Science and politics? Vive le différence!

politicians and scientists have a shared interest: good data.

The other day an alert LOTRW reader (thank you!) passed along this link to an April 26 post by Brad Plumer on Vox. In this article, entitled A Cold War theory for why scientists and the government have become so estranged, Mr. Plumer starts out this way:

These are dark times for science — or at least that’s what we keep hearing. President Trump is pushing to slash research budgets. Republicans in Congress are harassing climate scientists. Vaccine skeptics are clogging the airwaves.

 Indeed, a big reason why tens of thousands of scientists rallied in cities around the country last weekend was to counter what they see as “anti-science” attitudes taking hold in the United States — particularly in the US government. The March for Science, according to organizer Jonathan Berman, a biology postdoc at the University of Texas Health Science Center, sent “the message that we need to have decisions being made based on a thoughtful evaluation of evidence.”

 But this raises the obvious question: Was the United States ever pro-science? Was there a golden age? And if so, why were things so different then? What’s changed?

 Mr. Plumer then cites a 2008 paper by Henry Lambright, and a conversation with the author, which starts out this way:

One of the more compelling responses I’ve seen to this question can be found in this 2008 paper by W. Henry Lambright, a political scientist at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. To simplify a bit, he argues that the glory days of US science were an artifact of the Cold War and the arms race against the Soviet Union. That era has long faded, but if scientists want to bring about a new golden age, they should study that history closely. Because it contains some valuable lessons about how politics drives public attitudes toward science — and not, as is often assumed, the other way around.

When I called Lambright to talk about the politics of science in America, he started off with a simple but provocative point: There’s no inherent reason why scientists and politicians should get along. “There’s just not a natural alignment between the two communities,” he said.

 Politicians, after all, have a very different job than scientists. At least ideally, scientists seek only to uncover objective truths about the world. They follow a strict methodology, explicitly meant to filter out values, biases, or preconceptions that might color their research. Politicians, by contrast, must grapple with conflicting values and interests. Adjudicating those disputes is the whole job, and most such disputes can’t be resolved by scientific facts alone. So, not surprisingly, the two communities don’t always see eye to eye.

 During World War II, circumstances conspired to push the two camps into alignment. New science-based weapons — most famously the atomic bomb — aided the US in the war. Afterward, Vannevar Bush, the wartime science leader, convinced Congress that all those technological advances they admired so much were made possible by foundational scientific research conducted long before the war. If policymakers wanted to see more such advances, they should fund more basic research and stay out of scientists’ way.

[The shorthand? A social contract between scientists and society that goes like this: “Give us lots of money and don’t ask too many questions, and one day you’ll be glad you did[1].”]

Mr. Lambright’s argument is that so long as science contributed to a bipartisan need to win the Cold War, it prospered. But as that threat went away, no similarly universally-shared national need came along to replace it. As a result, support for science became politically contentious. Climate change was a particularly virulent example, but even when it came to another universal desire – healthcare – stem cell research proved similarly divisive. Science increasingly comes into conflict with the values of one or the other party.

What about going forward?

[Achieving a needed] public consensus won’t solely be driven by scientists,” Lambright says. “It may have to be driven by external events, or by politicians who are leading on the issue. They’ll have to connect it to issues that people care about, like national security or economic security. And it may take some time.”

Some closing comments:

To begin, the central premise of LOTRW, both the blog and the book, is that the issue that people care about is the universal, moment-by-moment human need for adequate, reliable, inexpensive, sustainable supply of food, water, and energy, while minimizing vulnerability to natural hazards and minimizing degradation of essential ecosystem services. This requires attention to both innovation and infrastructure[2].

This is not a new thought. The framers of the U.S. Global Change Research Program had this in mind in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when they framed the program as global change versus climate change. As individuals and as a community, we scientists made a mistake in straying from that distinction and settling for a focus on climate alone. The particular phrasing is neither artful nor charismatic – that needs some work – but substantively it’s in the right direction.

Second, the challenge posed by differences between the political and the scientific mindset need not be as difficult or prove as elusive as messrs Lambright and Plumer intimate. It’s a challenge that billions of us solve every day without breathing hard – in marriage[3]. Marriage contains a common goal – not national security, but another end we desire equally strongly, namely the desire to be in relationship – that neither partner can achieve alone. As a general rule, both partners want and work toward, generally successfully, despite major dissimilarities in approach and thought. We have an expression for it:

Vive le différence!


[1] An LOTRW-based framing of the late 20th-century social contract between scientists and society; you can find this here and here.

[2] Every word in this passage matters.

[3] Apologies: for brevity, this term is used here as a shorthand to apply to all close, enduring partnerships and relationships.

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On-site reflections on the March for Science – and on “community.”

“Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” – line (as I recall it) from my ninth-grade science textbook[1]

Yesterday had a lot of moving parts around our household, but a time window between noon and four o’clock allowed opportunity to hop on the Metro and for a couple of hours be a small part of the March for Science. To be at such an event is to enjoy a wonderful immediacy, involving all the senses, but at the expense of losing the bigger picture – something like the experience of a cork being flung here and there by big waves on an active ocean. (That bigger picture was captured well and truly by Washington Post reporters.)

Some of what (your cork-on-the-scene) saw and heard:

“Communogenesis:” in an analog to storm formation, this is how communities, tribes (the idea of we-they) get formed, strengthened. Shared experience and identity, bonding – it was all happening there. Even on the Metro ride downtown it was easy to spot the marchers versus the regulars – based on dress, signage, group size, and chatter.

The walk from the Metro station to the venue revealed four other already-formed, well-established communities: (1) Street vendors. Everywhere it would prove as easy to get the coveted tee shirt commemorating Earth Day and the March for Science – or an umbrella or poncho – as it is other places and other days to get Washington Nationals or Capitals shirts and caps. (2) Food trucks. They seemingly occupied every foot of curb near the venue. Queues were long. (I could move past these as my concerned wife had thoughtfully provided me enough food and water to last for two days, not two hours.) (3) Police. They were everywhere, focused on enabling the special events to proceed and co-exist with the ordinary weekend business of downtown DC – those who were downtown for other reasons ranging from work to tourism. It wasn’t always easy or smooth. At 14th and Constitution one pedestrian tried to cross against the police officer’s instructions. The officer didn’t just let it pass, but instead restrained the man, who then struggled, resisted, protested. Immediately a swarm of other police on motorcycles moved in. Interestingly, the few vocal voices at the intersection appeared to side with the police – apparently recognizing the need to deal with both motor and pedestrian traffic in a balanced way. (4) Suppliers of port-a-johns. At some points, seeing the lines of these arrayed over the Mall, it was possible to think they outnumbered the marchers.

Key point? All these communities are (like scientists themselves?) agnostic. They care less about the purpose of any large crowd than the management and service of it.

Our threefold relationship to the Earth: Those food trucks served as a reminder that Earth is a necessary resource – a resource each of us needed moment by moment. The rain drove home the reality that Earth is both a resource (DC is experiencing what residents consider a bit of a drought, though minor by western standards) and a threat. But the Earth was also victim. The very throng attempting to pay it homage was at the same time doing it harm. The Mall was a sea of mud and mangled grass, torn up by the trampling around of the crowd in the rain, disfigured by the fencing and tented checkpoints etc. set up for crowd control and security. This coming after last year’s lengthy and expensive restoration of the Mall to make it worthy of the nation’s capital. (Impossible to tell what damage was due to this March itself or the women’s march of a few months back.)

