“Human flight” on the 21st-century Real World? 2. Think like the Wright brothers, not like Samuel Langley.

everything under control

Wilbur and Orville Wright lived at a time in history when inventors of every stripe were feverishly building flying machines. Americans were particularly focused on the efforts of Samuel Langley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It was widely assumed that he and the Smithsonian, with their relatively large financial and intellectual resources, would win the world’s race – would be the first to achieve powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. (This despite several publicly-visible failed attempts; surely the Langley effort would ultimately win out.)

the Langley failure, nine days prior to the Wright brothers success

The key technology enabling the buzz – the widely-held optimism that the 1900’s would prove to be the historic moment – was the newly-developed internal combustion engine. Langley, the Smithsonian, indeed all active competitors for the prize and their sea of spectators, were keenly aware of the challenge to maximize the power output while minimizing engine weight.

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers were working in relative obscurity, supported by the income from their Ohio bicycle shop. They recognized the power-weight problem, but focused on an additional challenge – the control of the aircraft. One source puts it this way:

The Wrights appear to be the first to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve the power and control problems. Both problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest. They solved the control problem by inventing wing warping for roll control, combined with simultaneous yaw control with a steerable rear rudder. Almost as an afterthought, they designed and built a low-powered internal combustion engine. They also designed and carved wooden propellers that were more efficient than any before, enabling them to gain adequate performance from their low engine power. Although wing-warping as a means of lateral control was used only briefly during the early history of aviation, the principle of combining lateral control in combination with a rudder was a key advance in aircraft control. While many aviation pioneers appeared to leave safety largely to chance, the Wrights’ design was greatly influenced by the need to teach themselves to fly without unreasonable risk to life and limb, by surviving crashes. This emphasis, as well as low engine power, was the reason for low flying speed and for taking off in a head wind. Performance, rather than safety, was the reason for the rear-heavy design, because the canard could not be highly loaded; anhedral wings were less affected by crosswinds and were consistent with the low yaw stability.

The Wright brothers would continue to work on aircraft-control for the remainder of their lives.

Which brings us to “human flight” on the Real World. You and I might prefer not to think of this as “flight,” but by whatever name our generation is living-out a great human transition – from happy-go-lucky living, to active management of the Earth’s surface, oceans, and atmosphere. The challenge going forward is whether we and our descendants intentionally shoulder this responsibility and carry it out well.

One way to approach the problem might be to apply technology to the threefold task of meeting resource needs, coping with hazards, and minimizing pollution. Ultimately, we might feed our (now slowly) growing numbers by “3-D printing” of food – using growing understanding of fundamental biology to manufacture food wholly artificially. We could apply other technology to desalinate seawater at massive scale. To power both these advances, we would deploy renewable energy as required. We would build resilience to natural extremes through better design and construction of buildings and critical infrastructure. We could continue to add energy capacity to minimize pollution and environmental degradation.

This is arguably the path we are on[1]. It is brute force. It seeks to make nature irrelevant. But so long as we can minimally get-along with our neighbors in the process, controlling warfare, terrorism, cyber-attacks, etc. (an admittedly big “if”), this approach can “succeed.”

This might be called the Langley approach (with apologies to the great man).

At the other end of the spectrum, we could balance such technology efforts with additional innovation in an entirely different and complementary direction –accelerating our understanding of how the Earth’s natural systems are interconnected and work together, and harnessing this knowledge to maintain Earth’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and function to the extent possible while moving to sustainability.

In short, a bit more emphasis on planetary stewardship and control. Let’s label this the Wright brothers approach[2].

(Others have suggested different terms to describe these two futures: for example, the technocene and the symbiocene. Some might consider the former too harsh; others might see the latter too flowery.)

A closing thought. You and I will not live to see any final, steady-state Langley- or Wright-brothers future scenario. Our entire careers will be spent transiting from where we are today to that future state. All the while we’ll be asked to make weather, water, and climate forecasts on every time scale, as best we can. Year after year, we’ll be daily providing impact-based decision support services – of ever-increasing consequence. (A reality that recent experience with weather extremes worldwide drives home.) But history will judge us not so much by any of this day-to-day work. Instead, future generations will ask how we helped make it possible for them to manage the planet wisely and sustainably.

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[1]A possible answer to the LOTRW masthead question: what kind of world is likely if we take no action?

[2] A possible answer to one or both of the LOTRW masthead questions: what kind of world do we want? Or, What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

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“Human flight” on the 21st-century Real World? 1. The cockpit dialog.

Seven billion of us are co-piloting a 1.317 × 1025-lb, unpressurized, open-air planet through the hostile environment of space.

You might not be impressed with this reality. You might even be tempted to dismiss it as no more than a flawed and unhelpful metaphor.

But it’s a perspective that we need to embrace. Easier said than done! For most of us, glued to the LED-laptop screen embedded in the virtual reality that is today’s artificially-lit, temperature-controlled, urban office, several degrees-of-separation removed from the planet we live on let alone the larger universe, it’s hard to get in touch with such an idea. A chaotic jumble of urgent demands and seductive distractions make it tough to focus.

To pursue the flight analogy a bit further: the National Transportation Safety Board tells us that regardless of the flight equipment, the safer flight cockpits are those that tend toward the egalitarian, where communications are good, flightcrew members are on the same page, and everyone maintains focus and situational awareness. The more dangerous cockpits are those with top-down hierarchies, and where flightcrews are distracted and fail to work together:

Crew resource management (CRM) training is designed to improve crew coordination, resource allocation, and error management in the cockpit.  CRM training augments technical training, enhances pilots’ performance, and encourages all flightcrew members to identify and assertively announce potential problems by focusing on situational awareness, communications skills, teamwork, task allocation, and decision-making within a comprehensive framework of standard operating procedures.  Two aviation tragedies provide noteworthy examples of what can go wrong when flightcrews fail to work together.  The deadliest aviation accident in history, the 1977 collision of 2 B-747s on Tenerife, Canary Islands, in part occurred because the co-pilot and engineer failed to challenge the captain’s decision to initiate takeoff before confirming that the runway was clear.  In the 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 accident, which killed 78 people, the NTSB cited the captain’s failure to reject the takeoff during the early stage when his attention was called to anomalous engine instrument readings…

 Of course, co-piloting planet Earth is more like co-piloting a hot-air balloon, with minimal control over where the balloon is going (except up-and-down, and the incidental impact of that on direction and speed of travel). It’s not the same as co-piloting in what engineers refer to as aerodynamic flight. It’s primarily control only of conditions onboard[1].

But now let’s ask ourselves: what kind of flightcrew are we? First off, to repeat, no one of us is a mere passenger. We’re each crew members, in the sense that our individual actions influence conditions onboard: resource consumption; resilience vs. vulnerability to hazards; the rate at which entropy and pollution increase. We have agency. What’s more, we can’t opt out. We own a bit of responsibility.

