Time to hit the reset button on American weather-hazards policy?

Here is America’s weather-hazards policy in a nutshell[1]:

  • React at times when weather outlooks and forecasts indicate danger.
  • Shelter in place where practical; otherwise, save lives through emergency response, primarily evacuation.
  • Start with action at the local level. Call in state-level government if local purview or resources are inadequate; request federal assistance when and if state-level resources, approaches are insufficient.
  • After disaster, rebuild as before.
  • Provide resources for recovery from (private-sector) insurance claims and from government supplemental funding; determine level and allocation of the latter based on politics of the situation and exigencies of the moment versus any over-arching formula.
  • Rely on public-private collaboration across all phases – mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery – while maintaining arm’s-length separation between sectors.
  • Gather any needed information on the nature and extent of hazard losses ad hoc.

This policy framework hasn’t become our way of doing business through any particular political dogma. It’s grown organically while being repeatedly tweaked and reshaped over a few centuries of American experience. Unsurprisingly, therefore, every element has much to commend it; offers merit.

React to hazard? Evacuate? There’s certainly no need to respond to disrupt routine unnecessarily when staying put and business-as-usual are viable options.

Place-based focus? Surely that’s appropriate. Weather hazards are highly-localized. Those in harm’s way have the most to lose and at the same time best know their options, opportunities, and risks in the face of approaching hazard. “Listen to local officials” is the starting point for state- and federal answers to virtually every question. And should be.

Saving lives should certainly matter more than minimizing property or business disruption. Government and business leaders at every level reaffirm this priority at every turn.

Rebuild as before is what disaster survivors instinctively desire most after surviving such traumatic events; they want their pre-disaster lives back.

By its nature, politics is more local and adaptive, more flexible and responsive than cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, rigid formulas. For most of American experience, the attitude of the American people and our leaders has been “those in a position to help the targets of this particular disaster could well be those in need the next time around – of course we’ll lend a hand.”

U.S. separation between public- and private sectors has proved the most effective safeguard against the corruption and conflicts-of-interest that afflict so many peoples worldwide.

And finally, because “disasters” are ill-defined, intermittent, and unique, efforts to estimate losses have varied widely from event to event.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, both individually and by dint of following one another in quick succession, have put this policy basket to a stress test.

The full stress-test results will take a long time to come in. But here’s what we already know:

  • Weather outlooks and forecasts showed skill undreamed of just a few years ago. They indicated danger while both events were many days off – yet that still wasn’t enough lead time.
  • In hindsight, both shelter-in-place and evacuation were seen to pose huge risks that were hard to anticipate, and generally underestimated, a priori.
  • Rebuilding as before will not only take years but will condemn some number of Texans and Floridians to future repetitive loss.
  • Only a small fraction of the losses represented by flooded homes and businesses will be covered by insurance. Moreover, the American tradition of extending a helping hand is compromised by the huge scale of the uninsured losses, and by recent history (especially Hurricane Sandy) that revealed a fraying of what had been considered a time-honored, solid social contract. Hardly any survivors will be “made whole.” Tragically, this is probably most true for the most vulnerable in our society – the poor, the elderly, ethnic minorities, etc.
  • Public-private collaboration has been good throughout the events per se, but the arm’s-length separation of the sectors over prior decades has compromised pre-event planning and mitigation with respect to measures such as building codes, land-use, and resilience of critical infrastructure.
  • The nature and extent of hazard loss figures suggested so far, even though they total $200B or more, look to underestimate considerably the likely final totals. And they only hint at a massive U.S.-wide vulnerability that has developed from a century or so of U.S. hazards policy – vulnerability that is ratcheting up, each and every day.


The Harvey-Irma stress tests don’t contain any new revelations so much as they confirm what scientists, engineers, planners, emergency managers, and many others have been arguing all along, to wit:

There’s considerable room for improvement with respect to each aspect listed above[2]. Expect to see multiple national and international conversations on these topics in the months and years ahead.


[1] “In a nutshell?” To many LOTRW readers, that may seem synonymous with “outrageously oversimplified and possibly even misleading.” Please forgive me; had to start somewhere!

[2] And undoubtedly other aspects as well; please offer your additional points, or suggest a reframing of the list.

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The Harvey-Irma reveal.

“Forecasting the weather” vs. “protecting life and property?” Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reveal important policy implications.

