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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The case for the geosciences.

Recent months have seen a bit of back-and-forth between the Congress and the scientific community about the value of geosciences research. Throughout this discussion, there’s been a tendency for advocates to see funds for science as extremely limited; to view investments in different fields of science and technology as a zero-sum game; and to focus on jobs creation, and the state-by-state distribution of those jobs, as the paramount concern. This mindset has tempted some members of Congress, and some scientists and policy analysts from other fields, to question the contributions of geosciences to the economy relative to the stimulus provided by other R&D, say information technology or biotechnology. The truth remains, though, that credible economic justification for the various views, pro and con, has proved hard to come by. The analyses and arguments on all sides have been fragmented, anecdotal, narrowly focused – and arguably a bit too disputatious, misdirected and shortsighted.

It might therefore be useful to pause, and to step back a bit from the particulars, in order to look at the larger context, the sweep of history, and the challenges of the future. To do this is to discover that America’s focus on the geosciences has been enduring; that the geoscience of the past two centuries has led to America’s preeminent and indispensible place in the world today; and that going forward the stakes riding on progress in the geosciences have never been higher, nor the urgency greater. Such a 3600 view also reveals that investments in science are not zero-sum but synergistic. If the United States, with just four percent of the world’s population, aspires to remain the indispensible nation through the end of the 21st century, we’ll have to earn that label anew. Sustained, high levels of balanced investment not just in the geosciences, but across the whole of physical, natural, and social sciences, as well as engineering and STEM education, will be essential.

Background: science policy in the United States and its legacy.

Most of us have a tendency to see U.S. science policy as originating post-World-War II. Certainly that shared experience and the horrific loss of life served to focus minds. Scientists, political leaders, and the general public all understood the role of science and technology in helping to win the war, and the importance of continuing strategic investments in science, especially the physical sciences, in the face of Soviet aggression worldwide throughout the years of the Cold War[1].

We tend to lose sight of the earlier national history. Prior to World War II, the United States was just as preoccupied with national security. But the policies and coping strategies took a different form. The former colonies and the young nation relied on a measure of protection provided by the world’s vast oceans. Americans realized that the key to economic opportunity was the continent’s seemingly limitless store of natural resources, and the transportation infrastructure needed to bring those resources to world markets – globally, across those same vast oceans, and domestically, especially in the early days before rail, by river and canal. West Point was established in 1802, with a military focus but an educational emphasis on engineering that would evolve into today’s US Army Corps of Engineers with its capabilities for managing waterways, building canals, and providing safety in the face of floods. The Survey of the Coast, to assess and ensure the navigability of the harbors and coastal waters so important for trade, and the progenitor of NOAA’s National Ocean Service and the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corp, was established in 1807. A series of great scientific explorations of the continent followed, with the twin aims of inventorying natural resources of every type and identifying and staving-off security threats: The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. The Zebulon Pike explorations of 1806-1807. The Wilkes expedition of 1838-1842. John Wesley Powell’s exploration along the Colorado River in 1869. Myriad other efforts of lesser scope were sandwiched in between. These were paralleled by Navy studies led by Matthew Fountaine Maury and others to characterize the navigability and resources of world’s oceans and coasts. Meanwhile, during the Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant colleges with a focus on education in agriculture and industry. In 1870, the nation expanded the U.S. Army Signal Service mandate to include responsibility for weather, climate, and river observations and forecasting services to meet the needs of agriculture and public safety. [In the 1890’s, this unit would be moved into USDA; today, housed in the Department of Commerce, it’s NOAA’s National Weather Service.] The US Geological Survey was established in 1879.

There’s much more texture to the narrative[2], but here’s the bottom line. Up to the present, our national prospects and standing in the world have remained fundamentally aligned with our ability to identify and locate, and then master the management of natural resources, including but not limited to food, water, and energy. To maintain our current world position it is simply not enough that we can not only meet our own needs domestically, and market any small surplus to others. Our government and private sector have to be so adept that they can continue to serve as trusted consultants and advisors to a hungry, thirsty, energy-needy world. A high bar indeed.

