Laudato si’

Pope Francis Meets The Roman Diocesans

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs   

– Saint Francis of Assisi

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

– Pope Francis

Praise be to God indeed! Thursday’s Papal encyclical on climate change breathes fresh air and spirit on a world and on a climate-change debate sorely in need of both. The depth and breadth of the discussion defy casual summary. To attempt to identify and lift nuggets from the larger whole or to pick-and-choose cafeteria-style among the arguments presented is misdirected if not futile, though we’ve seen numerous attempts in all the news and social media in the days since. What makes the nuggets truly golden are their settings – the precise wording and the carefully-woven context. That weaving is so deft and intricate that attempts to unravel particular bits from the fuller exposition leave something far inferior to the whole.

In other words, to feel the impact you and I had best read the encyclical in its entirety. That encouragement doesn’t even go far enough. To go further – not merely to feel its impact but to derive its benefit, to experience its healing – we need to meditate on it. And we’re not talking about meditating on it over a single weekend. The encyclical deserves regular revisits. Over months. Years. It’s going to stand the test of time.

Ten comments.

  1. The encyclical is more about human nature than Earth’s nature. In fact it sees the two as inextricably intertwined, inseparable. Furthermore, it sees climate change not as a separate issue, or even as an issue in its own right. Instead it’s a symptom of human failings and shortcomings: greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, mendacity, etc. You could add shortsightedness except that at several points the text notes that we’re not merely oblivious to our wrongs and how they exacerbate the problem. Our actions are premeditated. We possess the needed self-awareness, and we see the bow wave of problems we’re creating for the poor and disenfranchised, for those less fortunate – and yet we proceed anyway.
  1. It’s a Rorschach test. Scientists may be tempted to ignore the spiritual dimension, and focus on the realities of environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity. NGO’s focused on the plight of the poor, whether the poor nations or the poor within each nation, will exult over the papal support for their cause. Free-market voices of a certain stripe will decry papal attempts to “make all of us poor.” Political leaders of a certain persuasion will grouse about religious meddling in economic and social matters. Check the news summaries and the blogs. You’ll find everyone finding in the encyclical support for long-held positions and personally and institutionally-cherished preferences. (LOTRW is surely no exception; another reason you should read the encyclical from start to finish and draw your own conclusions.)
  1. It’s reality-based. In support, here’s a snippet from section 201 of the encyclical: realities are greater than ideas (the original text includes a citation to an earlier Vatican work). But (especially scientist-friends) be warned; reality here is assumed to have physical, social, and spiritual dimensions. (An aside. Some scientists make it clear that non-experts should be cautious in arguing with scientists about climate change. Understood. But we scientists ought to be equally attentive to those who’ve studied spirituality in a disciplined way when they share what their studies on such matters have revealed. And if we’re reluctant to be blindly submissive on these latter subjects, then perhaps we ought to be more respectful to those who dare question our science.)
  1. It sees these realities and our human challenges as fully integrated and inseparable. For example, the encyclical makes clear that our environmental problems stems from seeing nature and all its life and creatures as being mere objects as opposed to essential manifestations of the love and power and nature of God. It sees our indifference to the plight of lifeforms and landforms as intimately related to our disinterest in the suffering of others. It describes us as having allowed ourselves to drift into a state of slavery to technology as opposed to retaining mastery over it.
  1. It is fully comfortable with both science and faith. At one and the same time the encyclical holds true to the idea of a created universe and embraces findings of science with respect to the size of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution of life, and the nature of reality at the quantum level. It is positive about the contributions of science and technology not just to material human welfare but beauty and the elevation of the human spirit. And interestingly, it doesn’t dither over these concerns; it simply blows right through them. Surely an encouragement to the rest of us to follow suit.
  1. The moral message ought to arouse us more than the economic message. The encyclical makes much of our interest in individual material well-being as measured by conventional means. This has already come under attack from some quarters as “the pope urging us to all be poor.” But the deeper message of the encyclical is that when we enrich ourselves while turning a blind eye to the basic human needs of others – whether for food, or water, or shelter, or respect – we do great and indelible harm to our souls, and that this is the greater danger.
  1. The encyclical is more celebratory than condemnatory. Throughout – in every section and every reflection, the encyclical reminds us that the Creation is good. It sees every aspect of physical reality both animate and inanimate as carrying a message about God’s love, power, interest in our well-being, and forgiving nature. It speaks to our access to joy and peace in light of this understanding. It speaks to the possibility of building a richer, more equitable, more sustainable, future.
  1. It is a group construct. Surely Pope Francis called for it. Surely he made editorial comments as the work proceeded, and had a good deal to say about both its substance and tenor. But the encyclical clearly has as much in common with an IPCC report as it does with the prayerful reflection of a saintly, devout individual. There are frequent, quoted references to thoughts and contributions from bishops from around the world. Much as an IPCC report, the chapters and conclusions are informed by the scholarship and study of many other individuals, past and present, who are extensively and thoroughly cited.
  1. It is a valuable addition to the ongoing global dialog. While, as an encyclical, it’s intended to represent a “final” or definitive papal word in some sense, it’s not intended to supplant discussion so much as contribute to it. The latter sections of the encyclical encourage continuing dialog of all kinds: international, national and local, dialog leading to transparency in decision-making, politics and economy in dialog for human fulfillment, religions in dialog with science. In section 188, the Pope emphasizes all this:

There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.

  1. Did I say you ought to read the whole thing for yourself and draw your own conclusions? Yes. Is the encyclical the last word? No. Is it a perfect document? No. Is it something you and I would do well to discuss seriously with each other? Build on and improve? Absolutely, no matter who we are or what our role.

Let’s get at it.

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The Age of Muddle?

Muddle: to behave, proceed, or think in a confused or aimless fashion or with an air of improvisation –


In a comment  to LOTRW, John Plodinec offered this alternative to  the most recent post, on The Age of Global Renewal.

Here’s what he had to say:

Nice try, and wish it would be true!

But our age will only be named after we’ve lived through it, and the way we’re going it likely will be something more like the Age of Muddle. Our political processes – bogged down in confused bickering. Our economy – a fragile yo-yo, with central bankers floundering around because they have no experience with this set of circumstances to light their way. Our society – splitting along an educational divide, with the Educated flourishing, the Uneducated living in increasing isolation, and the Great Middle muddling along.

At the same time we are warned that global warming threatens our food supply our food production is not only steadily increasing but has actually accelerated this century. While we can send messages around the world in seconds, our ability to communicate with one another is eroding. And while resources are more abundantly spread around the world than ever before in recorded history, too often we lack the will and the wisdom to use them. An Age of Muddle, indeed.

