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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the why and how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] emphasis added

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

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

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Progress on Climate Change? Good news… and bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Goldilocks approach to climate change.

A recent GOES-16 image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was her undoing.

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

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

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

This is where the final lesson of Goldilocks comes in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The $100T opportunity.

“Most managers spend 80% of their time on problems, and 20% of their time on opportunities. They ought to reverse that ratio.” – Peter Drucker(?)[1]

Tonight’s news reports, spanning all media, will be headlining the new administration’s unwinding of the previous administration’s legacy on coping with climate change. Readers and viewers will be treated to the sight of several presidential directives signed with pomp and flourish, addressing federal requirements for factoring carbon costs in decisions; restrictions on coal mining on public lands, rules to reduce power plant emissions and more. The on-line buzz, pro and con, is already building. What the reports may not emphasize, or relegate to an afterthought, is that the same inertia that slowed the prior administration’s formulation of the former policies, and delayed and attenuated their intended impact, will face today’s attempts to unwind. Partisan reaction of either stripe – whether tending to joy or dismay – is premature. (Extreme reactions – ecstasy or fear – are totally unwarranted.)

In the midst of the sturm und drang, those in the science and business of natural resources, building societal resilience to natural hazards, and protecting and maintaining vital ecosystem services should maintain focus on the 21st century’s singular opportunity and challenge – bringing on line $100T of critical infrastructure to meet the needs of 7 billion-going-on-9-billion people for food, water, and energy. Bear in mind that the goal is: to meet the needs of all people, country by country and also person by person, continuously, without even momentary interruption, and for generations. Nothing less will do. It won’t suffice to meet these needs on average, or occasionally, or (worst of all) briefly.

Who is working on this problem? Cast a quick glance worldwide. The Middle East is ravaged by conflict. Europe is preoccupied with maintaining its fragile Union and shoring up the Euro, while coping with an influx of refugees from conflicts and desperate poverty to its east and south. The United States has turned inward. Only one nation appears to be moving ahead with vigor.


From the Americas to Africa to Asia, the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises (SOE’s) are working abroad to build highways, railroads, electrical grids, dams, and more. Their aim is simple – to supply China with natural resources, build China’s trade, extend Chinese hegemony, and provide jobs for Chinese. Governance in the host country (i.e., ensuring that the investments benefit the people as a whole versus a few corrupt leaders at the top)? Meeting the needs of those same peoples for vital goods and services? Maintaining new construction and facilities any longer than it takes to extract the resources? Building in-country capacity to maintain and operate the new critical infrastructure? Protecting their environment? None of this is a priority for China. If these trends continue, twenty years down the line chances are good these countries will look more like China, think more like China, be more like China.

A simple fix can improve upon this future. The United States can choose to engage.

That engagement matters to us and to the world for several reasons. Start with the U.S. need to replace and renew domestic critical infrastructure, at a cost which has been put at about $4T, or 4% of the world total. Mending our own fences here at home almost certainly more than pays for itself over the lifetime of the investment. Even so, Congress, looking at the figures, can be forgiven for experiencing a bit of sticker shock, and concern about balancing the federal budget – thus dragging its feet. We should instead view our own national repair as the means and opportunity for R&D, for innovating, for building and gaining experience with government-private-sector partnerships, which we can then turn around and use as a competitive edge in marketing our infrastructure products and services abroad. The cost-benefit picture then improves markedly.

U.S. public-private-sector collaboration in international critical infrastructure projects is likely to look substantially different from its Chinese counterpart. We would most probably be reluctant to work with a failed state or corrupt government without insisting that its leaders clean up their act. We might be inclined merely to lend financial aid for international projects rather than make outright gifts. That would raise the initial cost to them. But at the same time, partnering countries would be correspondingly free to sell their resources to other countries as they chose – rather than deal with a single customer as in the China alternative. We might argue for more costly infrastructure and means of construction that would over the long haul be more resilient to hazards and/or reduce environmental impacts. We might offer accompanying aid for STEM education and for building workforce capacity. Underlying all of this would be the idea that the end outcome would be a world that might look a little more like America than China.

