“Forecasting the weather” vs. “protecting life and property?”

A big leap.

Just how big a leap? And why? Why is it so difficult to go beyond a forecast of the weather, an inherently chaotic system, to using that forecast to protect life and property? What makes that seemingly incremental step so monumental?

It’s the shift from a purely physical system to an essentially human one. Humans are individually and corporately far more complex.

Intractably so, according to Richard Bookstaber, an academic economist, who’s also turned his hand to finance and hedge fund management in the world’s markets. He’s just published a new book, entitled The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction. His book touches on weather (and even space weather!) a bit, but his main focus is the question: why can’t economics predict financial crises (e.g., 2007-2008)? He concludes that economic models are flawed in four basic respects.

  1. They can’t handle emergent phenomena – the way that the aggregate of human interactions can evolve in ways unrelated to individual intentions (his favorite examples are stampedes and traffic bunch-ups).
  2. The models fail to account for the ways history comes into play. The atmosphere’s future behavior will be determined solely by its initial state – not the prior circumstances that brought it there. By contrast, for human beings, history (experience) – not some aggregated cultural history, but unique individual histories – make a critical difference in behavior. Traditional economic models fail to capture this non-ergodic feature.
  3. Social behavior is not just uncertain – it’s radically uncertain, defying model characterization by the usual statistical approaches.
  4. The models confront what he calls “computational irreducibility”; the future is so complex, and the effect of human interactions so unfathomable, that people cannot possibly create models to anticipate the outcome.

Hmm. At this point, you and I might reasonably have two questions. First, what do attempts to model financial crises have to do with making weather forecasts suitable for impact-based decision support? Well, it’s not a perfect fit, but human and institutional decisions based on projections about financial markets and coming booms or busts would appear to be in some sense similar to decisions based on information about weather opportunity and risk. These same challenges face us. When we go beyond characterization of the atmosphere per se to messaging that attempts to help people make decisions (“turn around, don’t drown,” “break the grip of the rip,” “in case of earthquake, climb to higher ground,” “tomorrow you won’t have to irrigate,” and “for the next three hours, wind and solar energy will supply xx% of the electrical demand,” and more), we’re in essence trying to forecast not only the weather, but also the human response to a few words of warning delivered as a text or orally, or an image conveying the same content. Hardly surprising we find this difficult.

Second, doesn’t modeling of weather share some of the same four complexities described above? Yes, weather modelers might make such a case that to some extent we deal already with #’s 1,3, and 4, allowing for some differences of opinion we might all have with respect to details. But #2 is more problematic. You could argue that any given state of the atmosphere says much about where it was at the previous moment, but it’s possible to proceed without delving into that past. Moreover, it might be harder to make a case about “individual differences” in experience, or even what that means in the atmospheric instance.

But Mr. Bookstaber brings up a fifth issue, a pièce de résistance: George Soros’ idea of “reflexivity.” Think of this as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle on steroids. According to Heisenberg, the mere act of observing a physical particle’s position increases the observer’s uncertainty about the particle’s velocity; in turn, measuring its velocity increases uncertainty with respect to its position. Soros notes that economic actors – individuals, banks, corporations, et al. – avidly read economic predictions or central-bank signals of intent, and then actively, intentionally change their behavior in ways that suit their purposes but in the process render those forecasts less accurate, and policy shifts less useful. He uses an example from real estate: the belief that housing prices always rise makes buyers more willing to pay higher prices, and financing more readily available; hence house prices rise.

We see similar instances of this in meteorology. The finding that evacuation orders in the face of an oncoming hurricane find resistance in the threatened area; as many as half of those ordered to leave may choose to stay. At the same time, many who were asked to stay home instead hit the road, needlessly and counterproductively clogging escape routes for others. Another: viewed from the standpoint of a single homeowner facing a tornado strike on his/her home in fifteen minutes, flight might seem to make sense. But that fails to account for the actions of all other neighbors; if everyone tries to leave, the resulting traffic snarl increases the vulnerability for all.

With respect to economic forecasts of financial crises, Mr. Bookstaber offers an alternative to the economic models currently in favor. He calls this “agent-based economics,” in which the modeler doesn’t assume that all the actors in the financial markets are the same. Instead Mr. Bookstaber advocates building models that describe the major categories of players in financial markets (banks, central banks, hedge funds, big investors, et al.) and the rudiments of their goals and ways and means of engagement, and then running the models much as traffic modelers attempt to capture the features of traffic bunching. He doesn’t attempt to model precisely how the next financial crisis will unfold, but instead runs his models numerous times to build up what he calls “narratives” that capture the range of ways events might unfold. (To the meteorologist-reader, this is reminiscent of what ensemble forecasts do for us.)

The book is short. It is well written. The examples are clear, easily understood, and the arguments compelling and mind-expanding. A good use of a couple of hours for anyone working at the nexus of meteorology, social science, and weather services.

Summing up? The shift to impact-based decision support from forecasts of physical weather conditions per se is a big leap.

Like going to “lightning” from “lightning bug.”

In the next post, a look at the policy implications.

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Weather services and social science: the tail (re)-discovers the dog.

For the past year or so it’s been my privilege to be part of a National Academy of Sciences study on social and behavioral sciences and the weather enterprise. We’re in the process of concluding the study; the findings and recommendations will be a topic for another day. In the meantime, here’s some personal reflection prompted by the study and by some related reading during a vacation just concluded (as envisioned at the moment, this will be the first post of a three-part series).

For almost all of human experience (going back the order of a few millions of years, so a considerable time), experiencing weather conditions, anticipating weather changes, and weaving those into decisions and actions was a wholly individual matter. The entire process – the making of meteorological forecasts, the application of social science to provide impact-based decision support, and the decisions and actions based on all that – didn’t have these labels that we use today. It lacked theoretical foundation and analysis. It was flawed and imperfect in myriad other ways. Though not subconscious, it was not exactly accomplished with full self-awareness. That said, it was experience-based, seamless and integrated. Our ancestors would look at the sky, more or less frequently depending on what was going on, and plan accordingly.

This universal human thought process wasn’t incidental to human history. It mattered! Thinking and acting like meteorologists made us who we are today.

Just how strong was that influence? The anthropologist Clive Finlayson, in his book The Improbable Primate[1], gives us some idea. He puts forward the hypothesis that humans are brainy compared with our simian forebears because of the competitive advantage inherent in understanding the connection between weather and (patchy) water availability, and the concentration of food (game and plant life). He also argues that we’re lanky compared with those same forebears because being able to run quickly to seize rain-related hunting and feeding opportunities outweighed any self-protective advantages of being squat and chunky. Picture hundreds of thousands of thought processes like the following extending over a million years: That line of cumulonimbus on the horizon? It’s raining over there! The land is blooming, coming alive. Game – prey and predators alike – are gathering. The moment won’t last forever. We’ve got to get moving, join the party[2].