As always, hard to argue with John!

And as for muddle, perhaps we should happily settle for that. Given the complexity of the 21st-century challenges we face, perhaps “muddling along” in the sense of the definition above is a far better outcome than some of the alternatives. In fact, that label might capture the thesis of the book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet. Much of the argument there is that meteorologists approach weather prediction in the same way. Here’s the recipe for weather prediction:

  • observe;
  • make very approximate predictions;
  • observe again, allowing early detection of departures from the predictions;
  • make new, very approximate predictions
  • repeat.

There’s an analogous recipe for dealing with any of the (other) insoluble challenges of our age: peace; jobs, poverty, disease, natural hazards, resource management, environmental degradation, privacy, and more. It goes like this:

  • observe
  • work out an approximate policy for coping
  • observe again, allowing early detection of departures from the intended goals and the emergence of unintended consequences
  • revise the approximate policy for coping
  • repeat

In this light, “muddle” might perhaps be seen as an unnecessarily humble label for a brilliant strategy.

But here’s an (admittedly very partial) rationale for why we might realistically hope to do even better – perhaps far better. First and foremost, the pace of advance in energy technology is nothing short of breathtaking. This is particularly true with respect to photovoltaics and battery technology for energy storage on both fixed and mobile platforms.  Capabilities are growing and per-unit costs are declining rapidly. Second, climatological analyses of the availability of solar and wind power integrated across the entire expanse of the continental United States suggest that in principle the option is there for the taking and prices only incrementally greater than current energy costs – provided only that we invest in the necessary infrastructure (in addition to the solar panels, and the wind turbines, a high-voltage DC national power grid). In Africa, for example, just as nations have leapfrogged landline telephony in favor of cellphones and their much cheaper infrastructure, governments and the private sector are investing in place-based electricity generation based on renewable-energy technology versus increasing their access to and reliance upon fossil fuels.

Ample energy at reasonable prices in turn opens doors for other policy options – desalination of seawater on massive scales, for example. That in turn transforms the prospects for production of food and fiber. In the meantime, urbanization, and the conversion from national, largely manufacturing economies to global, increasingly knowledge-based economies allows for efficiencies in consumption and improved (material) quality of living.  Though none of these trends constitutes a “solution,” and each will give rise to unintended consequences, they will likely buy us time.

The key is continuing innovation and the sustained application of innovation for societal benefit.

We’re all tempted as we age to conflate wisdom with pessimism, but I’m just coming off my annual experience with participants in the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. Each year I ask them: what’s the favorite activity of people my age? They always get it wrong, usually leading off with golf, bridge, reading, and other pursuits before turning hostile and suggesting bingo. No, I tell them, people my age like to gather in groups and talk about how the world used to be terrific but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket. There’s always a flash of recognition. Participants have seen it in their parents and others of my age. But then I go on… the cure for this is hanging around this group (of early-career future scientist-leaders). And it’s true. They have so much energy and passion and intent to make the world a better place that it’s easy to realize the future is in good hands.

Others offer similarly hopeful views of reality, couched in different terms, more thoughtfully based, and more extensively reasoned and documented. You might remember (or be interested in) one example published back in April, the so-called Ecomodernist Manifesto, multi-authored, and published by the Breakthrough Institute. It speaks to a good Anthropocene. You no doubt have your even more insightful and trustworthy candidates: if so, please share your favorites with the rest of us.

By the way, John Plodinec finds time to read and thoughtfully comment on LOTRW posts, but this is only a sliver of a sideline for him. He writes frequently for the Community&Regional Resilience Institute; you can find his recent post on leadership, learning, and trust here.


(Always gotten into trouble in the past whenever committing to future posts, but succumbing to temptation once again… as many readers may be aware, the National Weather Service is continually reinventing itself. More on recent developments in the next post. And Pope Francis is releasing his encyclical on climate change today. Perhaps you’ll find commentary here as early as this weekend. )

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The Age of Global Renewal

Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration

Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration

Every generation gives a name to the age they live in.

Of course it’s not quite so simple. Generally speaking, we don’t engage in a naming contest. Rather we all live out our lives in a certain way, and according to the events and accomplishments and failures and the nature of our times, the generations who follow, looking at our impact on their lives, assign us a title. Sometimes the name is good: the Renaissance. The Age of Reason. Sometimes it’s neutral or ambivalent: the Stone Age. The Iron Age. The Age of Exploration. It can also be negative: the Dark Ages.

It’s possible, perhaps even common, for an age to have multiple names. And though we don’t get to vote for names we like, we do find plenty of suggestions on offer these days. To test this, I just googled the unfinished expression “The Age of”. Turns out that through an accident of timing, every entry on the first page referred to the movie, “The Age of Adaline.”


Ah. The second page of entries started to give me what I was looking for – a lot of book titles: the Age of Love. The Age of Empire. The Age of American Unreason. The Age of Access. The Age of Missing Information. The Age of Answers. The Age of Dignity. Dozens more appear on subsequent Google pages. Of course few, if any, of these will endure.

Here’s a candidate for you to think about today: the Age of Global Renewal.

What prompts me to put this forward despite the surfeit of alternatives? The juxtaposition of two articles in the May30th-June5th print issue of The Economist. The first was a cover story entitled The Weaker Sex: no jobs, no family, no prospects. The article tells us something that we already know: blue-collar, poorly-educated men in rich countries are in trouble. They have not adapted well to trade, technology, or feminism. Here’s an excerpt from the web version:

At first glance the patriarchy appears to be thriving. More than 90% of presidents and prime ministers are male, as are nearly all big corporate bosses. Men dominate finance, technology, films, sports, music and even stand-up comedy. In much of the world they still enjoy social and legal privileges simply because they have a Y chromosome. So it might seem odd to worry about the plight of men.

Yet there is plenty of cause for concern. Men cluster at the bottom as well as the top. They are far more likely than women to be jailed, estranged from their children, or to kill themselves. They earn fewer university degrees than women. Boys in the developed world are 50% more likely to flunk basic maths, reading and science entirely.

One group in particular is suffering (see article). Poorly educated men in rich countries have had difficulty coping with the enormous changes in the labour market and the home over the past half-century. As technology and trade have devalued brawn, less-educated men have struggled to find a role in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are surging into expanding sectors such as health care and education, helped by their superior skills. As education has become more important, boys have also fallen behind girls in school (except at the very top). Men who lose jobs in manufacturing often never work again. And men without work find it hard to attract a permanent mate. The result, for low-skilled men, is a poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.