An earlier pair of LOTRW posts introduced this subject. They argued that the shift from merely predicting the state of the atmosphere to use of that information to save lives and property was a big jump – not some incremental step. The posts hinted at the existence of implications for policy, but left those to a future discussion.

The future is now.

The subject is a broad one, and can be framed in many ways[1]. To spur thought, here are three policy challenges. (Please critique and/or substitute your additional, better ideas.) Here goes…

Policy Challenge #1. Harvey and Irma make clear that deterministic weather forecasts per se can indeed protect lives, but are of limited value when it comes to saving property (or for that matter, ensuring business continuity – more on this later). Given reliable notice a week or ten days in advance, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a few million people, may be able to flee such storms. But with uncertainties at the front end, people find it difficult to evacuate early on, when the threat is only a probability and when traffic is still moving freely. It’s all to easy to delay and then get trapped with thousands of others in the grind of inching along the road, bumper-to-bumper for hours even as gasoline and other necessities are suddenly nowhere to be found along the way.

Evacuees aren’t able to take their homes with them. They can’t take their places of employment with them. They can’t relocate the schools for their children or the hospitals providing family healthcare out of harm’s way. As Harvey and Irma teach, we can evacuate and save our lives, but the quality of our lives has become much diminished – days or even years after the actual hazard has come and gone.  Passing empty hours in a shelter? Returning home, only to spend days on end moving ruined possessions out to the street and fighting to prevent the spread of mold in the remaining, still waterlogged, shell? Searching for a new job versus going to the familiar one? Waiting in endless lines at government agencies competing for attention and a few scraps of help? To live this way is to experience a co-mingling of boredom, exhaustion, fear, and frustration –all the while seeing neither any end in sight nor reason to hope.

Here’s the reality. If meteorologists are to save property, we do it best not by our forecasts but by doing our bit to promote policies that make home the safest place to be (versus a point of embarkation for families to evacuate), that make it more likely the old job will be waiting as soon as the hazard has passed, that see to it that natural hazards remain natural (e.g., that floods represent rising water levels but don’t degrade into a toxic cocktail of raw sewage, pollutants, and animal carcasses). Those policies emphasize appropriate land use (e.g., not building in the floodplain), rigorous building codes, resilient critical infrastructure, and appropriately-regulated siting and operation of chemical production and storage.

Meteorology plays a role in all this! But it starts not from short-term physical forecasts so much as guidance from past experience – what climatology can tell us about hazard risk over the lifespans of buildings and infrastructure, rather than the precise extent or timing of particular events (as well as what we can say about how climate is changing and why). When such information is used effectively, then hazard risk management emphasizes reducing the need for evacuation, versus management of evacuations of ever great numbers, areal extent, and complexity.

A side note about business continuity. In the United States, the loss profile from hazards has shifted through history. Loss-of-life figures are noisy (witness the losses of 1800 people in Katrina and more than 1000 people during the 2011 hurricane season) but have been generally declining over past decades. Property losses have risen, commensurate with population increase and property exposure in hazard-prone areas, especially along the coasts. In recent years, however – with the emergence of just-in-time, zero-inventory manufacturing, global supply chains, and dependence of both communities and industry on critical infrastructure – losses due to business interruption are growing, becoming comparable to property losses per se. Thanks to the role of information technology in enabling these shifts, with real-time control of processes, weather forecasts can reduce some of the business disruption – but not all.

Policy Challenge #2. Extreme events are nature’s way of doing business, but disasters – disruptions of entire communities, persisting after the hazard has come and gone, and exceeding the community’s ability to recover on its own – are a human construct. As a result, social trends including urbanization, globalization of commerce, and dependence on critical infrastructure are changing the very nature of disasters – and on time frames short compared with the recurrence rate of rare extremes. As a result, there is little opportunity for trial-and-error learning. To protect property and prevent or at least reduce community and business disruption going forward will require continuing innovation – of new technology development and societal uptake of those advances – at a pace far greater than anything we’ve known.

Two big arenas for such innovation in the Earth observations, science, and services community? First, advances in observing capacity – new instruments, ground-based, and space-based platforms – promise unprecedented resolution, spatial coverage, and diagnostic power. Second, exascale computers, able to make a billion-billion calculations/second – 1000 times present speeds – are coming on line over the next few years. Together these developments will allow us to push back the time horizons for deterministic weather forecasts as well as extend our ability to make climate projections decades into the future. But that’s not all. They will fuel the explosive growth of big data, data analytics and cognitive computing – entirely new capabilities that will allow us to anticipate and forestall any ratcheting-up of vulnerability to natural hazards resulting from changes in land use, construction, population growth, and the deployment of new critical infrastructure.

