18-, 19-, 20-years… Time’s up! (sort-of)

At twenty years on, it’s once again time to revisit J.F. Rischard’s 2003 book, High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them. LOTRW provided an earlier look at the book on November 9, 2013, ten years after its publication.. Here’s that earlier text, reproduced in its entirety:

Speaking of books, in 2003 J. F. Rischard, then Vice President for Europe of the World Bank, and based in Paris, wrote and published High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.

We’re halfway to his deadline. How are we doing? And how well is Mr. Rischard’s book standing the test of time?

Worth a look.

First some background on the book itself.  This CliffsNotes version won’t do the book justice. It merits a thoughtful, relaxed read in its entirety. But here’s the gist. Mr. Rischard notes two great trends: explosive population growth, especially in countries ill-equipped to handle it, and the globalization of the world’s economies. The first trend produces stresses. The second stresses us as well, but also creates opportunities. Mr. Rischard notes that government attempts worldwide to provide stability in the face of these trends instead of adapting to the changed circumstances have allowed a number of problems to fester and grow more urgent.

Mr. Rischard acknowledges that inventories of these problems are a subjective matter and might vary. Some people might see ten problems; others fifty. He offers a list of twenty, binned in three categories, nicely labeled:

(1) Sharing our planet. Global warming. Biodiversity and ecosystem losses. Fisheries depletion. Deforestation. Water deficits. Maritime safety and pollution.

(2) Sharing our humanity. Poverty. Peacekeeping. Education. Disease. The digital divide. Natural disaster mitigation.

(3) Sharing our rulebook. Consistent rules worldwide for: Taxation. Biotechnology. Financial architecture. Illegal drugs. Trade, investment and competition. Intellectual property rights. E-commerce. International labor and migration.

He next points out that we don’t have all the time in the world to solve these problems (hence the book title’s channeling of the 1952 Gary Cooper western film). Perhaps for some it’s as short as ten years. For others, it might be fifty. So, he says, let’s just say twenty. He argues that in nearly every case, the first five years are the most important and urgent. He then (rhetorically) asks: how many of us think that government, in any of various combinations – individual countries, the United Nations, the G-7, the European Union, etc. – are up to the job? He closes by suggesting the formation of what he calls global issues networks to deal with each. Each network would bring together governments, private enterprise, and academic expertise to tackle a problem. The idea is that experts from all three sectors will supply the best thinking, and that after a year or so of global brainstorming,  governments, whether singly and in combination, could start to take over the task of implementing the more practicable ideas. (This is evocative of something like an IPCC-process for each issue. Mr. Rischard himself , though referring to the IPCC in the global warming section, doesn’t make this connection, and you shouldn’t be put off by any baggage you happen to associate with the IPCC, unless and until you have read his full description, or have a better idea yourself to offer.)

The book wears well with age. Remarkably, it looks to be pretty much as fresh and insightful today as it did when first published. For example, the worldwide financial-sector meltdown of 2008 stemmed from concerns he identified under the section on financial architecture. Subsequent multi-lateral efforts to build in more margin and resilience into the financial sector exemplify the steps he’s suggesting. The same can be said for many if not all of the other nineteen issues. While the world hasn’t fully embraced Mr. Rischard’s prescription, we do see organizations of various stripes taking steps similar to what he’s proposing. I might be alone in this, but I actually see the IPCC process, with all its flaws, as a rousing success story.

What about actual progress? Are there any victories to be claimed? Well, it could be argued we’re making progress with respect to global poverty. But in most instances, we see a pattern of small, isolated victories, as well as a number of battles lost, and the outcome of the twenty “wars” still very much in the balance.

The bottom line for you and me? We could do worse than to read (or re-read) this book, make a connection to that piece of the puzzle where we have something to offer (there will be one or more for each of us), and then pitch in.

Oh, and did I mention that this book is a great read? A real page-turner? Mr. Rischard has a flair for clear exposition, and a magical way of keeping the arguments grounded, accessible, and compelling. Got an e-book or Kindle? Within minutes, you can reading his book over your weekend coffee. It’s crisp, engrossing… a quick read. You can be finished by Monday morning, and hit the workplace with a spring in your step and a renewed sense of purpose and understanding of your role in making the world a better place.

Back to the present day/some impressions.

Twenty years on, the book still feels fresh and relevant. If you’re keeping score, it would be fair to say that none of the twenty global problems has been “solved.” Hardly a surprise there. What’s more, while some progress has been made on most of the problems, the problems themselves have morphed over the two decades. Each today poses a bigger lift: looming larger, extending in scale, growing more complex, intersecting more strongly with the others. We’re falling behind.

Mr. Rischard might wish to tweak his thesis in some small ways. As for noting the role of “population growth, especially in the countries ill-equipped to handle it,” he might want to balance that with a few words on the subject of the aging of populations elsewhere (in Europe; in China, and in other countries seemingly equally “ill-equipped to handle it”). He might today give greater emphasis to “international labor and migration” (as both a problem and an opportunity). And today he might ponder the promise and the threats posed by artificial intelligence to his twenty global challenges.  

Perhaps most sobering at this 20-year mark is Mr. Rischard’s sense, dating from 2003, that the first five years of the twenty were the most critical. But it’s also important to note that Mr. Rischard was careful to say that “twenty years” wasn’t meant as a fundamental physical constant, but rather to denote a range of 10-50 years, say, and convey a sense of urgency.  But again, that’s before factoring in AI.

One area where Mr. Rischard seems most prescient – most insightful – is his choice of the notion of sharing as the organizing principle to cluster his twenty challenges into three bins. Ponder these again: Sharing our planet. Sharing our humanity. Sharing our rulebook. Grand. Visionary. Spot on.

And chilling. Perhaps if we had to name one virtue or trait that has nearly universally eluded us as individuals, as nations, and as a species, for virtually our entire experience spanning many millennia (not just some twenty-year interval), it would be sharing. We don’t share so well with others.

But suppose: if we were more gifted at sharing – if it were an innate part of our nature and culture, rather than something we accomplished only spasmodically, through strenuous effort, and for a special few people in our lives – perhaps each of those challenges that seem so insurmountable would fade away.

On its face, our struggle to share seems somewhat surprising. At a personal level, many if not most of us probably grew up hearing our parents exhorting us to share with our siblings. If we could perhaps hold that childhood thought and at the same time extend its circle of application, the world might quickly become a better place – perhaps even within the next twenty years. What’s the problem? Social scientists tell us that at its root is a scarcity- versus an abundance mindset.

Interested in how to shift from a scarcity to an abundance mindset? The internet has lost of advice to offer. An example, one of many:  a Forbes article from a few years ago lists five steps: (1) focus on what you have. (2) surround yourself with people that have an abundance mindset. (3) create win-win situations. (4) incorporate gratitude into your daily life. (5) train your mind to recognize the possibilities

Hmm. Simple, doable ideas that can be accomplished by each of the eight billion of us almost overnight. Cost-free. And look closely! These actions aren’t sacrificial; they are in our self interest while at the same time working toward the greater good. If even a fraction of us made this mindset change, we could see those twenty mountainous challenges turn into twenty global molehills before our very eyes.

All together now… share!

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Meteorologues sans Frontieres

(Forgive this post – the idea came to me during last night’s bout with insomnia. And no shaming, please; we all suffer sleeplessness for our own reasons and cope in our own ways…)

Let’s suppose you unexpectedly find yourself at some Friday happy hour or on a Metro commute or through some other lucky coincidence with that someone-you-think-or-hope-just-might-be THE ONE. Let’s take a further leap and suppose that against the odds you’ve somehow made it past your usual, lame pickup line, or you rose to the occasion, because this might be THE ONE, and you actually wanted to get off to a meaningful start, and so you managed to say something authentic. So the conversation continues and hope still lives and the evening and perhaps your entire future are suddenly full of possibilities.  But it’s all still a bit fragile.

