Living in the (Rabbit)-Hole-ocene

Go down the rabbit hole: 

To enter into a process or journey that is particularly strange, difficult, problematic, complex, or chaotic, especially one that becomes increasingly so as it develops or unfolds.

Geologists tell us that we’re living in the Holocene, which is the name they’ve given to this, the second epoch of the Quaternary period.  The Holocene covers the 12,000 years, give or take, since the last glacial epoch, the Pleistocene[1].

Some would say that human beings have defined a new epoch, the Anthropocene – the age of it’s all about-us. There’s a good case to be made for this. However, it just may be that the current epoch is actually morphing into something less:

The Rabbit-Hole-ocene.

This reality dawned on me during the morning’s commute to the office on the Metro. I’m old school, so each day I bring the home-delivered print edition of the Washington Post along to prepare me for the day. On the ride in, I read, in succession, that

  • The U.S. signaled intent to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change at the earliest possible moment (meaning the day after the 2020 presidential election)
  • California wildfires were knocking out the state’s air quality monitors, just when the air was approaching its smokiest
  • New Delhi is losing the battle against air pollution
  • Another forest “guardian” was killed amid the rising tensions over logging in the Brazilian Amazon
  • Bauxite mining would harm Ghana
  • Chocolatiers are fueling deforestation
  • California burns. Always has. Where there’s smoke, there’s California.
  • (from the science section) that physics only works if we supply a giant fudge factor, bringing in “dark matter” and “dark energy
  • (from Dogbert) that “dark matter” must be “stupidity” – and when Dilbert asks “why didn’t I see that,” Dogbert drives his argument home: “because you’re 85% dark matter.”
  • (and all this is just the job-relevant news, before I get to the Nats’ White House visit or Carolyn Hax’ always-lucid advice).

Yup. Each day’s world’s events, and their retelling, are strange, difficult, problematic, and complex on the face of things, and become even more so as we delve in.

Not just during the morning commute, but each and every hour of the day, you and I are confronted with a choice between keeping up with what eight billion people are doing while our backs are turned, or making our own contributions, while their backs are turned. Seeking to understand, vs. seeking to be understood. Balancing the two, especially when engaged in knowledge work, is problematic, almost existentially so. Getting it right matters!

That’s why I’m glad I also read this morning’s Washington Post articles on

  • The prevalence of worry in our society (who knew “GAD – generalized anxiety disorder – was a thing?)
  • The benefits of coffee (these articles on coffees effects appear frequently; as a six-cup-a-day-guy I hold my breath whenever I see such a headline; each time (so far) I’ve come away relieved if not reaffirmed.

To repeat: if we fail to immerse ourselves in news and social media of every stripe, we risk irrelevance in 21st-century society. But if we do nothing else, if we fail to make our own contribution to the general noise, we will lack utility.  Two quite different skills, traits. The former rewards those of us who are ADHD, and extroverted. The latter calls for focus and favors the introverts among our number.

Well, now I’m late, I’m late for a very important date. Gotta run – on to my day job, and its focus on the value of environmental intelligence.

(With a tip of the hat to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – who saw this all coming almost two centuries ago.)


[1] If you succumbed to the instinct to click on this link, you’ll agree we live in the Rabbit-Hole-ocene.

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Value and Worth.

The real world’s value doesn’t decrease based on our inability to see its worth. (paraphrase of an inspirational quote)

Most of us, as individuals and in community, are a bit preoccupied, and rightfully so, with our worth. Do we matter? Are our lives significant? What gives those lives meaning? Is my company, my NGO, my government, my university, our nation making a difference? These and other questions rule our thoughts and also our emotions. 

Hardly surprising that our moods can swing wildly up and down depending on the feedback we get from others. Hence the motivational posters: your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.

The reality? Each of us knows better than any outsider that we are daily falling short of our potential — and precisely how. We’re constantly striving to do better. Those outside critics are merely piling on – taking a break from contemplation of their own shortcomings to focus on our deficiencies.

That’s why criticism, however it might seem merited by those who offer it, is generally worse than useless. “Constructive criticism?” An almost negligible subset of the larger critical noise in our world. Essentially an oxymoron. (Encouragement? An entirely different matter – but a subject for another day.) 

My community – the gaggle of people developing environmental intelligence[1]– is no exception. We constantly assess the value of what we do. Historically, these self-assessments have been piecemeal, subjective, anecdotal, flawed. That may have been adequate to the need in past years. Natural resources were, for practical purposes, unlimited. Whether they were renewable or non-renewable mattered little. Our vulnerability to extremes was localized; there was little critical infrastructure to be affected. The environment was pristine; natural ecosystems were thriving alongside agriculture. And the costs of monitoring all this, with the rudimentary tools we had available, together with a bit of research, was a negligible fraction of government budgets and national economies.

But today, and going forward, the picture is different. Eight billion people are consuming resources at a per capita rate tenfold greater than our ancestors. Extremes of weather and climate are disrupting megacities, destroying economies, and displacing whole populations. Signs of habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity and environmental degradation are disturbing. What’s more, the trends in these respects are worrisome.

And at the same time the costs of monitoring – making the basic measurements and observations, assimilating the data, predicting immediate weather threats and assessing longer-term global changes, and factoring in the likely societal impacts – are themselves growing. 

Two ideas are emerging in this new landscape. The first is an awareness of ecosystem services

  • provision: of food, energy, water…
  • regulation: control of climate, disease…
  • support: of nutrient cycles, atmospheric oxygen, etc.
  • culture: spiritual, recreational benefits.

Unsurprisingly, monetized estimates for the value of these are rudimentary and these vary. They tend to fall in the $10T-$50T/year range. Researchers have also estimated that the value of such services are trending downward, in response to environmental degradation, at rates that would reduce the value by 50% in a few decades or even more rapidly.

A second, related notion is that of a so-called green GDP. This is, as the name applies, a recalculation of the usual GDP estimates factoring into account the environmental consequences of that economic activity (i.e., in economics-Speak, internalizing those externalities).

Even this barest of descriptions should make it obvious: the value of ecosystem services, and hence world GDP itself, will be increasingly dependent on policy: with respect to carbon emissions, solar- and wind energy development, land use and development, and much more. Economic growth will swing up or down depending on the extent that we formulate policies congruent with the way our planet works. What’s more, policies will allocate costs and benefits, determining winners and losers. And finally, policies can either foster or suppress innovation, directly, through funding of research and development, especially in the environmental sciences and related technologies, but also indirectly with respect to K-12 public education, especially STEM education. These realities hold not just for countries individually, but for their future prospects among the international community. Countries that get their policies right will gain in influence and their ability to lead and shape the destiny of the world as a whole. 