But closer examination of these two challenges – the protection of property, and innovation – reveals

Policy Challenge #3. We need to rework the policy framework that allows the public, private, and academic sectors to collaborate in building resilience to hazards. The principal-agent separation that governs so much of the relationship between governments and business at all levels has served us well for two centuries, minimizing the potential for conflicts of interest, corruption, and other ills that plague many countries today worldwide. But it fails us here. Much of the growing U.S. vulnerability to hazards stems from the way governments and private enterprise have engaged with each other, or maintained each other at arm’s length, over that same time period. Stereotypes of independence and free markets, and over-simplified characterizations of public- and private goods have blinded all parties to the realities that these distinctions have blurred or become obsolete, or perhaps never were as real or useful as they’d once seemed. Similarly, the speed and type of innovation required to make communities, businesses, governments, and nations more resilient will never be achieved by government or the private sector acting alone, and will never be achieved so long as academia remains an uninvolved, scholarly critic; academia has to be invited to the table.

Whew! Far easier to identify a few challenges than to market them to the larger society we serve , let alone make some actual progress with respect to each. Clearly “above the meteorologists’ pay-grade.”

We can’t do it alone. But we have to make a start. Otherwise, property losses and community and business disruption from hazards will only continue to grow.


[1] Part of the reason for my hesitancy. I’d promised a follow-on at that time, but upon reflection, struggled to find an approach that would capture the complexity, breadth, and sheer moment of the topic. In short, I’ve suffered writer’s block. The two hurricanes helped focus me on three big pieces. Even though the discussion here is necessarily flawed/incomplete, perhaps it provides a starting point for broader community thinking.

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Hurricane Harvey: The REAL world intrudes on the VIRTUAL one… and sharpens minds.

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” – C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Some reflections as rain from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey pelt on the roof here at home in the DC suburbs…

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re living, at least momentarily, in a virtual world – one that is two-degrees-of-separation from the real world. Any problems you’re facing (again for the moment) are virtual-world problems: slow Internet connectivity, weak WiFi, cyber-insecurity, data-use overage fees, low battery charge on your mobile device, annoying pop-ups, and more.

Put down your cellphone or turn away from your laptop, and again, chances are good you’re still finding yourself in a virtual world, though now separated from reality by only one degree. You’re in an enclosed, artificially lit, temperature and humidity controlled room. Or, even if you’re outside, you’re in an urban canyon, or a largely artificial urban or suburban groundscape. In this virtual world, a full range of privately- and publicly-provided products and services isolate you from the larger and less hospitable real world. Water, guaranteed to be safe for consumption, is available from tap or bottle. Reliable 60-cycle, 110-120V AC is available from any of numerous outlets. Are you hungry? Food trucks, fast-food, coffee shops, restaurants, and high-end grocery stores vie for your business; at home, the refrigerator and pantry call your name. Feel like learning something? Feeling a bit under the weather? Threatened by someone or something nearby? Colleges, hospitals and medical centers, police and fire are all standing by. Tired of working at your comfortable desk job? (For many privileged to live in this virtual world, exertion is a choice, not a necessity.) All manner of entertainment awaits.

Any problems here are also virtual-world problems: a job that isn’t always meaningful, the aggravations of rush hour, an irritating co-worker, a boss who doesn’t get it, slow service, omnipresent trash and urban decay.

Chances are good that from time to time you’ve wanted to escape from these two virtual worlds, and venture into the world of nature. Away from crowds – in mountains., at the beach. Closer to home, perhaps, in parklands. Amid trees and waterfalls; grasslands and meadows. Enjoying wildlife from insects and birds to megafauna – foxes, or deer, or maybe even the occasional bear in the distance. Watching porpoises gracefully break the ocean surface. But even here there’s an element of virtual reality. These visits are on your own terms. At a time and place, and for a duration, of your choosing. In good weather. Hiking, or perhaps camping, with just the right lightweight gear, and the provision needed for a day or two, or perhaps even glamping.

The real world we actually live on, for the most part obscured by these carefully constructed layers of virtual reality, is altogether different. On this real world, we’re spinning on the Earth’s axis at a speed of a few hundred miles an hour, even as the Earth rotates around the sun at 7000 mph, and the sun orbits around our galaxy at a speed six times faster still (and that’s saying nothing about the speed of our galaxy relative to other galaxies careening through the universe).