Chances are, whether male or female, you’re already painfully aware of this problem. That said, The Economist provides a great articulation.

You might well be saying, Problem solved, Bill. Let’s just call this age The Age of Male Decline and be done with it.

You can certainly go that route. And history may prove you right. But pause for the moment and consider another trend, captured in another article, Rus in urbe redux.

Ignore the Latin pretensions. The article is about cities in decline. We all know that the world’s major cities are hovering up rural populations and swelling in population. But the exodus isn’t just from the countryside. It’s from also from relatively large numbers of smaller urban centers. An excerpt:

In Leipziger Tor, people are giving way to grass, flowers and potatoes. So many prefabricated 1950s apartment buildings have been razed in this working-class district of Dessau-Rosslau, a city in eastern Germany, that the plants receive all the light and rain they need. And the local planners have other buildings in their sights. Some residential blocks are half-empty. An abandoned school is succumbing to weeds. They too will probably be demolished and replaced by meadows.

Many of the world’s cities are having to cope with rapid growth. Dessau-Rosslau’s challenge is to manage decline. Since 2007 its population has dropped by almost 10,000, to 81,500. Everybody, from the city authorities to the man in the street, reckons the trend will continue. What will Dessau-Rosslau be like in ten or 20 years’ time? “Smaller,” says Rolf Müller, a longtime resident, as he carries a box of groceries out of an Aldi supermarket.  

 The condition from which Dessau-Rosslau suffers is increasingly common. From 1950 to 1955 only ten of the world’s largest conurbations lost people, according to the UN (see chart). The tally rose steadily over the next few decades, before jumping in the 1990s, as the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and Russia was followed by a colossal migration. Today just over 100 conurbations are losing people. But this greatly understates the scale of urban decline. In many countries, big cities with diversified economies are growing at the expense of cities too small to make the UN’s list. Germany has 107 autonomous cities, of which 60 are expected to contract over the next five years. But almost all of the biggest cities will escape decline (see map).

 Shrinking cities can be found in the post-industrial rustbelts of the American Midwest, eastern Europe and northern England. But the phenomenon is increasingly Asian. In Japan 20 cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants each declined in population between 2005 and 2010. The two largest cities in South Korea, Busan and Seoul, are both contracting. Even rapidly urbanising countries like China and India have a few declining cities. In 2008 the UN estimated that one in ten emerging-world cities were losing people. The only part of the world where shrinking cities are almost unknown is sub-Saharan Africa. But that too will change. 

A city can lose some people and barely notice. It might even have to build more homes, since in many countries more people are living alone. But persistent decline is harmful, especially if the population is ageing as well as shrinking. As factories and homes are abandoned, the local economy can spiral downward.

The body of the article (worth the read) goes on to point out that efforts to stem such declines through the creation of special economic zones, etc., rarely succeed. However, the article cites instances in which demolition of decaying urban areas and the restoring the land to parks and more natural landscape has actually improved the prospects for the downsized urban areas remaining.

So here’s the thought. The nature of such demolition and restoration is inherently labor-intensive and physically demanding. It’s also inherently local, place-based work. It can’t be outsourced to another, distant country, as can the manufacture of textiles or computer chips. Such work is therefore in principle available virtually everywhere.

Well and good, Bill, but who’s going to pay for it? Great question. Millennials are too young to remember this, but those of us of a certain age can recall when the same question was asked of recycling. When separation of trash and recycling of paper, plastic, and metal goods was introduced in the last century few thought such efforts would pay or prove sustainable. The fact is, that the practice has spread.

There is low-hanging fruit here. We know all too well that the world’s poor are forced to live on dangerous seismic faults, floodplains, and unstable slopes. This and our practice after natural disasters of “rebuilding as before” condemns us to repetitive loss. It also perpetuates pockets of poverty: the social science shows that growing economies recover from hazards, but stagnating economies do not. Disasters aggravate pre-existing economic trends.

Nations, cities, and localities able to think long-term might therefore recognize that the cost of returning decaying urban land to nature can be recovered from the reduced future costs of natural disasters and social unrest. It’s therefore easy to imagine social engineering of this sort becoming widely accepted, intentional policy, making such restoration a way of life for, say, the rest of this century. (And, in the process, taking its place alongside rebuilding and maintaining critical infrastructure as an important societal goal accomplishing similar ends.) Note that we’re not insisting society do a 1800 turn; we’re only embracing what’s already underway here and there and scaling it up.

The Age of Global Renewal? Should have a much better ring to it than The Age of Male Decline, whether you’re male or female.

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TBD List for Colloquium alumni

This year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium is a wrap. The participants have all made it home. Back at the office, we’re closing out the books and writing inadequate acknowledgments to the distinguished speakers who took time out of their crazily-busy schedules to meet with the group. We’re absorbing the feedback from participants in order to improve the experience for everyone next year. And speaking of gratitude, we’re thankful to the participants for taking ten days out of their schedules to be with us. They had many competing claims on their time.

As participants were grabbing their luggage and heading for airports, some asked about next steps. Over the years, we’ve probably paid inadequate attention to this aspect of the Colloquium. We make every effort to maintain contact with alumni and provide opportunity and venue for them to stay in touch and reconnect, particularly at AMS Annual Meetings. But we can and should be doing more. So here’s a first installment in that direction: a preliminary list of areas that merit attention and work. Though the nominal audience is the 2015 Colloquium contingent, the list applies equally well to all alumni from prior years – and, for that matter to all readers of this blog and all members of the Earth observations, science, and services community. Note the emphasis on the word preliminary. Readers are invited to enrich this list with additions and reworking of these initial ideas. Please help us tap into the wisdom of crowds!

Start with your science/profession. Stick to the knitting. Your science, your research, your day job is what got you here. You’re a graduate student? Doesn’t matter whether your research is on metallic-compound precipitation on Venus or tropical convection or squid larvae in the Pacific here on Earth. Maintain your intensity/focus. You’re working in a government agency? Move your piece of the mission forward, be it public safety, or climate services, or national security. Employed by the private sector? Do your bit to improve your product/service line, build markets and profits (all of us need to remember that “profit” is just “sustainability” by another name). Whatever your role, expand the envelope of human knowledge/capability. Doesn’t matter how incremental or narrowly specific that new bit of insight might be. Remember seven billion people are working alongside/behind you, doing their bit as well. That massive collaborative effort has the human race on a roll.