During the time we had been discovering and coming to appreciate fully the true value of our natural resource base, we also uncovered two additional – and more sobering – realities.

First, we’ve learned to our dismay that we live on some of the world’s most hazardous real estate. Disastrous cycles of flood and drought mark every region of our vast country. We experience as many tropical storms as tropical nations in the western Pacific. We suffer through as many winter storms – and bad winters – as high-latitude nations such as Canada or Russia. We have a virtual lock on the world’s tornadoes. Subduction zones of the type triggering the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2011 Japanese tsunami lie just offshore of our own Pacific Northwest. We have dozens of active volcanoes and some major dormant ones. Our west coast is laced throughout with dangerous seismicity, but the earthquake threat also lies poised throughout the nation’s mid-section and along the Middle Atlantic states. Iconic economic giants such as Boeing and Microsoft, and hundreds of thousands of people live and commute across former mudslides slipping from the flanks of Mount Rainier. Most of the natural gas pipelines servicing the northeastern United States run through the site of the 1812 New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri. Our vulnerabilities are rife and growing. A big part of any national risk management strategy has to cope with these and similar hazards. Again, we have the challenge and opportunity not simply to meet our responsibilities for domestic risk management but to market and contribute our science and services to other nations facing similar problems worldwide.

Second, our scientific and economic success over the past two centuries has created new environmental challenges. As early as the late 19th century we began to recognize that our footprint on the environment, on habitats and landscapes, on biodiversity, and the chemistry of our air, water, and soil could no longer be ignored. Here again, thanks to progress in the geosciences, and thanks to action by political leaders, business, and the public, America has joined other nations worldwide in early detection of emerging environmental problems, dealing with them at home, and helping out abroad in ways that foster our national security, maintain our standing as a good neighbor, and make the world a better place for everyone, not just ourselves. But we’ve lost our naiveté: we now know that the Earth is not just a resource and a threat; it is also a victim.

Throughout this two-century span the geosciences have provided all manner of practical help with regard to each of these three defining challenges. We’ve developed the geospatial information base needed to inventory our resources and match them against national and worldwide needs. We’ve provided the weather, water and climate information needed to make America the breadbasket to the world; making and sharing the advances needed to reinvigorate the Green revolution of past decades so that we can sustain a world of 9 billion versus 7 billion people. We’ve developed new tools for monitoring water availability, quality, and use. We’ve uncovered new ways to access old energy sources and returned the United States to its position as a leading exporter as opposed to an importer of energy. We’ve done the geoscience necessary to support solar and wind-power technologies. We’ve identified a new, 21st-century hazard – space weather – and developed coping measures to handle that threat. We’ve so far avoided the worst of the environmental crises we see emerging in other countries such as Indonesia and China.

In addition, the geosciences have at the same time made fundamental contributions to our understanding of science and the universe itself. In 1776, people the world over held three ideas to be true:

  • The climate is unchanging
  • Weather is unpredictable
  • The assimilative capacity of the atmosphere is infinite

The geosciences haven’t just tweaked or fine-tuned these ideas, but turned each on its ear. Studies of weather prediction led to the discovery of a wholly-new class of physical phenomena – chaotic systems – which have since been found to populate every nook and cranny across the span of the universe itself. Studies of Earth and exotic forms of life known as extremophiles found in seafloor-spreading sites, in Antarctic ice, and at great depths in the Earth’s crust have motivated, informed, and improved the effectiveness of the study of other planets in the solar system and other solar systems across the galaxy.

The new challenge and urgency for the future.

So far, so good. But the fact is, that our geoscience has enabled us to see the outlines of an unprecedented national and global challenge coming our way – and on nature’s hurried timetable, not the more relaxed pace we might desire. The three trends – the world’s population and appetite for resources, vulnerability to the disruptive impacts of hazards, and disruption of the ecosystem services on which we depend – have grown so extensive, complex, and fast-paced that it no longer suffices to treat them in isolation. We can sustain human progress and prospects only by managing all three of these challenges simultaneously – globally, to be sure, but actually everywhere locally. We don’t possess the science needed to handle each of these three pieces to the 21st-century puzzle separately, let alone in combination. Much further work is required, and on an accelerated time frame.