Then he/she/they ask what you do for work.

(I know, I know, you, or this other, are not necessarily supposed to open up this topic on a first date – you’re not supposed to make the conversation feel like just idle work chatter, etc., etc. Google leads you to a plethora of advice on why this topic might be a bad idea. But this isn’t a date; it’s a first encounter. And it’s the 21st century, everybody has to work, it’s Washington DC [or some other city], so there it is.)

Now if you’re a meteorologist, the best, wisest, only thing to say, is “I’m a meteorologist, and I work for (fill in the name of the federal agency, or corporation, or university, or NGO),” and then hold your breath. If this person is THE ONE; he/she/they will have a great follow-up. (Full disclosure, I met and married THE ONE a long time ago, so this work question has been low-stakes for the past half-century. Today I usually answer the question with another question: “You may have noticed that sometimes your weather forecast is wrong?” Just about everybody provides a snarky response – some variation of “sometimes?” And then I tell them my job was to help make weather forecasts better…)

But if you’re a meteorologist, and it’s the middle of the night, and you’ve recently written a blogpost touching on the need for international data sharing, your restless, tossing-turning brain might have a “what-if?” stream of thought like this:

Suppose you ask someone what it is they do, and they say “I’m a doctor.” That’s interesting in a certain way, and brings to mind a whole bunch of follow-up questions. But if they say, I’m a doctor, and I work for Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), that’s INTERESTING – at an entirely different level. You know they practice medicine (with all the expertise and training and experience that implies), but there’s more; they bring medical humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict, natural disasters, epidemics or healthcare exclusion. For them it’s not about the money; it’s about reducing human suffering, making the world a better place, and all the rest. That’s special. You want to know more.

But (continuing the middle-of-the-night line of thought), if you think about it, ALL meteorologists are interesting in that additional, special way. To say “meteorologists-without-borders” is actually to be redundant. There’s no other kind! The atmosphere is no respecter of political boundaries, and its study and prediction require corresponding perspective. And meteorology is not the pathway to great wealth. It’s about making people safer, healthier, more secure. So every meteorologist is a “Meteorologue sans Frontieres.” And here’s the thing. Many non-meteorologists will fail to see that connection. The label will likely conjure up images of broadcasters, or (less-likely), a forecaster in a National Weather Service office, or (less-likely still), a researcher. Those impressions are okay as far as they go. But they don’t really capture the intrinsic humanitarian part. If we don’t convey that, as individuals, and as a community, then we’ve seriously sold ourselves short.

Truth be told, even we meteorologists, of whatever stripe, can struggle ourselves to maintain that fuller, more profound vision. The urgency of the broadcast job, with the constant updates, the struggle to refresh the social media feeds, the concerns with ratings; the government forecast job, with its shift work, public services, and engagement with emergency managers and other partners; the research job, with its publish-or-perish pressures – all these tend to move our higher calling into the background.

Today’s invitation, then, is for each of us to keep that higher calling front and center – and draw inspiration, courage, and satisfaction from it. Thanks to each of you for your humanitarian work.

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Anticipating (weather’s) chaos; meshing government- and for-profit weather services; and the elephant in this room.

Historically, monitoring weather and issuing weather forecasts and warnings has been the province of governments. But recently, both the incentives and the means for anticipating and coping with chaotic weather are growing in scope and variety. And so are the ways and extent to which unfavorable weather can disrupt today’s society. This conjunction of technological advance, changing societal vulnerability, and higher economic stakes has triggered and nurtured the emergence of private weather services. These for-profit services are at one and the same time (1) dependent upon-, (2) supplementing-, and (3) competing with government weather services.  

Recent articles, published in two quite different publications, spotlight these trends. Perhaps surprisingly, the one, The Economist, a major news magazine reporting world events as seen through an economic lens, focuses on the emerging scientific and technical opportunity. The second, EOS, an in-house publication of the American Geophysical Union, a scientific society, draws attention instead to the broader public-policy challenges raised by the partial privatization of what once was considered a public good. This man-bites-dog aspect of the two articles makes for interesting reading, even as it reveals a truth: weather, though never a mere backdrop to global affairs, has moved from side- to center stage in 2023. For example, this summer, the isolated episodes of oppressive heat seen in years past have given way to a constant heat burden at levels compromising human health across the entire northern hemisphere. Accompanying wildfires span the globe. The usual strains on energy infrastructure (the occasional brownout in the face of air-conditioning energy demand) and agriculture (localized crop failures) have morphed into worrisome disruptions (e.g., the role of the electrical grid failure in the Lahaina fire and threatened bankruptcy of the power providers at fault).

A few highlights from the articles (which each merit a fuller read):

The science and technology section of the July 29th print edition of The Economist takes as its point of departure the recent spate of particularly-long-lived heat waves characterizing the northern hemisphere warm season, observing that the intensity, extent, and duration of these had been rather well forecast. It notes that today’s five-day weather forecast is about as accurate as a two-day forecast twenty-five years ago, in large part because of improved spatial resolution and small time-steps in today’s numerical weather-prediction models. It acknowledges the existence of fundamental limits to atmospheric predictability, citing the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO) estimates that numerical forecasting might achieve something near this theoretical limit around 2050. The article then segues into a look at short-time-horizon, local- and regional forecasts; the economic value of these to weather-sensitive businesses, and financial sectors such as energy trading; and the accompanying rise of for-profit weather companies to meet these demands. It notes that the private-sector in some cases is downscaling government products, and in others is running its own local- and regional models and supplementing government observations with its own tailored observing networks. The article closes with a look ahead to the possibilities that artificial intelligence (AI) will offer. These range from computationally cheap and quick AI alternatives to conventional numerical weather forecasts, to improved ability to tease out the resulting impacts on societies, and on economies, at both macro- and micro levels. AI influence will extend from the short-term, localized weather predictions across the full spectrum to forecasts of global climate trends.

Along the way, The Economist takes note of an elephant in the room: does privatization benefit the rich nations (and their corporations) at the expense of the poor? A bit of the text:

Private players insist their participation is beneficial for everyone. There are far more weather stations in rich countries than poor ones (see map). “Outside of America, western Europe, Japan and Australia, and a couple of other countries, national meteorological services are lagging decades behind,” says Rei Goffer, one of Tomorrow.io’s founders. Some rich-country agencies help other countries—the Met Office, for example, works with the governments of India, South Africa and several South-East Asian countries. Even so, Mr Goffer argues, many countries simply cannot afford the sort of good-quality forecasting that might help them adapt to a changing climate. Tomorrow.io’s satellites aim to allow countries access to better weather infrastructure without having to build it from scratch.

Hmm. This brings us to:

The July EOS article, written by Bill Morris, a science writer. He provides a concise history of international cooperation in meteorology. That narrative begins by establishing the long-understood reality that meteorology/forecasting is an inherently cooperative activity, requiring that countries and peoples share their weather data. It then focuses on the WMO, and its antecedent, the International Meteorological Organization. Historically, the WMO has been the primary vehicle for accomplishing this sharing. The article’s title notes that The WMO weathered the Cold War, then asks: But can it survive capitalism?

Morris focuses on a pivotal period in this history:

WMO may have faced its greatest challenge in the 1980s, as market-oriented, conservative governments, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, put pressure on their meteorological services to recoup some of the considerable costs of gathering weather data by charging for them. This pressure coincided with the rise of private forecasting services like AccuWeather and the Weather Channel, which package government weather data for popular consumption on apps, television, and websites.

Neil Gordon was New Zealand’s representative to WMO during this period. “What was happening,” he said, “was observations from, say, France were going on international circuits into the United States to be used and ingested into weather models.… [Those data] would then go to companies like AccuWeather, who would then provide services back into France. And France was very unhappy about it. There was a risk that they would no longer send their data to the States.”