Messaging/Signage. As journalists have noted in numerous reports over all media, scientists have distinguished themselves with clever signage and tee shirts. You can find a sample –only one of many – here. I’ll just add a couple, starting with my (admittedly parochial) favorite:

photo by Maureen Spagnolo

This is the brainchild of and proffered by Dr. Laurie Geller, who is the senior program officer providing adult supervision for our National Academy of Sciences committee working on (not the exact title) a social and behavioral science research agenda for the Weather Enterprise. Dr. Geller reminds us that both meteorological science AND social science are needed to bring about not just the forecast but also the near-universal awareness.

Runner-up from my own photos of the event might be this one:

which (totally abusing the argot of wine connoisseurs) might be described as “complex, intellectually satisfying, with earth elements that give way to hints of politics.”

Honorable mention among my photos goes to:

Which is self-explanatory, and spot on.

ICYMI: couple of journalistic reflections on the March: a nice Washington Post piece yesterday by Michael Rosenwald wondering how the Founding Fathers might have reacted to a March for Science. Mr. Rosenwald accurately notes that science and politics weren’t at loggerheads back then. And Megan Mullin reflected on risks that the March might further politicize science.

A final thought: Both President Trump and House Science and Technology Committee Chair Lamar Smith issued Earth day/March for Science statements. Both drew flak. But no matter how tempting that response, scientists might better invite political leaders, and the public to join a process whereby we all see ourselves less as contending communities engaged in confrontation, and more as “a (single, unified) community… engaged in a common search for knowledge” – in the spirit of everybody’s ninth-grade science book.


[1] This scientists-as-community ideal would later motivate a graduate-school decision to switch fields, from physics to geophysical science – one of the most felicitous decisions in my life, as I described in Living on the Real World.

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Before leaving the topic of “defensiveness” for good…

“And, as you drive, it will also use all the negative energy from your arguments.” Hafeez, New Yorker 2015

… one last, brief set of thoughts for scientists on the eve of tomorrow’s March for Science and Earth Day.

This post is triggered by an article by Tim Requarth in Slate (a tip of the hat to Fred Carr, a former AMS president, who caught the article and forwarded the link along). The article focuses on scientists’ obsessive infatuation with the knowledge-deficit approach to argument – that “if the public knew what we know about ________ (fill in the blank; climate change is a popular choice here), they wouldn’t be thinking what they’re thinking or doing what they’re doing…”

Mr. Requarth’s article merits reading (and re-reading) in its entirety, but a brief excerpt:

“…Many scientists hope that by doing a better job of explaining science, they can move the needle toward scientific consensus on politically charged issues. As recent studies from Michigan State University found, scientists’ top reason for engaging the public is to inform and defend [emphasis added] science from misinformation.

 It’s an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail. This is because the way most scientists think about science communication—that just explaining the real science better will help—is plain wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong that it may have the opposite effect of what they’re trying to achieve…”

Mr. Requarth cites and summarizes Dan Kahan’s[1] research, choosing this bottom line:

The takeaway is clear: Increasing science literacy alone won’t change minds. In fact, well-meaning attempts by scientists to inform the public might even backfire. Presenting facts that conflict with an individual’s worldview, it turns out, can cause people to dig in further. Psychologists, aptly, dubbed this the “backfire effect.”

He then concludes:

There’s a certain irony that scientists, of all people, know so little about, well, the science of science communication…

Randy Olson captures this same set of ideas in his remarkable book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. He speaks in (often earthy) language about the importance of appealing to the gut rather than the head. A considerably longer read, but still worth your time.

Still unconvinced? Coca Cola provides a cautionary tale, from another realm.

You could argue that little in all this is actually new – that the ancient Greek rhetoricians already saw it this way, two thousand years or so ago, offering variants on this message:

First win the audience; then win the argument.

So enjoy Saturday’s March for Science: outdoors in spring weather, with friends, part of a huge crowd, looking and laughing at clever placards and great tee shirts, feeding off the energy of the group, tweeting and messaging – what’s not to like? But try your best throughout the day to keep your talk pro-science and positive, not political and negative. And when the March is over, reflect on the serious business ahead for science. We have to win the hearts and minds of the audience – political leaders and the public – before winning any argument. In a word, we have to (respectfully) court them.

The bad news? After digging ourselves in a hole for the past few decades on contentious issues ranging from vaccination to climate change by acting in full-scold mode, such courtship will take a while.

The good news? “Giving the facts,” as we’ve done for years, but now with an admixture of courtship thrown in? (Using the five languages of love) Acts of service? Gifts? Words of affirmation? Quality time? Physical touch (maybe a bit problematic; let’s replace that with face-to-face)? All that not only promises to be more effective; it looks to be a lot more fun.


[1] Mr. Kahan has so much wisdom to offer, I didn’t want to pick and choose. Follow the link and make your own selection of starting point.

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Celebrating – not defending – science and scientists.

Air pollution? An unintended consequence of population growth and economic success, contamination of U.S. air (as well as water and soils) was becoming daily more evident throughout the 1960’s. The establishment of NOAA and EPA in 1970 by President Nixon and the Congress was an important milestone in the national effort to turn things around. The half-century since has seen improvement – perhaps less than we could have hoped, but maybe more than we might have expected. The entire American public pitched in: recycling; making more effective use of resources and switching where possible to renewables; developing local, state, and federal regulation. Significantly, science and technology of every sort contributed to the cleanup.

Much to celebrate! But we’re fighting a more insidious form of pollution poisoning today’s atmosphere that can’t be cured through science and technology alone: defensiveness.

Defensiveness? Fact is, there’s just too much of the ugly stuff all around us, with an outlook for still higher levels – concentrations that could be hazardous to individual and national health and well-being. That matters this weekend, because with Earth Day and the March for Science coming up, if we’re not careful, you and I risk adding more of that noxious effluent to an already burdened environment.

Defensiveness is a choice. It can even be argued that our psychological predilection for defensiveness is so strong that it gives rise to our national divisions, not the the other way around. In the language of air quality, you and I are all too readily inclined to be sources of defensiveness. Give in to that temptation, and we’ll add to the national burden.

Or we can choose to go in another direction. If we do the latter, it’ll often require that we be more than passive observers. We’ll have to be sinks for defensiveness – that is, absorb much of the defensiveness we encounter instead of exercising our natural inclination (and even foregoing our right) to push back.

Easier said than done! How might we do our bit to turn Earth Day and the March for Science from defensiveness to celebration? Multiple approaches are available to us. You are free to choose the one that feels most natural.

One proposal? Give thanks.

This suggestion is rooted in reality, and in example. First, the example. If we look across the suite of national holidays, we discover that all of them build unity through gratitude. We’re thankful for the New Year and the chance it brings for a fresh start. On Martin Luther King Day, we’re thankful to the man (and the men and women) who did so much to bind up the nation’s racial wounds. Come February, we’re thankful for all our presidents, but two in particular – the first, who through his personal integrity set the country on its present course, and the sixteenth, who dedicated his life and ultimately gave it to preserve the Union. Each July, we remember to be grateful for our independence and freedom, and in May and November we honor the men and women in our military, especially those who gave their lives to keep us free. And so on. November’s Thanksgiving itself embodies this idea not just in spirit but in its very name.