The good news is that we’re close – and that progress in other areas of science and technology has given us new tools for dealing with the geoscience problems we face. Computing power. Communication. Experience managing big data. Supplementary pieces of the puzzle from fields such as biology and ecology. Social science for helping 9 billion people navigate the psychological, social and institutional adjustments needed to adjust to the new realities. Innovative policy options. But we can’t rest on our oars. To meet this challenge will require our best, united efforts over coming decades.

[Another historical aside. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been forced to match or exceed Soviet military build-up step-by-step. but that didn’t distract us from our resolute focus on natural resources, hazards, and the environment. The rocketry developed to launch nuclear missiles was quickly put to work to orbit weather satellites to collect and communicate data for initializing computer models. Space-based satellite military surveillance has been extended to monitor crops, forests, ice and other land-, ocean-, and atmospheric conditions from pole to pole. The radars developed to detect inbound air strikes and missiles have been harnessed to monitor severe weather threats. The nuclear physics used to build warheads has spawned a raft of isotopic techniques for studying Earth’s chemistry, identifying the sources of pollution, reaching back in time to assess past climate variability, and more.]

A range of possible futures awaits.

At one end of the spectrum of possible outcomes, we fail to muster the political will and national consensus needed to advance the geo-sciences in a balanced way with progress in other R&D in related fields, and we slowly fall behind in our efforts to sustain resources, build resilience to hazards, and maintain ecosystem services. Our options gradually erode, economic growth is first constrained and then begins to decline, and political polarization increases in response to the attendant social stresses.

At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, we invest aggressively but deliberately in science and innovation across the board, and place emphasis on rapid-prototyping and infusion of new knowledge and ways of doing business across our land. We support the STEM education needed to provide the 21st century workforce and the public support for this work – and at the same time equip that same public to hold both scientists and political leaders accountable for their performance. We recognize that there is no way that the United States can prosper for any extended period unless the entire world is enjoying a measure of that same prosperity. We therefore put our house in order domestically but share what we’re learning with other nations – and learn from their experiences – so that the world as a whole makes progress together. Our options steadily expand. Economic growth – true economic growth, with minimal externalities – accelerates. In fact, the economic growth is so great that the costs of the investment, which had seemed significant to start, recede into the background. Domestic and world politics become more civil; national security, the primary policy preoccupation all along, is maintained and even enhanced.

These last considerations should make it clear. The issue is not more funding for geosciences, or science more broadly, alone, though such emphasis is essential. The issue is for more innovation and application of that innovation for the benefit of life. That’s going to require an effective governing policy framework and public will.

To work on these problems? With the rest of you? What a great time to be alive! The only better time is tomorrow. And the next day.[3]


Note: This piece was originally posted March 27. It was subsequently edited midday EDT on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

[1] Have time and inclination to read about modern-day U.S. science policy? Hard to find a better place to start than Homer A. Neal, Tobin L. Smith, and Jennifer B. McCormick, Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the Twenty-First Century, University of Michigan Press (2008).

[2] For a readable, thoroughly-researched history of U.S. science policy prior to World War, consult A Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (1957). It’s out of print but available on-line here.

[3] Many of these ideas are expanded on here.

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Women in weather.

Yesterday AMS and Northrop-Grumman put on a Google Hangout on Women in Weather.

women in weather

Their tagline?

According to the National Science Foundation, out of the 14,000 professionals employed in atmospheric sciences, only 2,000 are women.

That’s only 14 percent.

Join us on March 25 at 12:00pm ET for a Google Hangout On Air as we discover all of the exciting possibilities women have in the weather enterprise.

Compelling viewing! Built momentum as the hour went on, and could fruitfully have run a great deal longer.  A lot to think about and digest.

Last evening, though, I heard from a colleague. Her message made me realize any contemplation on my part was way-too-shallow/complacent. She had this to say:

“I must confess that I really would prefer that some organization (maybe AMS) to eventually (no rush!) organize more discussions *among MEN* about the value that women bring to the profession.   Explaining why/how/etc the field would be less complete without them.   It is clear that men hold many of the leadership positions in atmospheric science.  They — not women — are the ones largely setting policies, mentoring/employing younger (often male) colleagues. 