Some, perhaps many other countries of the world might well welcome this U.S. alternative. Others might instead see the U.S. infrastructure add-ons oppositely, as unwanted interference in their domestic affairs. They might prefer the Chinese option. But at least all countries would have a choice. And we know from our own market-based economy that to have competition and choices is to improve quality and lower costs. This wouldn’t just be good for client countries. It would be good for China and the Chinese as well.

It’s hard to imagine such a competitive scenario leading anywhere other than to a freer, richer, generally better world.


(A postscript. The WordPress administrative software suggests that LOTRW has just passed 800 posts. Quite a bit of variability here, but over a 6-year, 8-month period, that averages to a post every three days. My thanks to the three or four of you who’ve submitted a handful of guest posts over that period; to those of you who’ve taken the trouble to comment and add your insights; to all of you who’ve taken the trouble to come up to me and provide a kind word; and to the much larger group that has stopped by electronically to sample a post or two. Your encouragement has meant more than I can say. Thank you.)


[1] I swear I read this exact statement in a book by the great management guru Peter Drucker, but I can’t find it online and his books are too voluminous to search by hand. Economists and others may recognize this as one form of, or adaptation of, the Pareto principle.

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Good policy still matters.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – Matthew 7:12

In recent months, Earth scientists, whether focused on natural resources, hazard resilience, or protection of ecosystem services provided by forests, wetlands, floodplains, etc. have expressed growing dismay and anxiety about Washington politics.

This is especially true among younger[1], early-career scientists: Government professionals fretting about their jobs and the future relevance and contributions of their research and services. Engineers in aerospace firms concerned about the continuity of vital Earth observations from space. Academics and entrepreneurs alike apprehensive about the future for the federal seed-funding that germinates U.S. innovation.

Much of this concern is misplaced.

True, there’s been real cause for trepidation. Take political rhetoric: claims that: climate change isn’t real; environmental regulation is purely oppressive rather than life-sustaining; historic U.S. efforts to maintain breathable air and drinkable water have gone too far; environmental protection comes only at the expense of jobs. Then there are the swingeing budget cuts proposed for research, especially targeting anything with a whiff of “climate” (not just climate change) or “environment,” but also aimed more broadly across Earth and even social sciences. And more generally, politics is driving the national dialog to polarized extremes instead of seeking to build public consensus or accommodation.

Concern extends beyond politics to political procedures. The Founding Fathers constructed a Constitution that bows to majority rule while at the same time protecting minority rights, and ensures that government serves the people rather than the other way around. Recent years have seen those elements compromised and eroded. In the House of Representatives today, the majority party need pay only lip service to the minority. The Senate, which historically has operated on more collegial rules, has increasingly trended to diminish the role of discussion, debate, and every individual Member in its process, moving toward rules that make the Senate more like the House, favoring simple party majority. Today some worry that Congress might have lost a bit of the self-correcting character that has historically protected against bad legislation.

But students of government remind us that there is a third leg to this particular stool. In addition to politics and procedure, there is policy. Politics and procedure aren’t yet sufficient to push through any old statute. The legislation has to contain the germ of a good policy idea.

Events of the past few days suggest this third principle remains alive and well. Case in point? Those seeking to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have pulled back, at least for the moment. They’ve retreated – but not because the politics or procedures have changed – the party of repeal is still in charge, and continues to control all the levers of power. Instead, members of the party in power, for varying reasons, expressed reservations about the policies underlying the legislation as written. (Oversimplifying), members of the so-called Tuesday Group were concerned by Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts that the proposed legislation would cause millions of people to lose coverage. The Freedom Caucus wanted repeal of what they viewed as onerous mandates, in favor of freedom to choose. When interviewed for the media, House members cited these and other policy concerns as the reasoning underlying their intention to vote “no.”

Some analysts noted that the original ACA, though deeply flawed, was built around a single, big, and positive idea: that all Americans should enjoy some measure of health care as a right. By contrast, the original repeal movement lacked any corresponding broad appeal, as did the repeal-and-replace substitute that came along on its heels. Absent such a compelling, aspirational goal, both politics and procedure bogged down.