“We almost got to the point where data exchange was being shut off,” Gordon recalled.

Morris recounts a dramatic set of sessions at the Twelfth World Meteorological Congress in 1995 that produced Resolution 40, which formally acknowledged that essential meteorological data were necessary for protection of life and property and affirmed WMO commitment to the continuing free and open international sharing of such data.

Resolution 40 has held sway for some twenty years; the formal and informal WMO community has feared that to revisit it would risk its collapse. But here’s the rub. Over the ensuing decades, the capabilities and role of the private sector in providing weather services has continued to expand. This has led to a corresponding erosion of the former degree of government control. That’s because governments can proscribe private issuance of emergency warnings to the public, but they can’t insist that companies freely share any privately-obtained observations and the privately funded numerical forecasts. So far, public-private-sector cooperation continues to be the order of the day, but it’s informal, subject to change with little notice, and consists of a hodge-podge of arrangements, some involving free sharing of data, and some involving fee payment and restriction on its downstream use. In poorer countries, budget-constrained governments are tempted to rely on whatever weather information is freely available (for now) on the internet, rather than undergo the expense and effort of maintaining in-country data sets, climate records, and national weather services.

Along the way, it’s become increasingly clear the value proposition for international sharing of weather data is greatly enhanced  if oceanographic and hydrologic data are shared internationally as well. Ocean data are needed for predictions of storm surge, tracking and prediction of harmful algal blooms, and predictions of seasonal to interannual, decadal, and longer-term climate trends, and much more. Hydrologic data can be combined with precipitation forecasts to anticipate riverine flooding, and conversely, low water levels, etc. But there exists no strong tradition of data sharing in these communities.

Which brings us back to that room-filling elephant:

Both articles make it clear that international data sharing is essential to achieving the needed weather forecasts and climate outlooks. But they stop short of addressing what’s needed if rich and poor nations alike are to fully share in the benefits of such information. In particular, mere sharing of weather forecasts per se stops short of what is needed. Harnessing the value of those forecasts depends upon additional information decision support for weather-sensitive economic sectors (agriculture, energy, transportation, water resource-management, etc.), for the financial community (e.g., investors and insurers). Such decision support is a given in wealthy nations; in the rest of the world, not so much. Thus, as matters now stand, it’s likely the wealthy benefit far more from weather information coming from poorer, more-remote corners of the world than do the peoples native to those regions. The current disparity is puts cooperation on shaky grounds at best. Only if the benefits of data sharing are themselves shared fairly can collaboration be sustained. More worrisome, if left unaddressed, the current gap in benefits to haves- and have-nots will widen as artificial intelligence comes into play. Nations of the world would do well to address all this sooner rather than later (presumably, under auspices of the WMO).

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Earthlings, your host Planet would like a word.

“Gravity: it isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.” – Adam Savage

“Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” – Will Durant

This true-color image shows North and South America as they would appear from space 35,000 km (22,000 miles) above the Earth. The image is a combination of data from two satellites. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite collected the land surface data over 16 days, while NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) produced a snapshot of the Earth’s clouds.
Image created by Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC

And that word is – wait for it – Geocivics.

With apologies, today’s continuation of the recent LOTRW focus on K-12 education begins with more than the usual amount of background.

Start with a definition. Wikipedia provides this articulation: “Civics is the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. The term derives from the Latin word civicus, meaning “relating to a citizen”. The term relates to behavior affecting other citizens, particularly in the context of urban development.” 

Civics has been with us a long time. That same Wikipedia source provides this quote, dating back to ancient Sparta and ascribed to Archidamus II (died 427/6 BC, one of the city-state’s kings):

And we are wise, because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too severe a self-control to disobey them, and are brought up not to be too knowing in useless matters—such as the knowledge which can give a specious criticism of an enemy’s plans in theory, but fails to assail them with equal success in practice—but are taught to consider that the schemes of our enemies are not dissimilar to our own, and that the freaks of chance are not determinable by calculation. In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school[1].

And still focuses minds today. A few years ago, Rebecca Winthrop of Brookings provided an insightful articulation of the worsening state of and the need for civics education in 21st century schools. To whet your appetite for her fuller analysis, here’s material from her executive summary:

Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last. Of increasing concern to many is the declining levels of civic engagement across the country, a trend that started several decades ago. Today, we see evidence of this in the limited civic knowledge of the American public, 1 in 4 of whom, according to a 2016 survey led by Annenberg Public Policy Center, are unable to name the three branches of government. It is not only knowledge about how the government works that is lacking— confidence in our leadership is also extremely low. According to the Pew Research Center, which tracks public trust in government, as of March 2019, only an unnerving 17 percent trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. We also see this lack of engagement in civic behaviors, with Americans’ reduced participation in community organizations and lackluster participation in elections, especially among young voters.

Many reasons undoubtedly contribute to this decline in civic engagement: from political dysfunction to an actively polarized media to the growing mobility of Americans and even the technological transformation of leisure, as posited by Robert D. Putnam. Of particular concern is the rise of what Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine call “civic deserts,” namely places where there are few to no opportunities for people to “meet, discuss issues, or address problems.” They estimate that 60 percent of all rural youth live in civic deserts along with 30 percent of urban and suburban Americans. Given the decline of participation in religious organizations and unions, which a large proportion of Americans consistently engaged in over the course of the 20th century, it is clear that new forms of civic networks are needed in communities.

Winthrop goes on to make the case for the role of schools. A sample of her thinking:

As one of the few social institutions present in virtually every community across America, schools can and should play an important role in catalyzing increased civic engagement. They can do this by helping young people develop and practice the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors needed to participate in civic life. Schools can also directly provide opportunities for civic engagement as a local institution that can connect young and old people alike across the community. To do this, civic learning needs to be part and parcel of the current movement across many schools in America to equip young people with 21st-century skills. To date however, civic education experts argue that civic learning is on the margins of young people’s school experience. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge. While 42 states and the District of Columbia require at least one course related to civics, few states prioritize the range of strategies, such as service learning which is only included in the standards for 11 states, that is required for an effective civic education experience. The study also found that high school social studies teachers are some of the least supported teachers in schools and report teaching larger numbers of students and taking on more non-teaching responsibilities like coaching school sports than other teachers. Student experience reinforces this view that civic learning is not a central concern of schools. Seventy percent of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem and 30 percent say they have never taken part in a debate—all important parts of a quality civic learning.

Which brings us to today’s main idea. In these writings, bracketing more than two millennia, we see civics defined as the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. In this view, society is the platform of interest. The rights (think life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example) and the obligations are considered in this context alone. Even with this constraint, the complexities are daunting – the subject of continuing examination, interpretation, and vigorous, even violent debate. Questions of ethics and morality quickly arise; considerations of so-called natural law (think, for example, the Golden Rule) and (for some) God’s law can come into play.

What’s missing? Explicit incorporation of a different set of natural laws. Truth is, civics is lived out on a finite planet: a planet with generous but limited natural resources; a planet featuring fierce extremes of flood and drought, earthquakes, volcanism, and more; and a planet that at the same time is proving troublingly fragile – easily and sometimes irrevocably damaged by societal actions and decisions, however well-intended. History provides examples of civilization decline resulting from societal failure to account for environmental realities. To list a few: Mesopotomia struggled to cope with the soil salination resulting from irrigation. Here in the United States, the Anasazi people and other contemporaneous cultures wilted under the pressures of the so-called Great Drought. Just as covid has rocked today’s world, the Great Plague of Athens (40 B.C.) damaged Greek fortunes and changed the course of world history. Climate change and pandemics emphasize that the scale of today’s geo-civics is truly global.