I get a little frustrated when I see repeated, women-only lunches & discussions (tons of women in the room, with a small handful of men).  They can be positive in that they are empowering (sisterhood!) and provide supportive words  —  analogous to how  “Lean In” suggests that women need to be more assertive and step up to the table more.  But it’s my rather strong belief that I don’t think anything will significantly change even if all women start doing this (which they won’t)… it really needs to be MEN who take ownership on the issue and start convincing their male colleagues that certain strategies and steps are needed in order to increase the success rate of women in the field… “

When asked, my colleague was kind enough to let me repeat her remarks verbatim as a means of opening up the topic on LOTRW. You may agree or disagree with what she had to say, and perhaps after a night’s reflection, she might want to tweak a word here or add a phrase there. Other viewers and members of our community would undoubtedly offer quite different takes.

Perhaps we can agree at the outset that there’s never been a moment in history or prehistory when gender equality, with all its implications and ramifications, hasn’t been a defining issue for the human race. Second, we’ve made little or no tangible progress across that vast span of years, despite the attention and writings of evolutionary and behavioral biologists, anthropologists, political and business leaders, and discussions of men and women, husbands and wives, in settings ranging from the United Nations, the halls of Congress and corporate boardrooms, to households, schools, churches, and coffee shops. Dysfunction is rampant, the topic consumes us, men continue to be complacent[1], and women continue to be frustrated[2].  No papering it over; this is a serious problem. And (full disclosure – in fact, telling you only what you knew already), this single post, with its limitations of length and haste, cannot offer resolution.

The issue is profound; what’s more, at its heart, the issue is an ethical, moral – spiritual one. Given that, the issue has company. It’s mirrored in failed race relations, our treatment of children, the elderly, the poor, and other vulnerable groups. So… with respect to these important issues – not only are we failing to progress… but shame on us.

That said… two comments. One is global; the other more limited, but holds global implications down the road.

First, although the issue is at its heart ethical, moral, and spiritual, it has transcendent and hugely practical implications. Our failure to ensure that women are at the table as decisions are made locally everywhere and worldwide in every context compromises our ability to solve the intractable 21st-century real-world problems we face. This is not a new thought. Bernard Lewis, a noted Middle East scholar, addressed this in a little book he wrote in 2002 entitled What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. Lewis’ idea is that for the past 500 years, the once-dominant Islamic world has failed to modernize or to keep pace with the West. He notes that many Islamic scholars and leaders see this as opening the door to disastrous Western influence across the region. He and others speculate that this failure to modernize has come about because women have been excluded from decision-making and influence.  

Closer to home, we can revisit and expand a bit on some of the thinking in LOTRW the blog and LOTRW the book (pp 115-119). There it’s suggested we face an obdurate three-fold  simultaneous challenge: garnering natural resources, especially, water, food, and energy; protecting the environment; and building resilience to natural hazards. Our only option?  To bring to bear the whole of the world’s brainpower, in its fullest diversity.

Here’s some homely speculation to illustrate the idea. It’s not good science; it’s not even science. But please indulge me. It goes like this.

Suppose we have some number, say twelve people, in a room trying to solve a tough problem. Let’s suppose that all of them are male. Let’s also suppose, life being what it is, that most of the diversity in the room is embodied largely in the first six men; those last six men more-or-less duplicate the range of thinking already represented at the table. They don’t add that much. Now let’s suppose further that the spread of problem-solving possibilities the discussion brings to light changes with the size of the group in a combinatorial or factorial way rather than in a purely linear way. In other words, the sixth person coming into the room doesn’t just add 17% to the problem-solving capabilities of the room. Instead, because he can engage any of the other individuals in sub-conversations or groups of two or more in sub-conversations that’ll lead along additional paths to novel ideas, that he’s enhanced the problem-solving-power of the room considerably, maybe not a factor of 6, but by a significant amount. Note, however, that the last six men coming into the room don’t add much to the problem–solving power at all. They duplicate what’s already there.

