Political leaders make the case for climate change.

“Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.”– Proverbs 27:2 (NIV)

Yesterday’s LOTRW post closed noting that geoscientists and their engineering and social-science colleagues currently confront a dilemma. In the face of the covid-19 crisis, how to tug at the sleeves of beleaguered policymakers, make the case that global change is a bigger problem still – an existential challenge, with multiple such pandemic-sized problems embedded in it? How to make a compelling argument that global change merits continuing attention and action even in the midst of the current worldwide disruption and dismay? How to do this without coming across as hopelessly insensitive to the needs of today, self-absorbed and clueless, jealous, and/or shrill?

(The answer? While we’re thus preoccupied, perplexed about what to do, we look up and notice, to our surprise and relief, that the world’s national and global leaders are, unprompted, making our case for us. Problem solved.) 

A few days ago, on Earth Day, the Washington Post video-streamed live a conversation between John Kerry (Democrat) and John Kasich (Republican) on Leading the Fight against Climate Change. You can find it here.

The current (April 25-May 1) issue of The Economist is running the first of a six-part series on the climate change. The entire May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled The Fire Next Time, is devoted to the subject, including a notable article by two former Republican Secretaries of State, James Baker, and George Schultz, who argue that climate change is not simply an environmental risk but also a strategic opportunity. The same issue contains a piece by John Podesta and Todd Stern, who ran the Obama climate-change portfolio. They make proposals that would reestablish America’s international leadership in the face of the challenge..

Then there’s the op-ed from Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, published in this morning’s New York Times: A Time to Save the Sick and Rescue the Planet. He makes a strong case for tackling both covid-19 and climate change simultaneously. Some excerpts:

The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest test the world has faced since World War II. There is a natural tendency in the face of crisis to take care of one’s own first. But true leadership understands that there are times to think big and more generously. Such thinking was behind the Marshall Plan and the formation of the United Nations after World War II. This is also such a moment. We must work together as societies and as an international community to save lives, ease suffering and lessen the shattering economic and social consequences of Covid-19.

The impact of the coronavirus is immediate and dreadful. We must act now and we must act together. Just as we must act together to address another urgent global emergency that we must not lose sight of — climate change. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization released data showing that temperatures have already increased 1.1 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels. The world is on track for devastating climate disruption from which no one can self-isolate

Addressing climate change and Covid-19 simultaneously and at enough scale requires a response stronger than any seen before to safeguard lives and livelihoods. A recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies — a more resilient and prosperous world.

Secretary-General Guterres then goes on to propose six “climate-positive actions:”

  • As we spend trillions to recover from Covid-19, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition. Investments must accelerate the decarbonization of all aspects of our economy.
  • Where taxpayers’ money rescues businesses, it must be creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth. It must not be bailing out outdated polluting, carbon-intensive industries.
  • Fiscal firepower must shift economies from gray to green, making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.
  • Looking forward, public funds should invest in the future, by flowing to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and climate. Fossil fuel subsidies must end and polluters must pay for their pollution.
  • The global financial system, when it shapes policy and infrastructure, must take risks and opportunities related to climate into account. Investors cannot continue to ignore the price our planet pays for unsustainable growth.
  • To resolve both emergencies, we must work together as an international community. Like the coronavirus, greenhouse gases respect no boundaries. Isolation is a trap. No country can succeed alone.

This sample, though admittedly small and biased, offers comfort. It hints that world leaders, including ours, are not myopically reacting only to the present distress. They’re multi-tasking. They retain situational awareness of longer-term aspirations and needs. They preferentially select those short-term options and fixes that at the same time ratchet governments, corporations, and peoples toward desired larger ends.

They’re doing their jobs? This frees scientists to do what we do best – gather evidence, collect data, build and test hypotheses and models, improve forecasts, and support policymakers as they do the sifting through alternative policies and actions. We needn’t over-anxiously attempt to take politics into our own (clumsy) hands… and politicians don’t need to boast about their scientific chops. (Most) politicians and (most) scientists alike acknowledge the wisdom of Proverbs 27:2 – something we’ve “always known,” most likely drilled into us by mom and dad. 

Let others be your advocates.

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You’re a scientist? Uncle Sam wants you.

And well he should.

Here’s the background.

The greatest generation was born into an era of rapid IT innovation that gave us the telephone and radio (and hinted at television). They then endured the Great Depression, a decade of hardscrabble economic times facing farmers and industrial workers alike. They earned their spurs thwarting the ambitions of despotic leaders in Germany, Italy, Japan (and ultimately, the Soviet Union) seeking to dominate a debilitated world.

The greatest generation accomplished this in great part through months and even years of unselfish military service. The true heroes were those sacrificed their lives on the front lines.

That 20th-century narrative finds a mirror in present events. Today, covid-19 confronts our generation with three daunting challenges we have to overcome simultaneously[1]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth while at the same time revitalizing global commerce; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity[2].

This time around the heroes are the world’s healthcare workers in the hospital ICU’s and ER’s. For weeks they have done their best to save lives in the face of shortages in beds, basic medicines, as well as medical gear ranging from ventilators to protective garments, face masks, etc. Their days have seen too much death and tragedy up close; their evenings have been consumed by the additional measures needed to spare their own families and loved ones any secondhand exposure to the virus. Add to them the larger group who have taken on extra risk in order to keep the food chain going from the farm or ranch all the way to the work-from–home crowd, as well as maintain the functioning of other infrastructure critical to the survival of today’s modernized, urban, interconnected world.

Rosie the riveter

Armies fought World War II, but industrial might played a large role in the outcome. American industry, protected from the worst of the conflict by two major oceans, was pivotal. And so was America’s enlistment of women  in the war effort (The conflict favored nations that embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion even more broadly – though not by today’s label.)

Which brings us to science and scientists.

In World War II, science and technology made a huge difference. First it was radar – pivotal in the Battle of Britain. Then the bomb – which hastened the surrender of Japan. Penicillin and anti-malarials (the latter especially in the Pacific theater) also played their part.

Expect science and technology to be even more pivotal in greatest generation – the sequel. Here’s why. 

Leaders and analysts are beginning to assess the long-term consequences of the trillions of dollars being spent now to keep nations and peoples worldwide on life support. Eye-watering levels of global debt will need to be repaid. Governments face hard choices: raise taxes; default on debts, either explicitly, or (more likely) through inflation; or grow their economies. In reality, governments will resort to various combinations of all three.

When it comes to the needed economic growth, innovation is the key. Tomorrow’s real world problems cannot be tackled successfully with yesterday’s tools. Even prior to covid-19, Americans had been spending nearly 20% of GDP on healthcare, essentially the costliest worldwide. The pandemic has only increased everyone’s desire for personal safety in the face of health threats. Expect therefore that much government investment and private-sector attention will initially focus on advance and application of IT (exascale computing, big data, data analytics, artificial intelligence) to healthcare and public health. Expect as well a rebalancing in emphasis. In recent years, innovation in infectious disease had taken a back seat to research on chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. Look now for increased attention and investment in disease surveillance and early detection, testing, vaccines, and more. 

