End notes on Daniel Kahneman (and a connection to March Madness).  


I criticize; therefore I am.” – (what Descartes might have said if had lived today?)

Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant critiques of human reasoningexposing so many of our species’ cognitive limitations – might tempt the fainthearted to clam up. In today’s sometimes polarized, irritable, quick-to-carp world, who wants to subject themselves to any more criticism than necessary?

But Kahneman’s sustained body of published work tells us to do just the opposite. He clearly didn’t allow any self-doubt about his own thought processes to hold him back. He took pains to expose his thinking to rigorous review and feedback. Unsurprisingly, he came in for his share of criticism.

Criticism? Here is one overview giving the general flavor[1]. An excerpt:

Some have argued that his research suffers from issues such as small sample sizes, lack of reproducibility, and an overreliance on specific experimental paradigms. These criticisms have prompted scholars to reassess the value of Kahneman’s work and its implications for our understanding of human behavior.

One of the key criticisms of Kahneman’s work is that it may overstate the role of cognitive biases in decision-making. While it is undeniable that people often make irrational decisions due to biases such as anchoring or availability heuristic, critics argue that Kahneman’s emphasis on these biases may downplay the role of rational decision-making and deliberation. Furthermore, the reproducibility crisis in psychology has raised questions about the robustness of some of the key findings in “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

Another area of criticism is Kahneman’s reliance on laboratory experiments to draw general conclusions about human behavior. Some argue that the artificial nature of these experiments may limit their external validity, and that real-world decision-making is far more complex and context-dependent than what can be captured in a controlled setting…

Which brings us to – wait for it – March Madness.

We’re currently heading into the weekend featuring the 2024 Final Four. Coincidentally in researching  Kahneman critiques, I came across this article by Joshua Miller and Adam Sanjurjo in THE CONVERSATION US & THE CONVERSATION dating back to 2017: Momentum Isn’t Magic—Vindicating the Hot Hand with the Mathematics of Streaks. This first excerpt provides some context:

Nearly every basketball player, coach or fan believes that some shooters have an uncanny tendency to experience the hot hand—also referred to as being “on fire,” “in the zone,” “in rhythm” or “unconscious.” The idea is that on occasion these players enter into a special state in which their ability to make shots is noticeably better than usual. When people see a streak, like Craig Hodges hitting 19 3-pointers in a row, or other exceptional performances, they typically attribute it to the hot hand[2].

Then the authors bring in a reference to Kahneman:

 However, if you go to the NCAA’s website, you’ll read that this intuition is incorrect—the hot hand does not exist. Belief in the hot hand is just a delusion that occurs because we as humans have a predisposition to see patterns in randomness; we see streakiness even though shooting data are essentially random. Indeed, this view has been held for the past 30 years among scientists who study judgment and decision-making. Even Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman affirmed this consensus: “The hot hand is a massive and widespread cognitive illusion.”

… and go on to rope in Tversky and other Kahneman colleagues:

In the landmark 1985 paper “The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences,” psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky (GVT, for short) found that when studying basketball shooting data, the sequences of makes and misses are indistinguishable from the sequences of heads and tails one would expect to see from flipping a coin repeatedly.

Then rest of the article provides a nice reappraisal, and disputes these pure-chance claims.

That led me to a 2006 article by Bar-Elia, Avugosa, and Markus Raabb: Twenty years of ‘‘hot hand’’ research: Review and critique. Was reading along, minding my own business, when I came across this passage:

The phenomenon of the hot hand is known to everyone who plays or watches the game of basketball. After the player has a run of successful baskets, people tend to believe that he will be more likely to succeed with the next shot as well. This has a plausible causal explanation: When a player feels ‘‘hot’’, his confidence in his ability increases. He becomes relaxed and focused on performing the shots accurately. So, he ‘‘gets in a groove’’, such that success in further attempts becomes more likely (Hales, 1999). As Robert Hooke (1989) expressed it so well [emphasis added]: ‘‘In almost every competitive activity in which I’ve ever engaged (baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, even duplicate bridge), a little success generates in me a feeling of confidence which, as long as it lasts, makes me do better than usual. Even more obviously, a few failures can destroy this confidence, after which for a while I can’t do anything right’’ (p. 35). The reference is to his paper in the journal Chance (1989, Vol 2, number 4) published by the American Statistical Association. This issue also juxtaposed other papers on the topic, including this one:   The “Hot Hand”: Statistical Reality or Cognitive Illusion? by Amos Tversky and Thomas Gilovich.