Second, we’re distracted – essentially oblivious – with respect to “flight operations.” And few are thinking long-term. One billion-plus people eke out a hard-scrabble existence and struggle day in and day out to meet basic needs of water, food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their children over the next twenty-four hours. Several billions more are better off, but only slightly – living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep jobs, maintain a problematic web of family and social relationships, living in an urban world offering little direct evidence of trends in planetary conditions.

Third, we’re hierarchial, operating under a high degree of top-down command-and-control. A small minority of the seven billion – the world’s leaders – are in this analogy, true pilots – not mere co-pilots. Their number includes monarchs, political and business leaders, the rich and super-rich. Their perspectives, though nominally different from yours and mine, are similarly short-term and often self-interested. Pilot-status is inherently fleeting and under incessant threat; in our king-of-the-hill world these favored few find the free-for-all to maintain their favored positions breathtakingly relentless and time-consuming, leaving little margin for addressing longer-term issues or the larger good.

Lastly, we’re not just distracted and hierarchial, we’re squabbling, struggling to like each other or even politely get along. This is true at every level – globally and internationally, within-country, down to states and localities, and across private industry. It’s not that we don’t all see eye to eye. That’s a strength – we don’t share the same blind spots. But we find it increasingly difficult to work through these differences to find needed consensus and wisdom.

Hmm. The NTSB would say our cockpit is dangerous one – likely to prove unsafe when under threat.

Nevertheless, in this problematic cockpit environment, a handful of the co-pilots have mounted a structured look at Earth’s situation, sustained over several decades. They have identified a set of proximate threats under the label of climate change. Along the way, they’ve been attempting to get the attention of the rest of the flight crew, with some success.

Of course this refers to the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Most recently, they’ve put out an IPCC special reporton the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.” The wide media coverage notes that the latest IPCC conclusions are both new and yet similar to previous findings. Here’s a sample of the reporting, this from Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis in The Washington Post:

The world stands on the brink of failure when it comes to holding global warming to moderate levels, and nations will need to take “unprecedented” actions to cut their carbon emissions over the next decade, according to a landmark report by the top scientific body studying climate change.

With global emissions showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before, the group found.

“There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy, transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement[2]

…Meanwhile, the report clearly documents that a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would be very damaging and that 2 degrees — which used to be considered a reasonable goal — could approach intolerable in parts of the world.

 …Specifically, the document finds that instabilities in Antarctica and Greenland, which could usher in sea-level rise measured in feet rather than inches, “could be triggered around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming.” Moreover, the total loss of tropical coral reefs is at stake because 70 to 90 percent are expected to vanish at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report finds. At 2 degrees, that number grows to more than 99 percent.

The report found that holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could save an Alaska-size area of the Arctic from permafrost thaw, muting a feedback loop that could lead to still more global emissions. The occurrence of entirely ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean goes from one per century to one per decade between 1.5 and 2 degrees, it found — one of many ways in which the mere half a degree has large real-world consequences.

Risks of extreme heat and weather events just rise and rise as temperatures do, meaning these would be worse worldwide the more it warms.

To avoid that, in barely more than 10 years, the world’s percentage of electricity from renewables such as solar and wind power would have to jump from the current 24 percent to something more like 50 or 60 percent. Coal and gas plants that remain in operation would need to be equipped with technologies, collectively called carbon capture and storage (CCS), that prevent them from emitting carbon dioxide into the air and instead funnel it to be buried underground. By 2050, most coal plants would shut down.

Cars and other forms of transportation, meanwhile, would need to be shifting strongly toward being electrified, powered by these same renewable energy sources. At present, transportation is far behind the power sector in the shift to low-carbon fuel sources. Right now, according to the International Energy Agency, only 4 percent of road transportation is powered by renewable fuels, and the agency has projected only a 1 percent increase by 2022.

Sobering.

IPCC scientists have won over the thinking of a larger group – but that still leaves a large fraction of the co-pilots too preoccupied with the short-term to take effective action – or maybe even to notice or care.

Moreover, the response from world leaders – the pilots – has been varied. For a leader to acknowledge that (1) climate change is real, (2) largely of human origin, and (3) poses great risks implies he/she publicly shoulders responsibility to formulate a response and act. Unsurprisingly, some pilot/leaders find it convenient to deny one or more of these features of climate change in favor of maintaining some short-term status quo. They say, for example, that climate change might reverse itself. Alternatively or additionally, some of these same leaders raise a hypothetical specter of losses of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. As the NTSB reminds us, in a hierarchial world, leadership failure to come to grips with reality contributes disproportionately to the danger facing the crew as a whole.

(At the opposite end of the spectrum, other leaders, bringing their countries in train, are moving to embrace renewable energy[3], or invest in afforestation[4]. Coincidentally, these two countries happen to be experiencing above –average economic growth.)

Okay! Deep breath! In this existential Earth-piloting moment, what can and should you and I do? In short, continue to be, and/or improve our performance as flightcrew members, as judged by the NTSB metric. Focus on doing our bit, in place, to slow global temperature rise. Respect existing hierarchy, but don’t exacerbate it; respectfully push back in the up-direction as external events dictate, while not demanding special deference from others. We need to be sinks for squabbling, not sources. To build consensus, not win debates, should be our aim.

Want to see a good example of this approach in action? Check out the American Meteorological Society take.

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[1] Those conditions do matter to the safety of the balloons and their occupants..

[2] This lack of successful precedent combined with the sheer technical challenges involved prompts some to say that the battle is indeed lost.

[3]According to the Global Wind Energy Council, China has one-third of the world’s wind energy power, and is rapidly adding more; the United States has about half of the Chinese figure.

[4] In Pakistan, an ambitious effort to plant 10 billion trees takes root.

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Public-private partnerships and innovation.

Two weeks ago, Andy Miller of our group here in the AMS Policy Program DC office suggested we should all give a listen to Freakonomics radio episode #348, dated 9/6/18. What great advice! So, paying it forward. We all should want to listen and learn.

Perhaps a couple of snippets from the transcript of the interview will whet your appetite:

We all know the standard story: our economy would be more dynamic if only the government would get out of the way. The economist Mariana Mazzucato says we’ve got that story backward. She argues that the government, by funding so much early-stage research, is hugely responsible for big successes in tech, pharma, energy, and more. But the government also does a terrible job in claiming credit — and, more important, getting a return on its investment…

Mazzucato’s latest book is called The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. When it comes to the relationship between government and economic growth, Mazzucato knows how the popular narrative goes. It goes like this:

MAZZUCATO: “My God! The government, what a basket case. A group of bureaucrats. They don’t know what they’re doing!”

