Starbucks may have switched to its holiday cups. Christmas and Hannukah decorations may be in all the store windows. Annual letters from friends are starting to fill our mailboxes (joining the catalogs that have been flooding in since September). But in Washington it’s not just the season to be jolly – it’s also the Transition Season, as discussed in the previous LOTRW post.
The post outlined something like a seasonal recipe for producing transition documents, listing essential ingredients and the thought process and procedure for putting them together. Looked at in that way, you might have thought of two ingredients missing from the transition-document recipe that you’d like to add. In the language of holiday recipes, think of these as spice, and sugar.
The spice? It’s the hinge of history.
Any election, and the 2016 election in particular, represents a critical turning point for the country. And when the country is the United States, it’s also a hinge point for the world. In a similar way, is the year 2016 also something of a turning point for the special issues and the community of interest and practice that are the focus of the transition document?
Usually the answer is yes. What makes the present moment special will vary from issue to issue and group to group. Two examples: for the aerospace industry it might be the critical need to modernize and restructure national defense occasioned by changes in world security threats, and the opportunities for doing just that as a result of technological advance. For the health care sector it might be the need to tweak (or radically change) aspects of the Affordable Care Act to raise coverage and cut costs and red tape.
What about for the Earth observations, science, and services world? Again the answer is yes. The moment to be seized? Hundreds of people are writing about it, from every angle. The LOTRW post from March 23, 2016 provides just one example. You can find supporting detail there, but it describes the convergence of four trends:
1.Resource scarcity and declining margins, especially in regions of the world where resources are already scarce and margins already small. The resource challenge – most visible with respect to water, food, and energy – is global and long-term. However, the shortages don’t manifest themselves that way. Instead, they present in the form of acute local episodes – drought here, famine there, power outages or incidence of water pollution in this or that city for brief periods… our need for these elements is foundational and continual. We can’t tolerate even momentary or localized gaps or interruptions. What’s more, we all need them, whether rich or poor. Those who can afford it will pay any price to ensure continuity. The economic shocks that accompany these episodes are devastating to the world’s disadvantaged, from whatever nation.
2.The holistic nature of the resource problem. Speaking of food, water, and energy, it turns out that the three are intertwined. Just one of myriad examples: the U.S. policy shift of recent years flirting with the use of corn-based ethanol as a renewable fuel source reverberated in worldwide spikes in the price of maize. More generally, agricultural production is highly water-intensive, amounting to something like eighty percent of fresh water use here in the United States. Most fossil-fuel electricity generation makes additional water demands. Economists, scientists, and policymakers are increasingly absorbed in the task of understanding these and similar interconnections and their implications for nations and the world…
Fortunately – indeed providentially – we’re not forced to meet these future challenges armed only with today’s tools. This is where our other two big trends come in.
3.The increasing diagnostic power of Earth observations and science. Thanks to continuing investment in Earth observations and science by Congress and the American public, sustained over decades, our ability to monitor and predict what the Earth system will do next is growing by leaps and bounds. Satellite platforms combined with ingenious remote-sensing instruments now provide unprecedented global coverage, temporal resolution of environmental conditions. Drone aircraft aren’t just being used for war or contemplated to make amazon.com deliveries; they’re being harnessed for detailed, problem-specific atmospheric and land-surface monitoring. Remotely-operated undersea probes are also coming online…
4.The growing reach and power of Big Data and data analytics. This emerging ability to combine high-volume, high-velocity, diverse data sets, even in its nascent stage of development – promises to be transformative. The new power to merge Earth-system data with data on the human system – populations, resource use, habitat, income level, trends and details in all these – makes it possible to contemplate modeling of coupled human-natural systems with the same skill that we once could bring to bear only on the weather alone. To imagine where these capabilities will take us? We’ve no more idea than cavemen and women who invented the wheel could visualize the link between that invention and space travel. The difference is that we’ll make this next leap in a century instead of ten thousand years.
Carpe diem! That’s the spice.
The sugar? It’s gratitude.
Jack Fellows taught me (really all of us) this lesson, back in 2001. The Bush administration was early in its first term, and it had finally selected a science advisor, Jack Marburger. (A side note: recall that history, and you might remember that the appointment took a while, for several reasons; something to keep in mind as we impatiently look for signals from the new administration on this score.)
Jack Fellows was vice president of UCAR at the time, but his background had included time on the Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow, and several years at OMB, where he worked with the federal agencies and the George Herbert Walker Bush administration to formulate the U.S. Global Change Research Program. (No mean feat!) The experience had given Fellows a unique perspective on how it felt to be at the receiving end of a blizzard of transition documents. Armed with those insights, Fellows led UCAR and the community in the construction of a two-page document that consisted of two elements: (1) thanks to the Congress and seven presidential administrations spanning every political persuasion for forty years of unflagging support for the atmospheric sciences. (2) An account of the geosciences community’s stewardship of those investments. Advances in understanding. Translation of those advances into improved forecasts and outlooks. Savings in lives and property, improved decisions with respect to agriculture, energy, water resource management, and more.
Jack then used the document to as the skeleton for conversations with Jack Marburger, staff at OMB, and staff on Capitol Hill, where he would put flesh on the bones.
Do I need to tell you that it worked?
Gratias tibi. Gratitude? Sugar?
Versus complaints about shortcomings or deficiencies in past Congressional funding levels and other forms of support? Versus skepticism about where the Bush administration night be taking us? (They hadn’t had a chance to make a move one way or the other at that time). A summary of how we spent that money, and what the nation and the world got for that investment?
What a novel idea! And what an appropriate tone for the holiday season.
A final footnote. Jack Fellows graciously played a lead role in constructing the 2016 AMS transition document; you can see his hand in the final product.
 The-more-than-seven-hundred LOTRW posts all touch on it, in one way or another.