Now… replace that second contingent of six men with six women, so we have six men and six women. Those six women aren’t duplicating the six men; they’re bringing different experience and perspective. Those additional six people haven’t just doubled the problem-solving-power of the people in the room. Again, because the new participants will partner up with multiple subsets of people in the room in differing ways, and because they’re bringing fresh perspective to bear, and because the discussion is enriching in a combinatorial way, they’re increasing the range of available options by factors of ten or hundreds.

Easy to find fault with the details here. But not the flavor. By bringing to bear the full diversity of society (starting with gender, for today’s purposes) to solving our problems, we’re not just doubling our chancing of working through to effective solutions and coping strategies, we’re increasing our social brainpower manifold times[3].

Second, just a bit closer to home, here at the American Meteorological Society we’ve been running a leadership development program for early-career scientists – the Summer Policy Colloquium – for the past fourteen years. We’ve put 500 people through the program over that span of time (INFOMERCIAL: you still have time to sign up to participate in this year’s Colloquium, which runs from May 31-June9 here in Washington, DC).

Half the participants have been women. This is not an artificial result produced by a quota system of some kind; applicants for the Colloquium self-select. Women have been drawn to the challenge and supported by their host institutions out of proportion to that 14% statistic for the demographics of our field mentioned in the Google Hangout.

Ask yourself: what does that say about the future for our field – and by implication, for the fortunes of seven billion people wrestling with resource-, environmental-, and hazards issues? A heartening sign? Or just more complacency on my part (male, and a fairly senior one at that)? After yesterday’s Google Hangout and correspondence, I’m hesitant to say.

I’ll know better when/if I hear back from my colleague, or from you. She/you are better positioned to judge.


[1] Word software offers a host of horrible synonyms for this word: satisfied, self-satisfied, smug, unworried, content, contented, self-righteous.

[2] The Word software synonyms here are chilling: unfulfilled, irritated, unsatisfied, upset, angry, exasperated, discouraged.

[3]There’s a huge literature on the subject of diversity and problem solving; Googling that phrase provides a starting point for diving in. It would be useful if some of the social scientists among the readership could offer links or references to specific peer-reviewed literature or research on this subject they’ve found credible.

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Weather-Ready World


picking through Vanuatu wreckage in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam

picking through Vanuatu wreckage in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam

Why settle for a Weather-Ready Nation?

Last week’s press release from the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, reprinted here in its entirety, says it all:



16 March 2015

SENDAI, JAPAN – This weekend, at the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the World Meteorological Organization announced the creation of Weather-Ready Nations, a new program to improve the understanding of high impact weather, water, and climate events.

The devastating effects of extreme events such as cyclones, floods, and tsunamis can be greatly reduced through improved communication of expected impacts and risk, better delivery of warning information to communities under a threat, and clearer actions that individuals, businesses, and communities can take to be more resilient. Even in places where the crucial step of establishing early warning systems has been completed, advanced warnings are only beneficial if they lead to a public response that moves people out of harm’s way. The basic need is for more actionable information to reduce the number of weather, water, and climate related fatalities and improve the economic value of weather, water, and climate information.

Weather-Ready Nations, relying on best practices developed in many countries–including the United States–will address this by offering to combine and share countries’ experiences in developing initiatives that shift toward an impact-based forecasting and warning system which informs people about what impact the weather will have on users, rather than just expected conditions. The goal is to provide tangible actions that people and communities can take to increase their resilience.

First steps in launching Weather-Ready Nations will be to host seminars for experienced and interested countries to share best practices and then agree on capacity development actions. The next program action will be to offer demonstration programs to selected countries.

We welcome the participation of interested partners in this Initiative. Together we can empower emergency mangers and others to make smart decisions to save lives and reduce the economic impact of natural disasters.