But she sees it differently:

MAZZUCATO: You know, what would Uber be without GPS, publicly financed? What would Google be without the Internet, publicly financed? 

Today on Freakonomics Radio: in the modern economy, are governments the ones who are getting a raw deal?

MAZZUCATO: Today, all the discussion is about getting the state out of the way, completely ignoring the fact that these government investments were critical for innovation to happen.

And, when you look at big, rich sectors of the economy like finance and pharmaceuticals — how much value are they really creating?

MAZZUCATO: We have to make it much more difficult for different actors in the economy to call themselves wealth creators without really being asked, “Well, are you, or are you not?”…

So to someone who says,“Free markets are almost always good, and governments are almost always bad,” you say what?

MAZZUCATO: The first is,“What do you mean by the free market?” And it’s curious, if you read Adam Smith, one of the first economists back in the late 1700’s, he actually meant by the word “free market” not free from the state, but free from rent-seeking, free from those activities that extract value. So what I say to those who say that we need less state in order to be more innovative, more dynamic, I say, “Let’s look at one of the most innovative parts of the U.S. economy, which is Silicon Valley. Did that come from the free market or from an active, visible hand: the state?” My point is, actually, the state was involved in almost everything in Silicon Valley. Not to exclude the role of the private sector, of course — we all know the very important companies in that area. But the role that public actors played was really across the whole innovation chain.

DUBNER: Now we’re talking about agencies like DARPA and NASA and the National Institutes of Health and so on, yes?

MAZZUCATO: Exactly. I’m talking about both agencies that do basic research like the National Science Foundation. But also agencies more downstream, doing applied research like DARPA but also its sister organization, in more recent times, called ARPA-E. The National Institutes of Health, which continue to spend more than $30 billion a year in the most radical, uncertain, high-risk research.

Hopefully, at this point you want to read, hear, and learn more. With any luck, you’re also seeing connections to the public-private partnership that lies at the foundation of the Weather Enterprise. One aspect of this partnership familiar to LOTRW readers is the routine, day-to-day collaboration that develops meteorological intelligence and delivers that intelligence to the multiple publics who need it. Hurricane Florence provides a recent case-in-point. Public agencies and the private-sector were jointly responsible for collecting the observations, doing the numerical weather prediction, and disseminating the information. Emergency managers and public officials communicated risk and desired actions to the general public. State Departments of Transportation temporarily reconfigured roadways to speed evacuation. Utility operators – the power companies, water and sewage managers, and others, took measures to reduce disruption of vital services and speed restoration of service as the hazard passed. State and federal environmental protection agencies looked at special problems posed by hog lagoons and coal-ash storage – facilities and functions that threatened pollution hazards downstream if and when surmounted by floodwaters.

Ms. Mazzucato’s focus is a bit different – it’s on the public sector’s vital role fostering the higher-risk initial steps in innovation. Given the rapid evolution in provision and use of weather services, healthy, vibrant partnerships in R&D and the transition of advances into services will continue to be important to the Weather Enterprise for the foreseeable future.

This subject is important enough to all of us that you might want to assign yourself a grade. For reading this far, give yourself a C. If you click on the Freakonomics website and speed-read/skim the interview transcript, you earn a B. Listen to the interview – savor the full half hour – and you’ll be more than rewarded for your A. For extra credit, you might tackle Ms. Mazzucato’s full book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy[1]. I’m reading it now…

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[1] Here’s a book review from The Financial Times.

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Reflections on Hurricane Florence…human nature…and the Ulysses pact.

Is it just me? Or are hurricane forecasts and the resulting media coverage of hurricanes improving? Some subjective impressions: Forecasts, and forecasters and broadcasters, are providing more advance notice – Florence has been on the public radar screen a long time. From the beginning, relative forecast emphasis on water (rainfall, storm surge, and inland flooding) and wind has been focused on impacts, and has been balanced. Forecasts have indicated, and the media have duly stressed, that depending on location, the inland-flooding event would be delayed, and then be many days, even weeks in duration. Messages from the National Hurricane Center, from broadcasters, and public officials have been clear, detailed – and subjectively, based on really limited sampling – consistent[1]. (Might note that half a world away, the same could be said of warnings for Typhoon Mangkhut. There the impacts have been wind-related as well; again, the high winds were anticipated.)

All that seems to have been reflected in local-, state-, and federal actions, and the resulting public response. Evacuations have been underway for days. Hundreds have had to be rescued from their homes after the rain and winds made landfall – but not many thousands. Of course it’s early-on in the event; the fullest impact of Florence – especially that following the flooding – has yet to be felt. But that’s the subjective impression for now.

We continue to struggle, however, as individuals and as society, with the larger challenge of managing weather risk. At the last minute, we scurry out of harm’s way, as best we can under the chaos that is constant companion to imminent threat. But we make poor choices with respect to where and how we build, where we locate and how we protect critical infrastructure, how we dispose of waste, and other long-term choices and decisions that compromise our resilience for years into the future. Evacuation by no means makes us whole.

Social scientists continue to improve understanding of the psychological and social causes at the root of this. The literature is extensive, but also scattered. Fortunately, The Ostrich Paradox, Why We Underprepare for Disasters, by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther of the Wharton School, provides a thoughtful and welcome synthesis. Just how welcome? Well it seems that Hurricane Florence triggered a spate of news coverage and commentary  built around the book. Last week’s USA Today article  — just one example of many – provides a nice distillation of the six unconscious biases that undercut our ability and willingness to prepare:

  • Myopia:We focus on the short term and have difficulty understanding long-term consequences, such as the 100-year flood.  
  • Amnesia: We forget the past. We buy a condo in complex built where a storm once blew away a shopping center.
  • Inertia:We do what we’re doing until something drastic happens, when it’s too late. See New Orleans and Katrina in 2005. 
  • Selectivity: We don’t look at all the information, or simplify to the point of inaccuracy. If we have an emergency checklist, we lose interest after covering a few items, without making sure they were the most important.
  • Herding: We make choices based on what the other person is doing. And so we both wind up treading water.
  • Optimism: This most American of traits leads us to underestimate risk, ignore worst-case scenarios and think bad things will only happen to others. It’s a great attitude for someone starting a business, not so much for someone living in a flood zone.

The fuller book expands on these and gives context.

Most of us, if we’re honest, recognize ourselves in some or all of these traits. The authors advise us to start here in the search for cures – doing what they call a behavior risk audit. As individuals and communities, our tendencies towards these thought patterns vary; we can assess our strengths and weaknesses in these respects, then formulate policies that address these biases and maybe sidestep them. In a video interview based on the book, Howard Kunreuther provides an example:

…Myopia is one of the biases that we have. We all have short-term horizons. We want to get immediate returns. If there are things that we can do for the long term, we often find they are very prohibitively expensive. Let’s take an example of having to make our house safer against a flood or hurricane. There’s a lot of cost to doing that. You could elevate your house, but that’s very costly. You could maybe flood-proof it. People will say, “What are the benefits that I’m going to get from that in the next period?” They’ll be very reluctant to put in the money because they say the benefits are going to be very short run. And they’re right. If you’re going to get a short-run benefit like a reduction in your insurance premium, you’ll say, “Well, I’m not going to get enough to pay for that expense.”