Citizens of ancient Sparta might be forgiven for overlooking the role of nature in human affairs, but not the societies of today. Perhaps the 21st-century preoccupation ought to be Geocivics – the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society on a generous-but-finite, dangerous-but-fragile Earth.

Integrate the study of civics and the geosciences in public schools? Natural for educators see this idea as cringeworthy. (Our communities are already upset with us, Bill. And these two topics are each controversial in and of themselves. Combine them? Yeah, right. What could possibly go wrong?)

But the Earth is emotionally detached, unmoved by any consideration of love, or hate, or rights, or responsibilities. Any beneficence or malfeasance of human beings the planet accepts without question. It doesn’t judge. In response, the planet simply does “what it’s gotta do.” It obeys laws of motion, conservation of energy, entropy imperatives and the like. No amount of human intervention can stay the drought or the flood, the cold spell or the heat wave. Yet civics can change the societal outcomes – reducing the death, injury, property loss, economic disruption, environmental degradation. And civics can accomplish this most effectively when it incorporates geoscience. Earth’s inexorable response to human actions and ability to dominate human affairs just might focus minds, shift attention from squabbling over abstractions to common search for coping strategies.

It is likely too much to expect that this sobering terrestrial context would dampen or civilize (there’s that root word again) the disagreements that polarize nations and peoples in any short term. But it would take the educational high ground: realism. It would put the emphasis on the needed societal actions. Over time, it might drive us to pay more attention to our sacred responsibilities to others and to our planetary habitation. It might renew interest in civics more broadly. By such means, it might improve the prospects of our children and grandchildren. Which brings to mind a closing quote:

“The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.” – Zeno of Citium


  1. [1]  ThucydidesThe History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, Chapter III. Translated by Richard CrawleyProject Gutenberg.
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K-12 climate science education: the worldwide picture.

“For the sake of ten year’s benefit, we must plant trees. For the sake of a hundred years’ benefit, we must cultivate the people.” – Ho Chi Minh

Today’s K-12 schoolkids worldwide will be coping with climate change and its impacts throughout their adult lives. Some will make such work their career. How effectively they are schooled, and how adeptly they apply their schooling to the task of planetary stewardship, will determine humanity’s future every bit as much as will the skills, decisions, and actions of the adult workforce currently in place.

Which raises the question: is the global “Educational Enterprise” – comprising the teachers, the school administrators, and the global mix of national and local governing policy frameworks – up to the climate-change challenge? Will the current generation’s youth leave school adequately equipped and motivated?[1]

Recent LOTRW posts have reflected on the situation domestically, here in the United States. Experts seem to agree that US K-12 climate science education could stand improvement. But the US makes up only some 4% of the world’s population. What’s the condition of K-12 (or equivalent) education worldwide? The state of climate-change education in particular?

Unsurprisingly, it turns out the international state of affairs is no better[2]. Perhaps three-quarters of a billion people worldwide are illiterate. Gender inequality in education, though falling, persists. Teacher qualifications are minimal. In many countries, teacher absenteeism is even a significant problem. Worse still, in these countries, teachers, even when physically present in the classroom, may not actually be teaching.

Surveys find that school-age children think climate change is a serious problem and that children are frustrated by their inability to understand the problem or explain it to others. And most countries pay some attention to climate-change education, many even making it mandatory. However, at the classroom level, teachers feel untrained and under-resourced with respect to the issue; in practice, it often remains untaught. And educational emphasis can vary significantly from nation to nation. Some countries, e.g., China, downplay attention to needed national policy change versus exhortations for individual reductions of carbon footprints.

All these shortcomings were exacerbated by the covid pandemic. Not all school systems remained open. Many went virtual, or closed entirely. Rapidly kluged virtual-education performance was mixed at best, and access limited to the well-off. Student test scores took a knock; return to pre-covid performance remains slow. This recent history bodes poorly for the needed climate-change education.

The needed improvements in climate change education can’t be addressed and resolved internally, within the Educational Enterprise. They arise from larger societal attitudes and policies towards education at national- and local levels[3]. Two policy realities stand out. First, there’s the underinvestment in K-12 education generally. Teacher salaries are poor. And school facilities are too often rundown and under-resourced; teachers too often lack the tools they need. Anyone with the needed subject-matter expertise and desire and aptitude for teaching can be paid far more and endure less frustration in other lines of work.

Second, societies worldwide are leaving problems that should be addressed elsewhere – poverty, security and safety, children’s physical and mental health, and much more – on the doorsteps of the schools. Teachers are expected to shoulder what amount to additional unfunded mandates at the same time they increasingly face conflicting and even vehement community guidance and constraints on what should be taught and how.

Climate change science education is vulnerable to all these threats. Societies remain polarized with respect to the issue of climate change and what to do about it. But the focus – and the heat – of public debate has moved on, to controversies on gender, racism, inclusion, equity; immigration, drugs, guns; and the like. At the same time, recent weather extremes such as cycles of flood and drought, waves of heat and cold have intensified; they’ve graduated from background disturbance to visible disruption. These realities have sharpened minds. Here in the United States, for example, recent Congressional legislation has increased investments in renewable energy and other infrastructure. This has linked the climate change issue to job creation and thus motivates improved education.

The moment offers opportunity to scientific and professional societies such as the AMS (which has long made K-12 education in weather, water, and climate topics a priority, offering a variety of resources to educators and students). The increased breadth in interest in the topic should portend an expanded range of possible funding sources for support of AMS educational work, not just in the United States, but abroad. To the extent AMS educational initiatives integrate use of AI into the content and materials (along lines advocated, say, by Sal Kahn), they will find wider application and greater demand not just domestically but internationally.

(A final aside: Annually, the United States government spends about $50 billion in economic and military assistance to foreign countries. Of this total, some $40 billion dollars is designated for economic assistance – including about $25 billion dispersed by USAID. A little over $1B/year is targeted at educational assistance – clearly an important investment in the world’s future, viewed in light of the issues raised here.)

Time to cultivate the people!


[1] For the small minority entering directly-climate-change-related fields professionally, ”equipping” means the basics of science and mathematics. The majority of young people who will go on to careers in other fields will also need an awareness and understanding of climate-change issues that can guide and sustain political support for climate-change action at national and international levels.

[2] This matters. A World-Bank blogpost makes a persuasive call for better education, citing a Pew Research Center survey suggesting that people with more education tend to be more concerned about climate change.

[3] For example, a UNICEF study notes the many ways climate change education in India is affected by and intersects with conditions in the larger society.

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The new face of severe weather – as manifest at the higher levels of “Earth’s Reality Game”

In the mists of “ancient history” (as defined by Gen Z or Generation Alpha, that might be the 1980’s or a bit earlier), Dick Hallgren, who directed the National Weather Service at the time, was fond of saying that the United States faced a greater set of weather hazards than any nation in the world. We had as many tropical storms making landfall as the other low-latitude countries. Our winter storms rivaled those of Russia and Canada. Our vast land, with its thousands of watersheds, was always facing the woes of drought and flood at any given time. The United States, alone among nations, had a monopoly on the world’s tornadoes – especially the severe ones. And so on.

But in the few decades since, the U.S. weather threat has been turned on its head. On the summer morning I started writing this, warnings spoke to severe weather of a different sort: enduring, stultifying heat over much of the South, and dangerously high levels of air pollution spanning the Midwest, Northeast, and Middle Atlantic States – the latter a result not of any local weather conditions but rather the result of downwind airflow from Canadian wildfires hundreds of miles distant.  And those severe thunderstorms that have always been the hallmark US warm-season threat to life and property? They’re now prayed-for as possible saviors – breaking up the weather patterns maintaining the heat and bad air.

Whoa!