As for the reality, both scientists and the larger American public have reason to be grateful.


The most important decision in life is our choice of parents[1].

Are you a scientist living and working in America? You can come up with your own better, more extensive list, but here are some reasons to be thankful. Very few of us can say we clawed ourselves to where we are despite adversity of every sort. For almost 100% of us our circumstances have been the exact opposite. Chances are almost 100% that those parents we “chose” happened to be in a small minority of the world’s most favored. We were born here or our parents moved us here. They instilled in us a respect and love for learning. They had or worked for the means to educate us. Their DNA mattered.

Some scientists can (and perhaps too often) do claim to be super-smart. If so, you owe your parents for that! The rest of us are more ordinary. We owe a great and daily-mounting debt to not just to our ancestry but also to encouraging teachers, accommodating bosses, generous colleagues, gracious sponsors, the kindness of strangers.

Either way, we should be thankful.

Our circumstances include this: this is the best time in history to be alive – except for tomorrow. Thousands of years earlier – even as recent as one hundred years ago – the pace of scientific advance was relatively slow. Long dry stretches separated sporadic, isolated bursts of innovation. Today the pace of progress is invigorating, accelerating, self-reinforcing. Advances in one field fuel progress in every other. We enjoy tools of unprecedented diagnostic power for studying our natural and social world. Every day in science is an adventure.

And throughout U.S. history, our political leaders of both parties and our fellow Americans have paid for our education and the work we now do. This support has been sustained and generous – dating back to the establishment of West Point, the Survey of the Coast, the Lewis and Clark and other expeditions, the National Academy of Sciences, the Morrill Act, and more, leading up to World War II, and since then, the major science agencies: NSF, NASA, ONR, DARPA, NOAA, NIST, USDA/ARS, USGS, NIH, and others. For much of our history, and especially since World War II, Americans invested more than the people of any other country. (Only recently has that picture changed, and largely then on a percentage basis.) Other people, the majority of them making less than we do, and often doing less-enjoyable, more routine, and/or more physically demanding work, are paying us to do that science.

We owe both political leaders and the public our thanks.

Perhaps most of all, we should be thankful that scientific progress, and by implication the work we do, has never mattered more. National and world hopes for better health; adequate food, water, and energy; a high standard of living; resilience in the face of hazards; preservation of vital ecosystem services; public education – all rest largely on continued, accelerated, innovation. The greatest human desire is to make a difference –and our work counts.

Political leaders and the larger American public.

The Congress and the public, too, have reason to be grateful.

The investment – their investment – in science is paying off, big time. The invention of the transistor, by itself, has probably paid for all the science that has ever been done or ever will be done. The mapping of the human genome is transforming what it means to be healthy. New social science – understanding of human psychology and the behavior of social groups – has arrived even as we wonder why our individual lives matter and how we can make life more meaningful, and as our complex society of institutions, organizations, nations, and seven billion souls makes it imperative for us to understand how to function interdependently.

In particular, although preservation of the Earth and its ecosystems, the key concern of Earth Day, remains a work in progress, it seems increasingly realistic and rational to be hopeful – for two reasons. First, our comprehension of the environmental challenge – environmental degradation, habitat, biomass and biodiversity, the connections among them and their contributions to ecosystem services – is advancing rapidly. At the same time, we’re realizing that we don’t have to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools. Thanks to science, new tools are coming on line continually of remarkable power and reach. When it comes to Earth stewardship, sustainability, and the rest, our attitude can and ought to change from we’re-losing-the-battle to we’ve-got-this!

This isn’t true just for the Earth sciences. Across the board, the payoff from science, already extraordinary, is only just beginning.

Ich bin ein Berliner. – John F. Kennedy.

So, come April 22, whether scientist or public supporter of science and/or the earth and environment, let’s be positive about each other and the day. Let’s be thankful – especially for each other. And while we’re at it, perhaps we might realize that we are all scientists in a way. Let’s channel President Kennedy, who at the height of the Cold War electrified and energized Berliners with this simple statement. Any “we/they” distinction between scientists and others is artificial, unnecessarily isolating scientists from political leadership of every stripe and from the general population. “Science” is a pointy-headed word for “realist.” It’s only a question of degree. We might admit that the label scientist may be doing as much to unnecessarily and unhelpfully divide us as it does to help us.

On this Earth Day, and every day, let us celebrate together what it means to be living on the real world.


[1] Reading this post? Extra credit if you can find me a source for this. I know it’s not original with me, but when I google the expression, I find nothing helpful.

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Reflections on science, defensive behavior – and Easter. Part II. The good news.

(Physicist Tom McLeish’s quote and eleven others in a similar vein can be found on that well-known religious website – where else? – BuzzFeed.)

“…The best defense of science is pointing out all the positives we’ve accomplished…”John Plodinec

(In his comment to yesterday’s LOTRW post, John Plodinec made my speech! More below…)


As matters now stand, two April 22 events – Earth Day and The March for Science – promise something of a somber, defensive vibe. Such defensiveness feeds on itself; it’s self-perpetuating, self-defeating. And it’s far too evident in today’s polarized discourse. This growing negativism is bad for scientists, for political leaders, and the public – and indeed the world.

And it’s also unwarranted. Maybe it’s because Earth Day and the March for Science happen to be near Passover/Easter, but it feels as if we could all afford to be a bit more celebratory – and, by implication, a little less defensive.

To get a feel for this, let’s consider how far we’ve come. Circa 200 B.C., the state of science, the state of the Judeo-Christian faith, and the conditions and prospects of Mediterranean peoples left much to be desired. Those living back then might have been forgiven for a bit of cynicism and pessimism about both science and faith – not dissimilar from some attitudes today. Science of the time was founded on introspection vs. evidence. The physician Galen concluded the function of the heart was to heat the body. Aristotle had decided porcupines threw their quills. Most people, including Aristotle and others, were still doing no more than attempting to refine Empedocles’ centuries-old idea that matter was composed of four elements – earth, water, air and fire – along with some forces he called love and strife thrown in as responsible for mixing things up. Though Democritus had put forth an idea of small, indivisible fundamental particles he called atoms, it would be centuries before his idea would begin to take hold. (There was also this guy Eratosthenes – but we’ll come back to him in a moment.)

Talk about false facts.

So much for science. What about religion? In 50 B.C., the Roman Empire and its paganism were widespread and well. And to be a Jew about this time was to experience oppression of every form and degree. Start with the dictatorial Jewish state, itself under the thumb the even more odious Romans. Step out of line? You could expect cruel punishment – up to and including excruciatingly painful death by crucifixion. Jewish religious leaders themselves were often little better – carrying rigid legalism and hypocrisy to such extremes that their very name – Pharisees – became a metaphor epitomizing such behavior. The Pharisees were the most favored in this life; everything they taught made it clear they would also be the most favored in the next. People were waiting for a promised Messiah, who would come to improve things. But “improve things” meant military overthrow of the hated Romans.

