Professor Celeste Saulo, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization © WMO

Argentine meteorologist makes history at WMO
In January 2024, Professor Celeste Saulo became the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). She is the first woman to hold this position in the organization’s 150-year history
1 Feb 2024

As a child, Celeste Saulo wanted to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and become a teacher. She loved physics and mathematics at school and an aptitude test suggested she would excel at computer science, geology, architecture, meteorology or astronomy. She was most interested in meteorology and decided to pursue it as a career.

You have been called the Lionel Messi of meteorology. How did you get to this point?

Thank you for comparing me to Messi. That’s quite a compliment, with many layers of meaning. I don’t see myself that way. In fact, I feel very fortunate for the many opportunities I’ve had throughout my meteorology career. I was elected Secretary-General of WMO after a long journey, starting with my university studies in Argentina, where access to public education is a great advantage. I was then able to pursue a doctorate through a scholarship awarded by CONICET (the Argentine National Scientific and Technical Research Council). After I finished my studies, as I was starting to shape my professional and academic path, my primary interest was in numerical modeling, and I also found I had a passion for teaching. This led me to pursue a career in both research and academia. As I advanced in the profession, I became familiar with WMO through its research programs. I was then chosen by my government to lead the Argentine National Meteorological Service, where I had the great opportunity to face many unfamiliar challenges and to learn about many areas in need of development. Internationally, I gradually assumed leadership roles within my region and ultimately, at WMO itself, first as Second Vice-President, then as First Vice-President. My journey has been defined, for the most part, by a commitment to and a passion for the initiatives I have championed. At WMO, I see a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our efforts at different levels. I deeply believe in the importance of passion in one’s work, the necessity of dedication and the power of seizing opportunities. I recognize that I belong to a group of people that have had opportunities not available to everyone, and I feel a profound sense of responsibility to give back to society what it has given to me.

A year of campaigning, interviews with 168 member states and competing against three other candidates for the top position at the World Meteorological Organization. How would you describe this epic election experience?

A year-long campaign, interacting with representatives from 168 member states with all candidates aiming for the same goal – I love the word ‘epic’. That’s exactly how I felt throughout my candidacy. Coming from Argentina, a developing country, and potentially becoming the first female Secretary-General, I faced numerous challenges. However, the support I received was overwhelming. I never felt isolated or that I was driven by personal or national interests. On the contrary, I always felt that I was representing the aspirations of a much larger group of people. 

Throughout the campaign, many countries from different regions around the world made me feel that I could represent their needs. The campaign itself was conducted in a modest manner, relying heavily on personal efforts and dedication, not only from me, but also from individuals from the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, and from the people who accompanied me on this journey: my family. It was a long and grueling campaign, made even more difficult by the distances involved. 

The experience was very demanding but also extremely fulfilling. The result – a first-round victory, something that had not happened at WMO for many years – is a testament to the unwavering dedication, perseverance, and commitment of all those involved. The first feeling that comes to mind when reflecting on this epic journey is gratitude. No one achieves success alone. A campaign that fails to echo the sentiments of the majority will not achieve a positive result. I extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported me, guided me, advised me, and helped me understand the challenges that we need to address in the new mandate.

You’ve spoken about the need for the organization to begin building from the bottom up. How do you see the organization progressing, and what are your priorities in this new phase of your professional life?

I’ve consistently advocated for a bottom-up approach because I’ve observed the organization from the outside, as a member and Vice-President, as having an overly hierarchical structure with respect to the way the Secretariat is organized. I haven’t observed the same hierarchical dynamics among the members, though I’m aware that some members contribute more than others and have a greater influence in various areas due to their developmental level or their ability to donate and therefore assist in the development of others. 