Fast-forward to the 1800’s. By this time, human beings were seeing meteorology and weather forecasting as a distinct, self-contained topic, suitable for study in and of itself. Progress was slow but accelerated greatly with the invention of the Victorian internet – the telegraph – which made it possible for countries and continents to assemble time synchronous (synoptic) pictures of weather patterns and track their movements. Many nations established weather services. Understanding flowered. A century later weather services would receive another big boost – this time from new observing tools such as radar and weather satellites, and from computing, which ushered in numerical weather prediction.

From the first, national weather services were very much organized and structured to provide practical benefit – usually captured in some mission statement referencing the protection of lives and property. In the United States, for example, the early years of the Signal Service focused on public safety, but gave explicit, special attention to the safety of sailors on the Great Lakes, support for cotton agriculture, and river forecasts. With time, other sectors such as fire weather and aviation have been added to (or sometimes subtracted from) the mix.

For their part, governments, the public and weather-dependent business sectors have always seen the utility of weather forecasts, but at the same time hoped for improvement. And improvement there has been! For most of the past century, the focus has been on physics. It’s been tacitly assumed that the key to greater utility of weather forecasts lay in improving the accuracy of the physical forecasts themselves (predictions of temperature, winds, and precipitation, etc.), refining the specifics of weather-event location and duration, and extending the time horizon of forecasts from hours to days to weeks.

In recent years, however, as forecasts of physical atmospheric conditions have gotten better, the picture has changed. In judging the value of weather services by evaluating decisions and actions of individuals, emergency managers; federal, state, and local governments; and private businesses in the face of weather forecasts, it is increasingly evident the factors limiting forecast value today are largely social. Limitations in risk communication – both the crafting of mass messages and their interpretation. The role of individual past experience in shaping response. The emerging role of social media. Demographics – including but not limited to special issues with the elderly, the young, the sick, underrepresented groups, pet owners. The overlay of competing daily concerns for attention: jobs, education, kids, healthcare. Environmental justice (or, more commonly, its lack or deficiency). Social context and governing policy frameworks, including the relative emphasis given pre-event hazard mitigation versus emergency response, and much more.

And guess what? As meteorological sciences have advanced over the past century, so have the social sciences also emerged as separate disciplines in their own right and moved forward. Psychology, sociology, economics, geography, communication, and many other disciplines have been born and flowered – and now have much to offer in the way of insights about how and why  we humans individually and in groups think and behave the way we do, including our  development of and response to information of all sorts, including weather forecasts in particular.

Whew! Get the idea? Any short listing of the social side of the problem such as the above fails to do the justice to the challenge. To expand focus from weather observation and prediction per se to protection of life and property isn’t just an incremental step or small extension.

It’s a giant, transformational leap. (Wow! That sure is a big dog…)

The next two posts will respectively look more closely at (1) the nature of this leap, and (2) the public-policy implications.


[1]You can find a recent LOTRW post on the book here.

[2] Please make allowances for the anachronisms – obviously none of this is the vernacular of the time…

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A televised red-blue debate on climate change?

One of the topics that came up while I was on the road for the past month. Haven’t seen anything more on it this past week, so this post may be “kicking a dead horse.” (In any case, this horse deserves to die.)

A bit of world news from July 11:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the early stages of launching a debate about climate change that could air on television – challenging scientists to prove the widespread view that global warming is a serious threat, the head of the agency said.

The move comes as the administration of President Donald Trump seeks to roll back a slew of Obama-era regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and begins a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement – a global pact to stem planetary warming through emissions cuts.

“There are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered (about climate change),” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.

“Who better to do that than a group of scientists… getting together and having a robust discussion for all the world to see,” he added without explaining how the scientists would be chosen…


Dictionaries tell us that debates are public discussions involving opposing points of view, or formal contests in which affirmative and negative views of a proposition are presented by opposing speakers. Google the expression “famous debates,” and you’ll be treated to a host of links, mainly reserved for presidential campaigns (think Kennedy-Nixon or Bush-Gore), with the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate thrown in for good measure.

Not bad! Debates are best reserved for topics where there is no single right answer, or where audience judgment matters – like “I’d make a better president than that person.” As for those formal contests, such as high-school and college debates, the rules for judging and scoring these over the years have grown progressively more arcane .

But when it comes to questions such as “What will nature do next?,” where the answer matters, and where nature, not any human judge or audience, is the final arbiter, then a common search for truth is a better approach than debate.

Meteorologists have long known this. A fixture in the profession is the so-called map discussion, dating back to a time when meteorologists in a weather bureau office at the start of a work-shift would take the latest analysis of weather conditions and/or a numerical forecast, spread it over a table, and hold a group discussion of what it portended in terms of weather challenges and impacts. For example, will today be that one day in a hundred that will spawn a tornado in the afternoon? Where will that hurricane bearing down on the coast make landfall, and will it be at high tide or low tide? Will the coming winter storm intensify or dissipate? (Today such discussions might take place in front of computer monitors but the idea holds and the routine followed.) The goal was (and remains today) less about winning or losing and more about collectively preparing to provide the best-possible life- and property-saving forecasts to a range of users – from the general public and emergency managers  to farmers to air traffic controllers, state departments of transportation, and water resource managers over the next several hours.

Map discussions aren’t one-off! They’re necessarily ongoing. Weather and climate are inherently chaotic and uncertain. Thus the tornado outlook based on conditions at 8:00 a.m. may have changed substantially by 9:00, as new information comes in. Throughout the day, forecasters will be regrouping and revisiting the discussion hour by hour. In the same way hurricanes will be continually monitored as they approach landfall, with forecasters looking for each slight shift in direction, any slowing or acceleration of the hurricane along the track, sometimes every few hours over as much as a week or two.

The process scales up. A morning tornado outlook? By the end of same work-shift, nature will make it apparent how insightful the meteorologists (considered as a team) had been. Meteorologists may see a hurricane or winter storm coming days or even a week or so in advance, and revisiting its progress every several hours. Put the ocean in play, and the outlook for a coming cold- or warm season comes into focus: its likelihood of being colder or warmer, or wetter or drier, than the norm. Introduce human behavior in the mix – fossil fuel use, level of economic activity, consumption of resources, modification of landscapes and ecosystems, etc. – and it’s possible to draw inferences about changes in climate over decades or centuries. Each forecast on each time scale prompts its own, commensurate map discussion. Each takes longer to verify (or come a cropper), but in each instance, nature, not any human or group, is the ultimate arbiter.