A great vision, well-directed! Its framers – at the NOAA, at USAID, and at WMO are to be congratulated and encouraged. Some comments:

Timing. This initiative has been some time in the making, but it was announced just a day or two after Cyclone Pam slammed into the nation of Vanuatu in the western Pacific, even while reports of the scale of the impacts were still coming in. Few events could better paint a picture of the challenge posed in making all nations of the world weather-ready. At one end of the scale are large, developed, rich nations, including the United States. Weather disasters rarely impact more than a small fraction of the geographic area; the impacts year-on-year amount to a percent or so of GDP. By contrast, Vanuatu, a nation of small islands extending over perhaps 100,000 square miles but providing less than 2000 square miles of actual land, offered its 250,000 residents no place to hide. At least half the population, including more than 50,000 children, was directly impacted by Cyclone Pam. Critical infrastructures – power grid, water supply, communication, schools, and hospitals – were devastated. On some islands, 90% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed. Other islands saw their entire forest ecosystems denuded. For a largely rural, subsistence-lifestyle nation, this impact was particularly devastating. (Ironically, Vanuatu’s president Baldwin Lonsdale was in Sendai, Japan attending the WCDRR.)

Context. Speaking of WCDRR, that NOAA, USAID, and WMO would make their joint announcement at this venue is significant. The press release focuses on improvement of warnings: building the international and in-country capacity needed to extend the time horizon and improve the treatment of uncertainty in weather forecasts and outlooks; enhancing the emphasis on impacts in the forecasts and warnings; making the forecasts and warnings actionable. All this is laudable and necessary. However, the rest of the World Conference proceedings, the Sendai framework, and ongoing risk management efforts all make clear that warnings and emergency response are only the last resort of any effective weather-readiness strategy. From a community- or national standpoint, disaster risk reduction is largely a question of land use, building codes, the uninterruptibility of critical infrastructure, and public awareness. This test is difficult enough for the developed nations (witness the impacts of Hurricane Katrina); for the developing world the challenges are greater still. As NOAA, USAID, and WMO move forward, they should make it clear to the larger world that at best their combined efforts can save lives, reduce injuries, and make small, incremental contributions to saving property. In the face of weather hazards, nations of the world need to do much more to make the lives of those who survive worth living.

A key difficulty posed by weather hazards is the mismatch between the risk and the time horizon and geographic scale of economic investments to build the needed resilience. Weather hazards are inherently acute, local and uncertain. By contrast, for any given location, investments made today might pay off next year, but they might not be needed or yield any return for decades. It’s impossible with today’s science to tell.

Private-sector opportunity. The world’s financial sector has been remarkably clever for centuries in devising financial instruments to handle such discrepancies in time horizons, but they have struggled in this instance. Insurance provides partial cost-recovery for catastrophic loss after the event, but to date there are no corresponding instruments providing incentive and means for investments in land use, building construction, and infrastructure to provide for increased resilience over time. (This reality points to the difficulty of the problem rather than any lack of trying.) Nevertheless, the private-sector (writ large, not just the private-sector weather-service providers, insurers, and the Home Depots and WalMarts) is best positioned here to identify targeted opportunities for improving resilience that have a pay-as-you-go and stream-of-benefits dimension to them. There’s room for private enterprise to do well by doing good.

U.S. Department of Commerce. Domestically in the United States, and with respect to international marketing and business opportunities for U.S. firms as well, there’s opportunity for the Department of Commerce to play a vital supporting role. Expertise on hazards, (NOAA); wind-, fire-, and seismic engineering (NIST); vulnerable populations (Census); rebuilding local economies (EDA); international markets (ITA); and links to the entirety of American business – all under one roof?


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Disaster experts send a message from Sendai.


SendaiThe UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (UN WCDRR), held at Sendai, Japan from March 14-18 has reached its conclusion. Full particulars are available here. From half a world away, this latest WCDRR looks to have been a fruitful occasion.