Then expand your horizons. You can do this in any of a number of directions. Let’s start with your day job. Of those seven billion people, only a handful are your nearest neighbors… the men and women working in closely allied fields. Are you merely competing with them? You ought to be communicating, collaborating. There’s more than enough work to go around. And opportunity isn’t zero-sum. Keep your ideas to yourself today, and tomorrow you’ll find you’re even more timid. And others will pick up on your negative vibe. Little by little your field will shrivel and die. But freely share what you see and know, and you’ll bring others out of their shells. Your aggregate work will grow in significance. You’ll find your work more satisfying. You’ll attract others who’ll join in. The more you work with others, the more field and scope your work will enjoy.

Or you could go in another direction. You could begin by setting aside some time each day to consider the application of your work for societal benefit. Ask yourself: why does my work matter? How might it benefit others? What extra effort would I have to make that potential benefit a reality? If I can’t do that by myself (and face it… you probably can’t) then how do I go about partnering up? How can I, and my organization, grow to be more intentional, disciplined, and effective in transitioning from science to services that change the world? And (looking beyond your own work), what about the innovation I see from others? How could their work be harnessed to manage resources more effectively? Provide for public safety? Slow or reverse environmental degradation? As an extension of these ideas, you might try developing your own “case for the geosciences and related social science.” Ask yourself why so many members of Congress seem to be content to cut funding for these disciplines. And don’t take some lazy way out, don’t just assume that it’s a matter of knowledge deficit, that if they only knew what you knew, they’d increase that funding. Instead think through what changes you and I might make in the way we do business on the provider side of geosciences and services to earn a bigger following. Share your insights with the rest of us.

Here’s a third option. Start taking what’s happening in your home city or county or state more seriously. Begin by developing your own informal SWOT analysis for the place you call home. What do people need? Jobs? Education? Better access to health care? Productivity? What’s the local conversation like on these issues? Is it non-existent? Desultory? Mis-directed? Heated and divisive? Then ask how your skill set fits in. What might you do at the grassroots level, through local NGO’s or faith-based organizations, to change the conversation, build trust, identify common ground. What small success could you and others achieve that might be a basis for building community? (To bring this down to specifics, close to home… NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation program might provide just such an opportunity.)

Don’t forget the AMS. Of course we want you to take opportunities to submit your papers to our journals, join in our meetings, and volunteer. But we also want you to let us know how we can better serve you, equip you for next steps in your career, continue your professional development.

Please stay in touch.

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2014 Colloquium participants

2014 Colloquium participants

“Honesty is the best policy.” – Benjamin Franklin

“I never had a policy. I just tried to do my very best each and every day.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” – Ronald Reagan

This evening, the 2015 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium gets underway. For the next ten days, some forty early-to-mid-career science professionals from the ranks of industry, academia, and government will meet with Congressional staffers, White House and State Department staff, as well as leaders of federal science agencies. Colloquium participants will dialog with science reporters, leaders of NGO’s including the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and with each other. They’ll work through case studies and group exercises. In this way, they’ll be taking an important step towards becoming as disciplined in their approach to policy as they are with respect to their science and engineering. They’ll come to understand the distinction between public policy for science and the use of science to develop public policy. They’ll realize that their mathematical equations are truly silent on the policy process, but that the policy process too has structure and rules. They’ll see that if they know, respect, and honor these rules, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish, but if they ignore the realities of the policy process, they’ll not only get what they deserve but inflict harm on our country and diminish our future prospects. This year’s participants will be joining the ranks of some 500 scientists and engineers who’ve gone through the program since its inception in 2001.

Why has the AMS and its community of 13,000 professionals sustained this multi-year investment in leadership development? The answer lies in AMS’ basic purposes: advancing scientific knowledge and understanding and harnessing those advances for societal benefit.

For most of our (nearly) 100-year history, the key to these goals lay in improved science and technology. Today, the challenge in equal measure derives from application. How can the United States – and for that matter, the peoples of the world – realize the fullest return from atmospheric and water resources and their contributions to the production of food and fiber, as well as solar-, wind- and other forms of energy? How can we most effectively build resilience to extremes of nature – ranging from cycles of flood and drought, winter cold and storms, warm-season hurricanes, thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes, to earthquakes and tsunamis? What measures are needed to protect irreplaceable ecosystem services provided by the landscape, habitat, and biomass and diversity on which we depend? We can use more science bearing on these questions, but we can also make better use of the science we have in hand.

The key to such effective use lies in public policy.

Scientists might be excused for seeing this largely in terms of funding levels for science. Today’s policies for federal investment in science generally, and the allocation of those resources across disciplines, will indeed shape U.S. innovation for the next quarter century. But that is only the beginning of the story. Our national, state, and local-level policies toward K-12 education are equally important, as are the policies determining the costs of and access to higher education. So are our policies toward immigration, especially the immigration of technically-skilled students from abroad who aspire to study and then pursue careers in the United States.

Deregulation of electricity generation and development of regional power grids increase the value of hour-by-hour local forecasts of sunshine and wind. Regulatory requirements that the operation of dams on watersheds be determined solely by present (vs. anticipated) water levels in reservoirs reduces to zero the value of precipitation forecasts over the next few days to weeks. Emphasis on evacuation in the face of hazards versus improved land use and engineering to reduce the need for evacuation combines with a culture of “rebuild as before” to condemn us to repetitive loss to natural hazards. Principal-agent focus on regulations separating public agencies from the private sector work well day-to-day but inhibit the ability of government and private enterprise to collaborate strategically on national challenges.

And that’s only the beginning. In the interconnectedness of today’s society, our greater national hopes and aspirations — for individual liberty, for representative democracy, for equal opportunity, for meaningful employment, for greater health and democracy, and quality of life, and national security – are all intertwined with policy for science and science for policy.

Plenty to ponder over the next ten days!

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Living with extreme weather.

Folks in Norman, Oklahoma have set the table for a three-day workshop on this topic Monday-Wednesday May 18-20. Our hosts have done their best to ensure that the occasion will be not just interesting but groundbreaking and productive. To start, they’re assembling a sizable group of experts spanning meteorology and the social sciences. What’s more, they have everyone coming up to speed ahead of time. We’ve completed surveys declaring out our desired outcomes. We’ve viewed specially-prepared videos on the Moore and El Reno tornadoes of 2013, and reflected on the public response and recovery in the two instances. Our hosts have helpfully provided the following series of questions to structure our individual reflection and preparation:

1.What questions, thoughts or impressions did the videos evoke that you found surprising, troubling, or unexpected?

2. What gaps do you believe exist in our understanding of formulating and communicating information about extreme weather to those impacted?

3. What gaps do you believe exist in our understanding of human preparation and response to, and recovery from extreme weather?

4. What key research questions come to mind that could be addressed within a discipline, or in a multidisciplinary framework?