Big idea? Fact is, behind the already big idea of affordable health care for everyone is an even grander ideal – nothing less than the Golden Rule; do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Please reflect for a moment. What one of us doesn’t cringe inwardly at the risk posed by a personal or family health crisis? For starters, our very lives are at stake. But so is the quality of those lives. Illness and injury too often means incapacitating pain, sometimes lasting a lifetime. Absent health insurance, victims and their families find that cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart problems, or an accident can also bring financial ruin. We therefore take comfort in the idea that 320M Americans have our back. In like measure we are willing to contribute to the care of others through health insurance premiums. It’s this Golden-Rule logic that’s behind social security, Medicare and Medicaid, appropriations for national security, and more.

That reality contains both encouragement and reasons for concern for Earth scientists. On the one hand, the broad, sweeping budget cuts tabled by the administration are unlikely to be pushed through. Congress demonstrated last week that it can and will push back as the occasion warrants. Programs with obvious, on-the-ground benefits for large swathes of the population such as national weather services, Earth observing satellites, and the National Sea Grant Program are likely to be maintained for that reason.

But scientists can’t afford to be complacent.

It’s equally clear that scientists have failed to make the case for other parts of their (our) agenda. The arguments we offer are flawed in several ways. In some cases, we’ve been unnecessarily confrontational. In others, we’ve invested too little in the study of science’s economic benefits and costs. As a result, after-the-fact analyses claiming to show such benefits are too often superficial and incomplete. Science advocacy can too easily look self-serving – focusing more on the need to keep science and scientists funded, with only vague justification for the benefit.

But the issues go deeper than mere messaging. Some analysis suggests that science programs designed to address national needs start out well, but lacking outside oversight, can over time lose their way. In part, this is because we underinvest in systematic thought about so-called technology transfer, the process by which Federal agencies, funding most of U.S. basic research, coordinates with the private sector to put that research to work for societal benefit.

The cure? Partly this is structural; we need to build national capacity for putting science and engineering to work for society as a whole – not just domestically, here in the United States, but worldwide. This requires strategic thinking across all levels of government as well as the private sector, and an improved collaboration between the two.

But at the individual level as well, you and I can and possibly should consider personal actions. We need to consciously and deliberately build trusted relationships with those of every political persuasion, social stratum, ethnic background or philosophy, and so on. We need to stay focused on the benefit to end users as well as the mere intellectual challenge of the work, or the respect of peers, or business profit. We might ask how (and even whether) our work also leads to concrete, easily understood benefits for all Americans, regardless of social class or political persuasion or faith or ethnicity or age or health, or any other grouping.

There’s a further step. Society faces both immediate and longer term needs. It’s not enough for the payoff, however big, to be confined solely to a distant, problematic, and uncertain future. Neither is it sufficient merely to make things more comfortable in the short term by compromising the prospects of our children and grandchildren.

Not every scientist can or needs to participate in the same way across this spectrum. Some are needed to work these problems full-time, in a structured way. But all of us should participate to some extent. Our social contract didn’t suddenly become problematic, so we can’t expect to repair it overnight. Adding to the prevailing contention doesn’t seem like the right approach either. A march on a single spring day doesn’t seem like enough.

What can we do in a more sustained way, that matches the nature of the problem?

The same faith that brought us the Golden Rule also brought us the notion of tithing – giving ten percent. In that spirit, each of us might devote a percentage of our work to serious, disciplined study of how we benefit the public who ultimately support us. Here are two practical ways that might work:

  1. We could reflect a bit each day or each week on this passage from Francis Bacon, a natural philosopher, dating back four hundred years, but still salient today:

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

  1. Want to do more? You could participate in this year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium – that is, invest ten days (this year, June 4-13) in being as disciplined in our approach to policy as we are to our science – and see where that leads. There’s still time to sign up/would like to see you there. This year, of all years, promises to be interesting.

Coming soon? A return to finish up reflections on the world’s $100T investment in food-, water-, and energy critical infrastructure, and how the United States – and Earth scientists – can help.


[1] Full disclosure? These days, they all look young to me.

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Matthew J. Parker

“Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” – Jesus (Mark 12:26-27, NIV)

Here are the dry facts:

It is with great sadness that the American Meteorological Society announces the passing of AMS President Matthew J. Parker, CCM, who died in his sleep Wednesday night.