A lot to wrap our minds around. Really calls for a limber mind. But maybe we’ve seen this all before, just in different context. This kind of thing is nothing new to gamers, who constantly reframe their thinking as they master successively more challenging video game levels and move from one to the next. Real-world living has much in common with their virtual reality.

In effect, all of us, whether or not we identify as gamers, have willy-nilly moved to Earth Reality’s Next Level. Today’s pace of Earth’s Reality Game is faster, and the stakes higher, than a century or even a few decades ago. Much more is demanded of national and individual players to survive, let alone prosper. For starters, we find ourselves in an environment where the cycles of storm- and quiet and larger patterns of flood and drought are substantially more intense than those familiar from recent memory (think last winter’s epic snowfalls across California and the long-term threat to the Colorado River’s water allocations compared with historic norms).

Fact is, weather is only one facet of Earth’s Reality Game 21st-century level. Urbanization and dependence on critical infrastructure have changed human vulnerability to natural hazards. As populations and resource-use per capita have increased, so have the scale and dimensions of human environmental impacts. Fossil fuel consumption is changing climate. Drawdown of underground aquifers is detectably changing the Earth’s spin. Mining and processing of lithium and other rare-earths needed to make the global switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy pose their own environmental risks.

Earth’s Reality Game 21st-century level itself is only one component of an even-more-daunting 21st-Century Reality Game. That meta-game adds additional challenges: pandemics, war, immigration, and more. That’s the set of problems we must solve simultaneously in order to live and prosper on today’s real world

Fortunately Gen Z and Generation Alpha are gamers – their young, pliable brains are daily being hardwired with a gamer mentality. The active play is not the whole story. Gaming is woven through the fabric of their young lives:

“…younger generations show notable differences from older generations when it comes to engagement with gaming. Not only do they invest more leisure time, but they are also more likely to spend money on games and engage with gaming in many diverse ways outside of playing. Gaming has become part of their everyday lives as they also look to games for many other reasons.”

There are two more pieces of good news. The first is that these same young people are also increasingly AI-savvy. Secondly, they’ll be the backbone of the workforce tasked with solving the 21st-century’s challenges (the Internet offers myriad perspectives; here’s one from an Indian source). They’ll bring to bear tomorrow’s tools to solve tomorrow’s problems.

The task remaining for the rest of us is to do what we can to encourage some fraction of these younger generations to use their skills and tools to work on natural resource-, hazard resilience-, and environmental dilemmas. That’s going to happen only if K-12 public education embraces AI.

Don’t take my word for it. This past May, Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, gave a TED Talk entitled How AI could save (not destroy) education.  In fifteen minutes, he provided an inspiring view of how this could be achieved and why we should care.

What are we waiting for? Ready Player One…[1]


[1]You probably recognize this as the title of the Spielberg movie, based on the Ernest Cline book. But where did the title come from? We’re told The title Ready Player One was inspired by old, classic arcade games. When you used to put your quarter into an old arcade game it would often say, ‘Ready, player one,’ and that was kind of the last thing that you would see before you were immersed in this two-dimensional world of the video game.

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More (Chatbox-enabled) living on the real world

Two weeks later, still wrapping my head around that initial LOTRW “interview” with a simple AI chatbot[1].

Some impressions, beginning with the general but then focusing on climate-change science education:

Regarding the big picture, in the case of generative-AI, the expression “game-changer” comes to mind. For me personally, the enthusiasm and sense of wonder evoke memories of several other transitional moments in the same evolutionary tree: switching from handwriting and typing to word processing; from hand-drawn transparencies for professional presentations to powerpoint; substituting library-and book-based study to largely-online search, enabled by search engines (eventually and most notably Google). Each of these arguably made me more productive and effective, but also changed the direction of my work and thought. AI promises to do the same (most likely, for both better and worse).

As in those instances, I recognize I’ll never begin to master this new technology but will only harness the  merest fraction of its capabilities. I also dimly grasp that even that level of effort will require a significant reconfiguring of my brain and the way I operate.

Such overhaul isn’t getting any easier with age! A recent Economist article on aging demographics worldwide (in the print edition ominously entitled The Old and the Zestless, and worth reading in its entirety) notes that “Younger people have more of what psychologists call “fluid intelligence”, meaning the ability to solve new problems and engage with new ideas. Older people have more “crystallised intelligence”—a stock of knowledge about how things work built up over time.”  But the potential rewards make it worth the effort and dwarf any attendant personal risks. After all, the Roman Cato undertook to learn Greek when he was eighty, and when asked about it supposedly replied it was the only age he had left.

The vanilla-flavor of the current AI-answers leaves no doubt as to their robotic DNA. But today’s rudimentary capability is destined to grow more powerful with time – “learning” to handle and respond to more comprehensive queries on more complex matters. The future clearly belongs to societies, nations, private- and public-sector institutions, and individuals most adept at harnessing AI’s benefits while mitigating its risks. The power of AI and its potential for disruption worldwide could mean the reworking of every aspect of global society – realignment of geopolitics, economies, institutions, and all the way down to personal prospects.

In such a future, information technology poses the two greatest challenges/opportunities for American K-12 public education: (1) preparing young people for careers/lifetimes in an IT/AI-dominated world; (2) harnessing IT/AI to accelerate and augment learning in every discipline.

But here’s the thing: it’s not just that we don’t want to miss such a singular upside opportunity. America’s students succumb daily to IT’s downside risks. On average, today’s teenagers spend almost 9 hours a day online. They’re enticed into the seductive virtual world of gaming, with its absorbing pleasures and near-instant gratification. Their curiosity takes them down countless labyrinthine internet rabbit holes. Social media can transport them to ecstasy and or plunge them into the depths of despair depending on the latest posts from their peers. Each key click can distract them – loosen their focus on the pressing and near-intransigent real-world problems – inequity, poverty, polarization, and yes, climate change – that their generation must address. Taken as a whole, these attributes constitute a mental health threat to the young.

And all this before we get to artificial intelligence (AI) – which looks set to take IT’s pull to an entirely new level. Perhaps most worrisome, the people who know the most about AI seem to be the wariest, even the most alarmed, about where AI may take us. We haven’t seen this level of angst from scientists and engineers since Robert Oppenheimer and his crowd fretted about the development and use of atomic weapons in World War II.

Unsurprisingly, the Educational Enterprise sees reason to fear. But attempts to ban AI from the classroom are unlikely to bring teachers any joy (references to King Canute and the tide come to mind). Perhaps, then, it’s worth exploring the opposite approach.

Which brings us to the climate-change bits. Let’s imagine, for example, that in the classroom of the future pupils will be expected to demonstrate ability to use IT and AI in the same way that students in the past were expected to be facile with reading, writing, and arithmetic. In such a world a science-class module on climate change could ask students to submit capstone individual reports along lines notionally like the following:

  • What are the causes and signs of climate change in our local area? What is the future outlook?
  • What are the present and possible future impacts of those changes on our community?
  • What coping strategies might be necessary? Doable? or desirable?
  • Which do you favor and why?
  • Explain how you used IT/AI to develop your report and inform your conclusions.
  • (for extra credit) where would a bit more understanding of climate science and climate impacts be helpful? [2]

I tried out these questions on ChatBox, using a ham-fisted, simple approach, particularizing them to three counties: Fairfax County in the DC suburbs, where I live today; Boulder County in Colorado, where I worked for twenty years; and Franklin County in rural Tennessee where I lived as a child between 3-8 years of age. Generally, the AI answers seemed factual, nicely organized, coherent, and crisp — providing a useful portal to further study. The exception, unsurprisingly, was Franklin County. But when I substituted the University of the South (where my father had taught mathematics) that is situated there, material turned up.

For a young technology, the AI performed well.

