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Stormy skies for weather amendment bill

I recently wrote about the South Africa Weather Service Amendment Bill. I admit that I posted about this because I thought it was kind of cute that the SA government was banning non-official weather forecasts. Maybe a bit silly — I hear that’s what blog-readers sometimes like in the middle of their otherwise very serious day solving the world’s problems. Perhaps the issue was even somewhat reflective of other SA government initiatives to control the circulation of information. But not because I thought it was a real, honest-to-goodness political issue.

Turns out that it is.

The Democratic Alliance circulated a press release describing how the amendment will limit information to those whose needs are not met by the South Africa Weather Service (SAWS). They argue,

A number of local operators provide excellent weather services for customers with specialised needs. For instance, crucial fire danger rating data may be available only from highly localised sources. Farmers need this information at the drop of a hat; it is therefore wrong that these sources may be in danger of breaking the law if they provide the information without permission.

A member of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, however, explains why the bill is necessary:

To further put these provisions into our current context  one of the accepted impacts of climate change is the possible increase in the frequency, intensity and range of extreme weather events. In order to ensure that we build our resilience to these impacts, we must ensure that our warning systems are efficient, effective and, most importantly, credible. With the real possibility of increasing extreme weather events, the potential for false, misleading and/or hoax warnings significantly undermining public confidence in, and/or appropriate public reaction to, warnings is of real concern.

He also notes that SAWS has been the only official provider of severe weather warnings, and this bill simply seeks to punish those who violate a rule that has always been in place.

No one likes a bad weather forecast when the weather turns out to be nice; and vice versa. But while we still live in a world where no government weather agency has anything remotely approaching a perfect forecasting track record, the SA government might do better to try to build trust in its own information, rather than banning competing ideas and predictions, even erroneous ones, from circulation.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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