One fruit was the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The document, which only runs 25 pages, is worth the read in its entirety, but here are excerpts:

A look back at 2005-2015:

The Sendai report starts by looking back to the so-called Hyogo Framework for Action, crafted during the 2005 WCDRR held in that city. The Sendai framework also uses the Hyogo framework as a yardstick by which to assess performance over the past decade. This assessment is relatively detailed but starts off this way:

Since the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action in 2005, as documented in national and regional progress reports on its implementation as well as in other global reports, progress has been achieved in reducing disaster risk at local, national, regional and global levels by countries and other relevant stakeholders, leading to a decrease in mortality in the case of some hazards. Reducing disaster risk is a cost effective investment in preventing future losses. Effective disaster risk management contributes to sustainable development. Countries have enhanced their capacities in disaster risk management. International mechanisms for strategic advice, coordination and partnership development for disaster risk reduction, such as the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and the regional platforms for disaster risk reduction, as well as other relevant international and regional forums for cooperation have been instrumental in the development of policies and strategies and the advancement of knowledge and mutual learning. Overall, the Hyogo Framework for Action has been an important instrument for raising public and institutional awareness, generating political commitment and focusing and catalysing actions by a wide range of stakeholders at all levels.

Over the same 10-year time frame, however, disasters have continued to exact a heavy toll, and as a result the well-being and safety of persons, communities and countries as a whole have been affected. Over 700 thousand people lost their lives, over 1.4 million were injured and approximately 23 million were made homeless as a result of disasters. Overall, more than 1.5 billion people were affected by disasters in various ways. Women, children and people in vulnerable situations were disproportionately affected. The total economic loss was more than $1.3 trillion. In addition, between 2008 and 2012, 144 million people were displaced by disasters. Disasters, many of which are exacerbated by climate change and increasing in frequency and intensity, significantly impede progress towards sustainable development. Evidence indicates that exposure of persons and assets in all countries has increased faster than vulnerability has decreased, thus generating new risk and a steady rise in disasters losses with a significant economic, social, health, cultural and environmental impact in the short, medium and long term, especially at the local and community level. Recurring small-scale disasters and slow-onset disasters particularly affect communities, households and small and medium-sized enterprises and constitute a high percentage of all losses. All countries — especially developing countries where the mortality and economic losses from disasters are disproportionately higher — are faced with increasing levels of possible hidden costs and challenges to meet financial and other obligations.

Expected outcome and goal:

Building on the Hyogo Framework for Action, the present framework aims to achieve the following outcome over the next 15 years:

The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries

…To attain the expected outcome, the following goal must be pursued:

Prevent new and reduce existing disaster risk through the implementation of integrated and inclusive economic, structural, legal, social, health, cultural, educational, environmental, technological, political and institutional measures that prevent and reduce hazard exposure and vulnerability to disaster, increase preparedness for response and recovery, and thus strengthen resilience.

The pursuance of this goal requires the enhancement of the implementation capacity and capability of developing countries, in particular the least developed countries, small island developing States, landlocked developing countries and African countries, as well as middle-income countries facing specific challenges, including the mobilization of support through international cooperation for the provision of means of implementation in accordance with their national priorities.

Seven global targets:

(a) Substantially reduce global disaster mortality by 2030, aiming to lower average per 100,000 global mortality between 2020-2030 compared to 2005-2015.

(b) Substantially reduce the number of affected people globally by 2030, aiming to lower the average global figure per 100,000 between 2020-2030 compared to 2005-2015.

(c) Reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

(d) Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030.

(e) Substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020.

(f) Substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of this framework by 2030.

(g) Substantially increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to the people by 2030.

In the full framework document, each of these targets is linked to broader United Nations goals for sustainable development.

Priorities for action:

Taking into account the experience gained through the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action, and in pursuance of the expected outcome and goal, there is a need for focused action within and across sectors by States at local, national, regional and global levels in the following four priority areas:

  1. Understanding disaster risk;
  2. Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk;
  3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience;
  4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Again, in the Sendai framework each of the four priorities is expanded further, in extensive sections detailing actions on global and regional levels, and at national and local levels respectively.

The Sendai framework ends with a look at expected follow-up – laying out general considerations; the role of stakeholders; and means of implementation – for international organizations and global partnerships.