 Parker, 53, worked at Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina since 1989, most recently as Senior Fellow Meteorologist in the Atmospheric Technologies Group. He was elected as AMS President-elect in November 2015, and assumed the role of AMS President during the Society’s Annual Meeting in Seattle this past January. Parker was slated to oversee the Annual Meeting in January 2018 in Austin.

But nothing about Matt was dry. Keith Seitter, AMS Executive Director, captured some of this spark:

 This is an enormous loss not just for the AMS family but for the entire scientific community,” said Keith Seitter, AMS Executive Director. “Matt was deeply admired for his commitment to the AMS community. He was a leader and a friend, and we will all miss him tremendously.”

Commitment to the AMS community? Spot on, and yet at the same time the phrase only begins to capture the depth of Matt’s passion. His predecessors as AMS president have all served with distinction, and yet each, upon shouldering that mantle for a year, showed signs of feeling the weight of responsibility. By contrast, Matt had charged in, oblivious to any cost of time and effort, any additional workload. He saw only opportunity, and he couldn’t wait to start. Encourage early-career professionals at the annual AMS Summer Colloquium? Matt wanted to do that a year early (and in retrospect, how fortunate that he did). Set the theme for his AMS Annual Meeting at Austin in 2018? Matt didn’t vacillate; he knew he wanted the theme to be communication, and set forth his vision promptly. We’ve known for over a year where he was headed. A tumultuous political season in Washington? Matt had already formulated his roadmap for engagement.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Matt had brought the same larger-than-life vitality to his prior AMS volunteer work, such as his leadership of the Enterprise Commission. Matt brought a unique intersectional perspective to this task, working as he did for a private-sector contractor to a government agency. Early on he embraced the potential for the Weather Enterprise embodied in bringing the public-, private-, and academic-sectors of our community into close collaboration. He worked tirelessly for years to help bring that about. We’re better positioned than ever to serve the American public thanks to his efforts.

It is given to each of us the privilege of seeing at most a sliver of another’s life, no matter how close our relationship. As members of the AMS community, most of us lack direct experience of Matt the family man, Matt the church leader, Matt the citizen. But we can extrapolate from what we see… and to do that is to realize we are not the only ones to feel his loss. Our sympathies go out to Matt’s other communities.

But we can also offer this special insight – and comfort – from meteorology. We know that the weather and the world’s seven billion people are akin, in this respect – they are chaotic systems. The meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered that the smallest influences, the least details in the atmosphere don’t dissipate. Their impact expands, changing the atmosphere’s destiny to an ever-increasing extent with the passage of time. So it is with our lives. Our influence doesn’t wane on the day of our physical death. It too continues to grow. Matt’s influence on each of us has changed our subsequent engagement with each other, as well as with others outside our immediate meteorological circle. Those small effects in turn have touched even larger circles of friends and acquaintances. Matt’s influence has thus been expanding for years and will continue to do so.

The ministry of Jesus (quoted here) and the coming Easter season reinforce this same idea. Though initially confined to a few square miles of middle East real estate, and lasting only three years, his influence now extends worldwide, and even continues to grow, 2000 years later.

Matt, we all miss you for now, but we’re soldiering on, and we’re told our eternal destiny is to be together again.

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Living the American Dream – ca. 2017

Spending the weekend with friends…

… and my friend shared his dream from the night before:

Seems America had built a wall along the Mexican border. A great wall. An impenetrable wall. A wall so great that it interfered with wind patterns, indirectly creating very subtle changes in the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico, and then the Gulf Stream itself – disturbances that grew over time.

 Ultimately, the instability triggered an Ice Age. Ice extended rapidly across the United States , reaching south past the Texas-Oklahoma boundary line. The surge of ice and cold rendered the northern states uninhabitable, driving millions of American refugees before it toward the Mexican border…

…where they encountered a wall. A great wall. Fueled by desperation, the horde hurled themselves at the wall – but, sure enough, it proved impenetrable. Mexican police behind the wall were able to stem the human tide.

The Mexicans were still thanking us when my friend woke up.

For the record, my friend is a self-acknowledged layperson, NOT a climate scientist – he claims we have absolutely nothing to worry about here.

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$100T, (clumsily) translated into jobs and business opportunity.