Seductively so. The results were so clearly and simply expressed and so polished that it was easy for me to take them at face value versus question them or build on them to realize deeper insight. And (forgive the snarky comment) in some ways they call to mind Captain Obvious. (I’ve subsequently asked AI for self-criticism — to characterize the shortcomings in its answers. It gives bland acknowledgments of its limitations but then occasionally confesses additional bits of useful detail.)

Three closing thoughts. First, climate-change science was once (and still is) considered a controversial, polarizing issue. From time to time, individuals and groups, even some state governments, have made efforts to keep it out of the classroom. Today there’s more controversy in the classroom than ever. But the battleground has shifted to other, more visceral topics. Climate-change science looks tame by comparison – it’s losing its power to inflame minds.  Ironically, it may prove over time to be relatively “safe-place” to test and develop new educational ideas.

Secondly, in the future AI-enabled world, the educational challenge is not how to exclude IT/AI from tainting the educational process, but rather how to ensure that students from every income class and social circumstance have equal access to the tools they’ll need to master for their future lives and careers. A tough nut to crack. In the old days, I’d have just thrown up my hands. But today, I asked my long-time search-engine buddy

How can we make the world more fair?

Got this answer: You can help ensure everyone has access to education, health care, housing, and other basic needs. You can also help vulnerable people worldwide by working on issues like climate change or gender equality, or refugee rights, which came from a single link.

My new friend ChatBox, true to form, was more voluble (again, quoting verbatim):

As an AI language model, I do not have personal beliefs or opinions, but here are some ways that people can work towards making the world more fair:

1. Education: Providing access to education for all individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can help level the playing field and provide opportunities for people to improve their lives.

2. Economic equality: Addressing income inequality and ensuring that everyone has access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, and healthcare can help reduce poverty and create a more fair society.

3. Social justice: Addressing systemic issues such as racism, sexism, and discrimination can help create a more just and equitable society.

4. Political reform: Ensuring that political systems are fair and transparent can help prevent corruption and ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

5. Environmental sustainability: Addressing climate change and protecting the environment can help ensure that future generations have access to the same resources and opportunities as we do today.

Hmm. Well said… and interesting, given that I made no mention of climate change, that it saw fit to bring in that dimension.

Returning to The Economist article quoted above for the final word:

…Technology can also provide ways to cope with demographic change, from telemedicine to the increased use of robots in service industries. Such innovations can undoubtedly ease the difficulties presented by an ageing society, whether by directly contributing to the care of the elderly or by automating the roles of young workers. But the shrinking number of innovative young thinkers will, ironically, reduce the number of such valuable new ideas.

A shortfall in human innovation may also be less damaging if offset by new ideas conceived by artificial intelligence. There seems no doubt that machines will soon be working out how to make incremental improvements in existing processes—indeed, in some spheres, they already are. Whether machines will ever learn how to generate disruptive new ideas, however, remains a matter of debate


[1]First, a point of clarification. The quoted ChatBox material was just that: actual, verbatim, unedited responses from the app. I didn’t ghostwrite them, contrary to some reader feedback suggesting otherwise. (That feedback hints at something vaguely disturbing about my writing style, or lack thereof; pretty sure I don’t want to go there…)

[2]Teachers might well ask: what about the stupefying task of grading/evaluating the individual student outputs? In the imagined future here, teachers would solve that problem of tomorrow using tomorrow’s tools; they wouldn’t be limited to the tools of today. They would presumably enjoy commensurate AI/IT assistance in monitoring the students’ work – for example, extensions of the kinds of tools used currently and under development to enable flipped learning. Roles and expectations would be different; teachers will likely be less needed as the-sage-on-the-stage and more the-guide-on-the-side.

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Climate change science K-12 education: a testbed for IT/AI? (my interview with Apple’s Chatbox)

Apple ChatBox

Climate science K-12 education can and should be improved. However, if this is to be accomplished without adding to teachers’ burdens, innovation is required. One natural place to look for such opportunities? Information technology (IT), and especially IT’s “whiz kid” – artificial intelligence (AI). After a few early struggles to blog along these lines I had to admit to myself: (1) my ignorance about AI and its potential was (remains) nearly total, and (2) that’s especially true when it comes to any hands-on experience.

If school students are using the technology to write their classroom assignments, why shouldn’t this octogenarian blogger seek a bit of chatbot wisdom? Making a simple start, this morning I loaded the Apple ChatBox app on my cellphone. We did an interview, which unfolded this way:

Interviewer. Welcome, ChatBox, to Living on the Real World. Good of you to make time to meet with us, considering all the competing claims for your attention. Let’s get right to it. A general question, for background: how is artificial intelligence important to K-12 education?

ChatBox (just to make it perfectly clear — the ChatBox answers here are verbatim, unedited). Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform K-12 education in several ways:

1. Personalized learning: AI can be used to create personalized learning experiences for students, based on their individual needs and learning styles. AI algorithms can analyze student data and provide customized recommendations for learning activities and resources.

2. Adaptive assessments: AI can be used to create adaptive assessments that adjust to the student’s level of knowledge and understanding. This can help to identify areas where students need additional support and provide targeted feedback to improve learning outcomes.

3. Intelligent tutoring systems: AI can be used to create intelligent tutoring systems that provide real-time feedback and support to students as they learn. These systems can adapt to the student’s pace and level of understanding, providing personalized guidance and support.

4. Data analysis: AI can be used to analyze large amounts of data on student performance and learning outcomes, providing insights into areas where improvements can be made and identifying trends and patterns in student learning.

5. Automation: AI can be used to automate routine tasks such as grading and administrative tasks, freeing up teachers’ time to focus on more complex and creative aspects of teaching.

Overall, AI has the potential to improve the quality and effectiveness of K-12 education by providing personalized learning experiences, adaptive assessments, intelligent tutoring systems, data analysis, and automation of routine tasks. However, it is important to ensure that AI is used ethically and responsibly, and that it does not replace the important role of teachers in the learning process.

Interviewer. That’s the positive side. But what challenges does AI pose to K-12 education?

ChatBox. While artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform K-12 education, it also poses several challenges, including:

1. Access and equity: One of the main challenges of AI in K-12 education is ensuring that all students have access to the technology and resources needed to benefit from AI. This can be a challenge in schools with limited resources or in areas with limited internet connectivity.

2. Bias and fairness: AI algorithms can be biased if they are trained on data that is not representative of the student population. This can lead to unfair outcomes and perpetuate existing inequalities in education.

3. Privacy and security: AI systems collect and analyze large amounts of data on students, raising concerns about privacy and security. It is important to ensure that student data is protected and used ethically and responsibly.

4. Teacher training and support: AI requires specialized knowledge and skills, and teachers may need training and support to effectively integrate AI into their teaching practices.

5. Ethical and social implications: AI raises ethical and social implications that need to be addressed in K-12 education. For example, AI may raise questions about the role of teachers, the impact on student creativity and critical thinking, and the potential for AI to replace human interaction and empathy in education.

Overall, while AI has the potential to transform K-12 education, it is important to address these challenges and ensure that AI is used ethically and responsibly to support student learning and success.

Interviewer. Thanks for your candor. How about your perspective on any national stakes: why should the United States incorporate AI in K-12 education?

ChatBox (unfazed).

The United States should incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) in K-12 education for several reasons:

1. Economic competitiveness: AI is becoming increasingly important in many industries, and the United States needs to ensure that its workforce is prepared to compete in a global economy that is increasingly reliant on AI.

2. Innovation and creativity: AI can be used to support innovation and creativity in K-12 classrooms, by providing new tools and resources for students to explore and experiment with. This can help to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States.

3. Addressing educational inequalities: AI can help to address educational inequalities by providing personalized learning experiences and support for students who may be struggling. This can help to ensure that all students have access to high-quality education, regardless of their background or circumstances.

4. National security: AI is becoming increasingly important in national security and defense, and the United States needs to ensure that its workforce is prepared to develop and use AI technologies in these areas.