5. What opportunities do you see in moving social/behavioral science theory and research outcomes to operational application for most effectively dealing with extreme weather? 

6. What do meteorological science researchers and practitioners need to learn or understand about the social/behavioral sciences in formulating research questions and developing effective research collaborations?

7. What do social/behavioral science researchers and practitioners need to learn or understand about meteorological science in formulating research questions and developing effective research collaborations?

8. For what topics, and in what ways, do you see your capabilities being most valuable in addressing and/or exploring the issues presented?

[You can give this exercise a try yourself; the videos are publicly available here.]

A few thoughts prompted by viewing the videos a couple of times[1].

FACETs. (Forecasting A Continuum of Environmental Threats) NOAA and collaborators working together on this innovative, next-generation approach to warnings and watches to better serve the public in future years. FACETs offers much to like but its developers would be the first to say that for FACETs to work will require not just changing the way that NOAA does business but also the way NOAA’s collaborators and the American public understand, process, and respond to emergency weather information. However, the particulars of just what changes will be needed and how to go about their implementation can only be guessed-at now. The three days will therefore lay out a roadmap for R&D to gain the knowledge needed.

Tornadoes are unique. They pose challenges to safety – and to property, infrastructure, and business continuity – unlike those arising from flood or drought, or from hurricanes or winter storms. If 300-mph winds were a daily, pervasive feature of climatology, we could design for them. But when such tornadic winds affect patches of land a few square miles in extent out of millions of square miles, when they persist for only a few minutes and come along at any given location, even in the tornado belt, no more often than once every several years, then they pose unique challenges to land use and building design. If the videos are any guide, the workshop will focus on tornadoes. Its conclusions will likely offer new insights to the challenge of living with extreme weather more broadly, but there will likely be some findings or recommendations that won’t generalize particularly well across all weather extremes. By contrast, FACETS, suitably tuned, should serve well across all weather hazards, but some of that tuning will require attention beyond what this workshop can provide.

Warnings, however effectively communicated, are not enough. If FACETs warnings are to be helpful, the public has to have clearly understood and easily accessible options for action. That somehow should start with the home. Home should be the safest place to be. If an entire home in a tornado-prone area can’t economically be built to allow shelter-in-place, then it needs a storm cellar or safe room. Finding the means to achieve this, especially in lower-income housing, is a policy challenge every bit as much as an engineering one. It needs to be faced squarely in the tornado belt, not swept under the rug. Otherwise, as the videos show, in the face of approaching tornadoes, people will be tempted to hit the road, where far greater risks await.

The safety of schools and hospitals needs the same priority attention, to protect people who are too young to know what to do or too sick to move. That in turn brings us to the workplace. Here, as in other respects, we find that employers vary in how much attention they pay to worker safety. If more attention is paid to safety at home, employers will experience social pressure to provide a safer work environment quite apart from any incentive in the form of regulation. That will be enough for some. Others will do little unless compelled by regulation. FACETs addresses little of this mitigation challenge directly. Instead, it can only serve as a stimulus to broader actions across the whole of society.

Tornado emergencies. The videos touch on this nomenclature, which is a welcome addition to the language. It calls to mind snow emergency routes, familiar in the eastern and northeastern U.S., which are to be kept clear. The video material, which shows large numbers of people stuck in traffic gridlock in the face of the El Reno tornado, makes it evident that sometime soon, traffic during tornado events will have to be regulated and curtailed. The time frames are much shorter than in during snow events, but public safety will require such regulation, and today’s IT will enable it.

As the above material suggests, the policy, the meteorology, and the social-science focus needs to be on diminishing the scale of tornado emergencies (that is, reducing the number and geographic extent of people who have to take evasive action) versus learning how to manage tornado emergencies of ever-increasing scale and complexity.

The pain of loss and the illusion of recovery. In hurricane and flooding events, experts are inclined to cluck their tongues at the sight of television reporters knee-deep in floodwaters, or struggling to maintain their balance and footing in hundred-mph winds as dangerous debris soars by. They suggest that the journalists encourage dangerous public behavior[2].

If that bothers us, then perhaps we ought to be even more concerned and similarly outspoken about video coverage of the suffering and pain inflicted by weather hazards. We’re given the death tolls to be sure; we see images of grieving families numbed by personal and financial loss, but those images are brief in duration, and the coverage winds down rapidly over the ensuing few days. Sometimes reporters will visit a disaster site a year or five years on, but again these reports don’t capture for us the stupefying, oppressive effect of these tragedies that accumulates hour after hour and then day after day without letup, sometime for a lifetime, for thousands upon thousands of people. The media coverage may show rebuilding at disaster sites, but inadequately convey that those doing the rebuilding or profiting from it are often newcomers who’ve moved in only after the disaster. By trivializing loss and recovery in these and other ways, however unintentionally, we encourage repetitive loss and we invite the public to under-invest in mitigation of all sorts.

The American Meteorological Society has much to offer. For the public to take fullest advantage of the new capabilities offered by FACETs and improved weather prediction and risk communication will require adjustments in K-12 education and close coordination with broadcast meteorologists across all media. AMS members and programs can readily be harnessed to these ends. And more than 120 local AMS chapters offer the potential to build the needed community-level conversations on these subjects across the country.


[1]An apology in advance. The videos function a bit like a Rorschach test. My reactions therefore possibly reveal more about me than they serve to address the real problem. They don’t match up directly with the questions For all these reasons, take what follows with a grain of salt.

[2] Personally, I’ve never bought this argument. Embedded journalists bring us news coverage from war zones, but that doesn’t encourage civilians to take such risks.

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The value of (improved) S2S forecasts?

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

The National Research Council (NAS/NRC) is developing a research agenda to advance subseasonal to seasonal (S2S) forecasting. Here’s their statement of task:

An ad hoc committee will conduct a study that will identify opportunities to increase forecasting skill on subseasonal to seasonal (S2S) timescales based on the 2010 NRC report Assessment of Intraseasonal to Interannual Climate Prediction and Predictability and progress since. The report will describe a strategy to increase the nation’s scientific capacity for research on S2S forecasting. The committee will develop a 10-year scientific research agenda to accelerate progress on extending prediction skill for weather and ocean forecasts at spatial and temporal resolutions to aide in decision making. The committee’s report will cover: * Identification of potential sources of predictability and assessment of their relative value for advancing predictive skill; * Identification of process studies for incorporating new sources of predictability into models; * Application and advancement of ocean-atmosphere-ice-land coupled models; * Key observations needed for model initialization and verification of S2S forecasts; * Uncertainty quantification and verification of probabilistic products; * Approaches to communicating this type of prediction in a way that is useful to and understandable by decision makers; and * Computational and data storage and visualization infrastructure requirements.

