Gathering force

OUR PLANET 9.6 - Climate and Action

Gathering force


violent waves

In November 1998, two countries of South America will play host to two very important meetings that bear on the intimate relationship between humanity and the environment. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - the Convention to mitigate and redress human impacts on the climate system - will convene for their fourth session. At the same time, in Guyaquil, Ecuador, the United Nations system will begin an assessment of the widespread and devastating impact that the global climate system can exert on humanity during the course of a single intense El Niño event.

The process to address the potential impact of human activities on climate, that began in earnest in Rio de Janeiro with the establishment of Agenda 21, was carried forward to Japan last year with the historic signing of the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol, important though it is, was seen as only the first step in an extremely complex sequence of actions required to undo the damage already done and to set in place the basis for sustainable development throughout all the nations of the world. The Buenos Aires Conference will have to deal with the issue of 'sinks' for greenhouse gases, which has the potential for drastically changing the net emissions of individual countries and hence changing the profile of where the burden of responsibility will lie. Further, a range of new concepts, such as 'emissions trading', needs to be elaborated by the Parties. Of great interest to the scientific community is the long-term future of observing and monitoring systems that need to be assured if we are to fully comprehend the ongoing changes that may be taking place within the climate system at global, regional and national levels.


As if to highlight the urgency to act, the 12 months since Kyoto have seen the mean surface temperature of the Earth continue its inexorable rise of the past decade. In addition, many parts of the world have been subjected to a seemingly unending barrage of climatic extremes in the form of drought, flood and intense storms. All too often these climatic abnormalities have turned into human catastrophes.

The El Niño event of 1997-1998 was possibly the strongest event of its kind in recorded history, and disrupted the lives of millions of people across all continents. However, not all the climate extremes and severe weather events of the past year can be directly attributed to the El Niño event. Further, not all of its impacts were negative and in several instances those countries and regions that were, in the light of previous events, expected to suffer were not so seriously affected. The intergovernmental forum of experts in Guayaquil will assess the scope of the impacts of the 1997-1998 El Niño. It will assess how well the onset of the event and its course were predicted, and how well these predictions and other monitoring activities helped nations all over the world and international agencies to mitigate damage and to prepare relief measures. The forum will draw together the experiences of different regions throughout the world in coping with the event. For example, will the preparatory actions taken in several countries of South America in advance of the 1997-1998 event be applicable to countries in Southeast Asia and Africa when the next El Niño event comes, as it surely will?


The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) provides the intergovernmental scientific and technical coordinating framework to improve our understanding of the climate system, to monitor its vagaries and to detect any changes that may be going on. The WMO has been especially active through its member countries and its Secretariat in providing support to these two important and complementary assessment activities. In collaboration with partner organizations within the United Nations system and other non-governmental organizations, the WMO will continue to play a vital role in the continuing struggle by humanity to move into balance with the environment of planet Earth.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Gunnar Kullenberg: Making the links (Oceans) 1998
Michael H. Glantz: Current events (Climate Change) 1997
G.O.P. Obasi: The atmosphere: global commons to protect (Atmosphere) 1996



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