In my view, overly hierarchical institutions today are not in sync with reality. I feel a more effective management approach is one that tackles problems from the ground up. This is not to say that one should not have a top-down perspective – this is the perspective I shared during my campaign. Having a vision of the direction where one wants to go is part of being a leader. The key challenge is how to implement that vision. We need to work from the ground up, because when working with 193 members, there is a large diversity of needs, and it is crucial to understand the various subtitles. We need to start at the most fundamental level to genuinely address those needs, to recognize and empower member countries and their meteorological and hydrological services. 

Listening to members’ voices and addressing their priorities is paramount, and within the Secretariat, it is crucial to cultivate a work environment that encourages dialogue, promotes interaction and dismantles isolated work units and competitive practices.

On multiple occasions, you have stated “the last thing we should do as a society is become paralyzed in the face of climate change.” How can we contribute to addressing this challenge?

Climate change affects us on multiple levels and in many different ways, and like all phenomena that have a global impact, it hits the most vulnerable countries the hardest. WMO’s role is to work with meteorological and hydrological services and to empower them to focus on climate change adaptation. We need to make their actions more visible and effective through early warnings, often alongside climate services. Today, no productive activity can be planned without considering how it is impacted by weather and climate and how changes in weather and climate conditions might affect it. Establishing optimal coordination between meteorological services and decision-makers is essential. The early warnings and climate services provision agendas contain key actions relating to climate change adaptation. However, mitigation is also essential, and we cannot mitigate – or adapt – if we don’t measure. WMO has a program dedicated to operationalizing greenhouse gas measurements and developing protocols that are universally accepted by all countries. Such standardization is vital for accurately determining what is happening with emissions, how the atmosphere is behaving and how the oceans are reacting. 

We need measurements that are reliable, agreed upon by all countries and which employ a methodology that permits us to say, definitively, ‘This is what is happening. This is affecting this part of the world this way and that part of the world that way.’ Along with communicating and elevating this issue to the highest possible priority on national agendas, and promoting the solutions that come from working with National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, this is the fundamental contribution of WMO.

You have said that you want to lead WMO towards a future in which every member’s voice is equally heard, priority is given to the most vulnerable and the actions that the organization takes are tailored to each member’s unique needs and circumstances. How are you going to do this?

Leading WMO towards a future in which every member’s voice is equally heard is essentially what I have been discussing in the previous answers. I believe we need to engage with each member and understand the needs and context in which each country’s meteorological and hydrological services operate. For this, our regional offices can play a pivotal role. They need to be empowered to make direct contact with each member, to understand each member’s needs and priorities, as well as their capacities. Most countries have a very clear vision of where they want to go and how to get there. They only need some additional support to help guide their projects and strengthen their capacities in terms of infrastructure or specific training. 

I am convinced that the key is to work directly with the communities and to partner with other United Nations agencies, each with its unique role, working collaboratively, rather than in silos, and seeking out strategic partners to develop capacities in other countries. I believe that collaborative, codeveloped and codesigned models are the only way to move forward and enable countries to truly improve their capacities in a sustainable manner. We must also rely on what developed countries can contribute through bilateral or multilateral agreements, as well as the strengths of the private and academic sectors. All these elements need to be brought into play, and for this, a strong desire to work collaboratively is necessary. This is something I am committed to. 

Another aspect I want to highlight is the support for humanitarian efforts and the agencies working in this area. Here, I would like to mention the example of the WMO Coordination Mechanism, supported by the Swiss Meteorological Service (MeteoSwiss), which aids various humanitarian efforts by providing relevant meteorological information. The world is currently grappling with wars, conflicts, tensions, forced migrations. We know that there are many global consequences to these situations and that they involve and, to a certain extent, expose societies to heightened risks. The humanitarian response to such situations includes the provision of key meteorological information to safeguard vulnerable groups. In summary, having mechanisms to help those affected by disasters, while simultaneously building capacities so that countries are better equipped to anticipate hazards and mitigate the impacts of natural hazards, is the essence of what we must achieve to fulfill our mission. 

* Gemma Capellas Espuny is the Head of Linguistic Production and Mark Blaustein is a Linguist (English principal language), WMO.
Read more articles about FOCUS ON