If ecosystem services and green GDP matter, then we need to get far better, rapidly, at keeping score. Thus the one policy that matters most in this future world is our policy with respect to environmental intelligence. Here, especially the race will be to the swift. We need to gain a predictive understanding of the coupled Earth-human system, one allowing us to shape a favorable destiny – versus a retrospective understanding, one that merely lets us see after the fact where we went wrong.

A couple of closing notes. The AMS 2020 Centennial Annual Meeting includes a presidential session Monday morning that will examine these issues: The Enterprise: Worth More Than You Think. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The issue is moving to center stage at relevant federal agencies, across academia, the private sector, and NGO’s (including AMS, Resources for the Future, and others). It has been and will continue to be the topic of conversation at AMS Annual Meetings, the Washington Forum, and the Summer Community Meeting for years to come.

The Enterprise is indeed worth more than you think.

BTW? so are you.


[1]The provision of observations, science and services based on weather, water, climate, and more.

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Stay in the fight.

Inside-the-Beltway Democrats and Republicans, making common cause.

(a bit bleary-eyed this morning – getting up at 4:50 a.m. after staying up until 12:15 a.m. watching the Nationals win Game Seven of the 2019 World Series. Hardly a sustainable lifestyle – but what a climax to a special season![1])

The Washington Nationals have some advice for those of us here in DC, those of us in the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise, or Earth Observations, Science, and Services, or in ____________ (fill in the name of the family or enterprise or institution or group with whom you self-identify here).  Or, for that matter, those of us here in the United States, or anywhere across the larger world:

Stay in the fight.

Like most good advice, this is general enough to allow broad interpretation – or, for that matter, misinterpretation.

Let’s start with the latter. There are nearly eight billion of us on the planet these days. And here’s the truth. Almost every single one of us, barring possibly the merest handful – wake up each morning and start the day hoping to make the world a better place.

We all share the same goal! And what better goal or happier circumstance could there be? But our work and our aspirations are dogged by tragedy:

Instead of embracing this wonderful reality, instead of seeing ourselves as embedded in the center of a similarly-minded, eight-billion-person support group, we think we are the tiniest minority of “the only (righteous) ones.”

In this misdirected frame of mind, we see the world as divided into us and others. We see those others as hostile to our work and goals. And we therefore see the fight as directed against those others. We divide up, take sides with respect to virtually every aspect of our lives: on the basis of politics, ethnicity, geography, gender, wealth, and values and spiritual beliefs. You name it – we can polarize ourselves on that basis. And in the process, the common, lofty goals we should be pursuing – equity, education, public health, prosperity, peace, stewardship of the planet, resilience to hazards, to list a few – fall by the wayside. We delude ourselves into thinking that shelving these larger, communal aspirations is only temporary, but after many days or months or even entire careers, if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that what we thought we were working on we’ve really been ignoring all along – in favor of “pushing back,” against any and every other, day in and day out.

So much for the misinterpretation of stay in the fight. What then, is the fight we’re in?

It’s the fight to be our best truest selves. To help see this, let’s go back to those Washington Nationals. Ask them, give them a chance to reflect, and they’d say the Houston Astros and the remaining 28 teams in major league baseball were not the enemy. They were the community – the family, the tribe, the Enterprise (whatever label you might choose). They might be the competitors on a given afternoon or evening, but without them there wouldn’t be a game, or an industry. No, the enemy was back pain, and sore arms, and muscle spasms, and general weariness accumulating over a 162-game, seven-month season. The enemy was flagging enthusiasm, and the temptation to lose focus – to go through the motions versus give the work its due, and to lose a daily sense of gratitude for the physical and mental gifts that allow them to compete on such a high level. The enemy was self-doubt, and feelings of personal inadequacy and comparative failure. The enemy was the predisposition to shortchange teambuilding and communication in the home locker room.

Now let’s bring this closer to home, to LOTRW readership. We’re in the business of sustainable natural resource development and use (think food, energy, water). We’re in the business of building community resilience in the face of natural extremes. We’re working to protect ecosystem services and prevent environmental degradation. But the enemy is not the climate-change denier. The enemy is not the Senator or Congressional Representative from the coal-mining state. The enemy is not the big-oil corporate executive, or the neighbor who owns the gas-guzzling SUV. The enemy is not the real-estate developer building in the floodplain. The enemy is not the Indonesian or the Brazilian farmer burning the rainforest; or the fisherman dynamiting the coral reef. The enemy is not the person of a different background or income level or sexual preference. No, these are just folks we haven’t gotten to know, and come to respect and befriend, just yet.

No, for us, the enemy is something else entirely. It’s our tendency to see environmental problems as the disease we must treat (requiring that we temporarily toss our relationships with each other aside) when instead we should see environmental problems as a symptom of dysfunction in our relationships. It’s that relational dysfunction we should fight.

Here’s a prediction: If we focus only on the symptoms (if we, say, attempt to reduce CO2 emissions by imposing draconian, clearly partisan policies) we’ll fail in that effort, while the bickering lives on. But if we focus instead on reducing that portion of society we call “enemies;” if we concentrate efforts on building relationships and trust across the whole of society, not just our tiny home turf; if we embrace diversity of every kind, and insist on equity and inclusion at every step, we’ll succeed as a species. We’ll not only solve the climate change problem, but a wide range of other societal challenges as well.

So today, let’s stay in the fight – the fight to be our best, most equitable, most inclusive selves.


[1] With the win, the Nationals joined elite company – the NHL Capitals and the WNBA Mystics – making D.C. the District of Champions.

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The Spirit of Elijah

Elijah Cummings 1951-2019

“Mr. President, you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing you and I need to do is figure out what we can do – what present can we bring to generations unborn?” –  Elijah Cummings (recently recalling a conversation with president Donald Trump)

This coming Thursday and Friday, the U.S. Congress will be memorializing and honoring Elijah Cummings, The Democratic Congressman from Maryland’s 7th District, who passed away on October 17, much too soon. The sense of loss is deep and widespread, evoking memories of last year’s loss of Senator John McCain and former president George Herbert Walker Bush.