We would recommend that instead of thinking about just the long term with respect to this, there are two things that one can do. One is, you might give a person a loan to help them out and spread the cost over time. The other thing to deal with is the “it won’t happen to me.” Instead of saying, “It’s going to be a one in 100 chance of a flood occurring next year,” stretch the time and say, “Think about the fact that there might be a hurricane in the next 30 years, and that likelihood is greater than one in four, or one in five.” Then, people will think about the long term and maybe decide that they can take some action.

To read the six biases is to have a flash of recognition. By contrast, to ponder the suggested cures is more sobering than encouraging. Every day’s news accounts of disasters suggest we’re going another way. (We see the same challenge when it comes to the self-control we need to take command of our lives with respect to needed work-life balance, diet, rest, and exercise.)

Arguably, the greatest opportunities, the most likely to work real-world, would seem to lie in social measures – in policies – versus individual actions. This ought to be true for two reasons. First, to be personally resilient in a brittle but interconnected world is an oxymoron. That line of thought starts with going off the grid, then progresses to moving to Idaho or Montana, then … to ever more extreme and self-evidently bankrupt measures.

Better to put handcuffs on ourselves, metaphorically speaking, with respect to risk management. This might seem extreme, but we do this all the time in life to good effect: agreeing to drive on the right side of the road; instituting and obeying speed limits; settling on 110-120 volts 60-cycle AC electrical power; ISO 9000 standards; and more. We even do this in the hazards arena, most notably in aviation.

Similar ideas have been with us since antiquity, in the form of the so-called Ulysses pact. From Wikipedia: Ulysses pact or Ulysses contract is a freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. The term is used in medicine, especially in reference to advance directives (also known as living wills), where there is some controversy over whether a decision made by a person in one state of health should be considered binding upon that person when he or she is in a markedly different, usually worse, state of health.

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.

Time to get our heads out of the sand.

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[1] Coincidentally, Mike Smith sent me a link to his reflections on this subject just moments ago. Just one example of hundreds driving home the point that weather information infrastructure undergirds and enables a range of individual efforts.

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Partisan (?) science continued.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt[1]

LOTRW posts of September 4th, August 16th, and some of the posts in between have wrestled with the challenges that partisanship and a currently partisan world pose to science. It’s widely, almost universally held, especially among scientists, that science, and scientists when speaking as scientists, should be rigorously non-partisan. At the same time (and this is not generally discussed or admitted), science, in common with every other human endeavor, is inherently partisan, in its origins and its effects. It seems our only choice is to get better at partisanship (whatever that might mean).

John Plodinec provided a cogent comment[2], reprinted here in its entirety, in order to serve as a springboard for a bit more expansion of these ideas:

Bill:

When scientists become partisans they hurt Science not help it. Scientists have to recognize problems such as those you describe and try to provide a context for society at large to make decisions about how to solve them. Those policy decisions are value judgments based on the public’s perceptions about a problem; if we as scientists do not provide an accurate assessment of the context, bad policies will result. And that often means admitting that there’s a lot we don’t know. 

Partisans perceive problems and demand that society adopt their favored solutions, often ignoring potential unintended consequences. Partisans really don’t want the public to understand the context and especially not the uncertainties; why confuse the proles with facts? If the public sees scientists as partisans, they will lose respect for Science and scientists – we will be seen as just another kind of politician, one that speaks a strange language.

Couldn’t agree more with everything that John says here. Bottom line: it’s imperative that scientists stay away from partisanship! But when we attempt to do so, we run immediately into problems. Here are a few.

To start, science is a human thing. For the most part, how the universe works – its origins, its structure, the development of stars and galaxies of stars, their organization and evolution as driven and shaped by dynamical forces and underlying physical processes – has nothing to do with human beings. But the study of those workings – the observation and experiment, the formation and testing of hypotheses, the development of conceptual frames and the language used to describe it all, in both words and mathematics – is an inherently human construct.

What’s more, science is a societal thing. It’s not done by a single human being but by groups, communities. The participating individuals may be separated by great spans of time as well as space, but everyone is in constant communication, behaving as a group.

Because today’s societies are in significant respects national, science is a national thing as well. We can talk about science communities spanning nations, and at their best and in many respects they do[3], but the fact is that the bulk of science is supported by national-level funding. The rationale for the amounts and the allocation of that funding across fields is generally based on perceived national interests. And unsurprisingly, those budgets largely determine where (and how many) scientists congregate and choose to spend their time.

Substantial portions of science, especially applied science, are commercial. Not all funding comes directly from federal-level (or even state- or local) governments; science funding, including considerable applied-science funding, comes from business, with interests that are in large part self-serving and competitive.

Partisanship is in the DNA of societies, nations, and commerce and therefore in the DNA of science. Recent history drives home these points. Modern science and technology were birthed in the aftermath of World War II[4]. United States leaders and the public realized that S&T had contributed much to win the war (think radar, the atomic bomb, and penicillin, for starters), and that the link between S&T and national interests was too important to be left to chance. Going forward, the country would have to commit to substantial, sustained, and intentional support for S&T. Early, partisan battles centered on whether public/government support would be allocated broadly across the states or directed toward the “best” ideas and thinkers (at that time, coming from a few centers of excellence, generally located in the Northeast and along the Pacific coast)[5]. Other, equally partisan battles led to emphasis on basic research in the physical sciences to begin, belated additional emphasis on biological sciences decades later, and continuing ambivalence about social sciences today.

(Drilling down on this last bit), social sciences have been treated as quite distinct from the physical sciences. Choosing to study the factors contributing to community resilience? Or within that realm, the role of innovation in fostering community resilience versus the role of poverty, or equity, or education? Social science can readily be weaponized for use in partisan debate on these issues. But the same challenges confront the physical sciences. Go into cloud microphysics instead of climate change? You might think you’re avoiding the climate-change debate, but you quickly finding yourself looking at the role of particulates in cloud-drop and ice nucleation – the natural versus manmade origins of those particulates, and the effects on cloud reflectance and transmission of sunlight and precipitation patterns – the next thing you know you’re back in the human-influence-on-climate discussion. Something similar holds true in other areas of science. Take medical research. Are you working on infectious diseases, the scourge of the poor? Or diseases of the rich – like heart disease, stroke, obesity, etc.? Particle physicists look up from their labors to discover nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, radiological medicine, and more threaded across the human endeavor and the subject of partisan debate. Cosmology, nanotechnology, chemistry – no field is immune.