STEM education in both K-12 public schools and in research universities needs innovation across the board. In the lingering aftermath of World War II (the so-called Cold War) Russian launch of Sputnik served as a wake-up call: American youth needed more rigorous science education. The result was the National Defense Education Act. Something similar is required today. But the NDEA fell short in a major respect. It strengthened U.S. science, but made a difference only for a relatively small fraction of the population. The outcome was a US culture in which science could become the province of a few “nerdy kids” (full disclosure: I was one) instead of something more universal.

(A digression. In recent years, the German educational system has been held in high regard globally. The reason?  It has trained and prepared virtually all young Germans to enter careers in high-tech, manufacturing jobs. This has made Germany a rich exporter, able to maintain high wages in the face of stiff competition from China and others with much lower labor costs. This time around, U.S. STEM education needs to do the same. The US, with only 4% of the world’s population, cannot hold on to world leadership unless it is also the most innovative. Virtually every U.S. economic sector, every field of endeavor, every government institution and every corporation is constrained by the shortage of professionals facile with today’s IT. The U.S. also needs to be the most inclusive; diversity, equity and inclusion have never mattered more.)

Closer to home: what are the implications of all this for Earth scientists? It’s important that in the emphasis on IT and its application to public health the Earth sciences shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. 

But to argue this now is to walk a fine line. 

The case needs to be made. Natural scientists – who study the Earth system, its physical, chemical, biological, ecological, and human and social components, who apply emerging technologies to these fields, and who provide products and services based on these sciences and technologies – have never been more needed. The world will be making massive investments – in food, water and energy infrastructure; in building community-level resilience to hazards; in protecting the environment – over coming decades. The insights our environmental intelligence provides can help ensure those investments are made productively and wisely, not squandered. Success requires rapid scientific advance; we don’t have all the science we need. Here tomorrow’s needed tools include:observing instruments of great diagnostic power; models and data analytics realizing the full capabilities of exascale computing powerpredictions comprehending the fully-coupled environmental/human system.

But in the current political climate it’s easy for such calls to seem shrill, or jealous, or self-absorbed. We need to balance our requests for more attention and funding with the strongest possible support for STEM education, for advance in IT and its applications more broadly. Otherwise, we risk looking (and actually being) self-serving in the face of bigger, more immediate world concerns.

What, then, to do? More in the next post.

[1]A recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and book.

[2]And those despots? Newly ascendant, finding opportunity and seizing extraordinary powers while the world is preoccupied with the virus. The current issue of The Economist lists leaders from Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, and Singapore, among others.

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The greatest generation, v2.0

Would you rather be part of a generation of great people, or part of a great generation?

The answer should be easy. At each point throughout history, great people are everywhere. Truth is, get to know anyone – that’s anyone – well enough, and you’ll uncover a kernel of greatness, of latent or evident potential. Might be extraordinary energy. Strength. A bright mind. Musical talent. A capacity to love. 

Greatness is universal? Yep. As in – it includes you. The rest of us see greatness in you. Don’t flinch from that. Own it[1].

Generations of great people are a dime a dozen.

But a great generation? That requires two ingredients that don’t come along that often. The first? The conjunction of a set of dire global challenges. The second? An emergent group recognition that individual self interest doesn’t conflict in some zero-sum way with the welfare of others and the larger society, but instead coincides. (We’re all in it together.)  Through conversation the development of shared vision about the jobs that need doing, the discovery that everyone has a role to play – and some clarity about and respect for what that role is. Everyone engaged; no bystanders! (Diversity, equity and inclusion not some touchy-feely nice-to-have abstraction, but desperately needed for successful outcomes.) Universal shouldering of individual responsibility – a commitment to shared goals. Millions of people – an entire generation – have to buy in.

As for that first requirement, covid-19 and the past few months have dumped just such a unique opportunity in our laps. Let’s drill down:

To start, the term greatest generation[2] isn’t new, but has been around a while. Recall how that generation earned their stripes. They faced down two global upheavals back-to-back – the Great Depression, which drove millions on every continent into poverty, followed by a sprouting of totalitarian, fascist despots, who fomented the international conflict that grew into World War II. 

We’ve honored that generation, appropriately so, for more than half a century. But as the last members of that generation leave us, can we do no better than honor and mourn the loss of that past? Might not our generation possibly make an even greater mark on history? Where and how might we contribute our talents and gifts to making a better world for ourselves and for those we love? Our children? Our grandchildren? Our friends and their families? People we don’t even know, the world over?

As recently as a few months ago, the answer was there, but obscured by the prevalent (and, in retrospect, unwarrantedly complacent) feeling of well-being. World concern about climate change was growing, but this seemed a small cloud at the horizon barely discernible against an otherwise sunny scene: a humming global economy and a culture of innovation, especially in IT. Disease outbreaks were highly localized problems that generally speaking occurred “somewhere else, in distant, poor places.” Despots seemed once again to be growing in number, but they too were “elsewhere,” – Russia, or the “stans” of central Asia, or Africa, or closer to home – in Venezuela and Brazil. Americans were living from paycheck to paycheck, but those paychecks seemed assured. Chances of our laying claim to “the-greatest generation” seemed slim indeed.

But now existential challenges are everywhere we look, staring us in the face. Covid-19 has revealed fatal shortcomings in our public health infrastructure; brought K-12 public education and higher education to a standstill; and becalmed the economy. Some 26 million Americans (16% of the workforce!) have applied for unemployment in just a few short weeks. Covid-19 has also tattered the social fabric. Shared good times – concerts, sports events, shopping, church, beach-going, happy hours, restaurant meals, you name it – all things we used to know and enjoy? Suspended until further notice. Social inequities, once papered over by favorable economic trends, now stand visible in stark relief. On every continent, autocratic leaders are flexing their muscle; this week’s print edition of The Economist speaks of “a pandemic of power grabs.” All the while, reductions in biodiversity and habitat, environmental degradation and climate change continue to grow more manifest daily.

In the pre-covid world-19, it was easy to trivialize these threats; surely our great wealth and emerging technologies would carry us through. We needed only to divert a smidgen of our attention and our resources from concerns of the moment to these longer-term issues. No chance of glory there. But now any margin our 21st-century lives might recently enjoyed has vanished. The entire human race has the shared task of lifting itself up by the bootstraps. All we have to do is recover the former stability and smooth operation of the day-to-day while addressing the longer-term, bigger concerns, and future generations will see ours as “the (new) greatest.” 

Two observations in closing. 

First, we face a set of three challenges that can’t be addressed in isolation, but instead must be resolved simultaneously[3]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth and in the process, restoring the global economy; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity.

Second: in a wondrous way, from an individual perspective the problem of playing our part in the grander scheme has become simpler. We don’t have to change fields. We don’t have to pick up stakes and move to some remote world corner. Problems and needs are everywhere. All we have to do is the job we find at hand. 