As was the case with those two gentlemen, this week’s heartache is also non-partisan, coming from both sides of the aisle. This might seem surprising, given recent political turmoil and its escalation over the past month or so.  But today’s quote reveals the man’s heart and values – his sense of responsibility toward future generations, and his sense that politics was and is about service to the American people – a service shared equally by both Republicans and Democrats.

Elijah.

Most given names – say, Jane, or Donald, or Bill – leave a bit of mystery, raise questions about the choice, the motivation, the significance. Why that particular label? Was the naming after this or that historic figure, an entertainer, a special friend, or a family member? What message or encouragement were the parents giving to the child when they chose that name? To learn the answer, you and I have to ask. Every person bearing such a name will offer a different narrative.

But that’s not the case with Elijah. The reference leads directly or indirectly to a single figure, the prophet Elijah of the Old Testament. To see the narrative Mr. Cummings was encouraged to live out, the example he knew every day of his life he was supposed to follow, you have only to go back to  1st and 2nd Kings. (And what more fitting tribute could we pay the man than to read or re-read this story sometime over the next few days?)

The Elijah of the Bible led an extraordinary life, demonstrating at every turn the power of his God. He attracted disciples or followers along the way. One of them stood out among the rest – Elisha. Elisha was singularly devoted – not just learning from his master but caring for him in his latter days. In addition to those two concerns, Elisha also wondered, who would God choose to be Elijah’s successor? Where would his spirit rest? The Biblical account tells us that he witnessed Elijah being taken by God up to heaven. According to 2 Kings 2:14, he then tested God:

14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

Elisha got his answer.

In the same spirit, most if not all of us might today be asking Elijah Cummings’ question of ourselves:

what present can we bring to generations unborn?

Turns out, of course, that those amassing the environmental intelligence needed for sustainable use of natural resources, building resilience to hazards, and protecting the environment and ecosystems have one possible answer. We know what present we’re working to provide. We’re trying to meet Greta Thunberg’s plea on behalf of children everywhere – bequeathing them a world that is at least as functional, as inviting, as awe-inspiringly beautiful as the world we grew up in.  

A closing thought:

Even this side of heaven there’s widespread appreciation and gratitude for those who craft such presents. One concrete form of recognition? The so-called Sammies – the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America awards made annually to federal civil servants. The 2019 awardees recently announced include Jamie Rhome, of NOAA, who:

Created a new forecasting model and warning system that more accurately predicts the deadly storm surge caused by hurricanes, saving lives by alerting residents sooner of the approaching danger.

Mr. Rhome is not the first NOAA scientist to win such recognition. In 2008 Eddie Bernard was cited for his work in creating:

a tsunami detection system that has dramatically increased warning times and decreased the risk of catastrophic loss of life.

Both Mr. Rhome and Mr. Bernard were careful to emphasize that their NOAA work represented a team effort, sustained by collaboration of many individuals inside and outside of NOAA over a period of many years. Truth be told, those working to benefit future generations comprise thousands of NOAA employees. Civil servants at DoD, DoE, EPA, USGS, USDA, NASA, NSF, and myriad other agencies. Their partners in private industry and academia. The practitioners who illuminate and motivate their work. Not just in the United States but worldwide.

So, today, if you’re wondering “where is the spirit of Elijah?” – you have only to look inside yourself.

Someday soon – sooner than we expect – each of us will be dancing with (both) Elijahs and the angels.

In the meantime, let’s all keep up the good work.

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Takeaways from yesterday’s Global Climate Strike

Photos taken at the Global Climate Strike in London.

“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader[1]” – Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

Populism – a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups–is in the air. We see it threaded through today’s U.S. presidential campaigns, across Britain and other countries in the European Union, in Latin America, and elsewhere. Often in the implementation it’s a rhetorical tool cynically wielded by elitist leaders who drape themselves in its mantle as a means to snatching power. 

But sometimes populism appears in a purer form, as an (almost) spontaneous outpouring of concern. Something like that was demonstrated in yesterday’s Global Climate Strike. Millions of children in over one hundred countries worldwide ditched school and hit the streets to demonstrate their concern about climate change and to press the adult generation to act. What an extraordinary event! Eight takeaways:

1. The power of K-12 STEM education and critical thinking. The climate-change issue is complex, scientifically and socially challenging, and features shades of grey as opposed to black-and-white. The young people we all saw yesterday had to learn what they obviously know and articulated so well from somewhere. All you teachers  out there? Give yourselves a pat on the back. Your years of effort and dedication are paying off.

2. The clout of IT and social media. This critical infrastructure for so much of today’s living has emergent flaws that we debate daily (threats to privacy, contributions to the attention-deficit, trolling, fake news, and more). But yesterday it proved its mettle. Imagine pulling together the Global Climate Strike without IT and social networks. (The same could be said of recent protests in Hong Kong.)

3. The butterfly effect and the power of the individual. One year ago, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, began striking every Friday demanding climate action, virtually alone. Yesterday showed the first fruits (more is likely to come from this remarkable person in years ahead) of her commitment and perseverance (as memorably captured in these juxtaposed images). 

4. The nature of leadership and vision. As the Ledru-Rollins quote above reminds us, leadership is not about getting society to do a 1800 turn; instead, it starts with listening to people as they share their powerful but pre-existing concerns, finding the main notes and commonalities, giving those voice, and offering a framework for action. To the extent that leadership is about dreaming a dream and sharing it, then it is about dreaming a great dream, not an inconsequential one. By coincidence, yesterday’s news also drove home that point. An effort to mobilize yesterday’s “storming” of the secretive U.S. Area 51 (said to hold specimens and other proof of aliens) brought fewer than 200 people to the facility’s gates.

5. Parents and others of the older generation should beat themselves up. As younger people have forcefully reminded us, the Global Climate Strike was necessitated by our years of inaction in the face of this clear and present danger. Shame on us!

6. Parents and others of the older generation should congratulate themselves. Beat ourselves up? Not so fast! Why did the young people notice the problem? They heard the older generation talking about it. 

Who encouraged the young people to participate? Who helped them with the signage? Who ferried some of these young people to and from the marches and demonstrations? And whose dinner conversation over the years reinforced the concerns the kids were bringing home from school?  Whose efforts to recycle, buy high-mileage vehicles, and encourage vegan lifestyles showed young people by example how to walk the walk? Parents, join the teachers in giving yourselves a pat on the back.