Everyone was defensive.

What’s happened to science and religion since?

Let’s start with Eratosthenes. From Wikipedia, we learn that: Eratosthenes of Cyrene c. 276 BC – c. 195/194 BC was a Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He was a man of learning, becoming the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria. He invented the discipline of geography, including the terminology used today.

 He is best known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth, which he did by applying a measuring system using stadia, a standard unit of measure during that time period. His calculation was remarkably accurate. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (again with remarkable accuracy). Additionally, he may have accurately calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day. He created the first map of the world, incorporating parallels and meridians based on the available geographic knowledge of his era…

 Eratosthenes was the beginning of a trend that would revolutionize science, and with it, the human prospect. In calculating the size of the Earth, he didn’t rely on introspection. He used a little math and a little experiment to guide his thought process. The idea would catch fire. Ever since, science has continued to prove self-correcting.

Fast forward.

In commenting on the previous LOTRW post, John Plodinec stated correctly that “…The best defense of science is pointing out all the positives we’ve accomplished…”

One little problem with John’s idea – it’s impossible to capture in just a few words all of today’s myriad positives. So I hope he’ll accept a friendly amendment. My plan had been to collect just a few samples from Good Friday’s news. The Washington Post reported (on the inside pages of the print edition) two breakthroughs: The first? a new application of the CRISPR technique. From the article:

The controversial laboratory tool known as CRISPR may have found a whole new world to conquer. Already the favored method of editing genes, CRISPR could soon become a low-cost diagnostic tool that could be used practically anywhere to determine if someone has an infectious disease such as Zika or dengue.

 CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — is basically a bacterial immune system that uses “molecular scissors” to snip away genetic material from invasive viruses. Early in this decade, researchers figured out how to exploit the natural system to craft a relatively cheap, remarkably easy-to-use technology for editing genetic codes almost as readily as using a word processor to revise a paragraph.

A second Washington Post article explained that a NASA space probe had detected conditions from volcanism on Saturn’s moon Enceladus that made it perhaps the Solar System’s most promising site for life outside Earth itself. And speaking of NASA, Berrien Moore and Sean Crowell, writing in The Conversation, explained how a NASA satellite will enable us to “watch Earth breathe” from space.

Meanwhile, this from the AMS Front Page blog, a bit of forensic meteorology:

A one-two punch inside intense Hurricane Felix in 2007 turned a NOAA hurricane hunter flight into a harrowing rollercoaster ride, causing the mission to be aborted. A study of the extreme event, scheduled for publication in the next issue of Monthly Weather Review, determined a small-scale vortex known as a misocyclone rotating within the Category 5 hurricane’s eyewall is likely what bucked the plane upward nearly a thousand feet before sending it plunging back to its original altitude in less than a minute. The feature is similar to what nearly crashed the same plane inside Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Just the merest sampling from an ordinary day in 21st-century science. There’ll be comparable headlines tomorrow. Were Galen, Aristotle, Empedocles, Democritus, and Eratosthenes alive today – were Galileo and Newton alive, for that matter – their jaws would drop to see where their work has led. Science has transformed from a frail, largely personal activity into a powerful, unstoppable, and largely positive society-wide force.

Science? Cause for celebration!

How about religion?

Enter Jesus into the world of Romans and Pharisees. Today the tendency for some is to consider that no such person ever existed, or, if he did, that he was at best a genial rabbi, a good teacher, not especially bright. But that would be unscientific. To the people of the time, he was very real, scarily and thrillingly real. He was the smartest person they’d ever seen – way smarter than the most educated Pharisees, confuting them daily. And he made extraordinary claims that were both comforting and terrifying – that he was the son of God; that when he was near the kingdom of God itself was very near; that He could offer love, peace of mind and rest that completely transcended the political and military powers and dysfunction and evil of the day.

He not only talked the talk but walked the walk. He acted with authority. He read thoughts and motives. He healed and cast out demons and quieted the winds and the waves. He despised and condemned hypocritical or legalistic behavior (i.e., everything Pharisaic) but he loved everyone – the most common, the outcasts – lepers, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, women, tax collectors (especially poignant this and every April), and even the Pharisees themselves. He never wavered from seeking their truest well-being.

And he was never defensive. Even as the Pharisees and the Romans grew defensive, seeing his message as a threat to their rule; even as they began the trumped-up legal process that would lead him to the cross, he never sought to evade or dodge or try to argue his way out of the coming danger. At his arrest and crucifixion, his few disciples scattered to the four winds.

Well, that ragtag of timid, unlearned disciples who fled at Jesus’ crucifixion – a few days later, they regrouped, changed into dynamic, fearless, untiring leaders – so energetic and committed that today one third of the world’s peoples identify with the name of Jesus.

What led to this transformation?

It wasn’t faith so much as the biological science of the time. Today, most of us lead lives in which death is compartmentalized. It happens off to the side, out of sight. But back then, death was public, part of everyday experience. Everyone was intimately acquainted with life and death, and was skilled at telling the difference between the two. The public had seen Jesus die. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus and hauled him down from the cross were paid killers, who knew what they were doing – and subject to crucifixion themselves should they botch the job.

So three days later, when the tomb was empty and Jesus walked among them, the disciples knew their lives would never be the same. They didn’t need to fear. They didn’t need to be defensive. And that’s why today we know we don’t have to lapse into defensive behavior – that each of us has within ourselves an unlimited supply of love, forgiveness, grace, positive energy.

Easter? Cause for celebration!

Come April 22, how can you and I model that – contribute to making Earth Day and the March for Science celebratory, rather than defensive and grim? What would that look like?

Some thoughts in the next post.

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Reflections on science, defensive behavior – and Easter.

Earth Day and the March for Science are coming up. The mood of both is somber, a bit defensive. From the Earth Day website:

Earth Day 2017’s Campaign is Environmental & Climate Literacy. Education is the foundation for progress. We need to build a global citizenry fluent in the concepts of climate change and aware of its unprecedented threat to our planet. We need to empower everyone with the knowledge to inspire action in defense of [Emphasis added] environmental protection.

Meanwhile, we read[1]: The March for Science is the first step of a global movement to defend [Emphasis added] the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments…Science, scientists, and evidence-based policymaking are under attack. [Emphasis added] Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate, and jobs at risk. It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted.

This defensiveness might well be unnecessary – and even if justified or provoked in some sense, will likely hurt us.

As scientists, we ought to be interested in the science of defensiveness. [Yes, that is a thing.] Here is a taste of what that science has to teach us [selected on a wholly unscientific basis – I’m providing excerpts from the first link I clicked on after googling the term, which comes from a Randy Conley blog, Leading with Trust. If you want, you can readily find peer-reviewed material to this effect.] that gives the flavor, provides food for thought. The connection to put-upon-scientists-and environmentalists-beset-by-politicians-and-the-world ought to be obvious, but I’ve injected commentary (the un-italicized text) just in case.

Significantly, the blog post is entitled Defensiveness is Killing Your Relationships:

Your defensiveness is killing your relationships and you don’t even realize it.

What? Me being defensive? I’m not defensive! YOU’RE the one that’s always defensive!