Robert Hooke? My father, the statistician and sports fan! I remember his discussions of this subject in dinner conversation over the years but hadn’t paid it much mind. What a wonderful thing to stumble over this small connection of his work with Kahneman’s oeuvre. (The reference is to his paper in the journal Chance (1989, Vol 2, number 4) published by the American Statistical Association. This issue also juxtaposed other papers on the topic, including this one:   The “Hot Hand”: Statistical Reality or Cognitive Illusion? by Amos Tversky and Thomas Gilovich.)

A postscript in the coming LOTRW.  


[1] Googling “critiques of Kahneman” points to copious additional material. Anyone breaking new ground pays such a price. Case in point, another thinker: Milton Friedman. Years ago, a close economist friend shared with me that while in graduate school he at first believed his distinguished faculty members who were unanimously telling him Friedman was “an idiot.” Then he asked himself, “If Friedman is so far off-base, why are so many famous economists obsessively trying to prove him wrong? There must be something there!

[2] Want to see a “hot hand” – 2024 edition?  Consider Oakland’s journeyman ballplayer Jack Gohlke, who contributed ten three’s in Oakland’s upset of Kentucky (one short of records) in the tournament’s opening round. As you’ll find if you watch the video, only one of the ten shots is uncontested; the rest are off-balance, on-the-fly, in-your-face improvisations, some from well-behind the three-point line. In short, several of them are the type that if you take it and miss, your “hot hand” won’t save you; your “hot-under-the-collar” coach will bench you.

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What’s a thinker to think? What’s a thinker to do?

Je pense, donc je suis…irrationnel” – (with apologies to both Rene Descartes and Daniel Kahneman)

According to Psychology Today,

…dreams are about events from our waking lives, including real events and modified ones. About 70% of dream content is based on events from the previous day, which are called day residue dreams. Dreams can also include events, places, and people from the past.

Good to know.

My previous LOTRW post had noted with regret the passing of Daniel Kahneman. And PBS recently aired an amazing four-hour, two-part series on Dante Alighieri’s life and the Divine Comedy that made a huge impression.

Maybe that juxtaposition accounts for my dream last night, in the early hours of April 1st, about Daniel Kahneman’s ascent to heaven. Of course he entered at Dante’s fourth level of paradise – the Sun, which Dante tells us is the realm of the wise[1]. Where else? In my dream, Kahneman ran into Rene Descartes early on, and they naturally had a rich get-acquainted conversation. But Descartes was heard to sigh, as he walked away, head bowed, “I think, therefore I am… irrational.”

This is the nagging negative part of the extensive legacy Kahneman leaves behind. Prior to the arrival of Kahneman, Tversky, Slovik and other scholars of thought, it was possible for intellectuals of every stripe to share their wisdom and judgments with full throat and relatively free of care. But now, confronted with the extensive, unflattering litany of the logical fallacies and pitfalls that characterize all such work, it’s impossible for thinkers to proceed with even the merest shred of self-confidence. They are forced to acknowledge that most carefully crafted of their ruminations, if extensively scrutinized, can be found flawed. In this light their best thoughts do little more than add to the burgeoning mountain of defective logic and misinterpretation of data already out there.

To be clear: Everyone thinks. Indeed, everyone thinks for a living. From janitors to judges, historians to homemakers, pizza bakers to physicians, teachers to truckers, thought and action are closely linked in the job. It’s the action that earns the pay, but the thought behind the action that makes the difference.