Unsurprising then, that the instant we attempt to provide what John Plodinec refers to as “context for society at large,” (bringing it close to home, to, for example, going beyond forecasts of atmospheric parameters to providing Impact-based Decision Support Services) we enter an area where there are only “degrees of partisanship” – shades of grey. However broadly and fairly we might attempt to present such context, we’ll find we can’t present all options; we start making choices about what to include, what to leave out, how much supporting detail to provide, and the rest. Our readers and hearers bring to their perception of every word and phrase we write a host of different experiences, sensitivities, preconceived ideas and word associations none of which is known to us, and most of which is unique to each individual. They’re actively looking for touchpoints of affirmation and/or perceived threat or criticism, not just in the nuance of what’s expressed but also in what’s been omitted.

How, then, might scientists respond? There exist a variety of options (trying to follow John Plodinec’s advice here, to present a range of possibilities, rather than a single favorite).

Live in some form of denial. I suspect when we scientists attempt to portray ourselves or our work as apolitical, this is how we appear to political leaders, those in the commercial world, and even friends and family.

(Building off the word “denial”), see our partisanship as something we can never shake, but which we ought to attempt to keep in check. In this respect we can learn from addicts – and adopt some form of a twelve step program starting with the admission that we have a partisan problem.

Channel Theodore Roosevelt, embrace our partisan nature, and get on with it. Enter the partisan arena with enthusiasm and zeal, and do our best to articulate the benefits of science and innovation for humanity, and more broadly for all life itself.

Note that this latter course doesn’t mean bludgeoning a reluctant world into submission to scientific logic and thinking. Scientists are few in number; others seem far more comfortable and enjoy far better access to brute power, bullying, and the rest. For most of us, the bludgeon shouldn’t be the tool of choice.

Instead, what it might mean is subjecting partisanship to scientific study, understanding its origins and effects, helping our host society see the advantages and the downside to partisanship in human affairs, see alternatives to partisanship, and means for reducing – in short being as disciplined in our approach to this issue as we are to our own research and development.

One closing observation or conjecture – more a hope, really – that we will come to see partisanship as something different from diversity, and not an unavoidable consequence of differences in background or experience or perspective. Diversity in society, and in the thought of that society – diversity in the identification of problems and opportunities and our approach to those – is a strength, vital to our future. But if as individuals and society, we let that diversity drive us towards partisanship, we make our future more problematic.

A parting thought. I began to write this soon after John Plodinec’s comment arrived last week. I struggled to think through, write this; and am still unsatisfied by the result. Your comments are always welcome, but particularly on this subject.

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[1] Embedded in and captive to the culture and language of Mr. Roosevelt’s time; hence the male-oriented wording. Today we acknowledge that the need for people in the arena is fundamentally inclusive – not limited to a single gender or sexual orientation or race.

[2] Mr. Plodinec publishes more extensively and substantively elsewhere; here’s a sample, his most recent post at resilientus.org, entitled, Innovation, implementation, and community resilience. He’s one of the most authoritative and thoughtful voices out there on this and related topics.

[3] This itself is a human value judgment, not universally held, and therefore a partisan idea.

[4] A fuller, and more authoritative description of all this is available in Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 20th Century, by Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormick (2008).

[5] Fact is, of course, the conundrum predates World War II, going back to the nation’s origins, as documented in E. Hunter Dupree’s book, Science and the Federal Government: a history of policies and activities.

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New from Impact-based Decision Support (IDSS): The “food desert” is also hot.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 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.” – Genesis 2:15-17 (NIV)

A recent LOTRW post suggested that scientists face a dilemma. On the one hand, scientists should be non-partisan; else they (we) will be unable to sustain science. Instead its progress will be intermittent, fluctuating wildly with each change in political winds as science falls in and out of favor. This will slow, even compromise innovation. On the other hand, unless scientists learn to be (more effectively) partisan, science can’t and won’t be maintained long term. That’s because science has to demonstrate continuing societal benefit to justify society’s substantial investment in science in the face of competing needs. But societal benefit is necessarily textured, improving the lot and prospects of some more than others – and in today’s world, that’s political.

A specific recent finding from meteorology illustrates this larger problem.

It turns out that the so-called “food desert” is also hot.

A brief review of food deserts:

A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis. The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible. Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas. Food deserts lack whole food providers who supply fresh protein sources (such as poultry, fish and meats) along with whole food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and instead provide processed and sugar- and fat-laden foods in convenience stores. Processed, sugar- and fat-laden foods are known contributors to the United States’ obesity epidemic. Convenience store prices are less affordable to regular consumers around the area.

And here’s the new result: The Washington Post reported over the weekend that (these same) poor city neighborhoods are also much hotter than wealthy ones. An excerpt:

As Washington sweats through yet another wave of oppressively hot days, heat has become one more way to measure inequality in a city already defined by it. Like educational attainment, wealth accumulation and life expectancy, where you live is a deciding factor. Your location in the city not only dictates how hot it is, but also the likelihood that the heat itself will be dangerous: The poor, who often cannot afford air conditioning and are more likely to have medical conditions that are exacerbated by heat, have fewer ways to escape it.

“Some people have a much hotter day than others,” said Jeremy S. Hoffman, a climate and earth scientist working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the heat in Baltimore and Washington. If the results, expected to be finished sometime this month, bolster earlier research in Washington, and echo studies in other heavily populated urban areas, it will show that wealthier neighborhoods, which often have a lot of trees, yards and parks, will be cooler than poorer neighborhoods, which often don’t.

The studies come at a time when cities like Washington are beginning to grapple with the prospect of an increasingly hot future, the result of climate change and the unforeseen consequences of urban development. In the same way sprawl has left some cities vulnerable to crippling floods, it has also created vast, industrialized “heat islands” — urban places without much vegetation, but blocks of impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete that absorb heat all day, then release it slowly into the night, causing nighttime temperatures to spike as well.

This effect is stronger in Washington than in just about any other city, according to a 2014 report by Climate Central, which found that the city is the country’s sixth most intense urban heat island. Summer is nearly 5 degrees warmer in Washington than in the surrounding area, and relatively warmer still during the night, when the temperature is on average 7.1 degrees higher.

But wide variances in temperatures also apply within the city’s boundaries.

“Land cover can be so different and the amount of concrete varies so greatly, that it can be 65 someplace [in the city] and 75 in another place,” said Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center. “Wards 2 and 3 have lots of trees and parks, and there, the heat has a way of escaping. . . . But there are other parts of the city that are equally [residential], but because they don’t have the tree coverage, they experience higher heat.”

The urban heat island has long been a thing, but new observing platforms and sensors combined with data analytics now allow scientists to prise out this heat-island effect at neighborhood scales.