Even that lattermost one – the prospects for, and the nature of, natural and human-induced climate variability and change.

Climate change has triggered a map-table discussion of truly global proportions – conducted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Thousands of scientists from all over the world build their data and models and carry out research to contribute. And the world’s peoples, though their leaders, and through their respective governments (hence Intergovernmental), run the show and sign off. Of course, it scales up from that tornado discussion. There the forecasters might be huddling in a group of no more than a dozen. Each meteorologist speaks for minutes or seconds in turn; the whole conversation is over quickly. Climate offers more time, and demands more attention. And it can’t be done just once, any more than that tornado forecast. In the climate case, each iteration takes a few years, not a few minutes. That’s enough time for learning, not just time for the accumulation of new data. The “map discussion” was started in 1988 with the first IPCC assessment provided in 1990. The sixth IPCC assessment is scheduled for completion in 2022. (The IPCC has held 45 meetings over the same period.)

U.S. leaders are free to shape American participation in and review of the process in any of a number of sensible ways. The process certainly doesn’t need to be reinvented – or for that matter thoughtlessly and blasphemously trivialized, by a brief, necessarily superficial televised debate.

“…a group of scientists… getting together and having a robust discussion for all the world to see?” That’s exactly what the periodic UN/IPCC Assessments already provide. Let’s not settle for less! Let’s not belittle nature and her vital role in human affairs, by attempting to reduce climate change to something no more consequential than another episode of The Apprentice.

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Remembering C. Gordon Little, 1924-2017

I returned to my desk this morning after a month out of the office to the (belated) unhappy news that C. Gordon Little had passed away. Forty-four years ago, Gordon took a risk and gave me my first science-management position, in the process changing my life forever… and forever for the better. I will always be grateful, and words be always be inadequate.

Speaking of words, I blogged here in LOTRW about Gordon and his leadership and vision a while back, in December 2010. The passage is reprinted below[1].

No getting around it. To be successful, leaders must:

dream a great dream, and share it.

My first professional experience with this – in fact, the experience that drove home this notion – came early in my career, in 1970. Up until that time I’d been working in what was then the Environmental Science Services Administration, in the Ionospheric Propagation Laboratory, in Boulder. Gordon Little, the Director of the Wave Propagation Laboratory, asked me to join him, just at the moment when ESSA was being folded into a new federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Ionospheric Propagation Laboratory was being calved into a new National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Gordon Little was and remains an extraordinary individual. A Brit (who became a U.S. citizen), he was born in China, the son of missionaries. He was Cambridge educated and would in time be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. His scientific and technical accomplishments over several decades were legion. However, please focus here on the remarkable step he took in 1967. He voluntarily stepped down from his position as director of ESSA’s Institute for Telecommunication Sciences and Aeronomy, which comprised multiple laboratories. Why? In order to form a new, remote-sensing Wave Propagation Laboratory within that complex.

Would you and I have done that? Probably not. On the surface it looked like a huge cut to his former considerable responsibilities. Why give all that up?

But over time the new laboratory, though small, proved to be a cornucopia of new tools for observing the oceans and atmosphere and learning their secrets. The work there spawned a range of innovative optical remote sensing technologies, the wind profiler, the CODAR for measuring ocean currents, improvements to weather radar, development of active and passive acoustic probing techniques, important algorithms for the inversion of radiometric data, and much more.[1] In addition, WPL scientists and their kit contributed to major field experiments worldwide. What the laboratory didn’t develop in-house, it adapted and improved upon from laboratories around the world. And it gave back in equal measure. For decades, the Wave Propagation Laboratory, though small, played a seminal role in advancing the discipline of remote sensing and its applications.

What made WPL special? Gordon was a leader! He had a vision. His vision was that remote-sensing, as opposed to in situ observations, would be the primary means going forward for observing the atmosphere and oceans. But his vision didn’t begin and end there. The key to his considerable success as the director and founder of WPL was that he saw remote-sensing not as an end in itself, but as a key to understanding the Earth, its oceans, and its atmosphere, and through that means, benefiting society. Most importantly, he didn’t keep that dream to himself. He shared it, every day, every week, every year, with the hundred-some staff of the laboratory, and with other scientists, from every agency, every university, and every nation.

At first this part escaped me. For some time I used to think to myself that Gordon was a great boss – that he combined vision and integrity, and I’d be happy to work for someone who had either one. At the time I thought he had just one flaw. He was always repeating himself!

Then I realized: all of us in the laboratory (and indeed, those visitors) were learning a catechism. Like Gordon, we came to believe that there was nothing wrong with the world, no social ill, that couldn’t be cured by more and better remote sensing. We knew and could recite the four great pillars of remote-sensing (theory, technique development, applications, and technology transfer). We knew the seven great advantages of remote-sensing over in-situ techniques. We bought in! If we could have, we’d have developed an “app” for microwave ovens (the term didn’t exist then), so that housewives could disable the safety interlock, open the door, point the microwave oven out the window, and get a quick Doppler-wind profile, and phone it in to a central location. Gordon not only had a dream; he shared it.

But note. Leaders need to have a great dream. It can’t be a little dream. It can’t be a shabby, self-serving dream. Instead, it should ennoble every hearer. It should elevate, inspire, energize. Gordon wasn’t thinking about how to get a bigger laboratory, or greater personal prestige, or become head of NOAA research, or even of NOAA itself. He’d already turned his back on all that. He saw how to make the world a better place. He made sure we were all thinking the same way.

So here’s the bottom line for you and me. We are all tempted, every day, to think small, to be content with and settle for a small, shabby, self-serving dream. Maybe it’s getting ahead. Maybe it’s getting through the day. Maybe it’s getting something for ourselves. Maybe it’s just keeping what we have. What’s worse, we’re all too often tempted to keep our dreams to ourselves. What if someone stole our idea and ran with it? And they got the credit? Or the prize? Where would we get another idea?

Don’t give in to these fears! The opposite is true. Remember Henry David Thoreau, who advised, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” And share that imagination. Your very act of sharing will stimulate other ideas and visions in their train. As you give away and share your very finest ideas, even better ideas will come to you.


An early career scientist or engineer, looking to make  the world a better place? You’re dreaming a great dream! Seeking  a role model? You could do a lot worse than Gordon.

Would you like to honor the man’s memory? A memorial service for Gordon is coming up on Tuesday, July 25, at 2:00 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Boulder.


