Weekend thoughts…on hope and despair…and their attribution

On September 12-14, Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute held a workshop on Extreme Meteorological Events, mores specifically on Attribution of Climate and Weather Extremes: Assessing, Anticipating and Communicating Climate Risks. Writing in Climate, Etc., Judith Curry provides an interesting commentary. Inter alia, she refers to an editorial in Nature on that event.

The tone of all this material suggests it’ll be a long time before science progresses to the point where, say, those who suffer loss in a given meteorological extreme – a flood or drought, a hurricane or heat wave, coastal erosion or sea level rise – can realistically seek damages from some negligent or malevolent party in a court of law. This finding is consistent with similar difficulties meteorologists have encountered in a much simpler context, namely weather modification. There it turns out, for example, that statistical evidence supports the efficacy of cloud seeding on mountain upslopes during winter storms to increase snowpack, while evidence for successful seeding of warm-season convective storms on the high plains to support agriculture is mixed.

We’re reminded daily, however, that life is a journey. Many would argue that at least in this more limited sense studies of attribution hold merit. For example, they motivate the improvement of fundamental understanding and models.

In the meantime (and it promises to be a very long meantime) the debate on attribution may better serve as a Rohrschach test – telling us more about the mindset, backgrounds, and psyches of debaters than about the topic itself. Of course, the Rohrschach test is itself an exercise in attribution. Its considerable limitations have been extensively studied and enumerated.

The weekend provides an opportunity for some reflection on all this. Picking up a bit a bit on an earlier post, Gray is beautiful, where I was extoling the virtues of shades of gray as opposed to black or white, please indulge me a bit and allow me to ask where you see yourself on the scale between hope and despair, and why.

To what do you attribute your mindset…and why?

To get the ball rolling, I’ll list a set of hopeful, nascent signs:

Information about the world we live in…information that used to exist only in a few libraries and on a few campuses is now in everyone’s hip pocket. Literally. Take the rollout of the iPhone 5.0; it’s only the latest illustration of all this. At the same time, we have unprecedented access into the thinking and the mindset of those around us, and those half a world away, through social networks and social media. Our imaginations have literally become the main restriction on our potential. And another welcome sign here? An increasing number of articles and studies suggesting that as individuals and a society we’ve been bingeing on these new capabilities, allowing them to control us versus harnessing them to higher ends. That growing awareness brings the promise of a much-needed correction.

Women are on a roll. Women don’t need to be told this. They see the signs. But some of my male friends may have missed the e-mail. If you haven’t taken note of Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men, the matter therein, and all the attendant buzz, you should. Fully unleashing the power of 3.5 billion brains, and giving a wake-up call to the other 3.5 billion? Brilliant. Couldn’t be coming at a better time.

We understand that what we’ve always called the human body is really a complex biome. This reframing of health care and public health is tremendously exciting. There’s every likelihood that many seemingly intractable health challenges will yield before the emerging understanding of how our bodies really function as finely-tuned biological communities. And if we see our own bodies as community, then perhaps we’ll be more likely to see the importance of  each other.

We’re re-visioning the car. As a result of urbanization and the IT revolution, we’re transforming our psychic connection to automobiles. It won’t be long before driving is something we used to do. We’ll remain interested in the free capability to go when and where we want, but individual transportation will be something we program versus execute. In the future, travel will be safer, and there’ll be less need of it. We’re already driving less in urban areas. And we’re exchanging car ownership for car rental.

Warts and all, American politics is undergoing its quadrennial celebration – the presidential elections. Our democracy, like many others, is too contentious and divisive…but every four years it provides us an unparalleled civics lesson.

China is on its way to becoming a Christian country. This might not be in your top six. But it should be. We are at our core emotional and spiritual beings and each of the developments above requires a reset of the human spirit if its fullest benefit is to be realized. China’s at somewhere around 5% Christian now, up from essentially zero just a single human lifespan ago. Christianity is growing there not despite adversity but because of it. With repression, corruption, and environmental despoliation pervading Chinese society, Christianity holds promise of hope available to every person, individually, more or less immediately. As it takes hold, it’ll increasingly be reflected in Chinese decisions on their national and international agenda. One fifth of the world’s population changing its national attitude? Likely to have a positive effect on the rest of us.

Note the emphasis at the start of this list on the word nascent. Each of these trends is just beginning. It’s tempting to see them as fragile, transient, inconsequential. [To anthropomorphize: the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous probably saw mammals in the same light.] But you and I are likely to all enjoy watching these trends as they continue to unfold.

Any cause for despair, Bill?

Here’s one.

Our seemingly slow progress with respect to the real-world challenges enumerated in the previous post:

- The simultaneous challenge posed by natural resource extraction, protection of environment and ecosystems, and building resilience at community and national levels to natural hazards.

- The importance of full-cost pricing of natural resources extraction and use that internalizes the environmental costs of their extraction.

- Commitment to the support of the critical infrastructure represented by Earth observations, science, and services needed for America to prosper throughout the rest of the 21st century.

- Use of such capabilities internationally to improve the prospects of all nations…both developed and developing…and by partnering in this way foster world peace and stability.

- Exploration of public-private collaboration at a strategic level toward these ends.

We can and should be doing more in this arena.

The antidote for that despair? Well, actually, there’s a lot of potential in those same six trends listed earlier.

Increased access to information on these real-world challenges? Likely to help, even when seven billion people are preoccupied with the virtual world as opposed to the real one. Bringing a larger fraction of the world’s population to bear on resource, environmental, and hazards issues? The large number of women entering this field will surely transform our approaches to these problems. Making our world population healthier and therefore more fit for the task? Rationalizing the transportation sector, which represents one of our biggest energy drains? Resetting the U.S. political attention to these issues? Even though the environment hasn’t been hotly debated this time around, we’re likely to see renewed policy emphasis on the environment over the next four years, especially as world economies improve. Finally, having China, one of the world’s fastest-growing consumers of natural resources, possibly bringing a new cultural mindset to the table on global issues seems like a good start to me.

What do you think?

[note: this post was edited slightly a few hours after its initial posting.]

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2 Responses to Weekend thoughts…on hope and despair…and their attribution

  1. One cause for optimism you left out: our growing understanding of übernetworks (networks of networks). We are approaching an intellectual tipping point in which we begin to understand and can control our ever-more-complex world against the consequences of its own complexity.

    One cause for pessimism: men are falling behind. Only about 40% of college students are men. I have seen anecdotal evidence that colleges are lowering their admissions standards for young men. Unemployment is highest among black men. Boys are falling behind girls on many if not most academic measures. This has the makings of a social tragedy that the media are overlooking (so what else is new?). For a quarter century it has been increasingly difficult for educated black women to find educated male partners. As a result, the bright promise of the civil rights era is fading. We’re starting to see the same thing happening for other groups. This means more single mothers trying to raise children without father figures, and single fathers increasingly isolated from society.

    I’m optimistic that our understanding of our problems will grow, which will help us devise solutions that can work. I’m pessimistic that we will have the will to use that understanding to actually solve our problems. Then again, one of the great things about being a pessimist is that you get nothing but pleasant surprises!

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