A week ago, I ran into a long-time USACE colleague in the supermarket. We started out the way people of our generation do: “I’m thinking of retirement,” he said. “I’m pushing seventy.” “I’m pulling seventy,” I replied. Then we talked shop. Oroville was fresh in our minds. “Nobody here knows how to build a dam anymore,” he said. “But China’s building some three hundred dams around the world,” I replied. We chatted on that thought a few moments before going our separate ways.

Recent LOTRW posts have focused on the world’s need to invest in $100 trillion of food, water, energy, and other types of critical infrastructure over the next two decades. Some of this will be refurbishment – repaving and widening roads, replacing existing but aging rail, bridges, ports, water delivery systems, and more. Some of this will be new: high speed Internet, high-voltage DC electrical grids, solar and wind energy systems, etc.

All of it will be critical, in two important respects. First, the infrastructure is necessary to day-to-day and even moment-to-moment needs of seven billion people. Any interruption of services causes social upheaval. Though this is “well-known,” in recent years governments, utilities, and related private-sector service providers have become so skilled at meeting the need for continuity that all of us – you and I – have lost a palpable sense of vulnerability, and realistic appreciation for the complexity and cost of the task. Hence, questions such as “Why do I need the National Weather Service? I get my forecasts from The Weather Channel.” “Why do we need farms? I get my food from the supermarket.”

But second, such modern, up-to-date infrastructure is critical to the continued labor-force productivity growth we need if we are to compete economically and maintain U.S. standing worldwide.

Turns out we’ve suffered memory loss in this respect as well as well. This latter has been documented by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. They point to a time in post-World-War-II America when government and the private sector were in mild tension but for the most part worked cooperatively. They argue this partnership was responsible for huge labor productivity increases, thanks to infrastructure investments such as the Interstate Highway System. They go on to suggest that around 1980, this synergistic balance began to break down. Moderate business and Republican voices were drowned out by those holding more radical views. According to Hacker and Pierson, the new business ideology didn’t blame deindustrialization or foreign competition for the challenges of the time; instead the enemy somehow became our own government. In consequence, government-business synergy declined, and U.S. productivity growth – and competitiveness – dramatically slowed in like measure.

This matters, because $100T of critical infrastructure investment translates into jobs – a lot of jobs. Recall that this figure amounts to some 5% of global GDP over the same two decades. Give or take, that should translate into jobs for a comparable fraction of the global workforce. Wikipedia provides this background:

Global workforce refers to the international labor pool of workers, including those employed by multinational companies and connected through a global system of networking and production, immigrant workers, transient migrant workers, telecommuting workers, those in export-oriented employment, contingent work or other precarious employment. As of 2012, the global labor pool consisted of approximately 3 billion workers, around 200 million unemployed.

In other words, critical infrastructure investment alone should likely keep some 150 million workers occupied for twenty years – coincidentally comparable to the size of the unemployed group. Since we’re talking infrastructure, most of those jobs will be in-country. That’s good news. There are sizable pockets of unemployment in every country, and studies show it’s the unemployed, particularly the young unemployed, whose frustrations foment unrest and in extreme cases terrorism worldwide. Give young people jobs, and hope for a better future, and the fear and anger dissipate.

Although most of the jobs will be in-country, the project design and leadership, especially for the biggest projects, devolves to a handful of firms and nations worldwide with the needed expertise. In the years following World War II, thanks to its attention to domestic infrastructure, the United States was also preeminent across the world in big infrastructure projects. My father-in-law, Leigh Hill French III (pictured), was a case in point. After serving in the military during the War (he was at Normandy on June 6, 1944, but had the good fortune to go onshore at 6 p.m. instead of 6 a.m.), he used his civil-engineering background around the world for a variety of employers – building a port in Sumatra, an aluminum smelter in Greece, a dam in the Ivory Coast, as well as other similar projects from Liberia and Ghana to Australia and Guam – with a university in Libya thrown in.

Today, it’s China that is visible and active in this arena. The March 1 print edition of USA TODAY ran this story: China eyes global economic leadership as U.S. turns inward.

Some excerpts:

This year, a 300-mile railway will begin slicing through Kenya, cutting travel time between the capital, Nairobi, and one of East Africa’s largest ports, Mombasa, from 12 to four hours and breeding hopes of an economic and tourism revival in the region.