[1] As well as in my book by the same name: Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like a Meteorologist Will Help Save the Planet, pp. 196-198.

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I love Paris.

The previous LOTRW post, Presidential power – not all it’s cracked up to be, argued that the President’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, while comforting to elements of his base, was really of small consequence. It follows that a concerned world need not overreact; instead energy and minds are better focused on the actual challenges posed in meeting the food, water, and energy needs of seven-going on-nine billion people; building resilience to natural hazards; and protecting the environment and its ecosystem services over time.

One reader (and friend) agreed: …the reaction from both sides was certainly overblown. He then added: here’s another perspectivethat expands more on that point:

The link is to a blog by Keith Hennessey. From the website, Mr. Hennessey provides this thumbnail introduction to himself and the blog: Hi, I’m Keith Hennessey. I work as a Lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, teaching American economic policy to MBA students. I spent 14 years in Washington, DC advising a President and two Senators on a wide range of economic policy issues. This blog is aimed at students of American economic policy. Thank you for visiting.

In this particular post, Mr. Hennessey introduces us to a new acronym: QTIIPS (not my favorite – overly Qute? – but maybe I’m just jealous). He opens with this.

Both President Obama’s 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change and President Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement today fit into a category I will label as QTIIPS.

 QTIIPS stands for Quantitatively Trivial Impact + Intense Political Symbolism.

 QTIIPS policy changes provoke fierce political battles over trivially small policy impacts. Passionate advocates on both sides ignore numbers and policy details while fighting endlessly about symbols.

 A policy change is QTIIPS if:

 -its direct measurable effects are quite small relative to the underlying policy problem to be solved;

-it is viewed both by supporters and opponents as a first step toward an end state that all agree would be quite a large change;

-supporters and opponents alike attach great significance to the direction of the change, as a precursor to possible future movement toward that quantitatively significant end goal; and

-a fierce political battle erupts over the symbolism of this directional shift. This political battle is often zero-sum, unresolvable, and endless.

The rest of the post expands upon these ideas. If you have the time to read the full post, it’ll stimulate your thinking.

One point in the middle might catch your eye. It’s repeated here. He says this:

QTIIPS policy changes rest on the assumption that the first step is likely to lead to that theoretical quantitatively significant outcome. Most supporters of the Paris Agreement would privately concede that it is only a modest first step, and would then express hope that it could/will/might/should lead to further progress in the future. Opponents of the agreement would share their fears that this first step could/will/might lead to an eventual outcome they fear.

 But this shared assumption, of a first step or slippery slope, could easily be wrong. If the Paris Agreement were never to have led to a more significant next step, then a key premise of the fight is wrong. The intense political symbolism and the fierce battles waged over both President Obama’s and President Trump’s relatively small policy moves would then be unsupported by strong policy arguments.

 I think that’s the case here. I think Paris was not just the first step, I think it was likely the last step, that those who hoped it would lead to “deepening future commitments” were fooling themselves and others. I think Paris was agreed to only because national leaders realized it was impossible to get a numerically meaningful set of binding national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by specific large amounts. They therefore grabbed the best agreement they could, however weak, kicking the can down the road in the hope that somehow their successors might have more luck. Because I am so skeptical about the first step claim, and because I care far more about the policy impact than about the symbolism, my reaction is mild both to President Obama’s signing in 2016 and to President Trump’s withdrawal announcement today. I think neither agreeing to Paris nor withdrawing from it would have changed future global temperatures by any meaningful amount. Even before today I was skeptical that it would lead to any significant next steps, so I conclude that these symbolic battles about the Paris Agreement are almost meaningless.

Reading this was puzzling initially. It seemed to me that the Agreement didn’t predetermine the importance of the challenge so much as it set into motion a process that would evaporate (as Mr. Hennessey argues) if the threat isn’t real or dissipates, but would grow if the situation grew more serious.

Then it hit me: I’ve always liked the Paris Climate Agreement; now I know why!

It’s because the Paris Climate Agreement mimics the approach of meteorologists, emergency managers, political and business leaders, and various publics to an approaching/developing hurricane.

At a hurricane’s earliest stages, no one knows whether its intensification and landfall will pose a real threat or not – and to whom. At the same time, there’s no wasted energy prematurely debating any of that, or getting emotional or top-down prescriptive about it. Instead, all participants at all levels and all locations individually begin making whatever initial preparations they feel appropriate in light of their own perceived vulnerability and options. At the same time, everyone engages in watch-and-warn. Furthermore, thanks to the World Meteorological Organization and a variety of long-established agreements, they transparently share information from observations and a variety of models, etc. The full public is kept in the loop as well.

And here’s the best part: the response is incremental. If the hurricane intensifies, the response develops commensurately. As the threat to a particular city or coastline rises, so do preparations. But where and if the threat diminishes, those preparing stand down. Rarely (especially as forecasts have improved) is the response inadequate or disproportionate.

Note that the key, the essential part, is also the inexpensive part: the watch and warn. It costs little to field the observations – the satellites and the radars, the surface in situ instruments, etc. to monitor conditions and their changes; to assimilate the data into variety of numerical models, to run these and form ensemble averages; to disseminate the findings. That’s true for both hurricanes and climate change. It’s essential that we not fly blind into this uncertain future.

One important addition has to be made in the climate-change version of this approach. When it comes to hurricanes, the world gets many occasions to practice: dozens each and every year, broadly scattered worldwide. By contrast, with respect to climate change, there hasn’t been the same opportunity for trial-and-error learning. That’s where research – not just on physical workings of the atmosphere and oceans but also on ecological processes and the social science of human response come in. That research is essential to effective risk reduction; it too is inexpensive.

Anticipating climate change? Responding commensurately? Without the drama? What’s not to like?


Love Paris? We all do. So did Cole Porter. Here’s the song, rendered by Ol’ blue eyes. Give it a listen. You know you want to.

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Presidential power –not all it’s cracked up to be.

so tiny… both the impact of the first stage of the Paris Climate Agreement — and presidential statements about it…

(Yesterday’s furor over the President’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement may have been overblown. Here’s why.)


Richard Neustadt, the famous presidential historian, tells us what some of Mr. Trumps’ predecessors had to say about the job:[1]

In the early summer of 1952, before the heat of the campaign, President [Harry] Truman used to contemplate the problems of the general-become-President should [Dwight David] Eisenhower win the forthcoming election. “He’ll sit here,” Truman would remark (tapping his desk for emphasis), “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Eisenhower evidently found it so. “In the face of the continuing dissidence and disunity, the President sometimes simply exploded with exasperation,” wrote Robert Donovan in comment on the early months of Eisenhower’s first term. “What was the use, he demanded to know, of his trying to lead the Republican Party. … And this reaction was not limited to early months alone, or to his party only. “The President still feels,” an Eisenhower aide remarked to me in 1958, “that when he’s decided something, that ought to be the end of it…and when it bounces back undone or done wrong, he tends to react with shocked surprise.”