The committee is chaired by Ray Ban; membership of the full committee, agendas for the meetings, and other information is available on the link above.

In the public session of today’s meeting, the committee will be discussing the value of improved S2S forecasts. They’ll hear first from Fern Gibbons and Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, of Senate staff. That should be quite interesting and informative. A second panel for the morning was supposed to feature Jeff Lazo, an NCAR economist and lead author of the seminal paper (in an otherwise very skimpy literature) entitled U.S. Economic sensitivity to weather variability, published in the AMS Bulletin in 2011; and Lawrence Friedl, who directs NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, arguably one of the best-structured and most strategic approaches to applying scientific advances in our field to beneficial use. These two individuals are what former NOAA Administrator D. James Baker used to refer to as “PWAKS” – People Who Actually Know Something. Paul Higgins (who directs the Policy Program here at AMS ) and I were invited to fill in around the edges. However, through one of those accidents of scheduling, he and I may be the only folks to show up.

In my remarks, I’ll be largely repeating two simple points covered in posts to this LOTRW blog over the years and in the corresponding book.

First, costs of S2S forecasts, or any similar services, for that matter, are difficult enough to estimate, but the benefits or value are harder to measure still. Many factors contribute to this, but one of the biggest is that value or benefit, and the allocation of that value across sectors of society and individuals, are determined as much by public policy as they are by science or engineering. To repeat the (perhaps over-used) example from the blog and from the book, deregulation of electricity and the construction of regional grids have combined with the rise of solar and wind power to dramatically increase the value of weather forecasts. By contrast, regulation of dam operations on watersheds requiring that management decisions be based on reservoir levels without reference to forecasts changes in those levels effectively reduces the value of (in this case, S2S) weather forecasts to zero. This latter has been documented by Rayner, Lash, and Ingram: WEATHER FORECASTS ARE FOR WIMPS: WHY WATER RESOURCE MANAGERS DO NOT USE CLIMATE FORECASTS; Climatic Change 69: 197–227, Springer (2005).

Second, the societal benefit from advances in forecast skill (or advances in any kind of science or technology for that matter) depends on the application of the innovation (in effect, SB=IA). Application of science isn’t something that just happens; it’s a scientific discipline or set of disciplines, and is therefore a fit subject for research and analysis in its own right. This has been argued very elegantly, for example, by former AMS President Bill Gail in a number of settings (e.g., here).

Both these realities suggest that valuation ought to be viewed much as Eisenhower viewed planning. Specific valuations ought to be taken with a grain of salt. But the thought process of characterizing value is priceless.

In this light, it would seem that (1) valuation of S2S forecasts and (2) applications of S2S forecasts each deserves a research agenda in its own right – agendas that ought to be developed and pursued with vigor in parallel with efforts to improve the forecasts themselves.

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Quiet conversation, anyone?

Starbucks is a great place to be by yourself and do a little private thinking at the start of the workday. But it’s also a good venue for casual talk. The dialog needn’t be confined to people you already know. It’s possible to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

A few years ago I found myself sitting next to someone who was also a regular. I’d see him every couple of days or so, and he’d always have his head buried deep in a book on the environment, natural resources, or theology. For an interval (weeks or months?), I had respected his privacy but finally couldn’t resist, and asked him to tell me a bit about his book du jour. Come to find out (my social science friends, please take special note), he’s a card-carrying Ph.D. anthropologist, though his current day job has little to do with that background. We’ve continued to talk off and on for many months now, trading book titles, and in some cases, the books themselves, of interest.

It turns out my (now friend) and I have another connection. He’s a Christian, a member of the Society of Friends:

“Quakers (or Friends, as they refer to themselves) are members of a family of religious movements collectively known as the Religious Society of Friends. The central unifying doctrine of these movements is the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine derived from a verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9. Many Friends view themselves as members of a Christian denomination. They include those with evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional conservative Quaker understandings of Christianity. Unlike many other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has actively tried to avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. As of 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world.”

The group was founded by George Fox, and included William Penn and his crowd, who settled around what is now Philadelphia (“the city of brotherly love”; and it’s these origins that contribute to the expression “You have a friend in Pennsylvania”). I happened to know a bit about the movement from four years at a Quaker college on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Though a self-described atheist during my years there (and for a decade afterward), I picked up a bit of what the Quakers were all about and found much to admire.

Back to today. A few weeks ago, my friend said to me, “you might be interested in the FCNL”.

Really? Washington, D.C. is of course the land of acronyms; this one was a new one on me.

FCNL. Turns out FCNL stands for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. It’s a lobbying/advocacy group for the Society of Friends. I checked the FCNL website and found this statement of purpose:

We are Quakers and friends working for public policy change on Capitol Hill.

  • We seek a world free of war and the threat of war
  • We seek a society with equity and justice for all
  • We seek a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled
  • We seek an earth restored

Here’s a little background about FCNL: Founded in 1943 by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), FCNL’s nonpartisan, multi-issue advocacy connects historic Quaker testimonies on peace, equality, simplicity, and truth with peace and social justice issues. FCNL fields the largest team of registered peace lobbyists in Washington, DC.

And a final bit: FCNL is part of a long tradition of Quaker advocacy. Both our policy positions and our approach to lobbying are grounded in Quaker principles of simplicity, peace, integrity, compassion and equality. Quakers across the country take part in our work with their activism and donations.

An earth restored? Sounded as if there might be some overlap in the Venn diagram showing their interests and those of AMS, so I made a field trip to their headquarters, which are right across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building. Met with three of their young staff who are focused on climate change and environmental issues. They were so gracious and hospitable to give me some time. And talk about intellect, vitality, passion! It was an energizing couple of hours. Learned quite a bit, but two things stuck with me.

First, they introduced me to yet another organization:

QUNO. This is their acronym for the Quaker United Nations Office. Think of this as FCNL on the big (international) screen. QUNO provides this history:

“We are privileged to carry forward the Quaker traditions of patient, quiet diplomacy at the United Nations, working for a more peaceful and just world. The strength of QUNO’s work lies in our long term persistence. Through perseverance, we have helped to change attitudes, create new understandings, and develop new standards.”

They have this to say about their work, in Geneva and in New York:

“QUNO staff work with people in the UN, multilateral organisations, government delegations, and non-governmental organisations, to achieve changes in international standards and practice. Quakers are known for speaking out against injustice and war – issues that are incompatible with our vision of a world in which peace and justice prevail.