(Okay, Bill, but surely the “original sin” quote at the head of this post is a bit over the top?) A natural question. So, let’s ask ourselves, given that meteorologists understand this heat island effect – and now don’t simply understand that it exists even down at neighborhood scales, but are able to measure the effects at that level – what are the options for Impact-Based Decision Support (IDSS)?

It’s not hard to imagine a spectrum of options:

  • At one end, meteorologists might simply measure and predict atmospheric conditions down to the neighborhood scale.
  • An additional intermediate (IDSS-type) step might involve working with emergency managers and using other data, say Census data, to estimate the resulting heat stress people will be experiencing and the variations and impacts at the neighborhood level. It’s then up to emergency managers to get that word out to that scale.
  • (Oversimplifying a bit) a further, Weather-Ready-Nation-like step might include seasonal efforts reminding those individuals and communities at risk of the importance of hydration during heat waves, and the need to pay attention to heat-wave forecasts and warnings during the warm season.
  • In a future world featuring an internet of things (IoT), emergency managers might know who has air-conditioning, whose air-conditioning is broken-down, whose air-conditioning is working, whose air-conditioning has been turned off, possibly to forestall an unaffordable spike in the electrical bill, who is especially vulnerability by virtue of age, disability, pre-existing health conditions, ethnicity, etc. (Such high-resolution and admittedly intrusive information could have saved a lot of lives in the Chicago heat wave of 1995.)
  • None of these measures address the poverty at the root of the problem; all allow the vulnerability of the affected populations to continue indefinitely. So at the far end of the spectrum of actions are those that focus on providing minimum education, employment, health care, shelter, etc., to the poorest at greater risk, reducing the footprint of food deserts and their close cousins the heat islands. Of course at this extreme there are honest differences about the efficacy of the different policy options.

Meteorologists, as individuals and as a community, get to decide where on this spectrum they/we can and should participate.

But one option is foreclosed: ignorance.  None of us gets to say we were unaware of the fuller dimensions of the problem. Immediately, with that knowledge, any innocence we might wish to claim dies. And that loss of innocence is a killer. It weighs on us, brings us down.

Wearing our meteorological caps we might choose to be complacent about what use is made of our forecasts of atmospheric conditions. We might say that it’s up to emergency managers and city officials from other departments to take the next step. It’s up to educators, and health officials, and corporate leaders – and ultimately, the poorest themselves – to work their way out of the continuing vulnerability.

But as we’ve been reminded in media headlines on subjects ranging from #MeToo to the Catholic Church to the physical risks and moral dilemmas of football, to national and local politics, complacency is one step from complicity, which in turn is one step from culpability.  We all have to live, in every circumstance of life, including this one, with the reality that I could have done more.

This reality might at first inspection seem drear, but it actually contains three kernels of good news – not just good news, but amazingly good news.

The first is that meteorology and the work of meteorologists matter. One really horrible bill of goods the world invites us to buy is that work is just something we do to support us financially – that it steals time away from our real lives, which only exist outside of work. We encouraged to subscribe to the notion that we can love and be loved, experience joy, and meaning only at closing time. We live for the weekends and for that elusive goal called retirement. But the fact is that life’s meaning, and love and larger purpose and challenge and significance are threaded throughout the fabric of work – all work.

The second is that all 320 million of us here in the United States, and all seven billion of us globally – are in this together. We share any guilt and any burden, and we’ll all be needed to make things right. No one is a spectator; no one shoulders the problem alone.

The third is that there’s something to the Judeo-Christian idea that God has a backup plan for those of us (that’s all of us) afflicted with the knowledge of good and evil, and the accompanying loss of innocence.

______________________________________________

The food desert is also hot. Science and technology have revealed this, and science and technology can help fix it.

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Meteorologists celebrate Labor Day – and serve the world.

“Without labor, nothing prospers.”– Sophocles

“Nothing will work unless you do.”– Maya Angelou

A day off is a good thing.

With ten such holidays here in the United States we might envy nations who offer more. Cambodia leads the world with 28. Sri Lanka is not far behind with 25. India and Kazakhstan each hold 21. But a closer look at the countries on this list reminds us there may be no need for jealousy; Cambodia and India have a six-day workweek; Sri Lankans work a half-day on Saturdays. Maybe that second day of weekend 52 weeks of the year is a better deal.

Most nations co-mingle civic holidays with the religious – in some cases multiple religions.

Truth is, in today’s world a day off is intrinsically such a good thing – so important to rest and recovery and family relationships – that we often struggle to remember, respect, and observe a given holiday’s origins and deeper meaning. We may have a nominal 40-hour workweek, but for many knowledge workers those hours expand and extend into evenings and weekends. We may agree on very little in our country these days, but most of us feel we’re overworked. (Studies and comment on this abound.) So we gratefully accept what’s offered – a day to rest and recreate – and perhaps reflect less than we should on the help indigenous people provided the first European settlers as they struggled to survive on the American continent; or the risks colonials took when declaring their independence from Europe; or the soldiers who gave (and continue to give) their lives that we might maintain and enjoy that freedom; or the unique and endearing contributions of several key individuals, including Dr. Martin Luther King, presidents Washington and Lincoln (and their 40-some peers); the arrival of the Son of God in human form…

…or the struggles of laborers to enjoy basic human rights commensurate with their contributions to society – fair pay, reasonable hours, job security and more.

Some form of a “labor day” is observed in most countries. Here in the United States, Labor Day came about from the rise of the labor movement – including the birth of unions as a means for workers to exert political influence.

Turns out that meteorologists are right in there with everybody else. Our community features at least one union – the National Weather Service Employees Organization. If you’re not familiar with them you might consider taking a few minutes today to visit their website and explore a bit; it’ll give you the flavor of the organization and the concerns of its members. A few minutes spent this way will get you in touch with the meaning of the day.

Some closing reflections. First, meteorology and its impacts form a background to all this. Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration. Christmas and New Year’s coincide with the shortest days of the year. Memorial Day and Labor Day provide bookends to what is called “the cultural summer.”

And second, meteorology provides essential services even over the holidays. Today meteorologists are vigilantly ensuring public safety in the face of weather hazards (including, for example, keeping an eagle eye on Tropical Storm Gordon), providing the support needed for aviation (including all those holiday flights) and other forms of transportation, supporting the operations of the energy sector, and much more.

Labor Day – and meteorologists are at work – in the military, across civil government agencies, and throughout the private sector.

Good job, everyone!

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To protect ecosystem services, front-load investment in environmental intelligence.

Meteorologists aren’t alone in making forecasts. Ecologists make them too. One such recent forecast suggests that without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity.