Truman knew whereof he spoke. With “resignation” in the place of “shocked surprise,” the aide’s description would have fitted Truman. The former senator may have been less shocked than the former general, but he was no less subjected to that painful and repetitive experience: “Do this, do that, and nothing will happen.” Long before he came to talk of Eisenhower he had put his own experience in other words: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them…. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.

Presidents come and go, bringing with them all manner of ambitions and policy preferences – on this occasion agreeing, on that, disagreeing with their predecessors, and those who follow.

But they would all agree on this – that being president isn’t nearly so powerful or influential a position as they’d hoped. Surrounded by strong and diverse personalities, they find their wishes made public, misrepresented, and confounded almost the moment their backs are turned. And that’s just in the West Wing. A mile or so down the street, on Capitol Hill, and in the Supreme Court, other strong characters hold full sway. And that’s before the president ventures outside the Beltway, or across the oceans.

Presidents, like the rest of us, are swept along by events and circumstances as much as they shape them. They just have the misfortune to live their lives in a goldfish bowl.

Less than 24 hours after his statement on exiting the Paris climate agreement, President Trump sees this same dreary prospect. His own White House staff and family have been factionalized, riven, by the decision. Thirty state governors have quickly gone on record as affirming their states will continue forward within the spirit of the Agreement. Countless U.S. business leaders have registered their protest. International leaders have (excepting Syria and Nicaragua) have expressed various degrees of displeasure. China, hardly able to believe its good fortune (and a tad prematurely), is gleefully trying on for size the trappings of world leadership.

But in the case of the Paris Climate Agreement, there appear to be additional overlays. These start with the nature of the Agreement itself. Its Kyoto predecessor contained much that people hated – not least the special position of China and India, but also the cookie-cutter-, binding nature of the particulars. By contrast, the Paris accord is relatively free-form – more like a church potluck or charitable fundraiser Countries agree on the common goal – in this case, strengthening the global response to the common threat of climate change. But nations put on the table only what their domestic politics will support. For each country, the precise extent and the mix of reductions in fossil-fuel emissions; climate adaptation measures; financial donations; international offsets; and the associated schedules for all these were unique, idiosyncratic. What is universal was that countries agree to develop and share accurate data on all these aspects of their climate response – to fairly report their progress or lack of same, in some detail. They also recognize that the first round of measures is inadequate to the task (the “tiny progress” mocked by the Agreement’s detractors), so agree that every few years each country will up its game. And absent legally-binding agreements that they will instead use “name and shame” to encourage laggard countries[2]. (The United States has now shoved its way to the status of “first-among-laggards;” the shaming is already underway.)

Given all this, it’s hard to say what “pulling out” of the Agreement even means – or, in some ultimate sense – whether pulling out is even possible. A Rose Garden speech is not doing much more than saying what had been “politically achievable domestically” is no longer so. We’re doing little more than simply redefining the role we’ll play – just stepping back from any moral high ground or leadership we might have held with respect to the climate change issue and announcing that to the world (ironically, in conformity to the Agreement’s terms regarding transparency). We can’t, and won’t, even leave formally for three to four years.

The fact of the matter is that U.S. implementation has been and will remain largely a state- and local-level and private-sector, even individual concern – the steady accumulation of hundreds of economic, not political, decisions to switch from coal to natural gas in electrical power generation, to increase automobile mileage, increase agricultural efficiency, and much more. Our economy is highly globalized and our financial sector relatively transparent. Many states and companies unsurprisingly see it to their advantage – perhaps even important to their survival – to continue to conform to the outline of the Agreement. As EPA administrator Scott Pruitt argued before the press in several settings yesterday, the US had already been living up to the spirit of the Agreement prior to its signing (and by implication will continue to do so going forward). The coal industry and its workers are going to continue to see a slow, painful downward slide. The United States may reduce its financial contributions to other nations, but these were never to be that large, and China stands ready to pick them up, along with the branding and goodwill that will generate.

In closing, let’s consider the second piece: the public outcry/emotion – whether joy for those in President Trump’s base or anger and dismay for those who aren’t. Natural enough in the moment. But surely overdone. Four or five years from now, where we stand with respect to the climate-change challenge, and where Americans and America stand in world opinion, will be shaped not by Thursday’s set-piece speech, but rather by the decisions and actions that all 320 million of us make each and every day between now and then: actions with respect to energy- and resource use, building resilience to hazards, and protecting the environment. Actions to foster innovation and education for the benefit of all. And, most fundamentally, commitment to each other, here at home and internationally, versus selfishly and destructively going it alone.

All that is on us.

You and me.

Every day.

Jesus captured this distinction between what we say and what we do. In a conversation with Pharisees in the Temple, he asked the question[3]:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The boy answered, ‘I will not.’ But later he had a change of heart and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” [lived up to the Paris Agreement] They said, “The first.”

Summing up? The Rose Garden event per se looks to be little more than a photo op.

Truman and Eisenhower would have understood.


[1] From Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1960); if it looks familiar, perhaps that’s because it’s reprinted in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, 2014.

[2] Those who are skeptical of the efficacy of this “soft” approach need look no further than the institute of marriage to see its power.

[3] Matthew 21:28-31.

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The morning after.

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

President Trump’s speech announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement appears to be triggering the predicted response. Both domestically and globally, people everywhere, from diverse publics – whether national, state or local government; private sector; academia; or civil society; from global leaders to those in the most humble circumstances – woke up this morning expressing a blend of dismay, regret, and anger. The chatter has been deafening; it’s also been largely negative, and surprisingly diverse. People found much to dislike –whether with respect to the Earth science, the economics, the politics, or the tone. One of the more balanced responses came from Keith Seitter, Executive Director of the American Meteorological Society [full disclosure: my boss]. Published on the Society’s blog, The Front Page, the post is repeated here in its entirety:

President Trump’s speech announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement emphasizes his assessment of the domestic economic risks of making commitments to climate action. In doing so the President plainly ignores so many other components of the risk calculus that went into the treaty in the first place.

There are, of course, political risks, such as damaging our nation’s diplomatic prestige and relinquishing the benefits of leadership in global economic, environmental, or security matters. But from a scientific viewpoint, it is particularly troubling that the President’s claims cast aside the extensively studied domestic and global economic, health, and ecological risks of inaction on climate change.