 The country’s most significant transportation project since its independence in 1963 is being built courtesy of China. China Road and Bridge, a state-owned enterprise, leads construction of the $13.8 billion project, which is financed nearly 100% by the Export-Import Bank of China.

 The railroad is one of a host of infrastructure projects China spearheads around the world in an ambitious quest to reinforce its emergence as the world’s next economic superpower while President Trump turns his back on globalization…

…China’s outward foreign direct investment totaled $187.8 billion in 2015, a record and a 52.5% increase from a year earlier, according to the World Bank. Ten years ago, its outward FDI stood at about $17.2 billion. The U.S. FDI — though still significantly larger than China at $348.6 billion — grew only 1.5% year-over-year.

 China’s economic ascendance from poverty is a model for struggling nations eager to modernize rapidly, too. In helping to create wealth abroad, China gets an early say in the formation of markets for its exporters to sell… 

The range of projects China has launched is eye-popping:

  • New Silk Road: China’s modern version of the ancient East-West trade route — known as One Belt One Road — winds its way through Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Launched in 2014 with $40 billion of initial investment, it entails new or reinvigorated railways, ports and roads that will link key cities. The anticipated total investment could top $4 trillion, according to The Economist, citing Chinese government officials. “People don’t’ seem to realize how important it is,” Bottelier says. “A (freight) train is already running between London and China.”
  • Pakistani infrastructure: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Pakistan in the spring of 2015 and announced $45 billion worth of investment projects in energy and infrastructure development, some of it tied to the new trade route.
  • Nicaraguan canal: In 2015, Wang Jing, a Chinese billionaire who made his fortune in telecom, began digging in the city of Brito, Nicaragua, in hopes of building a canal that will cut 170 miles across the country and ultimately compete with the Panama Canal. The project stalled as his fortunes sank along with the Chinese stock market, but it has not been abandoned.
  • South American rail: China plans to build and expand rail networks in Brazil, Peru and Colombia, though it has run into opposition from environmentalists…

Bottom line? China isn’t looking at this activity as charity. They’re calculatedly seeing these projects in terms of economic return (in hydropower for China, sources of raw materials, new markets for Chinese goods and services, etc.) employment for Chinese abroad, and international sympathy for Chinese ideas and purposes down the road when push comes to shove. And they’re experimenting domestically with vigor: building high-speed trains, high-voltage DC electrical grids, developing capacity to manufacture solar panels, copying cyber technology, etc. They making mistakes and taking missteps along the way, but learning fast in the process – and using that hard-won experience to build preeminence abroad

Call me chauvinist, but it feels like the Chinese are eating from our rice bowl – in plain view. And we’re squabbling with each other while watching them do it.

What to do? We can’t just whine. And we shouldn’t simply go head to head on these terms. We can and should do better. More on that in a future post.

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$100 trillion? Opportunity or sinkhole? The reaction so far.

The law of holes: “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”Will Rogers

As noted in a previous LOTRW post, the world’s peoples face a $100T bill coming due. That’s how much nations must spend over coming decades to refurbish and augment the critical infrastructure that maintains an adequate, uninterrupted supply of food, water, and energy to seven billion people.

Of course, there’s a difference between merely spending $100T, and wisely investing that sum. Such investment faces substantial risks. Of the many challenges, three stand out:

  • flawed governance/corruption in the countries involved;
  • lack of skills/knowledge needed to operate, maintain the infrastructure (alternatively framed; investment in inappropriate technology); and
  • failure to take fullest account of the environmental consequences of such investment, the changing weather and climate conditions over the lifetime of the infrastructure, and the needed resilience to extremes over the same period.

The latter point motivated a guest-perspective expanding on this general idea, graciously published by the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. That piece argued that instead of cutting EPA and NOAA budgets, as suggested by the new administration, now is the time for substantial budget increases – even doubling down – in these agencies and their important work. The work they do (with some work from USDA, USGS, NASA, DoE, NSF, and others thrown in) is the difference between flying blind into a problematic future and proceeding intelligently.