7. Follow-through. It’s often said that climate change is a daunting problem because it is slow-onset. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s rapid onset compared with the time for eight billion people to reach agreement on what to do about it. Yesterday’s Global Climate Strike was a milestone in the world’s dialog. But it’s incumbent on all of us, young and old and everywhere in between to follow-through. One place to start is at the polls, to prove what politicians (a supremely intelligent lot) are already beginning to suspect:

8. Political leaders fail to get on board and in front of this issue at their peril. Enough said.


[1]Some attribute this quote to Mahatma Gandhi, but it seems to date back to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. For years, Jack Townsend, a deputy administrator of NOAA under Robert White, had this quote displayed in his office.

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An aspirational goal for the next administration: crafting a superbloom in the predictability desert?

Superbloom” by snowpeak is licensed under CC BY 2.0

(Yesterday’s LOTRW post introduced the subject of transition documents. Today’s post continues that train of thought.)


Yes, a superbloom is a thing. Of course it is! This is the 21st century, and we like to supersize everything, from our hamburgers to our storms. Let’s start with a factoid: in the southwestern United States, perhaps as many as 10,000 seeds can lie dormant in each square meter of desert (!!). Each seed patiently awaits the perfect set of moisture conditions – in short, enough for the plant not just to germinate, but for the resulting plant to live out its full life cycle and reproduce. When the needed conditions align, the result is a superbloom.

And yes, the predictability desert is also a thing. But it’s not a place. It’s a time gap. It separates the several-day horizons of weather forecasts and the decadal outlooks of long-term climate forecasts. Weather forecasts have improved as measurements of initial conditions have improved  with respect to global coverage, space and time resolution, and accuracy; as data assimilation has become more rigorous; and as numerical weather prediction (sheer computing power; computational methods; ensemble techniques, etc.) have advanced. Similarly, in recent years, climate forecasting on time scales of years to centuries have improved as the governing boundary conditions have been better characterized. But improvement in weather prediction on intermediate time scales – ranging from a few weeks to a few seasons or so – has lagged. Hence the emergence of the predictability desert.

There doesn’t seem to be a single missing piece to the puzzle. Rather it’s been widely recognized that a variety of improvements need to be stitched together to make progress. Here’s a list of research priorities the World Meteorological Organization published a few years back,

  • Understanding the mechanisms of subseasonal to seasonal predictability.
  • Evaluating the skill of subseasonal forecasts, including identifying windows of opportunity for increased forecast skill, with special emphasis on the associated high-impact weather events.
  • Understanding model physics and how well the important interaction processes in the Earth system are represented.
  • Comparing, verifying and testing multi-model combinations from these forecasts and quantifying their uncertainty.
  • Understanding systematic errors and biases in the subseasonal to seasonal forecast range.
  • Developing and evaluating approaches to integrate subseasonal to seasonal forecasts into applications.

The WMO buttressed that list with a few examples of processes that could improve predictability, if better incorporated into the NWP:

  • The Madden-Julian Oscillation: as the dominant mode of intraseasonal variability in the tropics that modulates organized convective activity, the Madden-Julian Oscillation has a considerable impact not only in the tropics, but also in the middle and high latitudes, and is considered as a major source of global predictability on the subseasonal time scale;
  • Soil moisture: inertial memory in soil moisture can last several weeks, which can influence the atmosphere through changes in evaporation and surface energy budget and can affect the forecast of air temperature and precipitation in certain areas during certain times of the year on intraseasonal time scales (e.g. Koster et al. 2010);
  • Snow cover: The radiative and thermal properties of widespread snow cover anomalies have the potential to modulate local and remote climate variability over monthly to seasonal time scales (e.g. Sobolowski et al. 2010);
  • Stratosphere-troposphere interaction: signals of changes in the polar vortex and the Northern Annular Mode/Arctic Oscillation (NAM/AO) are often seen to come from the stratosphere, with the anomalous tropospheric flow lasting up to about two months (Baldwin et al. 2003); and
  • Ocean conditions: anomalies in upper-ocean thermal structure, in particular sea-surface temperature, lead to changes in air-sea heat flux and convection, which affect atmospheric circulation. The tropical intraseasonal variability forecast skill is improved when a coupled model is used (e.g. Woolnough et al. 2007), while coupled modes of ocean-atmosphere interaction, including the El Niño–Southern Oscillation in particular, can yield substantial forecast skill even within the first month.

The problem is not a new one; it’s been recognized – and resisted efforts at improvement – for a while. This lack of progress matters. Good forecasts in this time range would support more effective agriculture, water resource management, and energy production and use; they could also reduce disaster impacts and improve public health. Benefits would not be confined to the United States but extend worldwide.

Good news! The time just might be right for such forecast improvement. Both the needed technological and political conditions seem to be aligning.

Start with technology. (1) New observing tools continue to come on line, promising to expand geographic coverage into currently under-monitored regions of the world (the oceans, polar latitudes, and the developing world), improve time resolution, and enrich diagnostic power and accuracy. (2) We stand on the threshold of exascale computing, the better to explicitly incorporate additional observations and physical processes into the models. (3) Artificial intelligence is poised to make significant contributions to data quality control and model interpretation, to tease out new connections that influence oceanic and atmospheric developments in sub-seasonal to seasonal time frame, and that translate these changes in environmental conditions into human impacts.

Then there’s the favorable politics. (1) Here in the United States, there’s bipartisan political support for more work on sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasts, as reflected in the Weather Research and Forecast Improvement Act of 2017 and in its subsequent reauthorization as part of the NIDIS 2018 reauthorization. (2) The World Meteorological Organization is emphasizing similar improvements as part of its Global Framework for Climate Services. (3) Observations and study of the oceans – a key piece of the puzzle – have been targeted for special attention by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which is launching a Decade of Ocean science for Sustainable Development.

Why dwell on this, and why entertain an approach to a transition document along these lines? Three arguments.

First, the transition document immediately becomes something more than mere pleading from a special interest group. It doesn’t look like a laundry list of policy priorities designed to make the Earth observations, science, and services community well. Instead, the focus is on a single grand national challenge – much like the Manhattan Project during World War II or the effort to put men on the moon during the 1960’s.

