Environmental intelligence, and the National Sea Grant Program at 50.

50-yearsStart with this: environmental intelligence[1] faces two big challenges in the 21st century.

The first is scientific/technical. The second is social. Both are profound[2].

The scientific challenge: Do we want a safer, more prosperous, more secure future that will endure throughout the 21st century? We’ll never get there flying blind – ignorant of what the planet we live on is going to do next, either on its own initiative or in response to the pokings and proddings of 7 billion people.

Instead, we need a predictive understanding[3] of the Earth system up to the task of 21st-century decision-making – guiding government and business actions with respect to agriculture, energy and water; public health, public safety and emergency response; and protection and extension of ecosystems services. What’s more, the zero-margin world we now live in no longer allows us to make any of these decisions in isolation. Everything’s tied together in a tangle. Take a few examples from recent news stories. Profitable location and long-term operation of hog farms requires we know the likelihood and impacts of hurricane rains and riverine flooding. $20T of water infrastructure will be needed worldwide between now and 2030. But we need to know how much water will be available where and when if we’re to avoid laying “pipes to nowhere.” The job creation and prosperity promised by manufacturing based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels turns out to expose a billion kids worldwide to levels of atmospheric particulates that limit their promise to develop into the workforce needed for tomorrow. Fracking makes such fuels cheaper still, yet leads to earthquakes – some of which threaten major oil storage hubs. Fifty-percent reductions in vertebrate population in just fifty years are driving the natural world into an uncharted future that might last for millennia.

Who knew? And what will happen next?

The short answer is: No one knew. And no one knows what will happen next, at least with the specificity needed on the future time scales that matter for planning and decisions.

Fact is, such questions have only recently been tabled. The hard-won predictive skill we enjoy today remains limited compared with what’s needed. Growing economies and populations are driving up the stakes. The value of incremental skill is growing, as are the costs of prediction errors and uncertainty. But improvements in that skill are stubbornly slow in coming.

Today, worldwide, though the science is complex and daunting, some have developed a glimmer of what’s in store. Hundreds of thousands, indeed several millions of men and women working in disciplines covering every aspect of the Earth sciences and related observing and information technologies are racing to forecast what lies ahead, with respect to specific bits of this puzzle as well as the big picture.

All that brings us to

The social challenge: A few million people working the scientific problem might seem like a lot, but it’s a mere handful of the world’s seven-billion+ population.

And coping is a far bigger task than understanding.

If we are to cope successfully with these present and future challenges, all 330 million of us here in the US, and all seven billion of us worldwide, though necessarily focused on other concerns – manufacturing, IT products and services, healthcare delivery, (and what’s for dinner tonight?) – have to have a shared awareness of what lies ahead, and enough trust and willingness to explore and test a variety of options for moving forward, together. What’s more, this can’t and won’t ever lend itself to top-down, command-and-control. Instead it will take the form of short- and long-term problem solving at local and regional levels, with heavy emphasis on the communication needed to develop some harmony of approach across boundaries, while making constant, incremental adjustments along the way in response to early signs of success or failure, and all the while building trust.

How well are we doing with this second task? U.S. elections, just concluded, provide a data point. Throughout the year of campaigning, with all the ups and downs, the vitriol, the polarization – the focus remained on which presidential candidate was least likeable and trustworthy and why, with back-and-forth on jobs and global trade, immigration, health care, and war and terrorism thrown in. The environment, natural hazards, and natural resources? These topics received the merest and some cases derogatory mention. But our domestic experience isn’t unique. It’s reflecting a worldwide trend. Abroad, we see the same sharp disagreements and division regarding international trade, preoccupation with the balance and projection of national power, armed conflicts, the resulting growth and mass movements of refugee populations, etc. Our leaders have their hands full just on these bits. As for trust, it’s faded into the background.

Two meta-lessons have emerged. First, from either side, and whatever the topic, the task is not a matter of bringing “others” to “our” point of view. Communication is vital, but it’s not communication as manipulative marketing technique. It’s about starting with listening, and patiently allowing communication to build understanding. Second, it’s hard, if not impossible to reach consensus on environmental intelligence without first, or at least in tandem, building shared vision about other issues: Jobs. Immigration. Trade. Education. Healthcare…

Okay, Bill, but a bit abstract, high-level. Can you bring all this down to earth, make it a bit more tangible, concrete?

Yes, I can – and furthermore, I can offer something positive.

Last month, at the age of fifty, NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program held its biennial strategic planning retreat in Newport, Rhode Island. It was my privilege to be with the group for a few hours of their week together. Throughout my NOAA career, I’d admired Sea Grant from afar. In 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the Morrill Act and the establishment of Land Grant Colleges and Universities, Athelstan Spilhaus suggested the nation ought to make a similar investment in its (coastal) oceans and coastal populations. Finally, in 1966, the deed was done. Since then, Sea Grant has had its ups and downs, depending upon successive administrations. But twin strengths have kept it going. The first is the development, state-by-state, of research networks – scientists of every stripe adding to our understanding of the coasts and coastal oceans as an integrated physical-ecological-societal system. The research has been anything but top-down. It’s built a base of predictive understanding at the local level by continuing sharp focus on place-based realities, and then aggregated that up to form a larger national picture. The second is the parallel development of what started as “extension services,”[4] but now represent strong locally-based collaborative efforts to build coastal resilience, grow coastal economies, and protect coastal ecosystem services. These benefits have been quite visible at the local level – across the 26 coastal states – and that awareness has built broad, across-the-aisle political and popular support for the research and its application even as other areas of environmental intelligence have struggled to gain traction. Further, all this has happened even as the country has grown more polarized.

What was especially striking during the week was the high positive energy of the group, and increasing scale of the initiatives they were tackling, ranging these days from offshore wind energy to aquaculture, tourism, and workforce development projects.

Sea Grant thus points the way for the larger environmental intelligence community. It’s a success story with respect to the two big scientific and social challenges that has proven small enough to be doable and show concrete results, yet large enough to motivate further progress. NOAA’s continually adding new wrinkles. One recent example:  Weather-Ready Nation Initiative, which offers the same scientifically-enabled, place-based problem solving approach, and is building enthusiasm and constituency in an otherwise divided world. Another is the current R2X set of initiatives designed to realize tangible improvements in NOAA’s services and stewardship from research advances.

Here’s a forecast: Fifty years from now, we’ll have seen another 6-12 political administrations come and go. They’ll have been of every persuasion. Sea Grant will be observing its 100th year, receiving a Nation’s gratitude for its part in navigating another half-century of sea-level rise and guiding coastal development. The country will recognize the 50-year-old Weather-Ready Nation initiative as one of the country’s better ideas, building community resiliency in the face of the world’s most hazardous weather. And NOAA’s R2X initiative, itself going on 50, will be regarded as a landmark success in sustaining an American culture of innovation.

A good time to be alive!


[1] Continuing this LOTRW mini-series on environmental intelligence and events of this past summer

[2] And both – important to emphasize this given recent events – are non-partisan.

[3] As in – answering the question what will it do next? – with the specificity needed if society is to adjust, either to capture opportunity and potential benefit or to avoid potential danger or hazard.

[4]in analogy with the agricultural extension services dating back to the Morrill Act.

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