A final note. As we move forward into this future, as we discover whether we’re to become the greatest generation, or remain something less, perhaps we might call to mind an episode from professional football – one that has been immortalized as The Drive, even earning its own Wikipedia entry. An excerpt:

The Drive was an offensive series in the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship Game played on January 11, 1987, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium between the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns. Broncos quarterback John Elway, in a span of 5 minutes and 2 seconds, led his team 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game with 37 seconds left in regulation. Denver won the game in overtime making a 33-yard field goal, pulling off a 23–20 win over the Cleveland Browns.

The 98-yard drive ranks as pro football’s prototypical clutch performance.

John Elway emerged as the hero, but one of my favorite bits of the story was contributed by Broncos offensive guard Keith Bishop, who said of the Browns at the drive’s start, “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”

Covid-19? A shattered world economy? Climate change? No worries.

We’ve got this.

[1]Doesn’t mean that everything about every one of us is great. We’re also all imperfect, flawed, not just in the being, but the execution – our actions and deeds. We fall short of our potential. But don’t own that part – instead, get over it.

[2]From Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book by the same title, of course. And to forestall any charges of self-plagiary, the first LOTRW post along these lines dates back to 2011, almost exactly nine years to the day. You can find similar LOTRW references peppered across the intervening years, and in LOTRW, the book (on pages 233-237).

[3]Again, an essential starting point and recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and the book.

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Louisiana’s response to extreme weather.

Today is Earth Day – at not just any Earth Day, but the 50th[1]! A real milestone! But the backstory for today’s post goes back to a February 15themail from the eminent natural-hazard researcher (and, equally importantly, distinguished hazards pedagogue, policy maven, and practitioner) Shirley Laska. She closed this way:

I am also writing to you to tell you that I have a new book out by Springer which is Open Access (free).  It is about the challenges of Louisiana as a coastal state “ahead of the curve” in climate change.  The series editors and I agreed on “extreme weather” instead of climate change in order to encourage doubters to read the book.  I was wondering if it might be possible for you to write about it or let me tell you some of my concerns about how we approach adaptation that are reflective of the chapter themes I invited.  While it is not fully in line with you[r] themes, I think there are a couple of main commitments to thinking I have that you/your readers might find useful.  If I am piquing your interest, I know you will reply…

(and of course I did).

That was more than two months ago. I wish this post or something along these lines had appeared much sooner, and I also wish it could have been more complete. But the nature of 21st-century life is inimical to long-term projects such as reading a book (to say nothing of writing/editing one! Congratulations to Shirley and her chapter authors!). Work pressures, and covid-19 have intervened. That latter intervention is particularly ironic. What better opportunity for tackling a book than longish periods of enforced isolation? But the best I can do is provide a brief progress report, and a very preliminary one at that – and promise that more will be coming in forthcoming posts, if a bit intermittently. 

To begin: the book’s full title is Louisiana’s Response to Extreme Weather:  A Coastal State’s Adaptation Challenges and Successes. (S. Laska (ed), 2020, SpringerOpen Access.) You can gain that free access here.

As the title suggests, Shirley and her chapter authors provide a deep dive into Louisiana’s efforts to manage environmental risks. They address decades of such risk, but mostly through the lens of two events: Hurricane Katrina and (to a lesser extent) the BP oil spill. They focus attention on state–level[2]response, but connect this to local- and federal-level efforts. They also generalize to the larger challenges facing the fifty U.S. states. They make the connection to climate change, and to climate change adaptation. They offer the sobering observation that climate change adaptation is normally considered a risk management strategy, but the reality is that climate change adaptation introduces new risks of its own (an idea that seems self-evident once expressed, but essentially a new one for me). All this makes for a heavy lift! But the authors and the book measure up.

To whet your appetite, especially on Earth Day, here’s an extended excerpt, from Professor Laska’s initial chapter:

The extreme weather adaptation frame offered here combines two concepts – exceptional recovery and essential resilience(Laska 2012). [Emphasis added]

The exceptional recovery process has qualities that have been identified and developed by the authors of this book’s chapters. The recovery process must:

• Be based on a robust commitment to citizen participation

• Honor community self-determination of recovery processes and outcomes

• Have a deep commitment to social justice in the recovery processes at all levels of government response

• Expect a sophisticated recognition by government officials of historical experiences that have led to socially constructed vulnerabilities “causing” the current disaster impacts (Tierney 2014; Wisner et al. 2004)

• Appreciate the economics of the recovery process itself that do not support the enablement and adaptation of the entire community to future extreme weather but rather the interest of the corporations that are used to address the damage and of the “growth machine” (Molotch 1976) putting developer interest ahead of community residents

• Have a deep understanding of the institutionally induced harm that manifests itself in the current government-managed recovery including the technocratic framing of disaster funding as dependent upon benefit/cost and to develop recovery processes that are free of such harm

Without such a robust understanding, the recovery process will contribute to reproducing the vulnerabilities that caused the extreme weather event to generate harm in the first place through a disaster or even a catastrophe from which the community or region is now recovering. Adding the adjective essential to the sought-for resilience gives consideration to the qualities of resiliency that must be part of the outcome of the exceptional recovery. The prolific array of publications that have appeared in the last couple of decades speak to the enhancing of the qualities of the society that permit it to “bounce back” or change so that the form the community/region takes after a disaster enables life to go on effectively, e.g., “resiliently.” As has been repeatedly affirmed, such resiliency extends way beyond preventing the physical event or modulating generally what the extreme weather event can do to a community physically. The use of essential resiliency in this discussion of climate change adaptation is to encourage the consideration of what qualities of a society, of a community, are essential to the robust improvement of the community to withstand future climate change-induced extreme weather impacts[Emphasis added.] To reiterate, it is the robust, carefully considered essential improvements that redound to the benefit of all social classes, races, ethnic groups, and the social organization that supports the full community’s ability to function satisfactorily that are the requirements of successful adaptation.

[An apology; don’t look for the references here; merely indicating that the book is thoroughly annotated. For the bibliography you’ll need to go to the original link.]

Strikingly, these ideas, framed and articulated over the past few years (that is, they come from what looking-back seems a very distant, much simpler, and relatively untroubled past) remain salient in the dawn of our pandemic age (the Virucene?). They’re a useful guide/blueprint for policymakers and publics struggling to manage the current coupled public-health/economic crisis. The six attributes of exceptional recovery process, and the idea of essential  resilience, not just recovery from covid-19, but a recovery that better prepares us to manage future viral threats, need little or no editing to accommodate this current existential challenge. As a society, we have shown past tendencies to take shortcuts in the recovery process, but the authors make clear we ignore these higher standards for exceptional recovery and essential resilience at our peril.