Second, the oasification (yes, that’s a thing, too) of the predictability desert will necessarily be most evident at the fringes. On the one end, it will reflect progress on, and at the same time contribute to other U.S. national initiatives on short term prediction such as EPIC. On the other, it will enable earlier detection of skill and flaws in longer-term climate predictions. Its influence will be felt across the entire spectrum of environmental intelligence and related security- and economic concerns.

Third, it’s impossible to contemplate such a venture without paying attention to a range of infrastructure needs facing our community, as detailed in transition documents from prior election cycles. Requirements for modern, more capable observations and computing infrastructure. Attention to workforce trends. Social science ranging from risk communication to economic valuation of the new products and services. But now these are seen for what they truly are – means to a larger, desired national end, versus ordinary welfare appeals.

Advancing seasonal-to-sub-seasonal forecasts provides just one example of a possible organizing goal; there are others. As our community looks ahead to articulating a vision for the next administration, it would be useful to hear your proposals and views.

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Tis the season… for developing transition documents.

We all know that Washington DC is the nation’s capital. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the capital city for non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), or civil society. Over 3000 non-profit associations are headquartered here; many other national associations operate DC offices. Close to one in ten private-sector employees in the area work for an association.

Associations swarm to DC for a simple reason. As diverse as they are, ranging from Africare (sustainable community development in Africa) to ZerotoThree (ensuring that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life[1]), they all want to make a better world. They all recognize that the United States government is a pivotal actor. To influence the leaders of that government – the Senators and Representatives in the Congress, and their staffers; the president and the political- and career- policy leadership of the federal agencies – is to magnify the NGO impact in like measure. (There’s also a flip side to this – to take the pulse of that government leadership, to sense trends and shifts in government direction and priorities early – allows NGO’s to inform and equip their members to be more effective in their daily work[2].)

This activity – both the gathering of information, and the advocacy and education – is of course year-round. The pace is relentless, and for the government leaders in question – the targets of all this advice, education, and pleading – the noise can be deafening. But the constant roar reaches a crescendo every four years, starting about now, with the approach of presidential elections.

That’s because the NGO’s, sensing a short-lived window for heightened influence, prepare transition documents. The motivations include a desire to highlight national opportunities or challenges, and to educate political parties on the needs facing the NGO’s interest community[3]. An aside: one of the decisions that must be faced early-on is whether to focus on a single political party, or make an appeal that’s targeted equally at both, and emphasizing tasks and responsibilities facing whomever wins election.

The American Meteorological Society participates in this quadrennial exercise. For each of us, this is the season to consider afresh: (1) our community-wide and institutional objectives; (2) how they tie to national and/or global interests; (3) and what actions need to be sustained and what new initiatives are needed. We also need to worry about (4) how to weigh-in effectively; that is, be noticed, and change minds. This latter is by no means trivial: how to craft a message that stands out amidst the horde of competing claims on policymaker attention? For those of us in Earth observations, science and services, or environmental intelligence, or the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise – however we self-identify – it’s not as simple as yelling-the-loudest, that is, relying on the sheer numbers of our constituency and its power as a voting bloc. That option is reserved for the bigger players: AARP, the NRA, United Way, et al. They can swagger into the political conversation saying we have millions of members whose swing votes make a difference. Our message has to be substantively compelling and appealing in articulation; we have to say here’s a good idea and if you make it your own you can bring voters of a broad range of other persuasions your way.

For most Americans, perhaps even most members of the American Meteorological Society, crafting transition documents might be viewed as at best a spectator sport – and an unappealing one at that. But for those interested, here are links to some transition material from 2016 and 2008 (so far as I can tell from my office records, neither AMS nor UCAR published a transition document in 2012; if you know otherwise, please let me know).  Front matter has been expunged but the full text of the recommendations for both documents are provided. This makes for a lengthy post but makes it easier to see the similarities and differences from the two documents. Please have a look. And if you have ideas, whether for a topic that should be included in a 2020 AMS transition document or policy statement, or a particular framing, or some principles to be followed, please make your views known. Send a comment, write an e-mail – find a way to get involved. Thanks.


Weather, Water, and Climate Priorities, an AMS policy statement from 2016

Recommendations.  Economic and social prosperity belong to a society that understands and effectively responds to Earth’s changing WWC conditions. To meet this challenge the following actions are required:

  1. Develop the Next Generation of WWC Experts.  To ensure we have a diverse workforce equipped to communicate uncertainties and inform WWC decisions, investments must continue to: (i) educate and train students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and (ii) develop the next generation of WWC researchers that can advance the science and its applications to meet society’s evolving information needs.
     
  2. Invest in Research Critical to Innovation and Advanced Services.  To ensure continued leadership in understanding our complex and changing planet and application of this understanding for the benefit of society, increased investments are needed to support new discoveries, innovation, applications, and model development in the geosciences, engineering, and relevant social sciences.   
  3. Invest in Critical Observations and Computing Infrastructure.  To ensure advances in scientific knowledge and more accurate and timely delivery of WWC products and support services at scales useful to decision-makers, and to preserve national security, targeted investments are required for: (i) atmosphere–ocean–land–ice observational infrastructure, (ii) techniques to translate the resulting large data sets into forms suitable for information services and prediction models, and (iii) leading-edge high-performance computers and software.
     
  4. Create Services that Harness Scientific Advances for Societal Benefit. To ensure society’s most pressing needs are met and its capabilities are optimally utilized, mechanisms for engaging users and moving research into practical applications in a timely and effective fashion must be encouraged, developed, and implemented.
     
  5. Prepare Informed WWC Information Users. To ensure we have informed users who can take full advantage of advanced WWC information and tools, education and communication programs must continue to focus on enhancing WWC skills and understanding by both decision-makers and society at large.
     
  6. Build Strong Partnerships Among WWC Public, Private, and Academic Sectors. These sectors have always worked together to meet America’s WWC challenges.  As the job grows more consequential, urgent, and complex, a coordinated Federal effort is needed to support, strengthen, and encourage strategic inter-sector partnerships, including efforts to increase the global suite of Earth observations, advance long-term stewardship of environmental data, and improve national and international community-level resilience to climate change and variability.
     
  7. Implement Effective Leadership and Management.  To ensure that WWC investments are made in the best interests of the nation, effective leadership and management approaches will be needed, including: (i) appointing strong, qualified, and diverse leaders to top WWC policy positions in the White House and Federal agencies, and (ii) implementing management structures that support integrated WWC research and services planning and budgeting across Federal agencies and the Congress. These structures should proactively engage the academic and private sectors.
     

