fully integrating perspectives from both weather scientists and officials from already affected regions. However, given that so many states are, indeed, “already affected” by current weather emergencies, we urge UN colleagues to find ways to get further ahead of the weather curve; helping to ensure that all of us – especially the vulnerable, the disabled and the politically marginal — are sufficiently prepared to cope with a range of potentially deadly (albeit at times fascinating) weather threats.

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