Disruption of ecosystem services? Just what are ecosystem services, and how concerned should we be? Some LOTRW readers may be all too familiar with these notions, but here’s a bit of background for the rest of us, lifted from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, by way of Wikipedia (with some minor edits):

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report 2005 defines ecosystem services as benefits people obtain from ecosystems and distinguishes four categories of ecosystem services, where the so-called supporting services are regarded as the basis for the services of the other three categories.

Supporting services: These include services such as nutrient recycling, primary production and soil formation. These services make it possible for the ecosystems to provide services such as food supply, flood regulation, and water purification.

Provisioning services: food (including seafood and game), crops, wild foods, and spices;raw materials (including lumber, skins, fuel wood, organic matter, fodder, and fertilizer); genetic resources (including crop improvement genes, and health care);

water; biogenic minerals; medicinal resources (including pharmaceuticals, chemical models, and test and assay organisms); energy (hydropower, biomass fuels); ornamental resources (including fashion, handicraft, jewelry, pets, worship, decoration and souvenirs like furs, feathers, ivory, orchids, butterflies, aquarium fish, shells, etc.).

Regulating services: pollination; carbon sequestration and climate regulation; waste decomposition and detoxification; purification of water and air; pest and disease control.

Cultural services: cultural (including use of nature as motif in books, film, painting, folklore, national symbols, architect, advertising, etc.); spiritual and historical (including use of nature for religious or heritage value or natural); recreational experiences (including ecotourism, outdoor sports, and recreation); science and education (including use of natural systems for school excursions, and scientific discovery); therapeutic (including ecotherapy, social forestry and animal assisted therapy)

All this calls to mind another ecological forecast (maybe more of a nowcast) that appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change four years ago: Changes in the global value of ecosystem services, by Robert Costanza and a handful of co-authors. Here’s a link-to-a-link, offering these highlights and an abstract:

  • Global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is $US 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.
  • Ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.
  • Estimates in monetary units are useful to show the relative magnitude of ecoservices.
  • Valuation of ecosystem services is not the same as commodification or privatization.
  • Ecosystem services are best considered public goods requiring new institutions.

In 1997, the global value of ecosystem services was estimated to average $33 trillion/yr in 1995 $US ($46 trillion/yr in 2007 $US). In this paper, we provide an updated estimate based on updated unit ecosystem service values and land use change estimates between 1997 and 2011. We also address some of the critiques of the 1997 paper. Using the same methods as in the 1997 paper but with updated data, the estimate for the total global ecosystem services in 2011 is $125 trillion/yr (assuming updated unit values and changes to biome areas) and $145 trillion/yr (assuming only unit values changed), both in 2007 $US. From this we estimated the loss of eco-services from 1997 to 2011 due to land use change at $4.3–20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used. Global estimates expressed in monetary accounting units, such as this, are useful to highlight the magnitude of eco-services, but have no specific decision-making context. However, the underlying data and models can be applied at multiple scales to assess changes resulting from various scenarios and policies. We emphasize that valuation of eco-services (in whatever units) is not the same as commodification or privatization. Many eco-services are best considered public goods or common pool resources, so conventional markets are often not the best institutional frameworks to manage them. However, these services must be (and are being) valued, and we need new, common asset institutions to better take these values into account.

Mr. Costanza has been thinking about these matters for quite a while; his work is groundbreaking, and unsurprisingly has attracted critics; you can find a few links to some of that here. But to bystanders, the criticism is reminiscent of the line often attributed to Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.[1]

Assuming the annual losses in the value of ecosystem services to be at the high end suggests they’ll be reduced to something like 50% of their current value in only five or so years; even if annual losses are at the low end, the ecosystem services would fall to something like half their current value in, say, thirty years. Given how long it seems to take seven billion people to reach agreement on the problems they face, even this more optimistic estimate is hardly occasion for cheer.

This brings us back to environmental intelligence and its pivotal role in human affairs. NOAA and its forecast services (especially those provided by the NWS) provide a useful (and heartening example), in two respects. First is the focus on so-called Impact-based Decision Support. Recognition that weather, water, and climate impacts on ecosystems – and humankind’s role in shaping these – matter, and matter rather urgently, is an essential starting point. An interesting aspect of the IDSS framework is that it constrains direct NOAA forecast services largely to public-sector customers, a constraint that matters in the context of the public-private sector collaboration fundamental to IDSS. But providing IDSS to those concerned with the management of ecosystems and ecosystem services greatly expands the customer range to numerous public agencies and NGO’s and in the process calls for some reexamination and perhaps rebalancing of public-private collaboration.

The second, companion idea is the aspirational goal of a Weather-Ready Nation, which is largely about building community-level readiness with respect to weather hazards and extremes. Ecologists are telling us that decadal-time-frame weather and climate impacts on ecosystems are existential, but we don’t respond well to such long-term problems. We work best on situations and challenges that are daily and local.

Weather is one such challenge. Raising awareness about daily weather impacts, and building day-to-day readiness, engenders receptivity to the longer-term problems we face, moves our society in the right direction.

Right direction? Sure enough, but at far too slow a pace. Protection and maintenance of ecosystem services will demand attention from all of us – all seven billion. But environmental intelligence is difference between effective action and wasted effort. We can’t work fast enough to build our store of understanding about how the Earth and its ecosystems function as a whole and in part; and our ability to predict how it’s trending locally and globally, in the short-term and over decades. Such investment is the essential foundation for placing wise bets.

Global investments in environmental intelligence infrastructure should be front-end loaded.

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[1]To bystanders, the wide error bars Mr. Costanza provides to his statements and estimates inspire a measure of trust; and his work certainly fits within the category of useful “views” lauded by Darwin in his quote appearing on the LOTRW masthead.

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The Impact-based Decision Support System (IDSS) that will someday matter most? It may be ecological.

Many LOTRW readers are familiar with IDSS; others may not be. Here’s some background from the NWS website:

Timely and relevant forecasts, watches and warnings are major strengths of the National Weather Service. The agency’s ability to respond quickly to natural disasters with public statements relevant for the protection of life and livelihoods and the advancement of the Nation’s economy is unparalleled. However, new and evolving needs in society call for the NWS to shift to the impact-based decision support services approach.

IDSS are forecast advice and interpretative services the NWS provides to help core partners, such as emergency personnel and public safety officials, make decisions when weather, water and climate impacts the lives and livelihoods of the American people. This support may be needed in response to a particular event or routinely to support high-value decision making.  NWS staff across the U.S. work hand-in-hand with partners at local, state and national levels to ensure these decision-makers have the most accurate, reliable and trustworthy weather, water and climate information. The NWS accomplishes this task not only through a commitment to science and technology, but by building trust through deep relationships with key decision-makers across the nation.  Deep relationships are developed with those core partners which NWS has a legal mandate to support or whose actions involve national security concerns; who have a high degree of authority for public safety; and who have the capability to amplify NWS messaging to other NWS partners.