Some closing comments:

Japanese self-interest in disaster reduction is understandable. The tiny nation (146,000 square miles, a mere 5% of U.S. land area) sits on the famous Pacific Ring of Fire, criss-crossed by a crazy quilt of seismic zones and dotted by 26 volcanoes. Elongated and thin, and running SW-NE along the western boundary of the Pacific Ocean, their country offers an extended target for typhoons at their fullest strength. Since the start of the IDNDR, the Japanese people have suffered through the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, not to mention storms and other disasters. Some future scenarios, such as a repeat of the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, pose trillion-dollar risks.

In response, the government and people of Japan have consistently risen to the occasion. They struggle to recover from disasters (what nation doesn’t?) but they have been strong backers of international efforts to build resilience going back more than a quarter century. Frank Press, then the president of the U.S. National Academy of Science, made the first call for what became the UN International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) at an international meeting of seismologists in Japan in the 1980’s. The Japanese hosted a Yokohama conference to mark the mid-term of the IDNDR in 1995. The Hyogo Conference followed in 2005. The rest of the world owes Japan a debt for convening these world conferences on a regular basis and for continuing commitments and actions during each interim.

Finally, the IDNDR from two decades ago was built around enthusiastic but-ill-conceived goals, calling, for example, for reductions in losses by fifty percent within the ten years of the program. The Sendai framework shows how much the field has matured. The goals are couched in terms relative to the size of populations and economy, and recognize the scale of the effort required to achieve progress. Similarly, today’s Sendai proposed actions are far more-thoroughly reasoned, and more commensurate with the real scope of the problem.

In the next post… zeroing in on one of the outcomes of Sendai that should be of special interest here in the United States.


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Blogging by the numbers: 5-0-247.

Social media are widely understood to provide extraordinary new opportunities for connecting people and sustaining conversation and dialog. This is true for blogs just as it is for Twitter and other vehicles. So here’s a comparison that (a few) people might find interesting. As of 9:35 EDT this morning, the Tuesday opinion piece on the social contract between scientists and the public had yielded five comments on the AGU site. Yesterday I followed up with a post on LOTRW building on the Eos piece. The yield? Zero comments. The silence has been deafening.

By contrast, Wednesday Judith Curry picked up on the Eos piece on her blog Climate, Etc., generating 247 comments. Bottom line? Since its publication, 98% of the dialog on the social contract has occurred in that space.

Read through that extensive Climate, Etc. comment string, and you’ll find opinions and reactions covering the gamut. You’ll also recognize that much of the commentary comes from people who’ve been actively following Professor Curry for years. You’ll also see that those engaged in the conversation often use whatever subject her proximate post may offer merely as a springboard to launch other discussions, or return to earlier topics from previous posts. There’s an in-crowd flavor to the dialog that sometimes makes it hard for the occasional reader to follow or fully appreciate it. But there’s much that remains on point. And in fact, when you get to the latter parts of the discussion, you’ll find comments leveled at the post that I had expected to see aimed directly on my blogposts for years, but that people have somehow been too polite or gentle to express to me personally. Some of her readers were dismissive of the Eos piece because it offered no more than mere opinions, unsupported by data. (Others, thankfully, noted it was clearly labeled an opinion piece. But there’s a sense abroad in the land that scientists, having tasted the delights of unassailable facts, will never stoop to opinion again.) Some noted inconsistencies inherent in a message that called for scientists to listen first, yet was expressing opinions. Some saw a scolding tone in parts of the post even as it called for a reduction in scolding on the part of others. All this criticism has merit.

Of course the number of readers of each and every blog far exceed the numbers of those who take time and effort to comment. But the question remains: What’s the secret sauce of Climate, etc.? Why do Judith Curry, Gavin Schmidt (RealClimate), Andy Revkin (DotEarth) and a handful of others provide such fertile soil for extended discussion, when the rest of the world’s 200 million bloggers go unremarked and observed?

Professor Curry isn’t saying. Perhaps that’s understandable. Living and working in Atlanta, she’s in the shadow of a far more famous secret sauce. Coca Cola, in order to avoid the term limits attendant on patents, have chosen to keep their syrup recipe secret for more than a century.

In any event, we should all take a moment to applaud successful bloggers for their hard work and (largely thankless) role in society’s great conversations on so many subjects.

And thanks to you personally, Judy, for exposing the post to the light of day.

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