Human Choice and the Weather-Ready Nation

Here’s a not-entirely whimsical assignment for anyone who claims to be interested in the link between social science and our goal of weather-readiness.

Take the Ten suggestions for policymakers listed in Monday’s post – suggestions originally framed by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone for policymakers struggling to cope with climate change in the 1990’s. Attempt a makeover…from climate change to weather-readiness. To what extent do some of the ten suggestions work as stated? Would others work if modified? Are there some that simply don’t fit at all?

To show you how such a recasting of these suggestions might look, I’ll offer a strawman. Hopefully you’ll immediately see ways to work an improvement. Please share your ideas.

1. View the issue of weather-readiness holistically, not just as the problem of weather warnings. The December conversation in Norman did a good job of opening up this point. Engineers were on hand to discuss the importance of safe rooms, shelters, good construction practices, and maintenance of buildings, homes, and critical infrastructure. Social scientists spoke to the importance of full community involvement, including oft-disenfranchised minorities and especially vulnerable underrepresented groups, and to an overarching need for social justice.

2. Recognize that, for weather-readiness policymaking, institutional limits to weather-readiness are at least as important as limits to atmospheric predictability. When it comes to increasing weather readiness, it’s often not a matter so much of improving the forecast as it is taking pre-event mitigation actions, building community awareness and preparedness, ensuring that people not only know what to do, but also have the means to do it. Putting this into place means getting city and county government regulations and services right, building the needed education into schools, ensuring that hospitals have emergency plans, and much more.

3. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on weather-readiness than improvements in weather forecasts and warnings. In just the last ten years emerging social networks, new social media, and smart communications devices have transformed the way people receive and use – and co-generate – information on weather and its impacts. There’s little reason to expect the next decade to be any less dynamic. If we want to do more than merely react, we have to get ahead of the curve.

4. Recognize the limits of rational planning. In this kind of world…top-down, command-and-control approaches to the development and use of weather warnings have seen their end.

5. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in weather-readiness policymaking. The natural scientists, engineers and service providers issuing and passing along weather warnings need to be as disciplined in communicating to the public and other end users as they are about the science of meteorology and forecast techniques. Local political- and public-sector leaders need to be as disciplined in preparing their communities for weather extremes as they are about raising campaign funds and tending to their local economies. They shouldn’t attempt to wing it, or even to learn this broad range of social science disciplines themselves. Instead  they need to develop a skill for partnering up with experts. That cuts both ways, doesn’t it? Social scientists need to be disciplined in working with leaders in the media-glare and no-second-chances atmosphere of the political arena.

6. Design weather-readiness measures for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to any particular normative  model of how weather-readiness and societal response to warnings should work. 20th-century ideas such as “there needs to be one official forecast and everyone needs to follow the instructions of local emergency managers” remain attractive notions…but they sure have gotten more difficult to exercise in the event, when people are immersed in an information soup of cacophonous, often conflicting messages.

7. Incorporate weather-readiness into other more immediate issues, such as the economy, education, and public health. Amen. It’s easy in the weather-warning world as in the climate-change world to see our issue as central to human affairs. But the fact is, most days, people are far more concerned about jobs, their kids’ schooling, and their access to needed health care than a rare and distant weather hazard or a decade-on-decade drift in the climate. It’s essential for readiness to build the latter into the former, instead of treating them as separate, competing concerns.

8. Take a regional and local approach to weather-readiness. When it comes to weather hazards, one size doesn’t fit all. The blend of hazard, economy, demographics, and politics varies dramatically from town to town and city to city. As a result, “weather-ready” means something quite different from place to place.

9. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest. Weather-readiness begins when the hazardous event is years out. By the time the hazard is imminent, the community fate has largely been determined – for better or worse. Few options remain.

10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making. This one didn’t need any changes, did it?

The recasting turned out to be slight, almost trivial. You might think this is more than a bit glib. True enough. But before being too quick to judge (and dismissive), think a little bit more about each of these points. Ask yourself whether they don’t add up to good sense.

Two larger ideas should emerge from this thought exercise: (1) One reason that the Rayner-Malone suggestions for policymakers with regard to climate change resonate so well today is that they’re more in the nature of fundamental precepts than targeted social fixes, or bandaids. (2) It’s precisely their universal nature that make them such a useful starting point.  The workshop summaries from Norman do and will contain a lot of important specifics. But we shouldn’t lose sight of general principles such as these along the way.

As indicated at the beginning of the post…this is just a quick and dirty strawman, done by just one person in a bit of a hurry. You can do better! And as you come up with ideas, please share with the rest of us.

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6 Responses to Human Choice and the Weather-Ready Nation

  1. What is your definition of “social justice” in the context of an “overarching need for social justice” in #1 above?

    • William Hooke says:

      Great question, Roger. Rather than give you a direct answer, I’d refer us both to a Wikipedia article on this subject:
      This isn’t necessarily the most definitive source, but it gives a feel for the topic. One key part is this bit of text: Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.
      How does this play out in the weather-ready context? Take the fact that manufactured housing/mobile homes are more vulnerable to tornadoes than so-called stick homes. [There’s a lot of background here but let’s save that for another day.] So…does this mean that the poor are more vulnerable to tornadoes than their richer counterparts? Probably. Is this an injustice? Some people say yes, citing the causes of poverty, and the fact that poverty gets passed on from generation to generation. Other people say no, because they note that manufactured housing provides an all-important first step toward home ownership…that something like a quarter or so of first-owned homes are from this stock. Anyway, the whole area is complicated…lots of shades of grey.

      Social justice is like motherhood. Very few would argue against it. Do you and I favor social injustice? Probably not. Where any discussion might arise is with respect to the underlying characterization of the term.

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  3. Rey says:

    With improving watches and warnings, wouldn’t it make sense for our community leaders to open up certain buildings during these deadly tornado watch/warning scenarios like well built schools/hospitals/businesses as shelters for those who live in manufactured housing or substandard housing? Wish this could happen before the next deadly tornado strikes a trailer park.

  4. Sigal weinfeld says:

    There are solutions to such issues as pre manufactered homes. 1. They would have to include a real basement or even a fox hole as a requerment for use. Or with new ones, they have to have a built in shelter which could be the pantry and is made with a reinforced shell that can withstand higher winds and is anchored to Better footing during its placement.placement

  5. Alan Haynes says:

    All of these points are so right on! Number 6 is problematic not just because of the variety of weather information sources but also because the forecast is constantly being nudged; people hear a forecast at a discreet time, from a discreet source and it propagates, frozen in time, while time passes. Meanwhile, a new forecast may be issued, which then is propagated and may contradict a previous forecast from the same source still being circulated. This is a problem.

    Number 7 is likely the main method that weather readiness can be dealt with in a way that will modify behavior, all idealism aside (again, point number 6).

    These are all excellent points!

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