More Talk: on Weather-Ready Nation(s), Real-World Living, and Responsibility

“I’m a boat owner, and I’ve learned that whenever something goes wrong on the boat, it’s my fault.” – J. Michael Hall

Being AMS President confers few perks, but one of them is selecting a theme for the Annual Meeting. AMS President Marshall Shepherd has chosen particularly well. His theme? Extreme Weather, Climate, and the Built Environment: New Perspectives, Opportunities, and Tools. A few thousand of his colleagues are converging on Atlanta for talk on this subject.[1]

There’s a lot to say.

The meeting opens formally today, but pre-meetings have been underway for a while. Yesterday the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Organization held their annual informal workshop, this one entitled “breaking down barriers to becoming a more resilient world in the face of extreme weather and climate.” Loosely speaking, the heads of national hydrometeorological services from nations around the world and WMO leadership joined NWS officials to discuss the weather-ready nation concept (framed generically) and how it and similar efforts were working out here and abroad. Those present heard formal perspectives from Africa, the Americas, and Europe; the hallway conversations were even more diverse. Everything was on the table, from numerical weather modeling, to observations, to social science, to international research efforts to learn from disaster experience and innovate going forward, to pilot projects on the ground. Discussion ranged from extreme weather events in the Philippines, Finland, England and Canada, and elsewhere. The recent weather in Atlanta had created travel difficulties for many of the participants and focused minds.

A full transcript of the day would fill many pages, but one concept that received some attention was the general notion that there are several levels to disaster response that need to be mastered: individual; loose collaborations of a variety of types; and the top-down command-and-control piece that is the province of the public sector. Each takes on different responsibilities. Each requires different attention; each arena highlights the importance of building strong relationships over extended periods prior to any event, and good communication in time of crisis. The “good communication” bit prompted this lament from one participant, who lamented, “It seems like we come around to this every year but don’t make much progress.”

Well and truly said. Some observed that communication is an ongoing challenge, one that changes as we work it. But an additional notion also floated. When you and I feel responsible, we listen more attentively. Take something as simple as directions for driving to a nearby restaurant. Those who are merely passengers allow their minds to drift. The designated driver is all ears. It doesn’t matter whether the directions are delivered charismatically or in a compelling way, whether they arrive by voice or slip of paper or text message. The driver-to-be will keep asking questions until he/she is satisfied.

We might greatly improve public response to hazards if we develop a national culture of shouldering responsibility at the individual level. Such individual responsibility is supposed to be a hallmark American value, but even in this country, or maybe especially in this country, the idea can always use a little burnishing.

Which calls to mind the Mike Hall quote cited above. Years ago he led the formulation of the US Global Change Research Program, an extraordinary achievement of the federal government and the Earth sciences community. Mike, then an executive at NOAA, made this observation in passing during a planning meeting. He was basically saying that when you and I find things going badly, each of us has gotten ourselves in that particular pickle. Recognizing that someone else’s decisions and actions played a role might make us feel better momentarily but it wasn’t going to solve our real-world problem. It would ultimately be up to us to take action and live with the consequences.

Good advice in the complex business of formulating big, complex government programs. Good advice in the individual task of living on the real world.

[1] Everybody talks about the weather, remember?
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One Response to More Talk: on Weather-Ready Nation(s), Real-World Living, and Responsibility

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    “shouldering responsibility at the individual level.” There’s concern in Australia and the UK, and I imagine in the US, about the development of an “entitlement culture,” exacerbated – at times initiated – by government policies which foster dependence rather than self-reliance. Ultimately, the well-being of both individuals and society is fostered by the former accepting responsibility for themselves and their actions and the latter encouraging it. A major concern for me is the increasing tendency in many Western countries for government to increase its reach and the proportion of revenue (or debt) spent on transfer programs, programs which entrench dependency and give the beneficiaries an incentive to resist the winding back of the state. This in turn further reduces their level of self-dependence. When government spending exceeds 50% of GDP, as it does in many EU countries and parts of the UK, the outlook for personal responsibility is bleak.

    Some years ago, I read a swag of studies which found that economic growth is optimised when government’s share is around 22%. At that level, most people will be taking a significant amount of responsibility and applying more initiative; and that initiative, with much lower tax-rates, brings greater rewards, and is an example to others. We need to move from current dependency-increasing levels of government to dependency-decreasing levels. This is beginning to happen in Australia after years of galloping in the wrong direction. I hope that the US follows suit!

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