President Trump put it quite bluntly: “We will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”

The science emphatically tells us that it is not fine if we can’t. The American Meteorological Society Statement on Climate Change warns that it is “imperative that society respond to a changing climate.” National policies are not enough — the Statement clearly endorses international action to ensure adaptation to, and mitigation of, the ongoing, predominately human-caused change in climate.

In his speech, the President made a clear promise “… to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth … to have the cleanest air … to have the cleanest water.” AMS members have worked long and hard to enable such conditions both in our country and throughout the world. We are ready to provide the scientific expertise the nation will need to realize these goals. AMS members are equally ready to provide the scientific foundation for this nation to thrive as a leader in renewable energy technology and production, as well as to prepare for, respond to, and recover from nature’s most dangerous storms, floods, droughts, and other hazards.

Environmental aspirations, however, that call on some essential scientific capabilities but ignore others are inevitably misguided. AMS members have been instrumental in producing the sound body of scientific evidence that helps characterize the risks of unchecked climate change. The range of possibilities for future climate—built upon study after study—led the AMS Statement to conclude, “Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.”

This is the science-based risk calculus upon which our nation’s climate change policy should be based. It is a far more realistic, informative, and actionable perspective than the narrow accounting the President provided in the Rose Garden. It is the science that the President abandoned in his deeply troubling decision.

Interestingly, the furor may be out of all proportion to the actual impact of the president’s statements and actions. More on that in a subsequent LOTRW post.

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Climate change? Whatever changes this week, some things will stay the same.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)

What’s past is prologue – William Shakespeare (The Tempest)

Saturday’s print edition of the Washington Post juxtaposed two front-page headlines, both above the fold. Snippets from the respective articles, followed by brief commentary:

Change of ‘climate’: offices rebrand under Trump.

“Climate change” is out. “Resilience” is in. “Victims of domestic violence” are now “victims of crime.” Foreign aid for refugee rights has become aid to protect “national security.” “Clean energy investment” has been transformed into just plain “energy” investment

…Some of the most striking examples of rebranding come from agencies dealing with energy and the environment, where references to “climate change” and “clean energy” have sometimes disappeared…[The Post article goes on to provide a number of concrete examples.]

Prior experience provides many examples/periods of such rebranding. The transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration saw a switch in emphasis in climate-change framing from warming-as-a-global-average and societal response founded on mitigation alone (hitting the CO2 off-switch) to the impact of climate change on the frequency, intensity, duration, and location of extremes, and more emphasis on adaptation.

NOAA personnel and retirees might remember a similar rebranding earlier on, when the Reagan administration came in at the start of the 1980’s. At that time NOAA’s research was conducted in a Research and Development Line Office (RD). The Reaganites thought that only basic research was the proper role of government. They wanted NOAA to stand down from applied research and all development activities such as AWIPS and other weather technology and Sea Grant (sound familiar?). George Ludwig, then the Environmental Research Laboratories Director, fell on his sword over this directive. He maintained, with some logic, that development was the step needed if the American public were to benefit from the basic research. Joe Fletcher would later take over as the assistant administrator for RD. He made no changes whatsoever, but simply repeated, at every public opportunity, some variation on the theme everything you see going on here is basic research[1]. Threatened budget cuts were averted, and today’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) was born.

At G7, Trump’s views on Paris pact ‘evolving’.

TAORMINA, Italy — Forceful face-to-face talks this week with fellow world leaders left President Donald Trump “more knowledgeable” and with “evolving” views about the global climate accord he’s threatened to abandon, a top White House official said Friday. Trump also was impressed by their arguments about how crucial U.S. leadership is in supporting international efforts.

 The president’s new apparent openness to staying in the landmark Paris climate pact came amid a determined pressure campaign by European leaders. During Friday’s gathering of the Group of 7 wealthy democracies — as well as at earlier stops on Trump’s first international trip — leaders have implored him to stick with the 2015 accord aimed at reducing carbon emissions and slowing potentially disastrous global warming…

This Saturday headline has already been replaced by news media reports that the United States will indeed go ahead and withdraw from the accord. In the fast-paced, mercurial environment that is 2017-Washington, it’s risky to venture a prediction here as to what the administration will decide.

But what matters far more than the thoughts and actions of a small handful of leaders are the opinions, decisions, and actions of 320 million Americans. And if what’s past is indeed prologue, then those might oddly enough, be more predictable.

Fact is, we’ve seen this movie before. Eight years of Democratic executive-branch control from 1992-2000 found Vice-Presidential leadership ahead of the American people on the climate issue. On a 95-0 vote, the Congress in 1997 expressed disapproval of any international agreement that did not require developing countries to make emission reductions and “would seriously harm the economy of the United States”. The Kyoto protocol was never submitted to Congress for ratification.

But when the presidency fell into Republican hands in early 2001 and the new president asserted he didn’t see climate change as much of a problem, the country did a bit of an about face. People said in effect… Hold on! We’re more concerned than that! President Bush wound up convening an NAS panel to assess the most recent IPCC report at the time and ultimately accepted the conclusions of both.

If President Trump should decide the United States should withdraw from its commitments, don’t be surprised if the next several months show a similar popular reaction this time around.

Such a scenario is made even more likely given the differences between Kyoto and Paris. The Paris accord had much more the flavor of a church potluck. Each country brought to the table a contribution that its circumstances and current domestic politics would support versus conforming to a set model. That’s why the United States, along with 146 other nations, ratified in the first place. And U.S. participation reflects actions already underway by private enterprise, by fifty states, 3000 counties, countless local governments, and tens of millions of individuals. Most of these actions reflect compelling self-interests: the ever-lowering cost of renewable energy; interest in preserving as much coastal real estate and economic activity as possible in the face of sea-level-rise; commitment to transparency in return for transparency from others; and commitment to progress in the face of the shaming that is the alternative. [This latter is not unlike that church potluck; no one wants to show up to such events empty-handed without excuse.]

To sum up. Nature has no name for climate change. By any other name the challenge remains real, and the problems remain the same. And the brilliance of the Paris accord, as opposed to its predecessors, is the way it builds on fundamental, nigh-on-universal, human interests and values, not the short-sighted preferences or interests of a few.

This week the president and his team may decide the U.S. should remain committed to the Paris accord. Reason for cheer. Or they may decide to withdraw. In which case Americans will rediscover their own, preexisting interests and commitments. A (different) reason for cheer. In either instance, the world and its people will be one week closer to coping with the climate change challenge.