That’s a classic defensive response to a piece of feedback. Throw up a wall, rebut the statement, and accuse the other person of the same complaint. The sad thing is many of us react defensively without even thinking about it. In her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine points out that we think other people’s bad behavior toward us is intentional, but we dismiss our own bad behavior as inadvertent, a mistake, or unavoidable due to circumstances out of our control. This allows us to feel morally superior to the other person while simultaneously protecting our ego from the possibility that we may actually be incompetent or acting like a jerk. [Whether self-identified scientists or political leaders, we can all recognize ourselves here.]

 The Causes of Defensiveness

People react defensively because they anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment, not usually because they’re just wanting to be difficult. Unfortunately, defensive behavior creates a reciprocal cycle. One party acts defensively, which causes the other party to respond defensively, which in turn causes the first party to raise their defenses even higher, and so on and so on. [Emphasis added. This escalation is the key risk for all of us.] Defensive behavior can be a complex and murky issue. For many people, their behavioral patterns stem from emotional, mental, or personality issues/tendencies developed over the course of their lifetimes (feelings of abandonment, inferiority, low self-esteem, narcissism, etc.).

Beyond the mental and emotional factors, there are types of behaviors that cause people to respond defensively. Defensive communication expert Jack Gibbs outlines six behavioral categories that create defensive responses in people:

Dogmatism – Black and white, I’m right and you’re wrong, either/or, and other kinds of all or nothing thinking and communication cause people to react defensively.

Lack of accountability – Shifting blame, making excuses, and rationalizing behavior leads people to raise their defense levels.

Controlling/Manipulative – Using all sorts of behaviors to control or manipulate people will lead to defensive behavior. No one likes to feel like they are being used by someone else.

Guarded/Withholding Information – When people feel like they are being left in the dark or purposely excluded from having information they should know, they are threatened and will react defensively.

Superiority – Want someone to be defensive? Then act like you’re better than him/her, lord your power, knowledge, or position over them and see how they respond.

Critical – A constant focus on catching people doing something wrong, rather than right, creates a climate of defensiveness. [Full disclosure? I’m personally guilty of all this. My guess, whether scientist or political leader, so are we all. If we’re honest with ourselves, we might recognize some of these tendencies, maybe even feel a twinge of guilt.]

How to Deal With Your and Other People’s Defensive Behavior

Dealing with defensive behavior can be complex and exhausting because it’s hard to separate a person from their behavior or the situation. And as mentioned earlier, some people’s defensiveness is so deeply rooted in their behavioral patterns that there is little realistic chance they will permanently change. However, there are some helpful strategies we can use to deal with our own defensiveness and that of others:

Re-frame the behavior – Rather than label a person’s defensive behavior as bad, understand it for what it is – defensive. Once you understand it as defensive, then you can explore why the person is feeling threatened and work to address the threat(s). One of the reasons we get so frustrated with defensive people is we try to deal with the behavior without addressing the threat that is causing the behavior.

Reduce the danger – Once you’ve identified the threat(s) causing the defensive behavior, work to reduce the perceived danger. Be moderate in your tone, even-tempered, empathize with their concerns, be respectful, and respond non-defensively to avoid escalating tensions.

Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence – Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Through self-improvement, counseling, training, or mentoring, explore the causes of your defensive behavior. What are the triggers that make you feel threatened? Having a better understanding of yourself will not only help you regulate your own behavior, it will give you better insight into the behavior of others as well.

Replace negative feedback with questions or offers to help – If you have to regularly deal with someone who reacts defensively, you’ve probably noticed that the slightest bit of negative feedback sets them off. Try replacing the negative feedback with a question or an offer to help. For example, instead of saying “Sally, you made a mistake on this report,” rephrase it by saying “Sally, I’m not sure I understand this section on the report. Could you help me figure it out?” Remember, a person acts defensively because he/she perceives a threat. Try to make the situation non-threatening.

Move from dogmatism to openness – The less people feel boxed in to either/or, yes/no, right/wrong choices, the less threatening the situation. Of course there are times where things need to be done a specific way, but if you approach the situation with a spirit and attitude of openness rather than “my way or the highway,” you’ll get a more open response.

Treat people as equals – Approach other people in a collaborative manner, looking for ways to help them win in the situation. Take time to identify and recognize their needs, discover what’s important to them, and validate their concerns.

Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. The opposite of defensiveness, openness, creates an atmosphere of freedom, growth, respect and trust. Identifying the root of defensiveness in our relationships, and working toward addressing and removing those issues, will help improve the overall quality of our relationships and the productivity of our teams and organizations. [All this feels like really good advice.]

Somber? Defensive? Viewed in this light, whatever the provocation, however righteous the cause, those reactions are not helpful – either in our individual relationships or when it comes to the wholly artificially constructed and unnecessarily confrontational scientist-policymaker divide. Social science is clear on this. To March for Science or observe Earth Day in a defensive spirit serves only to harden positions and make much-needed reconciliation, trust, and collaboration more difficult.

What’s the alternative? To frame and participate in both Earth Day and the March for Science in ways that can clearly (and only) be seen as celebratory. Seems like a big challenge. And there’s not much time to get in such a frame of mind! The next post will point to some motivation and means.

[Spoiler alert] Easter is involved.


[1] Failed the IQ test for linking to the March for Science website here; but google March for Science, click on the first link, and you’ll reach the text cited.

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How to increase long- and short-term risk to the American economy.

America and Americans are today blessed with the world’s largest and strongest economy.

Suppose you wanted to put that economy and that world standing at risk? How would you go about it?

Some argue that’s exactly what China is attempting to do, through a combination of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices. But that reasoning is likely flawed. Others suggest our efforts to lend other nations a helping hand through financial assistance or favorable trade agreements compromise our economy. Experience dating back to the Marshall Plan puts the lie to this latter argument. Some see a risk in heavy-handed government regulations. But the fact is our economy is remarkably free of the corruption and graft seen in other countries. Our environment is clean and over past decades has grown ever cleaner. The challenges posed by such aspirational regulations have inspired American innovation, leading to advances in clean energy technologies, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, agricultural technologies, improved water resource management, a robust financial sector, the strongest currency in the world and much more. We’ve not lost but gained a global competitive edge by this approach. European nations – individually, but also collectively, through the European Union – tend to see things in much the same way.

Speaking of the Europeans, nature itself imposes another risk. The first European explorers landing here initially expected a paradise on Earth. They had a latitude-theory of climate that held weather was favorable near the equator and grew more hostile at higher latitudes. Since Europe was generally at a higher latitudes than the colonies, it was a foregone conclusion that the Carolinas, Virginia, even New England would offer a more favorable climate than Europe.

Talk about optimistic! In the four hundred years since, we’ve learned the hard way that the Americas face punishing cycles of flood and drought, hurricanes comparable to those of the western Pacific, as many winter storms as northern Europe and Russia, a surfeit of violent thunderstorms, and a virtual lock on the world’s strong tornadoes. In short, we live with arguably the harshest weather regime on Earth. Here too, the greater risk has prompted greater innovation. Today our directly weather-sensitive economy such as agricultural production ranks among the world’s best. What’s more, every aspect of our economy is indirectly weather sensitive – every business, however high-tech or virtual, is subject to weather-related property loss of disruption. Even there, we’ve successfully minimized the risk over recent decades through clever risk management.