Expected Outcomes and Conclusion.  Implementing these recommendations will better enable individuals, communities, businesses, and governments to manage risks and explore opportunities associated with changing WWC conditions. Economic and social prosperity will be enhanced, and further progress will be made toward saving lives, enhancing commerce, protecting property, and adapting to a changing world.  In so doing, our nation will advance its leadership in promoting technological innovations that are critical to the success and well-being of a global society.

Enabling National Weather and Climate Priorities, an AMS policy statement from 2008

1. Develop Leadership and Coordination. 

  1. Goal: Appoint key leaders and improve federal coordination.
  2. Action: The executive branch can and should make appointing strong, qualified leaders, especially to top policy positions, a continuing priority. Top NOAA and Commerce officials should be selected who can make strategic decisions relative to weather and climate issues. However, leaders in many other federal agencies, including but not limited to USDA, DHS, DoE, DoI, DoT, EPA, NASA, NSF, and the White House itself (OMB and OSTP) also play a critical part. An experienced and knowledgeable leader coordinating overall federal efforts should report directly to the President. The President’s Science Advisor would be an appropriate position for such a leader; the position would require an individual with a broad background in environmental science. Congress can call for such appointments, and exercise its powerful advise-and-consent and oversight role. For its part, the AMS community will recommend slates of qualified candidates for these positions and provide such lists to the new Administration.

2. Build Partnerships to Harness Scientific Advance for Societal Benefit.

  1. Goal:  Create public, private, and academic partnerships that can develop better approaches and tools to plan, prepare for, and cope with local and regional weather and climate impacts.
  2. Action: A decade ago, the United States undertook a national assessment of climate change impacts for various regions and societal sectors.  Congress can mandate the timely updates needed to track this rapidly evolving issue.The executive branch can make ongoing assessment a priority in accordance with this Congressional mandate, and augment and develop the tools and resources needed to (a) deal effectively with local and regional weather and climate impacts, and (b) evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation and adaptation plans and practice.  This process should begin with a national summit of key stakeholders (i.e., governors, emergency managers, and information users and providers from the public, private, and academic sectors) to define goals. The AMS community, itself a partnership comprising the public sector, private enterprise and academia,includes the application of science for societal benefit in its mission statement, and can bring to bear an extensive and growing network of companies and universities throughout the country — many of which already have relationships and projects with local and regional decision makers.

3. Improve Infrastructure and the Utility of Environmental Products and Services, Especially Forecasts. 

  1. Goal: Advance the quality, timeliness, geographical specificity, and socio-economic impact content of products and services.
  2. Action: Congress should continue support for ocean–atmospheric–terrestrial measurements and modeling of the Earth system, associated computing infrastructure, building the weather and climate workforce, understanding the socioeconomic impacts of weather and climate, and educating the public. Some very specific actions include federal investments and addressing the recommendations made in the recent National Research Council Earth Observation Decadal Survey. The executive branch should tighten interagency accountability and coordination with respect to development and use of the new capabilities. Congress and the executive branch should also work together to identify and develop the funding needed to support the coming new generation of operational polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, surface radar networks, and other key observing systems. The AMS community must harness these resources to improve products and services with the utmost urgency.

4. Ensure That New Understanding and Knowledge Will Be There When Needed.

  1. Goal: Ensure that the scientific understanding needed for tomorrow’s decisions is indeed available
  2. Action:  Congress should meaningfully augment funding for weather-and-climate basic research, and related social sciences, over decades. The executive branch should mount an immediate, high-level review of current agency work in these areas to prioritize allocations. Members of the AMS community will be largely responsible for implementing the new research and should identify and take concrete steps to accelerate, and report on, progress.

5.    Evaluate Progress and Make Needed Mid-Course Changes.

  1. Goal.  Create and/or exercise existing mechanisms to monitor progress on goals 1–4.
  2. ActionCongress should request that the executive branch report progress in addressing these priorities, and on their impacts with respect to national policy, on a regular and frequent basis. The AMS community should also help by developing and providing information for these reports.

To accomplish these actions will require increased levels of federal investment, sustained over decades. However, the return on such investments will far exceed the costs. By taking these actions, and by working together, Congress, the executive branch, and the AMS community can position the United States, and indeed other world nations, to cope effectively with weather and climate challenges well into the 21st century. By the same token, failure to take these actions will subject the United States to unnecessary and unacceptable risk in the face of hazards, business loss in weather-sensitive sectors of the economy, continuing deterioration of the environment and ecosystems, and increased political instability, both at home and abroad.



[1] Full disclosure: my daughter works there.

[2] Close to home, the American Institute of Physics (which numbers the American Meteorological Society among its members), puts out science policy news through FYI. E&ENews is another important source.

[3] As well as simple FOMO.

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Critical thinking versus criticism thinking

Critical thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.


Google the expression critical thinking, and this definition pops up. Of course it’s accompanied by a rich set of other entries on the subject. From Wikipedia we find material like the following:

Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgement. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

Scientists (and I am one) tend to hold critical thinking in high regard; often it’s tied to ideas of evidence-based thinking, systematic study through observation and experiment; occasionally notions of logic and mathematical analysis get thrown in. Scientists are encouraged to be the severest critics of their own work, and the peer-review process is essentially one that begins and ends with critique. It happens to be Peer Review Week (who knew?); you can find a bit more on this topic on the AMS blog, The Front Page.

But to read the newspaper (old school), as I did this morning on the Metro, or to go online and access social media, is to realize that the term has been misappropriated. The larger society frequently settles on something else.  For want of a better description, let’s call it

Criticism thinking:  the objective analysis and evaluation of a person in order to form a judgment.

As a society, as a species, we seem to be equally interested, if not much more interested, in fixing blame as we are in fixing problems. It seems that sooner or later, anyone and everyone who’s in the spotlight, who holds any sort or degree of responsibility, finds his or her decisions and actions first under intense scrutiny, and then as the shortcomings emerge (and they’ll always emerge), being criticized. Not long after, the focus of criticism becomes the character flaws of the person himself or herself. We’re not satisfied until we can bring the political or business leader, the athlete, the celebrity, the wealthy, down to our level. And we all fall short! So ad hominem attacks are low-hanging fruit.

Institutions are similarly vulnerable.