[1] Throughout this period, Joe, who was former military, would remind OAR staff in private of the advice of the great Chinese general Sun Tzu, which he would paraphrase this way: “you can retreat all you want, but never lose a battle.”

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Earth as seem from Stephen Hawking’s rear-view mirror.

Stephen Hawking has been asking a proper question: How much time do we (humans) have here on Earth?

His answer is uncertain, and in fact has been a moving target, but can be summed up like this: not much! (and – maybe less and less, the more he thinks about it).

His suggested response option is by contrast definitive – and perhaps not the one you and I might prefer: time to leave!

Surely worth some discussion.

ICYMI, here’s some background, excerpted from a May 5 article by Peter Holley published on the Washington Post website (only one of many carrying the story, off and on over several months; you can find more material elsewhere on line):

In November, Stephen Hawking and his bulging computer brain gave humanity what we thought was an intimidating deadline for finding a new planet to call home: 1,000 years. Ten centuries is a blip in the grand arc of the universe, but in human terms it was the apocalyptic equivalent of getting a few weeks’ notice before our collective landlord (Mother Earth) kicks us to the curb. Even so, we took a collective breath and steeled our nerves. So what if there’s no interplanetary Craigslist for new astronomical sublets, we told ourselves, we’re human — the Bear Grylls of the natural order. We’ve already survived the ice age, the plague, a bunch of scary volcanoes and earthquakes, and the 2016 election cycle. We got this, right?

Not so fast. Now Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist turned apocalypse warning system, is back with a revised deadline. In “Expedition New Earth” — a documentary that debuts this summer as part of the BBC’s “Tomorrow’s World” science season — Hawking claims that Mother Earth would greatly appreciate it if we could gather our belongings and get out — not in 1,000 years, but in the next century or so… “Professor Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive,” the BBC said with a notable absence of punctuation marks in a statement posted online. “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious…”

…Some of Hawking’s most explicit warnings have revolved around the potential threat posed by artificial intelligence. That means — in Hawking’s analysis — humanity’s daunting challenge is twofold: develop the technology that will enable us to leave the planet and start a colony elsewhere, while avoiding the frightening perils that may be unleashed by said technology. When it comes to discussing that threat, Hawking is unmistakably blunt. “I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC in a 2014 interview… Despite its current usefulness, he cautioned, further developing A.I. could prove a fatal mistake. “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever­ increasing rate,” Hawking warned in recent months. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

Whew! A heavy lift.

Perhaps not surprising that Mr. Hawking should be the one to raise this question and suggest this path forward. He’s hugely bright – brilliant. And he’s used to thinking big-picture – cosmos, universe, origins, possibilities. He’s also British; they’re the folks who (just barely) brought us Brexit (and inspired all the other “exit” tropes).

For all sorts of reasons, we’re right to fret that our time here on Earth might be limited – that the Anthropocene, like the Holocene and Eocene, and every other “cene” before them, will someday come to an end, making it necessary for us to leave the scene (sorry, couldn’t help myself). And that requires some thought and effort be given to ways and means.

But only some thought. The vast bulk of thought and effort, the priority, should focus on buying time here – to extending the habitability of Earth. Buying that time, and how to go about it, have been central theses of this blog, going back to 2010, and the 2014 book by the same title.

To restate some of the core ideas: First, seven billion of us are not leaving the planet any time soon. That opportunity (and its associated risk) is going to be left to at most a privileged handful. Fact is, the current and future level of effort contemplated by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson might be about right, if we throw in an increment at NASA (the Chinese look to be adding more as well). The rest of us ought to be focused like a laser on the threefold problem of managing the Earth as a resource, threat, and victim.

That translates into “buying time” – a problem with several elements. Let’s look at three.

First, and simplest: estimating how much time we have. As Mr. Hawking’s thought process reminds us, that is not a single problem, but multiple ones: How much time until the first significant asteroid impact? Until some terrorist act or cold-war-type global power struggle triggers a nuclear holocaust? Until we run out of the supplies of yttrium or lanthanum or praseodymium or neodymium or any of the rare earths we need for today’s IT? Until we run out of food or water? Until a virus goes globally out of control? Until the sheer weight of thousands of environmental insults renders the planet uninhabitable? Until some cyber-catastrophe our relations with each other become so toxic that life is no longer worth living? The problems are legion, complex, and interconnected. Which are most urgent, and why?

Second, and more daunting: thinking through the options. How to buy time – an extra day, or year, or century? Investigating: how can economics and substitutability help? New technology? New lifestyle? What are the choices? What is the cost of each? How much time does it buy? What are the implications for the other timelines? Thinking in terms of triage: what must be done now? What can wait? What challenges look hopeless based on what we know now?

Third, and most expensive and demanding in terms of level of effort, taking action. That doesn’t demand reaching consensus on what to do (too difficult in today’s world, and actually dangerous given the risk of making bad choices), but vigorous exploration of diverse approaches, paying attention to early detection of success and failure.

A few closing comments (maybe more than a few).

First, we’ve seen this movie before. The ozone hole. Acid rain… ________(write-in your favorite here). And just as each version of Star Wars or X-Men tops its predecessor in scale and sweep, so it is with Living on the Real World. The climate challenge that has the world in its thrall today is far more imposing than these prior concerns. But this Buying-Time problem is larger still. As Stephen Hawking notes, it’s truly existential.

Second, perhaps the biggest advantage Buying Time holds over E(arth)xit is global involvement. E(arth)xit fully engages the skills of a mere handful. Perhaps the richest 0.1%. (The money has to come from somewhere). “Rocket scientists.” They’re needed to make the venture physically possible. A few biologists. After all, the solar system’s options (the most within-reach) are hardly Goldilocks planets; they’ll require quite a bit of planetary-scale tinkering before they’re well-and-truly habitable). And social scientists, addressing questions of how we choose those who will “boldly go where no one has gone before,” versus the seven-going-on-nine billion of us who will stay. (In the Brexit terminology, “leave” versus “remain.”). All the social science says that social risks of such extended high-stakes space travel outweigh the other threats.

All that may sound like it adds up to a lot of people. But most of the seven-going-on-nine billion of us will be bystanders, spectators. We won’t be participants. And we’ll be unhappy, critical spectators. We’ll see most of the resources – including the world’s intellectual resources – tied up in the support of a few rather than solving real-world problems of hunger, poverty, jobs, health, and more. If most of us are critical, unhappy, some will be dangerously so, sabotaging the effort in ways ranging from hacking to acts of terror.

By contrast, Buying Time calls for full global engagement, action-in-place. There are no spectators. Everyone is a participant.