As a result, today our biggest weather-related risk is not the weather itself, but the risk that we’ll take our eye off it – that we’ll reduce resource commitment and attention to the community responsible for weather warnings. The insurance sector – property and casualty insurers, as well as reinsurers, understand this risk better than most. They’re basically in the business of redistributing risk, but at the same time seek to reduce the risk overall, through mitigation strategies such as better land use and building codes, and through reduction of repetitive loss. Not surprising, then, to find a leader in this sector leading a call for maintaining federal agency budgets. An op-ed published yesterday by The Hill[1] provides a recent example. (The Hill is an American political journalism newspaper and website published in Washington DC since 1994, with more than 24,000 print readers, giving it the largest circulation of any Capitol Hill publication.) The brief article merits reading in its entirety, but here is the bottom line:

…One of the basic underpinnings of our economy is the weather and climate infrastructure that supports the business community, the weather community and American citizens.

 Proposals to reduce the value of these programs at NOAA and NASA are contrary to promoting economic activity and the employment related to it. If we are to commit resources to infrastructure, we should be strengthening, not weakening, these programs that are essential to our daily lives, and the businesses we rely on for jobs and depend on as consumers.

 How do we increase the long- and short-term risk to the economy? We put the handcuffs on ourselves.


[1] Frank Nutter, the lead author took the initiative here, and shouldered responsibility for shepherding the process through; Mary Glackin and I were privileged to help out.


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Xi Jinping, Donald Trump… and H.R. 353, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017.

Last week saw two major events in the United States. The first, the historic encounter between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, was duly accompanied by pomp and by breathless, nonstop media attention. Meanwhile, under the media radar, the Congress on April 6 presented to President Donald Trump for signature H.R. 353, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017.

You might have missed that second milestone, or fail to see the two as comparable – or at all related. But the stakes represented by H.R. 353 could not be higher – and they might prove fundamental to U.S. China relations.

Here’s a summary of the Bill’s particulars:

This bill authorizes a number of programs to enhance weather forecasting and alerts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

 NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research must conduct a program to improve forecasting of weather events and their effects, with a special focus on high impact weather events.

The National Weather Service must collect and utilize information to make reliable and timely foundational forecasts of subseasonal and seasonal temperature and precipitation. Subseasonal forecasting is forecasting weather between two weeks and three months and seasonal forecasting is between three months and two years.

The bill provides for technology transfers between the National Weather Service and private sector weather companies and universities to improve forecasting.

NOAA must complete and operationalize the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (a weather satellite program which develops observational techniques using global navigation systems).

Additionally, NOAA may contract with the private sector to obtain data for weather forecasting.

NOAA must continue its Environmental Information Services Working Group, which advises NOAA on weather research and opportunities to improve communications between weather stakeholders.

Taking all this at face value, mainstream media and most Americans might be forgiven for understanding the Bill’s passage as mattering only to a few federal and private-sector weather service providers and their stakeholders. But it’s entirely possible that like Lorenz’s butterfly, that seems inconsequential in and of itself, but by merely flapping its wings produces a downstream hurricane, H.R. 353 might change the course of world history – and in a good way.

Here’s the why and how.

First, it’s worth noting that Democrats and Republicans together accomplished this bipartisan passage in the midst of extraordinary political wrangling – during a month in which it seemed that they couldn’t agree on anything, ranging from health care to Supreme Court appointments. H.R. 353 makes clear our leaders and the people they represent are united in wanting improved public safety in the face of weather hazards and improved weather services to support economic growth, especially in sectors such as agriculture. They also see closer collaboration between public and private sectors as a necessary means to these ends. Implicitly, in so doing, political leaders and the public recognize that Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) are non-partisan, and themselves represent critical infrastructure. All Americans ought to draw encouragement from this display of comity.

But Earth OSS is a special kind of critical infrastructure, guiding and leveraging and adding real value from far more extensive American efforts to meet its basic needs for food, water, and energy, while simultaneously protecting against hazards and minimizing any loss of vital ecosystem services. Those latter efforts require a far greater infrastructure outlay, amounting to $4T in the United States alone over the next twenty years. Good Earth OSS can reduce this $4T figure substantially, even while improving the return on the investment. In calling for more research, H.R. 353 also acknowledges that Earth OSS, though improved considerably in recent years, is still not where it needs to be to meet these stringent, high-stakes demands of tomorrow. More research and development is urgently needed, especially with respect to weather extremes and seasonal to interannual outlooks. Time is of the essence, because the $4T investment is continually underway. Decisions are being made and options foreclosed. Improved weather forecasts and longer-term outlooks can’t come a day too soon.

That leads to the second thread – the Trump-Xi meetings.

Writing in the Washington Post following the historic meeting last week between President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping, Lawrence Summers[1] shared some thoughts on the economic challenge posed by China. He briefly offers persuasive arguments asserting that neither unfair currency manipulation nor unfair trade practices pose either a problem for the United States. Instead, he sees a far greater challenge in another direction. He concludes:

If currency issues are invalid and commercial diplomacy is unlikely to have much positive effect on the U.S. economy, what should be the focus of economic policy with respect to China?

It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which China is seeking to project soft power around the world by economic means. Xi’s speech in Davos , Switzerland, in January, quoting Abraham Lincoln and laying out a Chinese vision for the global economic system at a time when the United States is turning inward, was the rhetorical edge of a concerted strategy.

Of course there is Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which envisions infrastructure investment and foreign aid to connect China and Europe. In a little-noticed development, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-sponsored competitor to the World Bank, has announced that it will invest all over the world. Already, Chinese investment in Latin America and Africa significantly exceeds that by the United States, the World Bank and relevant regional development banks. And China will soon be the leading exporter of clean energy technologies.

This investment will, over time, secure Chinese access to raw materials, allow Chinese firms to gain economies of scale and help China to win friends.[2] The United States has chosen not to join the Asian infrastructure bank, to undermine rather than lead global cooperation on climate change and, if the president gets his way, to sharply cut back foreign aid. In doing so, it is accelerating a loss of its preeminence in the global competition for prestige and influence. Perhaps this development is inevitable, but it is a mistake to accelerate it.

A truly strategic U.S.-China economic dialogue would revolve around the objectives of global cooperation and the respective roles of the two powers. It is important that such a dialogue start soon, but this move will require the United States to focus less on specific near-term business interests and more on what historians will remember a century from now.

Summers echoes[3] the message of recent LOTRW blogs[4], that the real decision facing countries of the world is twofold: (1) whether we can and will work together to meet basic needs for food, water, and energy, while simultaneously protecting against hazards and minimizing any loss of vital ecosystem services; and (2) whether at the end of this process our world will look, think, and act more like the China of today, or instead look, think, and act more like today’s United States – or (as he suggests) end up somewhere in between.

Somewhere in between? May God grant all seven billion of us the wisdom and grace to keep the best parts of both, rather than settle for something less. And may those of us laboring on different aspects of this challenge bring all our noblest motives and energies to bear – today and every day.