A free book? The 50thEarth Day? Time to kill trapped at home? What are we waiting for? Let’s all continue reading…

[1]Inspired by protests of the 1960’s, then-Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) suggested a “national teach-in on the environment,” which would be held annually on April 22, in order to reach large numbers of university students while still on campus.

[2]And statewide, response; they emphasize a transition in Louisiana framing of the challenge from coastal- to Louisiana-as-a-whole.

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A Brighter Light?

The covid-19 pandemic has sharpened minds. Much of the resulting thought has focused on survival and recovery – both physiological and economic, and at individual, institutional, and national levels. But the scale and magnitude of events are leading each of us into a season of deeper, more personal reflection.

Mary Glackin[1]recently circulated a set of such thoughts among a group of her friends. She later passed it along in an email. I asked (and received permission) to share it with LOTRW readers. Here it is, verbatim.

I write this post knowing I am much better off than most during this pandemic.  It is with good fortune that decisions made more than a year ago led me to be in FL vs. DC at this time.  The difference amounted to being able to go thru this event with my daughter, son-in-law and grandson vs. being alone in my apartment.  So, I know this has given me an edge on optimism.  I am extremely grateful.

However, I’ve been thinking about the good that has come out of this pandemic so far and that still to come. Will the light at the end of the tunnel be brighter in fact than when we entered?  I am choosing to think that it will even if it is just because we are more clear-eyed.  

First let me acknowledge the things that will contribute to the dimness at the end of the tunnel.  Foremost is the grief for the loss of life and impacts to health.  It is tragic. Also, we know we won’t burst out of this tunnel. It will be slow to get folks back to work, etc.  So, we all won’t be celebrating at a restaurant together anytime soon.  And, the economy will likely take years to recover.  Many small businesses will be gone despite efforts to save them.  And, — and this is the one I really hate because it is avoidable — there will continue to be strong efforts to divide people, the country and the world.  We can see in the news already the hunt to find and punish the ‘guilty’.  This includes the scientists and their models. Familiar to many in our community because they have honed their swords on climate models.  It will take a lot to overcome what I see are strong forces here – but those forces all existed before this pandemic.  The question really is how the pandemic might influence our response.  Please don’t take this to mean I’m not in favor of an assessment to learn from how we handled this experience; I very much am.

While there is much to worry about, I see things that are and will carry us through.  A crisis exposes the essence of who we really are. We have all had some time to reflect and many of us have taken action to help others beyond what we ordinarily do. I see so many acts of kindness every day.  I see people caring about folks they never met and praying for them. I see meals dropped off to family members.  I see people volunteering at food pantries putting their health at risk. I see musicians making the world sing, laugh and wonder. I believe that the number of people helping and willing to help far outstrips those that don’t care.  And that is no small thing.

This generous spirit is carrying us through.  As we get to the new normal, we need to recognize that collectively we will have done a great thing by ‘flattening the curve’ and avoiding unnecessary deaths, not breaking (for the most part) our healthcare system and workers.  If we can celebrate that the way we celebrated other major victories like WWII (and not get sucked into the hunt for the ‘guilty’) we will have a self-pride that I don’t think today’s citizens have ever had. And, we will know we can do amazing things.  That makes the sun shine for me. 

Thank you, Mary. Well said.

[1]Currently, Ms. Glackin is President of the American Meteorological Society. In years immediately prior, she had held leadership responsibilities at The Weather Company/IBM. You can learn more about her career in this LOTRW post from 2012.

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The case for a third tranche of covid-19 funding.

Hold on! The CARES Act — $2T of aid and loans to keep Americans on economic life support during the social distancing and economic slowdown necessitated by covid-19, was enacted only three weeks ago. There’s talk this funding was deficient with respect to both amount and coverage; we hear a follow-on bill is being crafted, but progress has been snarled. Each day we anxiously look for and cling to any signs of progress. Isn’t it premature to be talking about a third?

In a word, “no.”

To see this, consider Sunday’s print edition of the Washington Post, which carried a story entitled: Record debt load poses risk of fiscal “tipping point.” You can find the online version of the article here.

The main premise is simple, yet ominous. The story begins this way:

The United States is embarking on a rapid-fire experiment in borrowing without precedent, as the government and corporations take on trillions of dollars of debt to offset the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government is on its way this year to spending nearly $4 trillion more than it collects in revenue, analysts say, a budget deficit roughly twice as large relative to the economy as in any year since 1945.

Business borrowing also is setting records. Giant corporations such as ExxonMobil and Walgreens, which binged on debt over the past decade, now are exhausting their credit lines and tapping bondholders for even more cash.

To support such borrowing, the Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates to zero and added more than $2 trillion of loans to its portfolio in the past six weeks — as much as in the four years following the Great Recession.

After a bit of elaboration, the author, David Lynch, goes on: 

…The reliance on so much debt also will leave scars after the pandemic passes, economists say, making it difficult for policymakers to withdraw support and leaving the economy more vulnerable than before this crisis began

The full article puts flesh on these bones, and amply rewards the read. The fear is that as a result of enforced social distancing, Americans are falling out of the habit of work, and into a trap of government dependency, just as the Nation is amassing an unmanageable mountain of debt. 

So why on earth might even more debt be a good thing?

The answer lies not in the expenditure of another $2T or so per se. Instead it depends on the sources for funds of a notional third tranche and on how and where they might be allocated. Economists and central bankers have argued ever since 2008 that monetary policy alone can’t sustainably rescue ailing economies (the 2019 link provided here is just one example of many reaching the same conclusion, though harking back to a calmer time). Politicians need to step up with fiscal measures – government outlays that stimulate the economy, that have the direct effect of putting people to work, and ultimately getting them to spend – rather than simply maintaining people, banks, and companies on life support. 

In this respect, infrastructure investment has long looked attractive. It’s needed in the trillion-dollar amounts big enough to make a difference to economies. And perhaps more importantly, targeted correctly – that is, aimed at the infrastructure needs of the future rather than those of the past – it can propel innovation and the economic growth needed to rebuild the tax base and balance budgets over the long run.

Say “infrastructure,” and most minds immediately turn to roads and bridges, the electrical grid, water supply, and such like. In the United States, after years of neglect, the need for upgrade is very real. But the global experience with the pandemic has helpfully spotlighted additional areas of major future demand. 

Several of these cluster in what, for want of a better word, might be called intelligence infrastructure. Here are three components.

A more robust and resilient system of public K-12 and higher education that raises the Nation’s intelligence. The rapidity with which the pandemic brought education to a halt, at all levels, has forcefully exposed years of underinvestment in our educational system. Children and their parents agonize as they struggle to stand up home schooling and connect to jerry-rigged, intermittent remote learning as school districts contend with decades-old technology . Young adults in higher education, on the cusp of entering the job force, have found themselves immobilized and their future prospects compromised in a similar way.  The infrastructure in question here is most fundamentally human capital. America needs larger numbers of better-equipped teachers; incentives and investment are in order. In addition, it’s clear that we’ve failed to make IT available to all students, in the same way that we’ve subsidized school lunches, for example. We need to rebuild our educational system at national, state, and local levels, in ways that not only prepare our people for tomorrow’s economies and tomorrow’s jobs, but also are resilient with respect to risks of every type. We need to harness teachers, IT, and, yes, parents, to revolutionize teaching of subject matter, to foster creativity and critical thinking; and most fundamentally to set the new generation on course to work through what it means to be responsible and independent, as well as interdependent, in modern society, to value diversity, and to grasp the true meaning and implications of “we’re all in it together.”