Our work is rooted in the Quaker testimonies of peace, truth, justice, equality, and simplicity. We understand peace as more than the absence of war and violence, recognizing the need to look for what seeds of war there may be in all our social, political, and economic relationships.”

QUNO lists these areas of work: justice and prisons; peace-building and prevention of violent conflict; human impacts of climate change; food and sustainability; human rights and refugees.

You might be saying at this point, “’so what!’ The language they use might be slightly different, but these goals only mirror those of dozens of other NGO’s on the national and international scene.”

That brings me to the second piece. The QUNO website describes something called “Quaker House”: “QUNO maintains houses in Geneva and New York to serve as QUNO offices and meeting places close to the UN. For nearly fifty years, Quaker Houses have provided a place where UN diplomats, staff, and nongovernmental partners can work on difficult issues in a quiet, off-the-record atmosphere out of the public eye.”

If I understood my hosts at FCNL correctly, they’re providing a similar space/venue for what they call “quiet conversation” here in DC. And they use this venue, not as a place to convince or change minds of their visitors, but rather as a place where they can build understanding of diverse viewpoints, and in that way make progress in a common search for truth.

Now there’s a signature style of advocacy to be admired and emulated! It embodies Stephen Covey’s idea of seeking first to understand and only then to be understood. At the same time, it looks to be a good alternative to the debate and “convince” approach widely prevalent today that was the subject of the previous LOTRW post. And it looks to stand up well to the litmus test: if everyone adopted this technique, would it be more effective, or less?

There’s much that’s heartening about all this. First, the Quakers are serenely confident in the power and value of this approach. They’re not tempted to take shortcuts, or to be even a bit tempted to start down the road to “shrill.” And the players in the policy process respect that. It’s part of the Quaker “brand,” if you will (although use of that label seems a bit profane in this context). Second, their approach has much in common with the AMS way of doing business, and our own reputation, as captured by the 2003 NAS/NRC Fair Weather Report, which used slightly different wording but in essence suggested that AMS might provide a venue for quiet conversation among government, industry, and private-sector players in Earth observations, science, and services. Our AMS Washington Forum, the AMS Summer Community Meeting, our Policy and our Education workshops, the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, and even our Annual Meetings have something of this flavor… and have for years.

We’re inviting our new FCNL friends over here for a get-acquainted session. I’m hoping my Starbucks friend might join us.

Stay tuned.

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Debating funding for geoscience and social sciences: is anyone convinced?

convince (v.)

1520s, “to overcome in argument,” from Latin convincere “to overcome decisively,” from com-, intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (see victor). – Online Etymology Dictionary

“Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge” – (quote from my ninth grade science book[1])

“I will be glad to enter a joint inquiry with [anyone] but I will not debate. We will seek the truth together.” – Dallas Willard (USC professor of philosophy, speaking in a religious context[2]).

Recent weeks have seen calls from some in Congress to reduce funding for the geoscience- and social science line items in the 2016 National Science Foundation budget (as implicit in H.R. 1806, which reauthorizes the America Competes Act). Even as the measure has been debated, growing western water shortages continue to confound agribusiness and the public. Flooding and landslides beset Colorado’s front range. The U.S. economy struggles to recover from the unusually harsh winter in the northeast. The past few days Midwesterners have been hunkering down in the face of tornadoes, while (an unusually-early) tropical storm Ana has buffeted the Carolina coast.

Seen in such light, cutting back on investments in U.S. coping strategies would seem both ill-advised and short-sighted. Unsurprisingly, continuing legislative debate lies ahead. But the argument isn’t confined to the halls of the Capitol. That’s because the culture of Washington invites all its denizens to see conflict as necessary and unavoidable. Comment is accordingly pouring in from all quarters. In particular, scientists and their professional societies are finding themselves drawn in, feeling compelled to articulate arguments in their defense.

Here’s an extended excerpt from one such letter – this one prepared by the American Meteorological Society:

“Sustained investment in all science is crucial to our societal and economic advancement. In particular, the geosciences contribute to jobs and innovation, create the foundation for our nation’s economic activity, reduce the impacts of natural hazards, support public health, and help us understand the world we live in and our connection to it. Our nation’s standing in the world today rests, in part, upon geosciences research that stretches back to our founding. The imperatives that drove our interest in the geosciences historically are still salient today, and our future success depends on extending this legacy. We urge you to continue our nation’s history of strong investments in science, including science to understand the Earth system (i.e., the geosciences). We further urge you to allow federal agencies toetermine funding priorities across scientific fields based on scientific merit. This allows funding decisions to take advantage of existing resources and capabilities, build new areas of expertise over time, and enable discoveries that require sustained investments and scientific efforts. 

The Value of Geosciences

The geosciences contribute to a strong economy, help ensure public safety, promote community and individual wellbeing, and enhance understanding of Earth as a complex and interconnected system. Our economy and national livelihood are grounded, in part, on knowledge and understanding developed through geosciences research. Our earliest investments in science reflect this. For example, the Survey of the Coast was established in 1807 to assess the navigability of harbors that are critical to trade. Historic expeditions, like those of Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike, captured the nation’s imagination and provided an initial analysis of the natural resources on which our fledgling nation was built. Since those early days, the nation’s economy has prospered, with geosciences research providing our nation with the capability for efficient extraction of natural resources, reliable weather forecasts that enable safe air travel and efficient shipping, and the provision of clean drinking water. Our future depends on continuing this legacy of scientific inquiry and research in the geosciences…”

Generally speaking, scientists and their professional societies find it hard work to fashion such statements. (For example, this AMS letter was the product of multiple  iterations of successive drafts written, edited and finally approved by the AMS Council, Executive Committee, and staff over several days.) There are many reasons behind this. The style is different from that of a journal paper. The issues are complex, yet such letter texts are generally expected to be less than 1000 words (the supposed attention span of today’s busy political leader, or executive, or high-level decision maker). Congressional decisions matter; cuts like those proposed threaten livelihoods even as they call into question the significance of scientists’ lifework. It’s therefore not only easy but also natural for scientists to be emotional about the issues[3].

In part, though, it’s because scientists are seeking to convince Congress by means of their rhetoric. They’re looking for the special logic, the compelling narrative, the vignette, all couched in some precise wording that touches hearts and changes minds – the secret sauce, the so-called “silver bullet.”

Perhaps it’s that last metaphor that’s the most telling… because the word “convince” is actually a combative, even warlike word, with connotations of “overcome,” as embodied in that element “vince” meaning “to conquer” in Latin, as in Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vince.”

Maybe that’s why scientists find the silver bullet so elusive. The reality is, as captured by that quote above from my ninth-grade science text, scientists are at their best in a common search for knowledge, for truth, for understanding. They’re not that great at contention.