[1] According to Wikipedia (in one of its admittedly less-well-curated entries), Lawrence Henry “Larry” Summers (born November 30, 1954) is an American economist, former Vice President of Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank (1991–93), senior U.S. Treasury Dept. official throughout President Clinton‘s administration (ultimately Treasury Secretary, 1999-2001), and former Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama (2009-2010). He is a former President of Harvard University (2001-2006), where he is currently (as of March, 2017) a professor and director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. (making due allowances for these Democratic roots, his thoughts on this subject on this day feel measured and essentially non-partisan by today’s polarized standards.)

[2] emphasis added

[3] unknowingly; just as LOTRW unwittingly borrows from the insights of others; seven billion people think and write and do a lot of things while our backs are turned.

[4] and indeed, the 2014 book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet

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Progress on Climate Change? Good news… and bad.

This weekend, both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried op-eds on the new administration’s attempts to turn back the clock on climate change policy. Both articles suggested such efforts will fail, for a variety of reasons:

Writing in the New York Times, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had this to say:

President Trump’s unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement. But here’s the good news: It’s wrong…

Those who believe that the Trump administration will end American leadership on climate change are making the same mistake as those who believe that it will put coal miners back to work: overestimating Washington’s ability to influence energy markets, and underestimating the role that cities, states, businesses and consumers are playing in driving down emissions on their own.

 Though few people realize it, more than 250 coal plants — almost half of the total number in this country — have announced in recent years that they will close or switch to cleaner fuels. Washington isn’t putting these plants out of business; the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan hasn’t even gone into effect yet.

 They are closing because consumers are demanding energy from sources that don’t poison their air and water, and because energy companies are providing cleaner and cheaper alternatives. When two coal plant closings were announced last week, in southern Ohio, the company explained that they were no longer “economically viable.” That’s increasingly true for the whole industry…

Mr. Bloomberg went on to describe in more detail actions by state and local governments that are in synch with these and other economic realities.

Ben Adler, writing for the Post, recognized these same domestic drivers: commercial, as well as state and local. He added that the recent presidential directives, though showy and dramatic, are not likely to have any more immediate effect than President Obama’s earlier directives had in the opposite direction. He argued that the greatest threat is to America’s international agreements:

…Trump will certainly make it harder to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. He is a flamboyant climate science denier, even for a Republican

…Trump’s greatest threat to the global battle against warming is his attitude toward the Paris agreement. Without further domestic climate action, the United States was already at risk of not meeting its emissions targets under Paris. If Trump’s policies ensure that we miss those targets, it will undermine international faith in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, of which the Paris agreement is a part. Even worse, Trump will still be president when global leaders reconvene in 2020 to ratchet up the ambition of their emissions pledges for 2025 to 2030. We can safely assume the United States won’t play the constructive diplomatic role that it did last time…

But Mr. Adler then argued that other nations will continue that climate change policies in response to their independent domestic pressures, whether or not the U.S. goes along. In particular, he focused on China and India:

…China is far and away the most important global player on this subject. Already, it is the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, responsible for 27 percent of annual emissions and 0.17C of the 1.5C change already guaranteed. Based on its enormous population and its rapid economic growth, those numbers could rise precipitously. But instead — after decades of rapid growth — its emissions have been stable or slightly reduced for the last three years and it projects a drop of 1 percent in 2017. China is switching to clean energy, and its shift away from coal is contributing to a global slowdown in emissions. Over the last three years, even as the world economy has grown, emissions have stayed flat. China is on track to fulfill its promise from Paris to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, ahead of schedule. According to experts on Chinese environmental policy, it may have peaked already. In January, Beijing announced it will invest at least $360 billion in deploying renewable energy such as wind and solar from now through 2020.

 India, like China, suffers from severe smog in its major cities, and it is following suit. It has set ambitious goals for solar energy generation and is investing heavily in related infrastructure upgrades. Globally, new coal capacity was down 62 percent last year over 2015. China and India are also beginning to tackle transportation emissions, as they dramatically expand their train and subway networks…

 Reasons for cheer – or at least to dial back some of the current dismay.

But neither author addressed a hidden risk for the United States: budget cuts proposed for federal science agencies compromise the critical Earth observation, science, and services infrastructure that means the difference between intelligent decisions in this arena and unnecessary actions and waste. Such deleterious effects may not be fully evident over next few months or years – but the result will be trillions of dollars loss to the U.S. economy over the rest of the century.

Mr. Bloomberg referenced the UNFCCC, which dates back to 1992; those of a certain age will remember that at that time the world’s governments were mobilized by two pieces of U.S. science: a decades-long time series of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, documenting a steady rise (with a small superposed annual cycle) consistent with fossil-fuel emissions, and NOAA climate models conclusively demonstrating that a continued business-as-usual CO2 increase over the present century would lead to several degrees of global atmospheric warming. Good for scientists; they caught the problem. Good for policymakers and the world’s publics; they swung into action – action that continues to this day.

On the science side, in the 25 years since, the U.S. science community has partnered with scientists of other nations:

– to advance monitoring not just of CO2, but all greenhouse gases; of glacial ice melt and sea level rise; of ocean acidification, and more;

– to refine modeling, expanding its capabilities to separate out the different regional implications for climate; the impact on the hydrologic cycle; and implications for weather extremes; and

– to sort out sensitivity of climate change to world economic scenarios; and the impacts of climate change on human activity in turn.

On the policy side, innovation in energy production and distribution; agriculture, and water resource management are all reducing the cost of actions to mitigate and adapt.

There is still room for – and urgent need for – considerable improvement in all this work. It’s important to monitor persistently as climate change and variability continue to unfold, to detect departures from what had been expected early on, and to adjust accordingly.

We do that for hurricanes. If a hurricane were in the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 3-4 days out from landfall somewhere on the U.S. Gulf Coast, we would never say, “Oh, we’ve gotten all the bead we need on this one; let’s turn our attention to other things.” No, we’d have all eyes and assets on it throughout its track onshore and inland until its winds, rains, and flooding were no longer discernible. Public and government at all levels move as one.

There’s strong nonpartisan support for improving such weather forecasts. Congress is poised to pass a bill, H.R. 353, solemnizing that commitment. In this tempestuous time, that’s saying something.

Adding climate research to the cost of monitoring and predicting severe weather to protect the public increases the cost only by 25% or so – a puny dollar amount totally dwarfed by the benefits of getting the climate problem right.

The climate change threat is unfolding over 30,000 days, not 3. It remains to be seen whether seven billion people have the attention span needed to hold that thought. Also in the balance? Whether the American people want to maintain our current high ground in this science, technology, and innovation, or whether we’re content to cede our leadership to other countries and allow our safety and economy to be taken wherever those nations and their science and inclinations drag us.

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A Goldilocks approach to climate change.

A recent GOES-16 image

“A Goldilocks planet is a planet that falls within a star’s habitable zone, and the name is often specifically used for planets close to the size of Earth…

…In astronomy and astrobiology, the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ), or simply the habitable zone, is the range of orbits around a star within which a planetary surface can support liquid water given sufficient atmospheric pressure.” – (not quite random Google search result)

Suppose we’d been called into existence before the planet we live on had been created. Suppose further that we’d been asked to design and build a spaceship on which we could tour the universe.

Never in a million years would we have come up with a totally cool open-air convertible.