Epidemiological intelligence. At the same time, we’ve discovered that pandemics are the world’s Achilles’ heel,[1]a blind spot in our global and national risk management strategies. Surely one outcome of our present woes should be improved public-health infrastructure, at all levels of government, and worldwide. We should increase investment in disease surveillance, aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of new, more capable tools for testing and identification of novel public health threats. We should go further, buttressing the infrastructure for identifying needed therapies, fabricating and administering effective vaccines, and more. While, we’re at it, we could modernize the infrastructure for dealing with the non-infectious health threats (heart disease, cancer, obesity, etc.) responsible for the widespread pre-existing vulnerability to pandemic.

Before moving on the next topic, here’s a question. Suppose ten years or so ago we’d known what we do now about covid-19’s coming impact on our world. (After all, we sort of did.) For purposes of illustration, set a figure of something like 1,000,000 deaths and a $20 trillion dollar hit to the world economy. Suppose further, for the sake of argument, that with early detection of emergent viral diseases, faster development of diagnostic testing individuals for infection with those new diseases, or (following recovery) antibodies for those diseases, and faster development of vaccines, we could have forestalled virtually all of the economic disruption and reduced deaths by 70% or more. How much would we have been willing to invest each year over the ten-years to achieve that result? $200B/year (that would have produced a nearly ten-fold return)? That’s 0.3% of global GDP. Seen in life’s rearview mirror, seems like a small price to pay. 

Environmental intelligence more broadly. Building capacity in the world’s public health system at all levels is clearly needed. But to focus on this infrastructure and this threat alone risks creating another Maginot line,[2]fighting the last war. The real question is: what is the Earth we live on and utterly depend upon fixing to do next? How will it impact us? What measures can we take to mitigate damage or seize special opportunity? Again, one challenge, among several, that we can see already is global change – not just a change in climate but also a challenge to our ability to meet the food, water, and energy needs of some eight billion people. And here, as we’ve been told over and over again, the dollar sums of the needed investment are staggeringly large; we can’t simply throw money at the problem. We need to sharpen our  understanding of the probable impacts, and the value and efficacy of alternative courses of mitigation and adaptation in response.

A concluding note. Readers may recall that following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, there was a similar enthusiasm for fiscal stimulus, accompanied by the requirement that infrastructure initiatives to be funded should be shovel-ready.  The same criterion will no doubt – and should – be applied here. There’s texture in the shovel-readiness of specific projects embedded in these three general areas. But these three areas represent a point of departure for further, even more substantial future investments. And investments should be made in intelligence early on, before the human race once again falls into complacent comfort of the flying blind and ignorant into an uncertain, highly problematic future.

Bottom line? As the world and its people come off life support following our covid-19 nightmare, let’s not content ourselves with a collective sigh of relief. Let’s stimulate the economy in ways that can make us smarter and more capable, healthier, and wealthier, not just in the near term but for years to come. 

[1]Don’t know the story or the reference? Then your aforementioned educational system has failed you. You can learn more here.

[2]Another reference, this time not to Greek mythology, but to 20thcentury history. More details here.

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Covid-19 schools us on weather, water, and climate: a first cut.

Whatever our place in life – where we live, whatever our relationships, our work, our culture, our circumstances – Covid-19’s school is in session, providing stern but valuable instruction, in ways that are broadly similar, but also in some respects diverse, even unique.

A quick example. This past week’s Washington Post web site featured a David Ignatius piece entitled How the coronavirus is changing how we think about warfare. The lead:

Even as the novel coronavirus pandemic nears its peak, defense analysts are beginning to assess how the global spread of this deadly disease should change how we think about warfare.

“This has exposed some genuine gaps in military planning and readiness, as well as vulnerabilities in our national preparedness,” messaged Derek Chollet, a former assistant defense secretary who is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund. “The silver lining is it will force us to fix some things and prepare in a way we have needed to do for years.”

Certainly, covid-19 has had a “demonstration effect,” several analysts said. It shows how suddenly the global economy can be brought to a near-standstill by a new pathogen whose origins, transmission and effects are still murky, more than three months after the initial outbreak in China.

“Our form of democracy is vulnerable in the extreme. And any adversary who failed to notice would be brain-dead,” messaged Graham Allison, a leading strategist and a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The piece goes on to touch on bio-warfare; the vulnerability of human warriors versus drones and other autonomous systems; the impact of declining economies on defense spending; the need to rethink legacy approaches to national security; the need for better surveillance of bio-threats. Mr. Ignatius closes with this statement:

But the pandemic’s spread wasn’t so much a failure to anticipate the danger, but to execute policy effectively. [Emphasis added.] President Trump was catastrophically slow and disorganized, but Wall Street financial markets, military leaders and even public health planners also didn’t respond presciently to early warnings from China

Hmm. Covid-19 is changing how we think about warfare. 

The April 11-17 print issue of The Economist argued that covid-19 is accelerating three pre-existing trends in global commerce: the uptake of digital technologies such as e-commerce, digital payments, remote working, etc.; decreased reliance on zero-inventory, just-in-time global supply chains; and corporate bulking-up and increasing reliance on cronyism. 

Hmm. Covid-19 is changing how we think about the economy. 

What is covid-19’s message to the weather, water, and climate community?

Bright people have been quick to give this some thought

To dig a bit deeper: Daniel Wilkinson and Luciana Tellez Chavez see evidence that covid-19 has destroyed the momentum that had been building toward acting on climate change during what had figured to be a pivotal year.

Mona Sarfaty and Richard Carmona note that covid-19 has demonstrated the danger of ignoring experts and data; they frame climate change as a slow-motion public health emergency. 

The World Economic Forum argues that the pandemic highlights five actions we should take to deal with the climate change crisis: rethink risk; listen to global perspectives; make people the top priority; trust experts; make a cultural shift.

These perspectives provide only the merest hint of the thought that’s out there. (If you’re reading this, chances are good you have your own, even better ideas. Hopefully, you’re not keeping them to yourself.)

Two closing thoughts to add to the mix:

The urgent always has the edge. The ringtone from the cellphone – heralding a facetime moment, an incoming e-mail, a text, an alert – is a siren song inviting us to step away from the big task we’d been pursuing. This tyranny of the urgent, first articulated by Charles Hummel in a little booklet published in the 1960’s, has for years been a staple in time management courses in both the religious and secular worlds. Each generation struggles with the challenge. The fact is, we live on a planet that does its business through extreme events[1]. And extremes are a fractal, like so much else in nature. The covid-19 crisis distracts us from the climate change problem. But, as we were forcibly reminded just this past Monday, for those in the path of an oncoming tornado (or even survivors needing shelter in the aftermath) the tornado holds full sway. Momentarily, covid-19 concerns themselves are put on hold[2]. Then, in the shelter, our toddler suddenly starts sobbing uncontrollably. The tornado recedes into the background. And so on.