But a few make their living by thinking in a purer form. Their thinking is less connected to doing. Their thoughts are their stock in trade – and they are correspondingly vulnerable at a deeper level. We’re talking about philosophers, writers, authors, columnists, consultants, futurists and myriad influencers.

Including, for the sake of completeness – bloggers. (Finger pointing to self. Much as “a pun is the lowest form of wit,” a blogger might be considered “the lowest form of intellect.” After all, there’s little or no peer review, there’s often an element of haste, the thoughts are popcorn-sized, offered in isolation rather than context, the prizes go to those who attract eyeballs, by whatever means. When I started LOTRW in 2010, a colleague whose opinions I respected greatly, who put most of her opinions in peer-reviewed journals, said to me, archly: “Go ahead, blog away”…

So how can a blogger – or any thinker of a higher caste – live with himself/herself/themselves? What follows are a few ideas. You can be the judge – or offer your own improvements or substitutions.

1. Clam up? That’s not the solution. Let’s start with what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t throw in the towel. The world needs more shared thought, not less. We all have the responsibility to put ourselves out there. Theodore Roosevelt captured this spirit with his short piece The Man in the Arena (hopefully if he were writing his piece today it would have been entitled The Person in the Arena):

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

Roosevelt censured those who substituted mere criticism for deeds and action, but this logic applies equally well to those who have constructive or critical thoughts but fear to expose them to the light of day.

2. self-Critical? Some point out that scientists (one flavor of the thinking class) should be the strongest critics of their own work. Unsurprisingly, it turns out human beings aren’t particularly gifted in this way (as reflected in the so-called replication crisis in science). What’s more, self-criticism may be hurting our work. The rationality sought comes too heavily laden with emotion.

2. Criticism? As for outside criticism, there may be too much of it. Since most of us are only too well aware of our shortcomings and failings, we need words of encouragement, words offering positive suggestions and ideas, if not outright affirmation. And constructive criticism is resource-intensive, and growing more so every day as eight billion people add to the world’s store of experience and insight. At the same time, criticism of the noisy, noxious sort is all-too-readily available and becoming even more prevalent in the age of social media (including blogs – sigh). Not just when it comes to blogs, but also in ordinary conversation, we might instead develop more of the spirit of improv – using our brainpower to see how far the ideas of others might carry us, and where they might take us, versus finding fault.

3. Conjecture? Maybe we could use more of it. Consider this thought from Charles Darwin (another denizen of the fourth level of paradise?) that used to be on LOTRW’s masthead: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” Instead of vainly striving to upgrade our mere conjectures into solid truth we might better foster human progress by putting those partially-formed ideas out for review.

4. Collaboration (or competition)? Sharing partially-formed thoughts, inviting comments, corrections, and outright alternatives? According to Darwin, conjecture can invite collaboration. These days, such ideas have a name: open science. Instead of sharing results only at publication, scientists are exploring the need for and the means for sharing/communicating progress at every step in the research process – experimental design, data collection, etc., etc.  One small cloud in this otherwise bright picture? The rewards in science still go to those publishing novel results in high-impact publications.

Back to my April 1 dream:

As Descartes shuffles along, he shortly encounters his old friend Francis Bacon (another post-Dante arrival in the Fourth level of paradise).

Bacon says, “Cheer up, mon ami! Fais de l’amour ton objectif (make love your aim).”

(Recall that Bacon famously argued that charity (that is, love) is the most defensible motivation for pursuing natural philosophy).

If we could only find a way to monetize love in a free-market world…

Whew! What a day. Perhaps April 2 will be better!


[1]There Dante encountered Thomas Aquinas, King Solomon, Bede and others of that ilk. Descartes would eventually arrive, of course, but only two centuries later – so Dante gives him no mention. (BTW, Dante states – fittingly, given the timing of this blogpost – that he arrived in the lowest levels of paradise on Wednesday, March 30, 1300, the day after Easter of that year. A mere coincidence? Kahneman would probably say yes.

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Thinking, fast and slow – about Daniel Kahneman.

