Why you should care
Lisa Goddard’s predictions are good enough for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
In Cape Town, the residents brace for “Day Zero” in late August, when the taps could run dry. Further north, in the Sahel, drought has prematurely thrust migrating communities into the crosshairs of soldiers from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, adding to the conflict around the Lake Chad Basin.
Looking out her window at the snow-covered ground following another nor’easter, climate scientist Lisa Goddard ponders weather’s effect on other global crises: the drought leading to the Syrian civil war, torrential rain causing floods in India and Pakistan, the recent hurricanes that wrecked the Caribbean — outcomes she might have predicted. But unlike a TV meteorologist, Goddard, director of Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), doesn’t attempt to forecast the weather on any specific day. Rather, she looks months ahead, offering longer-term predictions — a bit like The Old Farmer’s Almanac but with “climatology and actual statistics of variability behind it,” she says.
“We study phenomena that may cause a region’s climate to differ from previous years,” Goddard continues. “A key factor is the temperature of the oceans … and since ocean currents change slowly, we can anticipate their effects on the atmosphere.”
As the director of IRI, which assists developing countries to prepare for and manage the impacts of climate change, Goddard, 51, has traveled from Colombia to Zambia — and many countries in between — helping to build national forecasting systems from scratch and working with aid agencies, such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to anticipate the next weather emergency. Until just recently, however, neither Goddard nor academics in general have been seated at the tables of the United Nations, the World Bank or any other multilateral organization advising on policy and programs for society at large.
Goddard is less concerned about melting icecaps and “sky is falling” predictions than developing a “global framework for climate services.”
That will soon change. In April 2017, President Lee Bollinger announced Columbia World Projects (CWP) — perhaps the most ambitious undertaking in his nearly 16-year tenure — to connect the capacities of the Ivory Tower to organizations with the power to translate research into programs that benefit the global community. “The extraordinary developments in recent decades of greater interconnectedness … have created or accelerated highly complex problems and have given rise to political movements favoring a reversal or change of course,” Bollinger said in a statement announcing CWP. “The multilateral institutions created in the period following the Second World War are straining under new realities. … All of this calls out for universities to become more involved.”
Nicholas Lemann, former dean of Columbia’s journalism school, has been tasked with directing CWP, and Goddard will lead its inaugural project focused on climate threats to food production and nutrition in six countries (Ethiopia, Senegal, Colombia, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Vietnam). In addition to improving food security, her goals include expanding economic livelihoods and supporting environmental stability. Goddard also wants to expand an enterprise created and implemented at the IRI — index insurance, which issues payouts to farmers in years when the weather causes categorical loss.
Surprisingly, climate change did not drive Goddard’s interest in weather. It started instead with a love of physics. Born in California to a teacher and a government official, Goddard received her undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in atmospheric and oceanic sciences from Princeton University. While at Princeton, she developed a curiosity about the cyclical El Niño climate pattern, which brought her to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the El Niño guru himself: Mark Cane, who helped build the first computer model to successfully predict the 1985 El Niño months in advance. Cane went on to found the IRI with a mission to help millions of people by better preparing for the effects of droughts and changing ocean temperatures.
“I have known Lisa since she was a student, and as the IRI director, she has worked a miracle, taking an organization that was demoralized and facing a serious threat to its existence, and bringing it to extraordinary vibrancy,” says Cane, referring to IRI’s loss of funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which threatened to shutter the institute a few years back.
“I believe the IRI is increasingly recognized worldwide as the expert institution for application of climate science to societies in the developing world. This was what the IRI was intended to be, but it took Lisa to make it a reality,” Cane adds.
For her part, Goddard, who has two sons and lives north of Manhattan near the Hudson River, says that she is less concerned about melting icecaps and “sky is falling” predictions than developing a “global framework for climate services.” Still, she has her critics. Judith Curry, a former professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of the Climate Forecast Applications Network, says that IRI’s seasonal forecasting methods are several levels below state of the art.
“Their approach relies heavily on forecasts of the impacts of El Niño and La Niña, which has no particular skill beyond a few months,” Curry says. “Even if they were able to accurately predict [the El Niño effect], this shows very little skill in predicting the intensity of the Asian and African monsoon rains. Simply put, they are not using the best models, and their interpretation of the drivers of climate dynamics is overly simplistic.”
Goddard says that even the best models have errors and biases. “This is something that is not handled in any sophisticated way for real-time prediction at any other center in the world,” she explains. “The biggest sin in the prediction world … is using the output of a model, straight off the shelf, and without consideration of those who are using the information.” People of all backgrounds with a little training can make use of the information the IRI provides, Goddard insists, not just climate scientists.
“Once, in a meeting in Kenya,” Goddard recalls, “a colleague of mine communicated the concept of probability, which is not a word in their local language, to aid workers by using a paper airplane, which he flew repeatedly, marking all the spots where it landed on the floor to represent the range of possible climate outcomes.
“The locals got it, and their communities have since embraced our forecasts.”