For years, some in the developed world have clucked tongues about the developing world’s preoccupation with the short time horizon – feeding children, earning a dollar, just surviving, for another twenty-four hours – to the exclusion of longer-term challenges (not just climate change, but education, infrastructure, governance, and other concerns). Even in-country, domestically, the world’s rich see the world’s poor in that same light. It’s not surprising that populist politicians seize on this to label climate change a preoccupation only for the elite. 

But covid-19 has for the moment proved a bit of a leveler. The rich start out better positioned to face the health challenge, but nonetheless are confined to home and denied agency, and now long every bit as much as their poorer counterparts for a “return to normalcy.”  Here in the United States, for example, environmental concerns that had looked to be front-and-center in the 2020 elections have been sidelined by health and economic woes. Public- and higher education have been hollowed out. Frailties and dysfunction in infrastructure and governance have been exposed, all in a matter of weeks.

The problem goes deep. The challenge is common to every sector – national defense, the economy, climate change. That World Economic Forum piece frames it as the need for a cultural shift: 

Many aspects of the COVID-19 response are similar to the types of changes we need as part of a comprehensive climate-change response. What is interesting is that many necessary shifts just require a change in culture. For example, neither the surge in cycling and expansion of bike lanes in Bogota as citizens avoid public transport, nor the coronavirus work-from-home experiment, have required any new technology, but instead have relied on new thinking.

It is clear that we have many of the tools to make major advances in addressing climate change; what we need now is the political will to apply them.

Much remains uncertain about what the world will look like when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fundamental societal changes we are witnessing may well offer us a final chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.

In reality, however, our problem goes a bit deeper. We need more than new thinking. We need more than a cultural shift. We need more than new values. It is our very nature – the way we’re wired to think and act – that needs fixing.

Something to ponder until summoned by the next text message.

[1]A major theme of LOTRW and the book by the same name.

[2]My own organization, the American Meteorological Society, had issued a statement on tornado sheltering guidelines just four days prior.

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Covid-19 and poverty.

“The disease is not a great leveler, the consequences of which everyone — rich or poor — suffers the same… This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health…What kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?”– Emily Maitlis (BBC host; you can join more than 2 million others, and see the one-minute video here.)

“The poor you will always have with you.”– Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 26:11a, NIV)

Emily Maitlis nailed it. But what are the chances we’ll act as individuals and nations on her advice? Taken out of context (as it often is!), Jesus’ forecast, especially considering its source, is sobering[1]. Most of us are overwhelmed by the poverty’s pervasiveness and immense scale. Any individual contribution we might make to alleviate poverty seems too puny to matter. A minority of the most pessimistic or cynical therefore find free license to be totally unconcerned about poverty and the plight of the poor. But this mix of paralysis and contempt perpetuates and even aggravates the challenge. 

Fact is, the covid-19 experience ought to motivate the billions of us who are well off to do more to reduce the poverty in our midst. This is the lesson the pandemic has to teach us that matters most. 

The lesson begins at the very beginning – the origins of disease outbreaks. But it extends to transmission and spread, vulnerability, and impacts. 

Origin. Covid-19 and similar disease threats are often zoonotic; they originate in other animal species, and are subsequently transmitted from animals to humans. What’s more, much zoonosis occurs in pockets of poverty – where the health of humans and the neighboring agricultural and natural ecosystems have been compromised, where human-animal contact is close and uncontrolled, where bushmeat is a staple, and so on. Not only are such poorer populations and regions more vulnerable, they lack the public health infrastructure needed (1) for early detection of emergent disease and (2) to stem subsequent disease spread. This poses risks not just to people living at the site of origin, but, as we’ve seen, also to the larger world. 

Richer nations and peoples, aware of such perils, have for some time attempted –  through international agreements, through foreign aid, and through private donations – to build up monitoring and public health capacity in such danger zones. Efforts to contain Ebola outbreaks across Africa over recent years illustrate this. 

But often the foreign aid stops there. We’ve injected assets in this poorer world not to improve the circumstances of the hundreds of millions living under such conditions, but to merely to confine the public health risks there in order to prevent their spread to the larger, wealthier world. We, the affluent, do the minimum necessary a world away to protect ourselves at home.

Transmission and spread. Covid-19’s spread has been most rapid initially across the northern-hemisphere-developed nations. But now, even as the rich world’s concern is shifting to rebooting the global economy, the southern-hemisphere-developing world is only beginning to feel the full public-health impact. There the disease is encountering vulnerable populations, and razor-thin, fragile public-health and healthcare infrastructure. Losses will be severe and social consequences profound, but will struggle to get the rich world’s attention. Experts warn that failure to win the public health battle there will contribute to future, recurrent risks spanning the developed world in ensuing months.

The international impact. All this can and does build bitterness. Poorer nations and their peoples are by and large may be too preoccupied with the strains of meeting the needs of each day to do more than protest, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unaware of the great gap in human circumstances and prospects occasioned by accidents of birth. The emergence of social media and resultant spread of information means that such awareness – and the accompanying resentment and discontent – is growing, especially among the young. And one hallmark of disasters, whether flood or drought, or pandemic or financial-sector collapse, is that they aggravate and heighten preexisting inequalities. 

Statements such as “we’re all in it together,” ring true and serve as a rallying cry when they reflect society’s preexisting social contract under business-as-usual. But when and where our pre-disaster experience isn’t perceived by all parties as somewhere near “fair and just” (and/or tending toward equity), then those same words ring false. They exacerbate the pre-existing social divide. 

Fortunately, the world has been making progress in eradicating poverty over the past decade or so. But the rate of progress has shown signs of slowing in the past few years). And much remains to be done: improved nutrition doing the first few years of a child’s life, allowing proper brain development that will make a lifelong difference. Greater access to (better) public education, for children of both genders.

In light of covid-19, the World Economic Forum is calling for actionThe World Bank is mobilizing

The domestic impact. But the problem is not simply international. In every nation the covid-19 impact is borne disproportionally by the poor. Here in the United States, the news has distinguished between the fate and impact on those who can work at home, and for whom the impacts have been relatively benign, and those who’ve either found themselves unemployed or who are commuting to and laboring in risky, often crowded workplaces where social distancing isn’t a real option. The burden is especially heavy on healthcare workers and first responders and their families. U.S. news headlines of recent days have also focused with dismay on the staggering statistical disparity between the outcomes for African Americans versus Caucasians. We’re reminded that the higher vulnerability stems from years of economic inequity and its contributions to pre-existing conditions, unequal access to healthcare in the present day, and, in our racially polarized society, even to dangers from wearing face masks.

