Geneva, proudly standing on the banks of the Rhone river and the stunning Lake Geneva, is famed for its banking industry and for being the home of the uber-rich. But Geneva is also an international hub for diplomacy and development, reaching broader horizons than its home in Switzerland: the headquarters of the Red Cross, one of the United Nations’ (UN) global hubs and home to many of its specialist organisations.
Putting my PhD on hold in March 2016, I first set foot in the offices of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), one of these specialist organisations of the UN. The WMO focuses on global collaborations in weather, climate, hydrology and related geophysical sciences. I was beginning a three month internship there, which gave me a fascinating glimpse into how such a technical international organisation works and what their role is (or should be).
A quiet giant
At its core, the WMO focuses on three topics: weather, climate and water. In a way it is the supra-national body that deals with the work of Met Offices around the world. Because borders have little relevance for these topics, the establishment of the International Meteorological Organization dates back to 1873, a time at which national meteorological organisations were popping up around the globe. This organisation then became the WMO in 1950, and the specialised agency of the UN in 1951.
It’s apparent that the WMO is relatively unheard of amongst the general public and often specialists as well. But as I discovered, there is a fancy Nobel prize medal in the WMO headquarters for all to gaze at, which recognises the WMO’s role in creating the renowned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) jointly with the United Nations’ Environment Program (UNEP).
I am undertaking my PhD in atmospheric physics as part of a doctoral training partnership (SSCP-DTP) with the UK Met Office as industrial collaborators, thus when it came to selecting a placement, the WMO was a natural choice. Yet I also feel this is a typical roadblock to the organisation’s mission as its reputation and reach are largely restricted to the meteorological and hydrological community. The WMO also often cooperates with other organisations such as the World Bank, UNEP and WHO (World Health Organization), providing technical assistance to specific projects that these other organisations might have more capabilities and agility to lead.
Now, as more and more funding is poured into international projects related to climate adaptation, resilience to natural hazards and climate mitigation, the WMO aims to move towards a more flexible, more active approach. Hopefully in ten years’ time I may no longer have to explain what it is to people …
Cities on the agenda
The work I did at WMO is typical of its processes. I was working on synthesising the WMO’s vision on urban matters, focusing on contributing to Habitat-III, a conference organized by UN-Habitat and to be held this autumn. This sprouted from a clause in the last World Meteorological Congress, in 2015, to produce such documents and to create a cross-cutting urban-focused agenda – indeed urban issues like floods, air pollution, emission reduction or early storm warnings are all relevant to different departments within WMO. Because the congress did not dictate how this would be supported, it became a secondary task for 20-odd people and eventually fell into the lap of an intern (me). My report will be released in October, but in the meantime you can visit this page for more details about the WMO’s work on urban development and megacities.
Collaboration is the name of the game at WMO. Each group involved had a different project, agenda they wanted to be advertised, and on top of that each individual had their own writing style and ideas on how to best advertise the work of the WMO. This meant I spent a lot of time understanding internal politics, their justification, how to best represent them, all while trying to maintain a good relationship with each and every group. In reality that means you have to be humble, decisive, flexible yet rigorous, and gain a technical understanding of varied topics.
In academia your ego can become over-inflated. We have to nurture and defend our own ideas, selection makes us highly competitive, our adoration of science makes us brush aside politics, and we spend far too much time on our own. To accept constant criticism in order to fulfil the goal set out as a couple of clauses in a 708-page document is a truly rewarding and maturing thing, one I recommend to everyone.
Here, the UN staff I met inspired me with their dedication to helping others in less fortunate situations. Their egos came second to fulfilling what they consider a duty to society. They need to be able to find a compromise that satisfies political agendas while making sure experts’ recommendations (often blind to the former) are applied. One of my colleagues went to Afghanistan to help set-up hydrological observations, something critical to prevent impacts from flooding, for agriculture to flourish and much more. He had to wear bulletproof vests and venture in notoriously dangerous territories. I asked him whether he was afraid, his answer: People in Afghanistan are relying on me, if they can live and work there, how can I respect myself if I fail them?
This experience has given me the opportunity to maintain an involvement with the WMO by performing small tasks for and partaking in a workshop on fires in South East Asia. It means extra workload that eats into my free time, but the opportunity to have a positive impact is worth it. This placement also gave me the chance to put my own research into context, helping me understand which outcomes of our research might be useful to others beyond the scientific sphere.
And let’s not forget the human side of the experience: many of the UN staff shared their wisdom on a technical, but also on a human level, taking a real interest in our future. Meanwhile, the large community of interns and young professional both within and without the organisation, with a great variety of cultural and academic backgrounds made the whole experience very fun and enriching.