In meteorology, Hurricane Dorian is the most recent case in point. As of this morning, the death toll stands at 50 or so; more than 1000 people are still missing. Abaco islands and Grand Bahama look as if they’ve been hit by a bomb. Recovery will take years – a lifetime for many of those directly affected. But there’s just as much ink (old school again) or electrons (virtual media) devoted to fixing the blame (for hiccups in what was basically an excellent forecast/warning process) as opposed to attention to the larger and more consequential issues of weather readiness: what actions could accelerate short- and long-term recovery; how to improve resilience, reduce vulnerability, especially on tropical island nations; how to address the links between vulnerability and poverty, etc.?

But Dorian’s only one example of many. We face many other natural hazards: cycles of flood and drought, for example. We also confront natural resource concerns: meeting the food, water, and energy needs of eight billion people. Loss of habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystem services challenge us globally – by their respective names as well as the umbrella concern of climate change. In every instance, people are putting forward ideas – notional solutions. But we’re paying more than equal attention to finding fault – initially with the proposals themselves, but then quickly with the proposers whose suggestion different from our own. The poisonous polarization of the climate change dialog comes to mind. By the way, to think critically is to acknowledge that scientists display this same character trait pretty much to the same degree as the larger society.

Perhaps this misappropriation arises in part because of an Achilles heel in the above definition of critical thinking. It’s couched in terms of “an issue,” remaining silent on whether that issue matters. Perhaps critical thinking ought to read something more like

Critical thinking: the identification of salient issues, and their objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgment.

When it comes to misappropriation, it helps to know that science and scientists and other critical thinkers are not alone. Other terms, such as religion, have been hijacked in the same way. We’re quick to see the shortcomings of people who self-identify as people of this or that faith (they don’t practice what they preach), rather than examining the larger ideals and values that are on offer.

Diiferent faith traditions actually recognize this aspect of human nature early on. Take, for example, the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden, as found in the book of Genesis. We’re told that Adam and Eve, the first human beings, made a choice for the ages, one that still pretty accurately defines what it means to be human:

We’d rather be able to distinguish good and evil than live forever[1].

(Wow. Really? Let that sink in.)

Whether we think the account was divinely inspired or a purely human invention, we have to admit the authors had our basic character pegged.

Too bad Adam and Eve didn’t first stumble across the tree-of-the-knowledge-of-status-quo-and-how-we-can-work-together-to-improve-things. Fortunately, nothing’s stopping us from doing that today. To the extent possible, let’s forget about the blame and fix the problems – together.


[1]Genesis 2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

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AMS at 100: core values for tomorrow.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” – Robert Frost

An earlier LOTRW post called attention to an updated set of strategic goals and core values the American Meteorological Society has promulgated in observance of its 100th year. That same LOTRW post hinted at a planned deeper dive.

That was July 11th.

It’s now two months later[1]. In the interim, Hurricane Dorian, the NOAA predictions, and related White House actions have provided us a stress test of those AMS core values and strategic goals.

Let’s have a look. Here are the

AMS CORE VALUES

  • We value the integrity of science and the scientific process.
  • We believe that a diverse, inclusive, and respectful community is essential for our science.
  • We believe that decisions affecting society should be made in a transparent, evidence-based manner.
  • We are committed to excellence, relevance, and agility in all our activities.

Unassailable. Timeless.

But perhaps too tidy to always be of material help for those of us living on the real world, which is constantly evolving, at times to the point of being dynamic, turbulent, even chaotic.

For example, formulations like this tend to frame the values as distinct and separable. This might be approximately true in circumstances where the weather is calm or benign, and where society is stable. People in positions both high and low have the time, energy, and margin to more-or-less think and behave in conformity to each core value. Good behavior can be sought, and improved upon, in isolation. Progress in one respect doesn’t lead to problems in another. Scientists of a certain stripe might call such a regime linear.

But extremes – hurricanes, tornadoes, flood and drought – are by nature nonlinear, integrative events. In these weather circumstances the constraints and guiding principles embodied in the core values can no longer be separated in some tidy fashion. They start to run together, and sometimes exaggerate, sometimes interfere with each other. Similarly, the world’s societies themselves are by no means stable. Eight billion people rubbing shoulders lead not just to bruises but bruised feelings, to irritation that can grow into distrust and lead into exploitation and disenfranchisement (and ultimately even into hate, terrorism, and war). And natural hazards further aggravate these pre-existing problems.

Dorian provides a recent and poignant illustration. As the hurricane approached first the Bahamas, and then the U.S. coast, all of these core values were tested, perhaps even thrown out the window. What’s more, Dorian revealed that past performance with respect to the core values hadn’t been nearly adequate. Those on Abaco or Grand Bahama were forcefully reminded of a history of ramshackle construction and the ratcheting build-up of inequity and vulnerability over years that had suddenly found them exposed to injury, suffering, economic loss, and even death. As for the Weather Enterprise, those in NOAA who’d done such a great job of forecasting the storm track and guiding national and international emergency response discovered their vulnerability to political attack, not originating from somewhere in the external world, but from the White House itself.

The experience raises questions, and it hints at deeper truths.

The questions. Are the AMS core values self-consistent when times are turbulent? Compare, for example, values of agility and relevance with transparency. Is today’s rapid pace and extent of events at hurricane landfall compatible with transparency? Just how transparent can decisions and actions be under such circumstances?

Do these values merely express our expectations of our AMS community (or tribe, or the Weather Enterprise) and how we engage with each other internally? Or do they refer to our expectations of how we expect to engage with and want the larger world to work? Since the values speak of relevance and decisions affecting society, the meaning tends toward the latter interpretation. But the larger society is a vast arena where we have little control and can only hope to offer leadership by example. And though our community is itself growing more diverse, it’s nowhere near so diverse as the outside world with its mix of different cultures and backgrounds. That larger society includes many members who’d say if asked that they don’t hold much truck with what our community calls scientific integrity or evidence-based process. And yet we value respect. As a practical matter, what does it mean to respect people holding those views?  

 The deeper truths. These questions (and countless others; we’re only scratching the surface here) quickly point us to a deeper set of core values. Expressions of these would vary (after all, we’re diverse and inclusive), but would include notions such as:

  • Love.
  • Forgiveness/mercy/grace.
  • Trust.
  • Commitment to each other and relationship.