5. Social and ethical implications: AI raises important social and ethical implications that need to be addressed in K-12 education. By incorporating AI in K-12 classrooms, students can develop the skills and knowledge needed to understand and address these implications.

Overall, incorporating AI in K-12 education is important for preparing the United States for a future that is increasingly reliant on AI, fostering innovation and creativity, addressing educational inequalities, ensuring national security, and addressing important social and ethical implications.

Interviewer. Want to respect your time, so closing with this question: “in what ways could climate change science make a useful test bed for AI in the K-12 classroom?”:

ChatBox. Climate change science could make a useful test bed for AI in the K-12 classroom in the following ways:

1. Data analysis: AI can be used to analyze large amounts of climate data and identify patterns and trends. Students can learn how to use AI tools to analyze data and draw conclusions about climate change.

2. Predictive modeling: AI can be used to create predictive models of climate change and its impact on the environment. Students can learn how to use AI tools to create models and make predictions about future climate scenarios.

3. Interactive simulations: AI can be used to create interactive simulations of climate change scenarios. Students can learn how to use AI tools to create simulations and explore the impact of different climate change scenarios on the environment.

4. Personalized learning: AI can be used to personalize learning experiences for students based on their individual needs and learning styles. Students can learn about climate change in a way that is tailored to their specific interests and abilities.

5. Collaborative learning: AI can be used to facilitate collaborative learning experiences among students. Students can work together to analyze data, create models, and explore climate change scenarios using AI tools.

Interviewer. Thank you so much for your time! I hesitate to ask, but did you enjoy our session? Would you do it again?

ChatBox: As an AI language model, I don’t have emotions, but I enjoyed assisting you with your questions. I am always ready to assist you with any queries you may have in the future.

Whew! Already a lengthy post, so ending it here. ChatBox was indeed chatty! Won’t accuse it of TMI, but perhaps AI should stand for Alotta Information. Some initial conclusions and impressions in a later post.

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Climate change science in K-12 education

Will the world effectively meet the climate-change challenge over coming decades? The answer to that question depends not just on today’s 6 billion adults but also on today’s 2 billion children and billions more of the as-yet-unborn.  Unsurprising, then, that additional attention to the climate-change science taught in K-12 education is widely seen as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for human success. It’s equally natural to be hopeful about this, in the sense that “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”  For one thing, parents care about few things more than the future prospects for their children.

The desired improvements are by no means assured. In part that’s because of the inherent complexity and vast scope of the climate-change problem. But the main obstacle? K-12 education itself is not in a state of rude health; it faces a broader set of concerns. These are worldwide, but today let’s zoom in on problems manifest here in America. Here’s one perspective – this from Public School Review citing The 15 Biggest Failures of the American Public Education System (the link provides thumbnail detail for each):

1.  deficits in government funding for public schools

2.  decline in school safety

3.  challenges with technology in education

4.  controversy over charter schools and voucher programs

5.  problems with the common core curriculum

6.  decreased teacher salaries

7.  emphasis on standardized testing

8.  arguments about teacher tenure

9.  bullying in schools

10.growing problems with student poverty

11.schools are overcrowded

12.student mental health challenges

13.parents are not involved enough

14.too many schools are being closed

15.lack of teacher innovation and outdated teaching methods

Here’s a second list, showing quite a bit of complementary overlap but a different starting point and different articulation. It focuses on K-12 educators, versus education per se. It comes from Peter DeWitt, writing in Education Week: 11 Critical Issues Facing Educators in 2023 (again, the original article contains explanatory text for each):

1.  guns

2.  politics in education

3.  social-emotional learning

4.  the flu

5.  de-implementation

6.  substitute teachers

7.  poverty

8.  teacher shortage

9.  teacher-prep programs

10.tutoring programs

11.a love for learning

Whew! Daunting lists – especially so, since many of the issues require addressing even larger societal ills: inequity, endemic racism, poverty, immigration, the polarization of society, and much more.

Back to the immediate LOTRW concern: the need for improved climate-change science education. Climate scientists can readily create shopping lists of topics needing more student time and attention. It would also be natural, and even defensible, for climate scientists to present their demands to pedagogues and stop there. After all, that’s what scientists know; they do well to stop short of over-reaching our area of expertise, or being prescriptive.

But that path does little more than present the educational enterprise with yet another unfunded mandate – just another set of reasons for beleaguered teachers, harried school administrators, and the larger K-12 educational enterprise to feel frustrated and even guilty about their straitened circumstances and inability to meet societal needs. If instead, the climate science community wants to see actual uptake of its recommendations by educators, it might need to go further. In particular, it might need to (1) bring additional resources to the table and (2) frame suggestions in a manner that would solve some of K-12 Education’s broader problems along the way.

Start with additional resources. Here the need is great. According to The Education Data Initiative,

In the United States, education spending falls short of benchmarks set by international organizations such as UNESCO, of which the U.S. is a member. The nation puts 11.6% of public funding toward education, well below the international standard 15.00%.

  • Schools in the United States spend an average of $16,993 per pupil, which is the 7th-highest amount per pupil (after adjusting to local currency values) among the 37 other developed nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
  • In terms of a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP), the United States ranks 12th among OECD members in spending on elementary education.
  • The United States does not meet UNESCO’s benchmark of a 15.00% share of total public expenditure on education.
  • In terms of early childhood education, the United States is one of six (6) countries that do not report any educational spending.

These national averages mask considerable variations across states and localities. Public spending per pupil can differ by factors of two or more.

By contrast, US R&D is relatively well funded. The US and China together dominate worldwide expenditures for R&D, spending about half the global total. R&D/capita is growing in both countries, though more rapidly in China. Given the importance of workforce in realizing the benefit from that expenditure, both in terms of the advance of science and technology, and their application for societal benefit, it would makes sense to explore tapping the major funding increments for science and technology embedded in the Inflation Reduction Act and the America Competes Act to further STEM education broadly and climate science education in particular.

Though the term “resources” includes funding, it’s broader. Equipping teachers to teach climate science material – especially increasing their mastery of and comfort with that material – is of comparable importance. (An infomercial; the AMS, through its Education Program, has taken this approach with teachers of K-12 science for decades.)

Framing also matters. Today’s teachers and principals are constrained by chronic funding shortages, but merely dissatisfied. By contrast they are emotionally drained by the politicization of education and the amped-up polarization of that politics, extending even to reading matter available in school libraries. Tumultuous school board- and PTA meetings, threatening e-mails and more are part of teachers’ lives these days. Though the furor is concentrated on wokeness, LGBTQ issues, etc., it extends to subjects such as climate change science.

It’s certainly justifiable to shrug shoulders and say that’s the world we live in and resignedly enter the fray. But to do that will be to fail.

Alternatively, it’s possible to widen the focus of the educational emphasis, moving from climate change per se to the science of the Earth, the atmosphere, and oceans more broadly. That approach promises to lower the temperature of any political debate. At the same time it is more intellectually honest in a way. That is because climate change, extreme weather, and even earthquakes and continental drift are all part of a single whole; and because all these topics deserve more attention in K-12 classrooms. They don’t simply matter in their own right to people trying to live a bit more safely, comfortably, and sustainably on a finite planet. They also introduce young people to fascinating, important, and visible applications of basic physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics – literally bringing these fundamentals to life. (A new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows that families are dissatisfied with math education; they want a more engaging set of math curricula with up-to-date lessons that are relevant and applicable to the real world.