Our vehicle of choice for this joyride? For hitchhiking across the hostile, dark, absolute-zero-freezing vacuum of the universe as we’re pelted by everything from asteroids to cosmic rays?

An open-air convertible.

One that just happens to weigh 6×1021 tons. A planet. A planet that lives in the moment – makes no future plans but simply hurtles through space wherever gravitational forces might want to take it instant-by-instant. A planet that for now happens to track a Goldilocks-perfect path, just the right distance from a star that chooses to be friendly and heat us just the right bit.

But this Earth is not a sleeping planet. It’s restless, agitated, and does much if not most of its business through extreme events. It’s constantly shivering, quaking. Most of those tremors are of no account, but every so often it moves violently enough to shift its rotation axis by 4” and to throw the entire nation of Japan eight feet or so, as it did in the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. (6×1021 tons are not to be ignored!) The Earth also belches; on occasion volcanic eruptions cover the skies with so much ash that we experience a year-without-a-summer. (That’s today’s older, senescent planet; in its younger days, those volcanic eruptions could and did cause mass extinctions.) And its surface features a staggering array of violence: lightning and tornadoes, ice storms, cycles of drought…

… and flood.

Such as Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than a year’s worth of rain over Texas in less than a week.

In these circumstances, the real world breaks into, trumps, upends, suspends that virtual reality. The disruption is total. Familiar behaviors and practices, appropriate for any ordinary day, are now life-threatening. The houses that protected us and the cars that carried us become deathtraps. The powerlines that had kept the virtual world humming are now down, hidden underwater, electrocuting any hapless enough to encounter them. Chemical plants and refineries first fail, then explode. The water mains that had been life-giving now carry toxicity and disease. No time for dithering, and no mulligans. Seconds matter. They may be all you have to choose what you will save and what gets left behind. Staying alive becomes back-breakingly strenuous, when you’re wading or maybe even swimming, not in an Olympic pool but on what used to be your neighborhood street, now a cesspool of your neighbor’s junk and worse – while supporting a child or children, struggling to keep them above the water, fighting the currents and the eddies.

How are we behaving on this joy ride? More like unthinking teenagers than wise adults. If our planet is indeed living in the moment then, so it appears, are we. To complete the metaphor: we’re gobbling up the food and drink we’ve found, staining the seat covers with ketchup and mustard, tossing the waste cups and wrappings wherever. We’re bickering with each other and throwing an occasional French fry or even a punch or jab, always close to the threshold separating playful from vicious. We’re situationally oblivious. When the car heads off the road toward a tree, we’re unprepared.


Which brings us to C. S. Lewis. Our bond with Earth shares much in common with Susan’s eventual relationship with Aslan.

To start: our connection with Earth is not merely neutral; it’s good. We have rapport. Throughout human experience, Earth has been just the resource we needed and still need today. In part by celestial circumstance (we know enough astronomy these days to know our position is rare), in part due to plant- and animal evolutionary development and fine-turning over millions of years, and in part reflecting our own impact on its atmosphere and ocean, the Earth and its location are ideal for us.

But like Aslan, the Earth is not safe. As a price for our growth in numbers and urbanization, we have to pay increasing amounts of attention to where and how we’ll sustain our food, water, and energy consumption. We have to be realistic about land use, building codes, and standards for critical infrastructure. When making decisions for the long haul we can’t afford the luxury of “feeling lucky.” The same threats that are unlikely in a given week or year or decade are inevitable over longer time spans. We have to do what grownups do – shoulder responsibility for maintaining safety and protecting property over the longer haul. That extends to protecting the value of ecosystem services on which we depend (the uptake of rain and floodwaters by forests and wetlands comes to mind).

Amidst the still-building tragedy that is coastal Texas we hear calls from our leaders and from experts to this effect. The lessons of Houston are no different from the lessons of New Orleans. As a nation, we have to give priority to putting Houston and Houstonians, and others, extending from Corpus Christi to Beaumont and Port Arthur, back on their feet. We can’t afford to rebuild just as before. We have to rebuild better.

Each passing day brings us one day closer to similar catastrophe in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle and points in between. Each passing day brings another increment of global warming, ratchets up sea-level rise, intensifies ocean acidification and worse. We don’t have the luxury of closing our eyes to these concerns.

It may sound daunting. But facing these challenges forthrightly can bring us together.