For the most part, public awareness of all this centers on familiar weather hazards and extremes: tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms, etc. But the National Weather Service products and services also contribute to ecological forecasts. One visible example that has figured prominently in the news of recent days and weeks? Harmful algal blooms (HAB’s), such as those that are ravaging the Florida coasts, killing aquatic life, compromising public health and costing the tourism industry tens of millions of dollars.

Ecological impacts of weather and climate look to be an increasingly larger part of the IDSS story. Consider this multi-authored paper in he most recent edition (print date August 31) of the AAAS journal Science: Past and future global transformation of terrestrial ecosystems under climate change. Here’s the abstract:

Impacts of global climate change on terrestrial ecosystems are imperfectly constrained by ecosystem models and direct observations. Pervasive ecosystem transformations occurred in response to warming and associated climatic changes during the last glacial-to-interglacial transition, which was comparable in magnitude to warming projected for the next century under high-emission scenarios. We reviewed 594 published paleoecological records to examine compositional and structural changes in terrestrial vegetation since the last glacial period and to project the magnitudes of ecosystem transformations under alternative future emission scenarios. Our results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity.

Yesterday’s Washington Post coverage summarized the implications this way:

After the end of the last ice age — as sea levels rose, glaciers receded and global average temperatures soared as much as seven degrees Celsius — the Earth’s ecosystems were utterly transformed.

Forests grew up out of what was once barren, ice-covered ground. Dark, cool stands of pine were replaced by thickets of hickory and oak. Woodlands gave way to scrub, and savanna turned to desert. The more temperatures increased in a particular landscape, the more dramatic the ecological shifts.

It’s about to happen again, researchers are reporting Thursday in the journal Science. A sweeping survey of global fossil and temperature records from the past 20,000 years suggests that Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems are at risk of another, even faster transformation unless aggressive action is taken against climate change.

“Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about,” said ecologist Stephen Jackson, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center and the lead author of the new study.

“It is concerning to me to think about how much change and how rapidly the change is likely to happen, and how little capacity we have to predict the exact course,” he said, “which creates very large challenges for all of us out there who are trying to manage wildfire, fish, water, soil, endangered species — all those different ways in which natural ecosystems affect us.”

This is consistent with a point often made by my AMS ecologist-climatologist colleague (full disclosure: also my boss), Paul Higgins: economists aren’t worried about climate change; in their view, all natural goods have their substitutes, available for slight differences in price. By contrast, ecologists are quite concerned; they fully realize the intricacies of numbers and timing that govern the rise and collapse of species and ecosystems. Physical scientists fall somewhere in between.

Not an exact quote, but we all get Paul’s thought. It’s not hard to imagine – in fact, it’s any many ways appealing to imagine (especially for economists) – a future world where renewable energy is so plentiful that seawater can readily be desalinated and piped where needed. In this energy-rich world, poverty may be greatly reduced. Land use and building codes may be wiser. The world’s food will be plentiful – not be grown or raised so much as synthesized from in-vitro animals-cell culture instead of from slaughtered animals, and/or(3-D) printed (yes, printed food is already a thing). With the food-water-energy nexus so radically transformed, weather, water, and climate impacts might be most obvious in their effects on landscapes, plant and animal life, and the connections among these.

Such a shift in the nature of environmental impacts in no way reduces the need for IDSS. It raises the stakes at the same time it poses unprecedented challenges for both science and policy.

More in a future post.

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The American Soul (and yours and mine): Closer to King-of-the-Hill? Or the Herndon Climb? And where do meteorologists fit in?

Okay, okay. So it’s a long title.

Today’s LOTRW post is the product of insomnia (writing started around 2 am). A lot of Americans are tossing and turning instead of sleeping well these days. This week’s death of Senator-and-American-naval-hero John McCain has occasioned a near-universal sense of loss and soul-searching.

Sometimes soul-searching can use a bit of a frame. Here’s one.

Wikipedia has this to say about King-of-the-Hill. a children’s game, the object of which is to stay on top of a large hill or pile (or any other designated area) as the “King of the Hill”. Other players attempt to knock the current King off the pile and take their place, thus becoming the new King of the Hill.

The way the “king” can be removed from the hill depends largely [largely? Only largely?] on the rules determined by the players before the game starts. Ordinarily pushing is the most common way of removing the king from the hill, but there are significantly rougher variations where punching or kicking is allowed. As such, the game is often banned from schools.

 

Contrast that with the Herndon climb. We learn from the May 21, 2018 Washington Post:

Several hundred young warriors stormed a 21-foot-high obelisk at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis on Monday, slipping and sliding as they formed a human pyramid around a monument covered in 50 pounds of vegetable shortening.

The annual tradition marks the end of their hellacious “plebe” year at the academy, the country’s premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps officers. But that year is only over once the freshmen, known as plebes, manage to replace a “dixie cup” cap perched at the monument’s tip with an upperclassman’s hat

…The Herndon Climb is the ultimate test of the teamwork and perseverance taught during the plebes’ first year.

(The full article provides a lot more detail about this event.)

Teamwork? Perseverance? (versus king-of-the-hill and everyone for himself/herself?) A lot to like about this Navy culture and tradition.

But it does raise a question. Just who was Herndon?

Commander William Lewis Herndon (25 October 1813 – 12 September 1857) was one of the United States Navy’s outstanding explorers and seamen. In 1851 he led a United States expedition to the Valley of the Amazon, and prepared a report published in 1854 and distributed widely as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon.

He was noted especially for ensuring the rescue of 152 women and children when commanding the commercial mail steamer Central America in September 1857. During a three-day hurricane off the coast of North Carolina, the ship lost power. Herndon arranged for getting some women and children safely off the ship to another vessel. With no way to save the ship, Herndon chose to stay with more than 400 passengers and crew who drowned as the ship sank off Cape Hatteras on September 12. It was the largest loss of life in a commercial ship disaster in United States history.

A small-world side note: Two years later his daughter Ellen Lewis Herndon married Chester A. Arthur, the future U.S. President.

Hmm. What a guy. No wonder he has his own monument. And the narrative is easy to connect with the life and values of John McCain on several levels. But (bringing it home)…

What about meteorologists? Where do we fit in?

For most of us, there’s an easy answer. We’re all about teamwork. And perseverance. And a cause greater than ourselves: saving lives and property. Some of this public-good spirit has been captured by Michael Lewis (justifiably well-known for The Big Short and other works), in a new audiobook entitled The Coming Storm. He sees a few heroes – folks well-known to our community. But he also sees some troubling signs, hints that our science and services might be trending a bit more to the in-it-for-ourselves model. A two-hour listen if you have the time – and if you seek more cause for soul-searching.

Sleep well.

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