Considered in the abstract, these might seem to many minds as far too fuzzy and abstract. Contemplated during the real world’s beguiling but sporadic linear moments, they might be viewed as so vague as to be useless. But in light of Dorian, the way it’s forever changed the lives and prospects of those in its path, and the resulting political and media storm here in the United States, their vital meaning becomes clear. Consider this joint community message from the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association:

September 12, 2019

The past few days have been unprecedented for the weather community. As much as we dedicate our professions to societal resilience, this week we have proven our own resilience. We come out of this past week with one wonderful piece of evidence: we in the weather community are a tightly knit group whose camaraderie transcends the boundaries of a standard professional group. We have studied, trained and worked together for more years of our lives than not. We have shared life events together and been by each other’s side through weddings, births, and losing loved ones. We have a shared interest, passion, and mission to help save lives and understand this remarkable natural phenomenon of weather. We have a shared pride in our work because we know we are making a difference and we do it with honor and integrity. So it’s no surprise that this past week has been an emotional one for everyone. From the top ranks to the bottom, we all feel pain when this community is hurt. In many ways, we are a true professional family and that relationship was tested this week. Yet we prevailed. Issues will come and go but the dedication of this group is long lasting; the dedication to both our profession and each other. It has been heartwarming to see the sincerity, respect, and forgiveness that many in our community have shown and it proves we are, indeed, resilient and have a long future ahead together. -American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association.

A clear expression of love, forgiveness, trust, and commitment to relationship. Needed in these times. Well and truly said.


[1] Lesson learned: In the future, instead of promising or even hinting in a given LOTRW post that in the next post or sometime soon I’ll revisit a topic or theme – I’ll just waterboard myself, or lie in a bed of scorpions, or ask readers to inflict their preferred forms of torture. No matter how copious or obvious the raw material looks for future posts, no sooner do I commit, than any shred of insight vanishes; every bit of enthusiasm flees, every last vestige of the joy of writing is sucked out of me. I experience the dreaded writer’s block .

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Scientific Integrity? Simple and easy – until it isn’t.

This morning’s print edition of the Washington Post ran an op-ed authored by some former NOAA leaders who know their stuff – Jane Lubchenco, D. James Baker, and Kathryn D. Sullivan. The three joined forces to inveigh against political interference with weather forecasters. You can find the full on-line version here. They open this way:

Monday brought the welcome news that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration career leaders are pushing back against political interference with weather forecasts. Craig McLean, the acting chief scientist , is investigating the agency’s apparent attempts to defend President Trump’s inaccurate statements about the danger to Alabama from Hurricane Dorian. And another career civil servant, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, publicly defended the “integrity of the forecasting process.”

Weather forecasting should never be political. The National Weather Service, an agency within NOAA, issues forecasts and warnings that are based on science and focused squarely on public safety. For more than a century, the agency has played a vital role in protecting the lives and property of Americans across the country

They go on to describe the recent breach in this observance, occurring as Hurricane Dorian’s path took it over the Bahamas and sideswiped the U.S. coast, and in the days since. Their perspective merits a thorough read. And if interested, readers can find the broader context as well as fuller details of the political interference and pushback here[1] and discussion of just why and how such interference is problematic here.

A few observations:

1. The instant political interference with science begins, the distinction between “right” and “wrong” no longer remains simple. However tempting it is to assign a label of “good” or “bad” to every player, such tags need to be replaced with “shades of grey.” That’s because the basic operating premise of the civilian executive branch is similar to that of the military: legitimacy flows from a single central authority. It’s not like the legislative branch, where authority is distributed[2] across multiple, independent centers. This means that whenever an improper order comes from above, the only choice available to those in the leadership/management chain, whether they be political-appointees or career employees, is a choice among the illegitimacy of the particular act, or the illegitimacy of breaking the chain of authority: essentially lose-lose. A third option – resignation – creates additional negative repercussions throughout the agency that must be factored into any incumbent’s decision. Resignation can as easily be an act of cowardice as an act of courage. What’s more, civilian leaders have few standardized, thought-through guidelines on which to rely. Ethical attention given scientific integrity at an institutional level (as opposed to the personal level) is far less extensive than say, the thought and consideration given to war crimes – actions deemed illegitimate even in the chaos of armed combat, as articulated in the Geneva Convention and elsewhere.

Support for the bench-level forecasters (in this case the Birmingham Forecast Office) is an easy call. At the same time would-be critics might be more measured and deliberate before assigning blame to leadership, even at very high levels. To the extent leaders are struggling, it may well be because the challenge they face is monumental and complicated, not because they’re any less high-minded than the rest of us.  

2. The threat to the integrity of NOAA science is nothing new on the current US political landscape; rather, it’s simply NOAA’s turn. For over two years now, the United States has seen political pressure across government science agencies, most notably EPA, but extending to DoE and NSF (climate research); USDA (wholesale relocation of USDA scientists), and Department of Interior, to name just a few. Until this latest dustup, NOAA scientists had thought they’d seen less interference than at other agencies; now they’re simply “one of the crowd.”

3. Commander-in-Chief versus Scientist-in-Chief[3]? The real-world experience with the former is extensive, and includes considerable attention to civilians encumbering such a role. This is generally accepted practice across nations of the world. With the latter, there’s less to go on. One might think that natural because the stakes of warfare are higher. But consider the example of Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor to the presidency of the Union of South Africa. By inserting himself into the country’s policy response to the AIDS epidemic – and denying his people access to retroviral therapies – he made himself responsible for an estimated 350,000-400,000 excess deaths out of a population less than 20 million. This is a toll comparable to that of any nation’s war losses. Any attempt by a national leader to take control directly and unilaterally over even a single field of science unaided by expert advisers should be cause for concern. But for a leader to exert such individual control cavalierly across not just one but several branches of science, and for that to happen in the United States, a leader of the free world, and on globally-important challenges such as climate change, is reckless.


[1]Full disclosure: You’ll quickly find this link doesn’t take you to a single source, but rather sets you afloat on an ocean of links. Each in turn leads to yet other sites. The particulars of the various accounts can differ, sometimes significantly, and the emerging story line and identification of heroes and villains will vary from path to path. The world may move on, so that the story dies down, or it may stay alive and clarify as new information comes to light.  

[2] or is supposed to reside; these days there are some real questions about how well the legislative piece is working – whether the Congress itself is independent from the executive, and the extent to which members of Congress can realistically exercise independent agency in the face of party political pressures.

[3] Not to be confused with Chief Scientist, a common role in the C-suite of many tech companies and government agencies.

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