And we won’t be alone. If you’ve read the story, you know we can count on Aslan to help.

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Living on the REAL world: suffering and sorrow.

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
 For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.” –
Psalm 30:4-5 (NIV)

“Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart.” Ecclesiastes 7:3 (NET)

Just a few days in, Houstonians cope with agony and acute loss that already transcend description. At the same time every displaced or unsettled resident can see, with greater clarity hour by hour, the outline of the chronic suffering that lies ahead – not just for the next few days or weeks (that could be managed), but for years. The cheap phrase “life-changing experience” takes on new meaning – and for all too many – the form of oppressive, unbearable weight. This might be doubly true for that sub-community who had been uprooted from New Orleans by Katrina and relocated in Houston, and who now find themselves violently uprooted for the second time in only twelve years.

Meanwhile, the rest of America struggles to get its collective head around what has just happened. The geographical boundary and the social space separating existential catastrophe from normalcy is remarkably sharp – as illustrated forcefully by the side-by-side juxtaposition of those displaced by Harvey, and a swarm of emergency responders and embedded journalists, cycling back and forth between the disaster zone and (relative) calm – a virtual universe untouched by Harvey but for the secondhand experience provided by broadcast and social media.

We can only hope that those bearing the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding will encounter – not merely encounter, but reinvent anew – the kind of grassroots communities that have developed informally and organically in prior disasters, as described by Daniel Aldrich, Rebecca Solnit, and Eric Klinenberg. Too often, disasters only further aggravate pre-existing social ills. But these and other authors found multiple instances of something truly remarkable. Disasters that have broken down social barriers. Catastrophes that have turned cities formerly little more than clusters of distrusting strangers into true communities with a shared sense of “we’re all in this together,” at least for brief periods. Ms. Solnit has a most compelling title for this: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Already there is some evidence for such community building in Harvey. An example: the “Cajun Navy” of small flat-bottomed boats marshaled from nearby Texas and Louisiana in response to social media, and responsible for so many of the early rescues even as larger-government-based forces were struggling to organize.

In a similar manner, we can pray that the actual Harvey actors and agents – the participants, those caught in ground zero – will recognize, when they look in life’s rear-view mirror, that the anguish lasted only for a season, and was ultimately replaced by joy (keeping in mind that the opposite of joy is not sorrow but the lack of hope).

Psalm 30:4-5 is for them, not you and me.

What, then, about the rest of us, the mere spectators?

Well, first and foremost, we can’t merely stand idly by. Neither can we show up en masse, adding to the disruption and the burden of those struggling to regroup.  Instead, we need to hope that government at federal, state, and local levels, in partnership with both local and national private enterprise, can develop a framework for action and a response that will foster recovery and along the way quickly restore “agency” to people’s lives, individually and collectively — the power to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their recovery, rather than passively submit plans and actions imposed by others. Such a framework would allow us to contribute through private donations to NGO’s and through established government and corporate programs to enable the effort.

In fact, we shouldn’t just hope our governments and leaders will do that; we should insist that they give us means to make our inclinations to help effective. We want and have a right to expect that where there has been recent partisan wrangling, our leaders will also develop Ms. Solnit’s community and together give priority to recovery for Houstonians. We ought to see them putting aside the recent toxic, polarized bickering about tax code restructuring, immigration, health care, the national debt ceiling, or government shutdown. Rediscovering our common national interest at the same time we help Houstonians get back on their feet? How cool could that be?

But there’s a second challenge to the vast majority of us who are spectators. Harvey and what we see on the screen every hour shocks us into realizing we’ve been grossly, inexcusably complacent about far worse suffering on far larger scales across our world and even here at home. We’ve become inured to the suffering across the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Turkey to Yemen to Syria to Libya to Nigeria. We shrug our shoulders at the oppression of the North Korean people and political dissenters in China by their leaders. We read about gang warfare across Central America and the thousands killed and hardly blink an eye. And we turn our backs on the rise of neo-Nazis, the continuing violence done to ethnic minorities, LGBT, and even women here in the United States. Even as we’re stunned by events in Houston, we realize to our shame that we’ve allowed ourselves to become anesthetized to these other abominations.

That’s where Ecclesiastes 7:3 comes in.  The world’s problems will not vanish overnight. But we needn’t allow ourselves to be desensitized to them.

May joy (that is, hope) come in the morning – for Houston’s suffering thousands upon thousands,  and for us all.

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“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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