These ideas have received some favor, but not universal acclaim. The pushback has come from three different directions. First, a colleague whose opinions I’ve long respected, John Plodineccommented on the previous post in this vein:

We need to invest $X T so that … why? Is this to provide energy and water systems to folks who won’t be able to maintain them? Or to provide those services in ways that may not be culturally appropriate? Or simply to provide funds to bureaucrats and their governmental sponsors? We can’t provide these things without the education to service them and people who want what we can provide.

 Are Americans supposed to pony up the dough? Hard sell, especially after the wealth we have transferred to other countries this century – an amount equal in value to all of the gold ever mined.

 If these numbers are real, the investments are not sustainable. The ONLY HOPE is for innovation, esp. at the local level. Our increasing agricultural productivity this century indicates that we can innovate even in endeavors as mature as agriculture. But in the US (and much of the developed world) we are still providing energy and water to the populace in essentially the same ways we did in the ’50’s and ’60’s.

 Governments can help – and if they have discretionary funds they can help a lot. But they are not really the answer. The UN is not the answer. If there ever were problems demanding “Whole of Community” approaches, providing potable water, food and CARE (consistent, affordable and reliable energy) to all certainly qualify. But the answers must be local: what works in the US now may not work in a Third World community. However much we may want to see all people adequately fed, watered, and powered, ultimately they will have to forge their own path to that state.

Second, there was the CWG readership. Some were put off by attention to this subject in the midst of the buzz this past week about this coming Monday-Tuesday’s weather and the possible snow/impacts for the DC area. But others stayed on point: some favorably, others not. A couple of the most acutely critical comments:

In total, the world needs to invest $100 trillion in infrastructure over the next 20 years….The United States can pay off its investment easily if our private enterprise can win its share of this far-larger global market.

So you are saying we should dump more money into the EPA because that will help us win global infrastructure contracts?

I read your article a couple times and I can’t figure out what you want NOAA and EPA to spend more money on except this:

continuing investment and innovation in Earth observations, seasonal-to-inter-annual forecasting, water resource management, and risk communication and other social science, as well as working with local publics on the ground through the National Sea Grant Program, Weather-Ready Nation, and other initiatives.

Sounds like a few million dollars to me. But no, you want billions.

And this one:

Trump wants to increase military spending while we’re in no danger of being invaded. I don’t agree with that decision, but, even without that, our government spends way more than it takes in. The national debt doubles every 8 years. It’s not sustainable.

People want our government to do everything while not having their taxes go up. The reality is if we had to pay for everything our government does, our taxes would be so high that our economy would collapse. People would lose their homes. The best way to solve the problem is to reduce government spending and it unfortunately involves reducing government services.

Sandwiched in between I had a lunch conversation with a good economist friend, a former Cornell professor, who has also worked at the Federal Reserve, the Congressional Budget office, and the World Bank in addition to doing private consulting – a guy I’ve admired for decades, ever since he was a senior and I was a freshman at the same college.

I shared some of these ideas with him and tried to draw an analogy to the success of the Marshall Plan. Back then, at the end of World War II, the US had a GDP of $150B/year (compare with today’s $15T) and a national debt of $180B (incurred from the Great Depression and the expenses of the war; compare with today’s $18T). Our ancestors invested $15B in Europe over the next four years, to rebuild the economy/forestall a Soviet hegemony over the region. It not only worked but more than paid for itself. By the end of the four years, the U.S. economy stood at $300B a year, and Europe remained free of Communist domination. My friend’s response was immediate. He pointed out (not an exact quote):

…the Marshall Plan succeeded because prior to the War, Europe had enjoyed technological and economic superiority. They didn’t have to gain new ground; they merely had to bounce back. When it comes to this present-day challenge, the countries needing the investment lack the capacity to build, maintain, and operate such infrastructure.

(Okay! Should. Stop. Digging.)


These ideas, and the high stakes, are too important not to explore, discuss further. In particular, there’s the appeal of jobs. $100T, as the previous post’s graphic drives home, is too big to put under the mattress… or even in a Swiss bank account. It has to generate jobs. So, going forward, I’ll provide more detail, use bigger tools…

What could go wrong?

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What will world leaders pay for a good night’s sleep? $100 Trillion over the next twenty years.

O, sleep it is a gentle thing,

Beloved from pole to pole!