Years ago, Robert Townsend, the head of AVIS, the rental-car company, wrote a little management book entitled Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. The tone was tongue-in-cheek, but contained a few pearls. One was that it was better to make sure all the managers were overworked; then they wouldn’t have time to notice they were being treated unfairly, or to criticize each other, or to complain that they deserved greater responsibility, etc.

There are parallels here to the “climate-change-movie.” Mitigation approaches – hitting the CO2 off-switch – are necessary, but as we’ve seen, leave most people uninvolved, and many, as we’ve discovered to our cost, critical, some harshly so. By contrast, and as a complement, climate adaptation is more necessarily place-based, exploratory – and it draws more people in. Instead of criticizing each other, you and I are free to pursue our own better ideas. A far more productive use of our time.

Third, and finally Buying Time has a track record of success. Century after century, and in arena upon arena – food, energy, water, transportation, waste management, global ingenuity has successfully bought time. We know how to do this.

So E(arth)xit merits some thought, some effort, considerable effort. Stephen Hawking is on to something. A complete strategy requires it. But the world attention should be on remain: sharpening up our estimates of how much time we have and why, identifying our options for buying time, exploring those, quickly detecting and sharing early signs of failure and success – and daily celebrating every bit of progress on the latter.

In this scenario, each of us matters. Each is essential. Time to step up and play our indispensable part.

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The Spirit of Margaret Davidson.

1When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel…

7Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”

11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.

13 Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

15 The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. – 2 Kings Chapter 2 – excerpts (NIV)


(In the argot of her native South) Margaret Davidson passed on this week.

This from Russell Callender, Assistant Administrator for Ocean Services and Coastal Zone Management, in a letter to NOAA National Ocean Service staff reprinted here in its entirety:

It is with profound sadness that I share with you the news that our beloved colleague, Margaret Davidson, has passed away following a long illness.

Margaret was the greatest visionary I ever had the pleasure to meet—and she was a visionary who took action. When she spoke of “now,” she meant two to three years down the road because she was always thinking that far ahead of the rest of us. She was a mentor, confidant, and a friend to me and to many other in the global coastal community.

Margaret Davidson had been an active participant in coastal resource management issues since 1978, when she earned her juris doctorate from Louisiana State University. She later earned a master’s degree in marine policy and resource economics from the University of Rhode Island.

She also served as special counsel and assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice and later as the executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium.

Margaret joined NOAA as the founding director of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center (CSC), where she created a customer-driven organization that accelerated the use of technology, tools and skills required to make informed coastal economic development and ecosystem management decisions at all levels of government. She then served as acting director of the Office for Ocean and Coastal Resources Management when that office and CSC merged to form the new Office for Coastal Management. As the reorganization received official approval, Ms. Davidson took on the challenge of establishing a newly created position as the NOAA Senior Leader for Coastal Inundation and Resilience.

Margaret served on numerous local, state, and federal committees and provided leadership for national professional societies. She focused her professional work on environmentally sustainable coastal development practices, the reduction of risk associated with extreme events, and climate adaptation.

During her illustrious career, she was a Fulbright Fellow, American Meteorological Society Fellow, Gilbert White Fellow, and Zurich Fellow for Climate Adaptation. Davidson also served as the acting assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service from 2000 to 2002.

Margaret was the consummate networker, with a mind that served as an encyclopedia of existing and potential partnerships. She was gifted in recognizing and capitalizing upon common goals, and she never took her eyes off of the importance of community engagement in protecting coastal resources around the nation. Her life and career will cast a long shadow for those who follow the trail she blazed in coastal zone management.

There will never be another person like Margaret Davidson. We can only honor her memory by carrying on the legacy she established.

Well and truly said! Assistant Administrator Callender got it precisely right. His letter provides a factual account of Margaret’s illustrious career, with full heart, but also a bit of understatement. Might be worth fleshing out some of the best bits:

“Long illness?” True, but Margaret didn’t just quietly suffer. She engaged cancer in a titanic struggle, living not months but years longer than medical experts had predicted. Throughout, she showed levels of energy, poise, even cheer, laced throughout with signature-Margaret-Davidson frankness. She was the winner, not the illness, in ways that will be everlasting encouragement to us all.

“Visionary? Margaret had vision all right, but she also had “execution” in her DNA. That’s a rare combination. Most mere mortals have one but not the other. Whether Margaret came around to our offices, or spoke to us in a crowd of 500,  when she said, “I have a dream…” you and I knew that dream included actual work that we were going to have to do, actual steps we would have to take, actual follow-through that she’d check the next time she would pass by.

“Illustrious career?” Hers was illustrious indeed, but it was nowhere near so widely on display as it might have been. Too often the world lacked the courage to give her some of the roles for which she’d volunteered. She applied for several senior leadership positions across the national landscape but was turned down because she lacked a conventional science credential. What she offered instead was far rarer, and potentially far more valuable – a true customer-orientation. She saw federally-funded research institutions as legitimate to the extent they were meeting national needs and providing tangible, on-the-ground societal benefit. Wherever she found herself, she worked night and day toward this end, and she constantly exhorted those around her to do the same. It’s not hard to imagine that had she been given greater purview, that climate research and services – to name just one example – might today be viewed more favorably by leaders and publics across the political spectrum.  But in the event, most institutions shied away from committing to such a sea change.

With one exception: NOS and NOAA. And as Russ Callender captured so well in his letter, Margaret played a major role in personifying both inwardly to NOAA and to the outside world that all of NOAA was not just science-based but customer/service driven. We all believed it because she modeled it. We all benefited because it was the right thing to do.

“Consummate networker?” Again, the words are right but the reality was far more vigorous. They fail to capture what Margaret accomplished, early on, through peripatetic travel and unstinting face-to-face efforts, and even to the end, when travel was no longer a possibility. One day the history books will recount American- and world triumphs over sea-level rise, coastal degradation, and more. Margaret’s role may only be imperfectly acknowledged, but it will always remain real.


Russ closed this way: There will never be another person like Margaret Davidson. We can only honor her memory by carrying on the legacy she established.

Spot on.

Which brings us to that Old Testament story of transition – from the prophet Elijah to his successor, found in 2 Kings, Chapter 2. In that story Elisha asks for, and receives, a double portion of Elijah’s spirit – the portion due in those times to the eldest heir.

None of us got to see Margaret taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. She leaves no single successor. But she leaves something breathtakingly better, a small army of folks who recognize the truth and appropriateness of Russ’ words. Together we can carry on the legacy she established.

She wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less – and she’ll be checking up on us the next time she passes by.

Margaret, we’ve got this.

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