But, wow! That’s what we’ve got. And it’s amazing. It’s perfect for us. It’s got everything we want or could ever want. You and I could blog for a million years of days and write a billion pages and not even begin to capture all the wonders that make it ideal. It’s cause for celebration! And that’s what we’re doing. In a way, what the world’s peoples do all day every day – as we dialog and rub shoulders with each other, as we put our hands and brains to every kind of work and recreation, as we  contemplate and create and innovate – we share and rejoice in our good fortune in one way or another.

Throughout our history, our Earth has inspired us with this wonder, but it’s only in the past century or so that we’ve even begun to comprehend not just how magnificent it is, but also how remarkably unusual it is (and how fragile!). So far, our tour of the universe has shown us that the planets meeting these conditions even approximately are few and far between. We won’t be pulling alongside another such planet on our celestial tour anytime soon.

For all of this recent period of awareness each and every one of us has since childhood had the story of Goldilockand the three bears to capture the imagination. So it was natural to apply this name to our astronomical investigations. But remember this: Goldilocks has more to offer us than a label. She offers a cautionary tale. In today’s 21st-America, at a time when we’re toying with rollbacks of this and that environmental regulation, we should revisit and learn from her mistakes. Some of the lessons:

Ownership. Goldilocks was where she didn’t belong. The house she entered belonged to the three bears, not to her. In the same way, as we tour the universe in our remarkable convertible called Earth, we shouldn’t assume we have any bragging rights. We can’t say to those we pass: “look what we made!”  Objective observers would more likely see us less as astute designers and builders and more as joy-riding adolescents thoughtlessly trashing the car’s interior…

…over-eating. Goldilocks was okay sampling the porridge. But when she consumed the baby bear’s entire bowl, she got the bears’ attention. In the same way, we need to learn to sip at natural resources, focusing on that which is renewable, and showing careful stewardship of that which can’t be replaced.

…and spoiling our nest. Just by sitting, Goldilocks made a noticeable impact on the bear’s chairs. In the same way, seven billion of us, though meaning no harm, have compromised Earth’s ecosystem services, especially over recent decades as our numbers have grown and our per-capita consumption of resources have increased.

Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep at the switch. The carbs in the porridge and the comfort of the chair enticed Goldilocks to take a little nap. Just a little one! But in letting the dopamine do its work, she was also allowing herself to be delusional, to fantasize that all was well. Goldilocks persuaded herself that she wasn’t in the house of strangers, that the food she had eaten would be magically replaced by more by the time she woke up, that she wouldn’t be noticed, that no threats would appear before she woke up. All these realities she pushed aside.

That was her undoing.

In the same way, several billion of us (not the whole seven billion, but only the most advantaged) have grown accustomed to the privileges we enjoy: an abundance of food of endless variety at the market, pure water flowing freely from every tap, reliable electrical power at every outlet, and ample gasoline and natural gas at every point of need. Clean air, clean water, a grand experience of the richness and variety of nature filling our senses. Safety in the face of natural hazards. Instead of being awestruck, we’ve grown complacent. Instead of being grateful, we’ve felt entitled. Instead of remaining thoughtful and vigilant, we’ve yielded to carelessness.

There’s no other way to explain a kneejerk aversion to phrases such as “climate change” and “environmental protection” and “renewable energy;” mindless rollback of environmental programs and initiatives, with little more thought than a cursory word search reveals such phrases; and obsessive, misplaced attempts to root out such terms and the ideas behind them in public education, news media, and more, wherever they appear. We know humans are capable of this mindset – making terrible decisions and committing horrible acts on the basis of mere labels rather than substance. Examples such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the Holocaust are ever before us. But history‘s rearview mirror shows us that such lapses have always proven unspeakably destructive.

Fortunately, history has also shown that that such aberrance has been confined, both geographically, and to small subsets of the prevailing culture. Universally, people come to view such events as abhorrent.

This is where the final lesson of Goldilocks comes in:

Not too hot. Not too cold. The contrarian theory is alive and well. When President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972, beginning the process of formal recognition, it was an easy step politically. He was a known conservative and people trusted his judgment in this respect. Had George McGovern, a known liberal, been elected president instead, the public would have been distrustful and unaccepting of the initiative; they’d have seen it as a pinko-Communist move. In the same way, it was possible for Nixon to establish NOAA and EPA. In 1970, everyone could see this was a responsible step. Later, George Herbert Walker Bush when president would find it easy to support reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, allow the Montreal protocol to come into force, and to negotiate the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But throughout the 1990’s, when Vice President Al Gore was saying that climate change was the defining problem facing humanity, Americans decided they were unconvinced. In 2001, the pendulum would swing the other way. The newly elected president, George W. Bush, thinking he was playing to the crowd,  essentially said to the American people, “You’re right! Climate change isn’t a problem.” But instead of congratulating him and patting him on the back, the same American people said, “Wait a minute! We don’t think you should be that complacent about where we seem to be headed.” President Bush had to hurriedly convene an National Academy panel to reflect; after he received the findings he spent effort walking back his earlier stance.

Yesterday’s White-House ceremonial environmental rollbacks, both those announced and those otherwise implied, will almost certainly trigger the same reaction, and have the same political effect. The domestic reaction this morning is already quite negative. Abroad, the message is one of dismay, and a clear signal that the rest of the world remains reality-based and committed to pressing on.

What’s needed is an approach to these challenges that is just right – not too hot, and not too cold.

Instead of rhetoric claiming this is the challenge that will define humanity – or that this is fake news and can be dismissed out of hand – we need a middle course. We should recognize that the problems, though real, and requiring attention, need not consume us. We’ve estimated the associated infrastructure problem to be five percent of world GDP – something like $100T over the next twenty years (I promise this is the last time I’ll mention this figure – at least for a while.) Maybe another $100T will be needed to get a few other bits right with respect to spaceship-Earth maintenance over the same period. But that still leaves $2 Quadrillion dollars available over the same period for other things. And at the end of that time, world GDP will be a significant fraction of one quadrillion dollars annually.

But we can’t afford to fall asleep, as Goldilocks did. We need to enter the future with our eyes open, seeing what’s coming next. New opportunities for renewable resources, and new ways to conserve the nonrenewable bits. New ways to build resilience to hazards and preserve ecosystem services.

Thus the most essential critical infrastructure is therefore that which we need to guide our other critical infrastructure investments. For this, we need environmental intelligence, the observations to see how the Earth and its ecosystems are trending, predictive science able to anticipate what comes next, and policy formulation capturing the benefit of this information. Eyesight – Earth observations, science, and services – is the critical infrastructure we most need, if we are to keep the $100T from being a sunk cost, and convert it into a sound investment offering rich returns. The good news? Currently we’re only spending 0.1% of GDP on such situational awareness.

Now is NOT the time to deliberately blind ourselves – to pull the rug out from under this inexpensive but essential research, observations, and predictive understanding we need to move forward. Instead, since we’re not where we need to be, we should easily double-down on such critical infrastructure.

The real lesson from Goldilocks? It’s not about an emotional elimination of “unnecessarily burdensome regulations.” It’s about seven billion people moving in fits and starts, but on the whole, remaining committed to shouldering responsibility and demonstrating self-control – and doing so intelligently.

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