To Mary Queen the praise be given!

She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,

That slid into my soul. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

As described in the previous LOTRW post, world leaders rest uneasy for many and diverse reasons, but there’s one insomnia-inducing concern that besets them all: any interruption of life’s essentials – food, water, and energy – for their people. The noblest see meeting this public need as their sacred responsibility. But even the most self-serving, duplicitous, tyrannical of leaders recognize such disruptions as a threat to their continued life of privilege.

Time was when securing these necessities was a universal and individual concern – and, for that matter, all-consuming. Farmers, hunters, gatherers couldn’t depend on any state to meet these needs. In fact, there was no state. Even as recently as 1800, 90% of the American labor force were farmers. The implication? At the country’s founding, essentially everyone was spending all waking hours eking out these three essentials.

But the Industrial Revolution and urbanization have changed all that. Today agricultural workers comprise only 1% of the U.S. labor force; farming per se contributes only 1% to GDP. (Agriculture-related industries contribute another 4-5%.) The Energy Information Administration tells us that the fraction of GDP that is energy related is something like 10% (varying between 6-14% depending on price fluctuations). The picture for water? Far murkier. But annual direct investments appear to be only a percent or so of GDP.

Adding all this up shows clear progress. Only 10-20% of U.S. attention is taken up with meeting these basic needs. This allows the majority of us to produce wealth through other means: manufacturing, services, and, by no means least – innovation – accelerating that economic growth. (This latter figure is also small; U.S. R&D is only about 3% of GDP[1]).

So far, so good. But worldwide, we’re told:

According to the World Economic Forum, the world needs to invest $26T in water infrastructure over and above the current rate of investment between now and 2030.

According to the International Energy Agency, the world needs to invest more than $48T in energy infrastructure prior to 2035.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates agricultural investments (as opposed to agricultural expenditures), in the developing world alone, over a comparable period need to be the order of $250B/year or $5T over twenty years. (Most of this will be made by farmers themselves as opposed to governments.)

Sum this all up and the bill for energy, water-resource, and agricultural investments comes to $80B over the next two decades. To a single significant figure? $100T. (Not $1000T; but not a mere $10T either.)

The figures quoted above are uncertain, and represent only a sample of the available estimates. For example, a separate World Economic Forum report puts needs for infrastructure investment more broadly (including transportation and waste disposal) at $5T/year for twenty years, or $100T. Another way of arriving at a comparable figure, within the uncertainties acknowledged here? Take the far-more-carefully constructed ASCE estimate of infrastructure investment needs in the United States alone, estimated to be $3.6T (by 2020! But let’s ignore that more urgent time frame) and multiply by the ratio of U.S. population to world population, and again you arrive at a $100T figure.

Two other statistics merit inclusion in this mix. Losses due to natural hazards, if they remain true to form, will amount to $5T globally over the next twenty years.

And Costanza et al. 2014 put the annual loss of ecosystem services[2] over the prior twenty years due to land-use changes at $4-20T/year. A great deal of uncertainty here, but taking the lower end of the estimate and extrapolating suggests an $80T loss in ecosystem services from this cause over the coming two decades.

Bottom line? It’s hard to shake the conclusion that over the next twenty years something like a $100T needs to be spent on energy, water, and food infrastructure, with investment in community resilience to hazards and protection of critical ecosystem services thrown in, if we’re to meet the needs of nine billion people.

Can world leaders foot the bill? Or is the sum too outsized? You be the judge. The figure is eye-wateringly large (per the graphic at the head of this post). But it amounts to no more than 5% of expected world GDP over the same period. This works out to something like $500/person worldwide per year, or a bit more than a dollar a day. Not bad in the developed world, but comparable to the total annual income for many of the world’s poorest.

That said, the world’s leaders, even the most selfish and tightfisted, might see this cheap at the price if it means sleeping easy. And you and I join them in this respect! Meet global needs for food, water, and energy, and we’ll all sleep well.

An added bonus? It puts people to work! More on this latter important aspect in a coming LOTRW post.


[1] With respect to percentages, we’re behind a number of countries, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Sweden.

[2] ecosystem services fall into four broad categories: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits. To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being assigned economic values.


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