Teachers also struggle to deal with the poverty and associated social/emotional problems they see students bringing into the classroom. There’s a dearth of hope. Another framing – a focus on the jobs and careers created by climate change – might help turn things around. I’m not talking about climate-change careers per se here. (That’s an important topic, and one currently receiving a lot of attention within the American Meteorological Society, popping up in studies and at sessions in conferences; e.g., the session on Enterprise-level workforce gaps.) I’m talking about the far larger numbers of jobs waiting in the energy industry, for example: Take wind energy alone. According to the DoE, the need is for up to 1000 US training and education programs:

An available and qualified workforce is essential for any industry. For the workforce to grow, career options need to be communicated as early as the high school level as young people consider potential occupations and educational programs. The wind power industry provides well-paying jobs in rural America as well as in urban locations. Employment opportunities include construction, manufacturing, professional, and trade workers. Educational requirements for wind energy jobs range from high school diplomas to Ph.D.s and post-graduate professional degrees to vocational degrees and apprenticeships

Similarly, the US solar energy workforce must double in the next decadeAnnual employment in the EV production and maintenance sector is expected to grow by a factor of ten over the same period.

A K-12 education emphasis on these matters holds potential for increasing the engagement of seemingly disaffected parents.

A final reason for cheer. State and local governments play a major role in funding education. Local-place based approaches provide opportunity for experimentation and innovation in developing climate-science curricula, tying them to the rest of STEM education, and to K-12 education as a whole in different ways. Educators can meet the targets of local communities, move things along at a natural pace, and trade success stories.

The AMS, with its mission, tradition, global reach and local footprint (weather broadcasters, teachers, local forecast offices, local chapters, and WeatherBand) has much to offer here.

Who knows? Along the way to improving climates science education, we all might even (re)discover E pluribus unum.

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(Mostly borrowed) thoughts on Hope, Climate Change, and K-12 Education.

Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.” – Noam Chomsky

“…Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame[1]” – Romans 5:3-5a (NIV)

We’re coming off the Easter/Passover weekend, which almost everyone (not just those of the Judeo-Christian tradition) knows to be all about hope. It’s easy these days to be a bit jaded about hope, and to dismiss it as hopelessly (!) mired in simplistic platitudes. Chances are good you’re looking for a more-nuanced view, reflecting 21st-century-world realities: rampant distrust all peoples seem to hold in each other, in their leaders and their institutions (no branch of government or sector of human activity seems immune); systematic racism; endemic poverty; terrorism and war; widespread environmental degradation; and so much more. Well, then – try this NYT guest essay by Esau McCaulley entitled On Hope, Hate and the Most Radical Claim of the Easter Season. (To whet interest), it starts out this way: Easter has never been my favorite church service. Shouting “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” requires an emotional crescendo my melancholy temperament can’t easily manage

(a bit later the author continues) …I have never been a big fan of hope. It’s a demanding emotion that insists on changing you. Hope pulls you out of yourself and into the world, forcing you to believe more is possible. Hate is a much less insistent master; it asks you only to loathe. It is quite happy to have you to itself and doesn’t ask you to go anywhere.

Growing up poor provided me with plenty of opportunities to wallow in that much less complex feeling…

One of the 21st-century challenges that would seem to call for heaps of hope is climate change. Huge in scale, more complex and tangled than our minds can fully comprehend, it is also less tangible than the more immediate concerns of the century listed above. And if we’re all wallowing in Esau’s McCaulley’s easy grip of hate, with its polarization and division, it’s hard to imagine coping strategies that will get us where we need to be.

But some folks are trying. My daughter brought this post to my attention (thank you/good catch!): Why We Need Stories of Climate Optimism. The authors, Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, start out this way: how do we motivate large-scale collective action around a problem that is so complex, abstract, and vast in scale? One of the reasons it feels so impossible is that we have few stories of what a successful transition might look like. Even the most ardent champions of decarbonization sometimes focus more on sounding the alarm than on imagining and mapping out successful outcomes. Without positive climate futures, visions of climate adaptation and resilience that we can work toward, it’s much harder to motivate broad-based efforts for change in the present.

Scientific models and policy trench warfare are insufficient responses to the crisis [emphasis added]. We have to start with imagining our way through it first, and telling stories that inspire hope and action.

 (They then provide a handful of examples to illustrate their point, as well as provide links to their Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.)

An aside: depending on who you ask, you might conclude that hope and optimism are synonyms, or merely semantic cousins. The poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) makes this distinction: “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” The apostle Paul’s perspective in Romans seems to fit this: hope (in contrast to optimism) does not put us to shame (that is, “disappoint,” the verb used in other translations of the text). Optimism often turns out to be misplaced.

But back to climate change. One piece of the puzzle – K-12 climate change education – offers reason for hope.

(Really, Bill? That’s not what I’m hearing.)

You’re right. Currently, climate change education is not in a good state. The New York Times published a story a few months back entitled What Do American’s Middle Schools Teach About Climate Change? Not Much. Some excerpts:

Climate change is set to transform where students can live and what jobs they’ll do as adults. And yet, despite being one of the most important issues for young people, it appears only minimally in many state middle school science standards nationwide. Florida does not include the topic and Texas dedicates three bullet points to climate change in its 27 pages of standards. More than 40 states have adopted standards that include just one explicit reference to climate change…

…“Middle school is where these kids are starting to get their moral compass and to back that compass up with logic,” said Michael Padilla, a professor emeritus at Clemson University and a former president of the National Science Teachers Association. “So middle school is a classic opportunity to have more focus on climate change.”…

…For those who do receive formal instruction on climate change, it will most likely happen in middle school science classrooms. But many middle school standards don’t explicitly mention climate change, so it falls largely on teachers and individual school districts to find ways to integrate it into lessons, often working against the dual hurdles of limited time and inadequate support.

(the article cites the efforts of one such teacher, Bertha Vazquez, to find a workaround) Ms. Vazquez makes the state’s requirement that she teach energy transfer an opportunity to talk about how wind turbines work. The ecology requirement becomes a chance to discuss the consequences of deforestation.

(but then notes) …her commitment to the subject is not representative of how climate change is taught around the country. Around half of middle school science teachers either don’t cover the subject or spend less than two hours a year on it, according to a survey by the National Center for Science Education.

(still waiting for the hope, Bill).

Okay, here goes. In the spirit of Noam Chomsky’s observation, the science of climate change illuminates possibilities, creates an appetite for more. The science of climate, weather, and water is inherently interesting and serves as a gateway attracting young people to science more broadly. The stereotype of youth and young people is that they’re all about hope. Equally fundamentally, the population of the future, not the current population, will shape our planet’s outcomes. Especially in democracies, a public equipped to identify, evaluate and choose among options for action is a necessary condition for success. Education is inexpensive compared with the costs of rejiggering the way the world does business to make it more sustainable.

Importantly, education is local. This ensures that a diversity of approaches to the climate change challenge will emerge, rather than trending prematurely to some suboptimal but appealing path. It requires widespread participation, not just from educators and schools but from each and every parent, each and every home.

Rapid fire. Each of these ideas requires unpacking. The list isn’t complete by any means. But hopefully (!) it will prompt thought and a spurt of better ideas.

 A final point, stemming from my roots in the American Meteorological Society. The AMS not only has a lot at stake in K-12 climate education, but also a lot to offer. A national and international reach: members from every corner of the globe. Renowned peer-reviewed journals. Scientific conferences. A local footprint: Thousands of subject matter experts, as well as weather enthusiasts. Thousands of teachers. A rich history of weather-, climate-, and water-related educational resources produced by its Education Program. Hundreds of broadcast meteorologists to shine a spotlight on the issues, engage local publics, and more. Local chapters.

Noam Chomsky got us started today. Maybe he can bring us home: “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there is a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.”


[1]Rule number 1 for Biblical scholars is “never pull snippets of verse out of the greater context,” but that’s okay, because this is a blogpost, not Biblical scholarship, and because I’ve given you the link to Romans 5 in its entirety. You don’t have to stop there; the book of Romans makes interesting reading, and it’s not that long…

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