To sum up: To the extent the covid-19 pandemic rouses us from our collective complacency about the poverty and the plight of the poor worldwide, it will have vaccinated us against a wide range of larger threats posed to our security and well-being. That starts with a global threat of special consequence to our professional community: climate change.

[1]Though the context, especially during this Passover-Easter season, might lead us in a different direction. And meteorologists, especially, are by disciplinary training predisposed to see the power and potential influence of the small.

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(More) lessons from covid-19

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.”– Rahm Emanuel

(Wall Street Journal interview, November 19, 2008)

Covid-19 has reinforced an old lesson: pandemics and other disasters are inherently nonlinear and integrative. Pre-disaster, our respective lives and our families and our work and our destinies seemed only loosely connected to each other; we all enjoyed great freedom to follow our individual inclinations. The economy and public health, though co-existing, were essentially unrelated. But then the disaster hit; suddenly we found our lives and futures tightly intertwined. That cliché “we’re all in it together” turned out to be the reality.

Those who managed our once separate lives – our spouses and our bosses and our political masters who tweaked our conduct and performance, molding us and making us more useful to society (and sometimes to their personal ends) – also awakened to reality. At all times, but most visibly in times of crisis, the task that matters most is leadership – not modifying behavior but instead listening to and working with people to uncover and build and articulate common aspiration and purpose and enthusiasm. Judged by this more demanding standard, some of the folks in charge rise in public regard while others fall.

A big lesson indeed. But the covid-19 crisis has so much more to teach us. The schooling doesn’t stop there. The pandemic underscores three other important realities: (1) Disaster recovery may be a widely held notion, and a subject of study by experts, but it’s not a real thing. (2) Hurricanes, earthquakes, and many other disasters are confined locally and are of short duration, leaving a much larger world essentially untouched, able to conduct business as usual; but disasters of fully global scale require a different conceptualization and treatment. (3) For most people undergoing a disaster and its aftermath, a major challenge is the loss of what is called agency.  

Each provides opportunities for learning that could vaccinate us against future disasters. Let’s begin with: 

Disaster recovery is an oxymoron[1]. Those individuals who experience but survive a catastrophe – who lose a loved one, or their homes or jobs or businesses in a hurricane or tornado or earthquake – rarely actually recover. Instead they move into a new normal. Their lives take a substantially different trajectory. They’re changed physically, mentally, spiritually by the experience.  Their financial, career, and life circumstances are permanently altered. Similarly, the idea of community recovery fails to capture what actually takes place. New homes may be built where the old ones stood. New jobs may arise to replace the old. But often, entirely new people enter the affected area from outside. A community’s governance, economy, culture, and social networks may still be there to be seen, but they’re not a recovered version of the old; it’s not the population or the demographic that was before. Ask Puerto Ricans if they’ve recovered from hurricane Maria. Ask Houstonians if they’ve recovered from hurricane Harvey. For that matter, ask New Orleanians if they’ve recovered from hurricane Katrina. The late-summer anniversaries of these events will bring a new spate of updates, rediscovering this same reality. 

Life for the survivors does move on. It’s not just about loss. Even during the disaster itself, there’s good (as described so well by Rebecca Solnit in her wonderful 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, the Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster). More encouraging signs follow. As time passes, there’s healing, and new preoccupations and new aspirations.  New relations are formed. New love is built. Positive things happen. 

Good wins out. 

But the more accurate way to look at the healing is this: it’s the much larger society that recovers. An analogy: suppose I cut my hand in a kitchen accident. Some time later, I’m healed. Fact is, that slight cut hardly slowed me down. But the millions of cells that had been at the site of the wound? They died, and stayed dead, starting on day one.

Which segues to the second lesson:

Global catastrophes bring additional challenges. These days, amid the personal concerns (how do I keep the kids moving forward when school’s out and they’re isolated at home? Did that person in the supermarket cough as he went by? Is my throat just dry or is that the beginning of something more serious?), we look around or catch up with the news and are confronted by larger questions: what does recovery look like, what’s the path forward, following this catastrophe? When everything we’ve learned about smaller disasters – the floods and the tornadoes, and the earthquakes, and more – is scaled up? When there’s essentially no untouched part of society to carry on? When we have to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps, instead of relying on an external helping hand?

In particular, how and when will I start working again? What does it mean to reboot the world economy? Experience with small disasters gives us clues. Take restoration of power following a hurricane. Step one is waiting for daylight. Step two is clearing the debris making roads impassable to and within the areas hardest hit. Step three is bringing up the infrastructure. Restoring power to hospitals, the larger population clusters comes next. The last step, restoring power to scattered individual homes, can take days. It’s messy and prolonged, and life is on hold until pretty much the end. (Oh, and did we cover the piece where many of the crews working the restoration came from unaffected utilities in the states nearby? And now we’re talking about “no unaffected states;” they have their own preoccupations and priorities. We’re seeing this play out in the global and state-by-state competition for medical gear and personnel.) Restoring global commerce will take time. It will be messy. There will be casualties. We can’t just wait for help; we need to shoulder personal responsibility.

Experience with the impacts of lesser disasters on local business gives us an idea of what to expect.  FEMA studies, and others, suggest that something like half of small businesses that close their doors during a disaster never reopen. It’s not just that small businesses suffer property loss. Their income stream may be interrupted, because their employees or their customer base were affected by the disaster. Most small businesses are marginal; few can afford insurance against such disruption. And the history is that SBA and similar loans, which can lay claim to personal assets as collateral, too often merely aggravate and prolong the agony for the small-business owner.

Covid-19 is playing out this scenario on the big screen. It’s hammered not just small business, but also larger firms. It’s disrupted entire sectors of the economy: cruises; air travel, and transportation more generally; restaurants, the hotel industry, sports, entertainment; retailing; the oil sector. Each day brings home new understanding of the fuller, still-unfolding dimensions of the impact. 

Which brings us to the third lesson:

Disasters destroy agency. When life is normal, prior to a disaster, most people – including you and me – enjoy a degree of control over daily decisions and with regard to their longer-term destiny. People have options; they make choices. They then act. But those who evacuate in the face of a hurricane and relocate in the gymnasium of an inland school, or who flee the wrath of a dictator like Syria’s Assad, and find themselves in a refugee camp backed up against the Turkish border, walk into a condition of total dependency. They lack means to feed or shelter themselves or their families. They have no opportunity for work. They lack transportation to seek help; they lose their standing and their ability to engage governments and larger authority. They can only wait for needed help to come to them. Social scientists call this a loss of agency.

Like a vaccination, as opposed to the real thing, covid-19 and the strictures imposed on our behavior, our freedom of movement, extending even our apparel, are giving each and every one of us on the planet the opportunity to experience this loss of agency first hand.  Our workplaces are shuttered. Employees are working from home or furloughed. Restaurants and stores are closed. Schools have cancelled classes through the end of the semester. Sports, the performing arts and other forms of entertainment have evaporated. Travel and movement, even in public places, are restricted. We’re now encouraged to wear masks everywhere we go.