In that respect, scientists might have more in common with people of faith (as captured by the second quote) than some care to admit. Both communities are most comfortable when seeking reality together – whether among themselves or with others. Neither group is that gifted when it comes to contention, though many of their individual members may often inclined to give dispute a go.

In general, however, contention is probably overrated. (To see this, just ask yourself: does contention as a technique grow more effective, or less effective, as more people adopt it?) Accordingly, it need not be the sought- or inevitable outcome of every Washington discussion. Other models are available, which I hope to discuss in the next post.

In the meantime, perhaps you recall the fable:

“The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other.

Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.”

Meteorologists ought to favor this fable, for two reasons. (1) It draws upon the power of weather; and at the same time (2) it highlights the superiority of sunnier, collaborative  approaches to discussion over mere bluster and confrontation.


[1] Apologies for the poor scholarship. I couldn’t tell you the name of that book or its author if my life depended on it. But it did profoundly influence my life, as discussed in chapter ten of my recent book, “Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet.”

[2] From page 29 of Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God, InterVarsity Press (2014)

[3]Yes, even scientists have emotions. And emotions include passion. In fact, we’re probably all better off when scientists, and for that matter when teachers and doctors and lawyers and clerks and workers on the assembly line, are passionate in a positive way about what they do. And we’re also better off when scientists acknowledge and even celebrate the passionate side of their nature. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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Climate Change in the American Christian Mind


In recent years, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication have collaborated on a distinguished and insightful series of studies of public attitudes toward climate change. Whether through coincidence or deliberate design, they happened to release their latest report, Climate Change in the American Christian Mind, between Palm Sunday and Easter. Like all its predecessors, this latest report makes for interesting reading, especially given the season.

The authors provide this context:

A fast-growing “greening of religion” movement is unfolding across the United States and around the world (, with major statements by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Indigenous leaders (among others) and substantial efforts by people of faith to address both the causes and consequences of climate change and other pressing environmental problems.

Among Christians, a long-standing debate has centered on the question of whether God gave nature to humans to protect or to use as needed for our own purposes. Is caring for the natural environment a religious responsibility? What is the Christian response to global warming?

This summer, Pope Francis will issue an encyclical on climate change. A papal encyclical is a letter that guides the church on critical issues and is one of the most important forms of communication within the church. Early indications are that he will define climate change as a fundamentally moral and religious challenge for the world. Pope Francis will then separately address the General Assembly of the United Nations and a joint session of the U.S. Congress in September, and meet with President Obama in the lead- up to this year’s UN climate negotiations in Paris.

Many Americans draw, at least in part, upon their religious beliefs to guide their understanding and interpretation of climate change causes, impacts, and solutions. As a predominantly Christian country, it is important for individuals and organizations that seek to communicate about global warming to understand how different American Christians think and feel about the issue.

This report examines the global warming beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, policy preferences, and related moral values of three major groups of American Christians – Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants, and born again/evangelical Christians.1 It also investigates how different American Christians currently view Pope Francis and to what extent he is considered a trusted voice on the issue of global warming.

A sampling of the report’s key findings:

About seven in ten Catholics (69%) say they think global warming is happening, which is a slightly higher percentage than Americans as a whole (63%). A majority of non-evangelical Protestants also think global warming is happening (62%). By contrast, evangelicals are split between those who think it is happening (51%) and those who either don’t think it is (27%) or who don’t know (23%).

Catholics are the most likely to say global warming is caused mostly by human activities (57%; 33% say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment). Non-evangelical Protestants are also more likely to say global warming is caused by human activity rather than natural changes in the environment (50% versus 35%, respectively). Evangelicals are more evenly split between the two perspectives (41% versus 37%)…

…American Christians – especially Catholics – support a range of policies that would help reduce global warming:

  • Increase funding for improvements to local roads, bridges, and buildings to make them more resistant to extreme weather (80% of Catholics, 83% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 80% of evangelicals)
  • Provide tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (83%, 80% and

74%, respectively)

  • Fund more research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power (81%, 81% and 73%)
  • Regulate carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) as a pollutant (74%, 75% and 72%)
  • Require electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable

energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year (67%, 68% and 60%)…

American Christians think a variety of people and organizations should be doing more to address global warming. Majorities of Catholics and at least half of non-evangelical Protestants say the following should do more: corporations and industry (75% and 69%, respectively), citizens themselves (71% and 63%), the U.S. Congress (65% and 56%), their member of Congress (65% and 54%), their governor (63% and 50%), their local government officials (62% and 52%), and President Obama (59% and 48%). Over half of evangelicals think corporations and industry should do more to address global warming (59%), while half or nearly half think the other people and organizations should do more…

Relatively few Christians say that God expects people to rule over nature (12% of Catholics, 11% of non- evangelical Protestants, and 18% of evangelicals). Almost half of evangelicals (49%) say that God expects people to be good stewards of nature – compared to Catholics (41%) and non-evangelical Protestants (36%).

Large majorities of Christians say global warming is a major environmental and scientific issue. Some consider it a major moral issue (22% of Catholics, 21% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 16% of evangelicals), but few currently consider it either a major religious (5%, 6%, and 9%, respectively) or spiritual issue (8%, 6%, and 9%)…

Pluralities of Christians – Catholics (49%), non-evangelical Protestants (48%), and evangelicals (37%) – say humans could reduce global warming, but it’s unclear at this point whether we will do what’s necessary.

Among the remainder, the pessimists outnumber the optimists. Only about one in twenty Christians says humans can reduce global warming and will do so successfully, while larger numbers say we won’t because people are unwilling to change their behavior (28% of Catholics, 18% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 24% of evangelicals). At least one in ten says humans can’t reduce global warming even if it is happening (10%, 16%, and 15%, respectively).

There’s much more, but this gives the flavor[1].

Perhaps future studies could probe more deeply into the reasons behind the Christian skepticism that humans will do what’s necessary to reduce global warming, “because people are unwilling to change their behavior.”

In particular, it might be interesting to know if Christians consider themselves more or less willing than the general population to adjust their behavior in the ways needed to address the problem, and, if so, whether such differences in willingness are at all related to Christian beliefs and values.

That starts with conversation. One gets the sense Jesus would have been a unifying rather than a polarizing influence in today’s climate change discussion, and one would hope any of us who call ourselves by His name would aspire to do the same.


[1] The study organizers noted their sample size was too small to yield statistically significant results on the thinking of Americans belonging to other religious groups, including Mormons, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as others with no religious affiliation. They indicated their hope to study beliefs and values of these latter groups at some future time.

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