News Archive

posted 10/16/03

Seasonal Climate Predictions Can Benefit Society
In spite of uncertainty, predictions can save dollars and lives

Climate predictions issued by the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI) such as the one above, can be used for planning and policy purposes in spite of their inherent uncertainty level.

Although seasonal climate predictions will always be probabilistic and therefore have inherent uncertainty, they can be used effectively to save dollars and lives. That was the major finding from a two-day policy forum hosted on April 23-24, 2003 by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), in collaboration with the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“We learned by talking with scientists, policy makers, and users of climate information that decisions made in response to climate predictions can be successful,” said Richard Greenfield, Senior Policy Fellow with the AMS and organizer of the two-day event held last April. “For example, state and local officials in California used climate predictions leading up to the 1997-1998 El Niño to better prepare for the potential flooding. A NOAA economic analysis showed that those predictions may have saved the state over $1 billion in property damages. Those are real dollars saved.”

Flood mitigation efforts are just one example of the benefits that climate predictions can provide. As demonstrated by conference co-sponsors from the Earth Institute at Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI), seasonal predictions can also be used for reservoir and water management decisions, agricultural decisions related to crop selection, irrigation, planting and harvesting schedules, use of chemicals; and emergency preparedness decisions such as planning for disaster assistance facilities and recovery supplies.

Although climate forecasts can be used to make such decisions, many governments and corporations are still hesitant about using climate predictions in their daily business practices.

“The users of climate predictions are concerned about the accuracy and reliability of the predictions and want more data about the potential risks and benefits in using them,” added Greenfield. “They also want to better understand the uncertainties involved in any prediction and how to legally protect themselves in using the predictions. These are valid concerns that the climate science and policy communities must address.”

The goal of the April policy forum, “Improving Responses to Climate Predictions,” was to develop specific recommendations for all players in the climate prediction community. The final report, available on the AMS Web site, contains five general recommendations:

  • The nation should increase the national investment in climate science research, climate impact assessments, and the supporting infrastructure.
  • The climate community should include uncertainty measures with the predictions.
  • All parties should work together to develop national climate prediction capabilities.
  • Academic institutions should establish programs to produce “science integrators” trained to communicate user needs to climate information providers and able to facilitate effective use of climate predictions.
  • The science community and users should partner to develop measures of success.

The more than 100 participants in the Forum also found that to effectively use climate predictions, nations must have appropriate policies governing public and private decisions such as, those that reduce management and/or legal constraints that inhibit application of climate information in decision making.

In response to various policy issues, the Forum recommended that:

  • government decision makers use climate information for their national and international planning;
  • government, academia and the private sector work together to define one or more coordinated efforts to improve climate prediction services and applications;
  • government and academia create educational opportunities for scientists to better understand how society reacts to climate and related forecasts;
  • providers and potential users of climate information recruit and retain science integrators to enable the application of climate science;
  • government make balanced investments in climate prediction research focusing on modeling, data collection and analysis, observations, and collaboration;
  • the World Meteorological Organization should serve as a conduit for sharing climate services and application internationally; and
  • the AMS should provide opportunities for continued science-policy dialogues, since climate science policy is a relatively new area.

“The Forum recommendations can best be implemented through effective public-private-academic sector partnerships,” said Greenfield. “That’s why the dialogues that took place among representatives of these sectors at this Forum were critical first steps in the development of effective responses to climate variations.”

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) is a scientific and professional society of more than 11,000 members from the United States and over 100 foreign countries. The Society has long promoted the link between scientific issues and policy decisions. This is the third forum in the AMS Atmospheric Policy Program’s policy study series. For more information regarding the series, please go to

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences, and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. For more information, please go to

Copies of the report are available on the AMS Web site at or you may obtain a hard copy from Genene Fisher at (202) 737-9006, ext. 422.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.