The experience doesn’t begin to parallel the gymnasium shelter or the refugee camp, where food supply is intermittent at best and by no means assured, where sanitation and privacy are lacking, where basic human rights and aspirations are suddenly no longer a given. But the days or weeks of social distancing the world is experiencing so far and the weeks of more of the same that lie ahead should have convinced the most sanguine of us: we never want to experience anything remotely like this again in our lifetimes

Disaster experts tell us that our personal experiences with disaster shape our response to future such threats. Here’s an (admittedly antique) example. If hurricane Camille hits in 1969 and its winds and surge destroy my house, carry me and my family a mile inland, and we manage to save ourselves only by clinging to a tree, I respond to hurricane Katrina in 2005 by evacuating. If I was hundred miles away from the eye of hurricane Camille and the winds were high but the house remained intact, I decide to ride out Katrina. I maybe fail to refine my decisions based on where forecasters and emergency managers tell me I stand (stood) relative to the oncoming storm, or even based on the reality that I’ve aged three decades and am no longer the young man or woman I’d been back then. 

What are some of the covid-19 takeaways? You can develop your own better ideas, but here are some thoughts to start.

  1. Purpose to never again be complacent regarding the fate of others who suffer disaster at the hands of nature. Do your bit to help out. If you can’t do so personally, hold your business and public leaders to account. Insist they focus attention and resources on recovery from California wildfires, or Gulf Coast hurricanes, or Puerto Rico’s hurricanes and earthquakes. Don’t allow those survivors to dangle in the wind.
  • As for your present circumstance in this pandemic, expect a changed future; not a return to what was. Read, listen to what others see as the likely aftermath. Form your own ideas. Think through their implications for your life, your relationships, your career. 
  • Embrace that future! Reclaim your agency as quickly as possible. And take it a step further. Purpose to be an agent of the coming change, not simply an observer, or a passive participant. Don’t let the future simply happen to you.
  • Take the lesson to heart! Learn from this experience. Disaster experts talk about the disaster cycle: mitigation, preparation, response, recovery. Repeat. Wait a second! Cycle? Repeat? That’s not learning; that’s failure to learn. Do your bit to ensure that the next virus encounters a more prepared world, not a similarly vulnerable world. For that matter, meet the Rahm Emanuel challenge. Recognize that maybe – just maybe – the covid-19 experience can equip humanity to deal with climate change. Seize the opportunity.
  • And finally (and this might not seem to you to fit the tone of the post so far, but it’s the most important part), relax. You’ve always wanted to live a life that matters. That issue is no longer in suspense. Threats to your agency notwithstanding, your life – what you do, and how and why you do it, matter more now, going forward, than ever before. The rest of us need you. We’re counting on you. We’re glad you’re here, and that you’re engaged, and that you’re part of the solution. You’ve got our back, and we have yours. We’re in this together. And together – we’ve got this.

[1]The ideas here, and throughout this post, have been introduced in earlier posts in LOTRW, and in LOTRW the book (especially on pp. 141-145, but threaded through).

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covid-19 as vaccination for tomorrow. Part 2.

Picking up from the previous LOTRW post:

Okay, Bill, where does the covid-19-as-vaccine concept come in? Convince me.

Start close. Covid-19 is proving deadly. But it’s a mere “cowpox” compared with other more serious disease threats that have concerned public health officials for years, starting with a suite of truly deadly viruses, some packing whopping 30% fatality rates or greater, that may be merely a mutation or so away from airborne contagion. Covid-19 has revealed a clear need for the world to buttress the science and practice of epidemiology and disease surveillance – early detection, testing, and more. It’s also exposed deficiencies in current healthcare infrastructure, in particular a lack of surge capacity. 

Today, governors, legislators, and their staffers are scrambling to increase the numbers of practitioners and equip them with what they need for self-protection as they treat the rest of us. At the same time, politicians and public-health officials are beginning to rethink the longer term. They’re looking at novel ways to provide surge capacity when needed. They’re rebalancing the current priority the developed world gives to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other first-world scourges to favor more attention/resources to infectious disease. Such options, and many others, are on the table for policymakers going forward.

And don’t forget that covid-19 is “vaccinating” our children. Millions of young people, including boys and girls at the impressionable age of ten or so, have been forced to stay home from school. At least some of their number are inspired, not simply frightened, by the great drama they see unfolding every day on television. They want to be part of the action. They’re making life-changing career decisions even at that tender age (just as many of today’s weather professionals point back to a tornado or blizzard they experienced in youth). They’ll be the Anthony Faucis and Deborah Birxs of tomorrow.

At the same time, covid-19 is also vaccinating the world economy and financial sectors. The pandemic has revealed today’s global material affluence to be fragile, brittle at best – not by any stretch of the imagination resilient. 

The world financial crisis of 2007-2008 provides a recent parallel. Decades of increasingly dodgy mortgage lending had built up a hidden vulnerability in the system. In the years since, the financial sector has developed and imposed periodic stress tests and other regulatory measures on banks and other financial institutions to protect against recurrence. 

Then there are other global threats. Several have been identified – nuclear war, an asteroid strike, even a pandemic – but none is really being taken seriously.  (Perhaps in the present case it may have been a view that pandemic would cause a problem only if large percentages of workers actually died.) Covid-19 has made it clear that a small number of fatalities, in even a localized area, can by itself cause the global system to seize up. Governments and the private sector worldwide will get more serious about such contingency planning, preparation, and early intervention for a fuller range of disaster scenarios. 

In this way, covid-19 is reinforcing a broader lesson: disasters are inherently integrative and nonlinear[1]. In ordinary times, leaders and peoples might think it reasonable to manage public health and financial sectors as separate entities. But in times of emergency they reveal they’re tightly woven together, and entangled with all other sectors (education, transportation, entertainment, and so on). Future strategic planning and stress tests have to incorporate interactions spanning the whole society in times of emergency. The metaphor “ripple effects” doesn’t do justice to the reality.

Fact is, in emergencies (catastrophe, disaster, disruption – choose your preferred label), “management” itself is an early casualty. That’s because “management” is about doing things right, making incremental improvements when current circumstances are close to ideal. By contrast, dire circumstances call for “leadership:” doing the right things. Management is merely about driving the car; leadership is about actually forming/choosing a goal or destination – a purpose. In democracies worldwide, people are seeing and judging the performance of the men and women in charge under stress: the presidents and governors, the prime ministers and mayors, the legislators. Expect to see a signal from such assessments in the next round of elections worldwide. 

Bottom line? This disease outbreak, however costly and devastating it’s proving (and it’s early days yet), will likely at the same time do us a favor – by inoculating us against the next.  But there’s more…

…to be covered next time.

[1]And considered elsewhere in LOTRW, in both the blog and the book (pp. 2-4). 

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