Dog whistling… and the latest National Climate Assessment.

Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic whistling sound is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans. –  Wikipedia

The word of the Lord came to me:  “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman,  and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people,  then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head.  Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves.  But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.” – Ezekiel 33:1-6 (NIV)


Members of the American Meteorological Society, and hundreds of thousands of geoscientists in the United States and worldwide, labor day and night to advance understanding of the Earth and apply those advances to the benefit of mankind. We contribute to enhanced resource development. Public health and safety. Environmental protection. We’re (admittedly specialized) sentinels.

This is our calling.

Advancing understanding and applying those advances confer daily benefits. Every sort of government and private sector and individual decision and action is shaped by information the geosciences community develops and provides.

So far so good! But along the way, geoscientists, in the course of their research, have uncovered a host of longer-range concerns: unintended environmental consequences of resource development; long-term increases in community-level vulnerability to hazards; reductions in ecosystem services; impending limits to food, water, and energy supplies. Scientists and practitioners alike have communicated the growing risks in every way imaginable.

For decades, many of the looming problems have been lumped together under the label of global change, or global warming, or climate change. Successive United Nations IPCC assessments and special reports have characterized current trends and expected impacts with increasing specificity over this period. It’s clear that such changes are real, already underway, and pose great risks to society and to ecosystems; and that the human activity is the major (and largely preventable) cause.

The specifics are coming into focus. Individual nations have supplemented the IPCC work with detailed assessments of the domestic implications. In the United States, these have taken the form of National Climate Assessments. In fact,  the Fourth (2018) National Climate Assessment was released this past Friday, to considerable news fanfare.

The report makes for sobering reading. It points to new community-level risks, as well as exacerbation of old ones; losses to the overall U.S. economy; fraying of the linkages we rely on that connect natural, built, and social systems. The Assessment drills down to detail negative impacts on water, health, indigenous peoples, ecosystems and ecosystem services, agriculture, infrastructure, oceans and coasts, tourism and recreation.

Chances are good that upon receiving this, you and I were already in a sober state of mind. You might have contributed directly to the Fourth National Climate Assessment itself. Perhaps you worked on a recent IPCC assessment or report. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely part of the community of researchers and practitioners trying to advance the geosciences and put the new knowledge to work. You and I live and work in an ocean of such warnings and reports; from where we sit, the stream of newly-discovered reasons for concern is constant and unrelenting. How could anybody ignore it?

But we turn out to be the dogs in this dog-whistling metaphor. We get the message, loud and clear. But a sampling of the news coverage shows journalistic concern for the timing of the Assessment matched concern for the substance of the Assessment itself, however dire the latter. News media were nearly unanimous in concluding and reporting that the Assessment was released on Friday of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in order to bury it. American thoughts were elsewhere: family, Black-Friday Christmas shopping, a raft of football games, and recovery from the previous day’s gastronomic excess.

Some observations:

First, God’s words to the prophet Ezekiel might seem to offer some comfort to the thousands of geoscientists whose warnings seem to fall on deaf ears.  We gave the warnings; we did our best. But that comfort is scant. The National Climate Assessment makes clear that today’s efforts are inadequate to the scale and scope of the challenge, stating:

Communities, governments, and businesses are working to reduce risks from and costs associated with climate change by taking action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation strategies. While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.

What’s more, we know all-too-well from experience with natural disasters of every sort that in hindsight, many members of the public are quick to say “The tornado (hurricane, derecho, flood, volcanic eruption, earthquake, drought) hit with no warning,” despite well-documented evidence to the contrary. Even as the effects and impacts of climate change continue to grow more apparent, we can forecast that years down the road, our community will be blamed from all quarters: “geoscientists could have and should have done more to warn; nobody saw this coming.”

Second, people in today’s world (and Americans are no exception) are continually performing triage: distinguishing between calls for their attention that (1) can wait; (2) are time-critical, where prompt action has a payoff; or (3) are beyond any capability they may have individually for making an immediate and tangible difference. Collecting firewood, finding food for a starving child, or medical care for a sick one; meeting the boss’ deadline; doing the grocery shopping; picking up the kids from school or daycare all fall into category (2). Dealing with climate change, as usually framed, gets binned by the public into categories (1) and (3).

Thoughts about how to break this impasse in a future post. In the meantime, please offer any suggestions of your own.

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