With the passing of Daniel Kahneman on March 27, the world lost a distinguished intellect. A Nobel prizewinner, his impact on economics and the social sciences more broadly has proved enduring and profound. Case in point: his ideas underlie and prompt much of the advice behavioral scientists give meteorologists seeking to improve societal response to weather warnings. For decades I’ve been “in the room,” in a variety of settings, as sociologists, psychologists, and risk communicators have patiently explained to meteorologists the rudiments of anchoring, cognitive bias, framing, heuristics, optimism bias and much, much more. Meteorologists have been a tough sell, but over time our community has come to acknowledge that communication of weather risk must take into account human behavior every bit as much as the actual or future weather itself. (That is, if we truly wish to achieve desired individual and societal uptake and outcomes – reduced fatalities, injury, property loss, business disruption, and all the rest).

Kahneman was an extraordinary scholar and a prolific writer,  but in that constellation of work one star stands out: Thinking, Fast and Slow. An excerpt from the Wikipedia article:

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a 2011 popular science book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. The book’s main thesis is a differentiation between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

The book delineates rational and non-rational motivations or triggers associated with each type of thinking process, and how they complement each other, starting with Kahneman’s own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to people’s tendency to replace a difficult question with one which is easy to answer, the book summarizes several decades of research to suggest that people have too much confidence in human judgment.

The book, a 400+ page tome, sold over one million copies. It consists of several sections. To quote Wikipedia further:

In the book’s first section, Kahneman describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts.

The second section offers explanations for why humans struggle to think statistically. It begins by documenting a variety of situations in which we either arrive at binary decisions or fail to associate precisely reasonable probabilities with outcomes. Kahneman explains this phenomenon using the theory of heuristics. Kahneman and Tversky originally discussed this topic in their 1974 article titled Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

(examples of each follow)

Wikipedia goes on:

Kahneman describes a number of experiments which purport to examine the differences between these two thought systems and how they arrive at different results even given the same inputs. Terms and concepts include coherence, attention, laziness, association, jumping to conclusions, WYSIATI (What you see is all there is), and how one forms judgments. The System 1 vs. System 2 debate includes the reasoning or lack thereof for human decision making, with big implications for many areas including law and market research.

The second section deals with heuristics and biases. Wikipedia notes:

Kahneman uses heuristics to assert that System 1 thinking involves associating new information with existing patterns, or thoughts, rather than creating new patterns for each new experience. [emphasis added; see below] For example, a child who has only seen shapes with straight edges might perceive an octagon when first viewing a circle. As a legal metaphor, a judge limited to heuristic thinking would only be able to think of similar historical cases when presented with a new dispute, rather than considering the unique aspects of that case. In addition to offering an explanation for the statistical problem, the theory also offers an explanation for human biases.

The shortcomings of human thought? These include: Anchoring. Availability. Conjunction fallacy. Optimism and loss aversion. Framing. Sunk cost. In the book, Kahneman discusses each at length. The result is an impressive indictment of human ability to think rationally.

Being merely human myself, in the face of this intimidating list of rational shortcomings I want to fall back on System 1 thinking and (as noted above) associate this new information with existing patterns, or thoughts, rather than create new patterns for each new experience.

Aha! I do indeed have such a pre-existing thought/memory to lean on.

It’s the 1960’s. I’m an undergraduate physics major at Swarthmore College, and I’m subscribing to the American Journal of Physics. In my August 1963 issue I encounter an article entitled Batting the Ball, by Paul Kirkpatrick. The abstract reads:

The velocity vector of a ball struck by a bat is a stated function of the ball and bat velocities, bat orientation, and certain constants. In the light of the equations of the collision, the operation and the consequences of swinging the bat are analyzed, and the role of the constants is discussed.

Utterly fascinating! Physics rules! I eagerly shared these insights with my mathematician/statistician father, who had played quite a bit of baseball in his younger days, and was a lifelong, ardent fan. This would be our chance to bond!

Dad, look at this article, which lists 90+ parameters and actions a batter has to adjust to hit a baseball!”

My father’s response was swift – and dismissive.

If I were a pitcher, I’d be sure to send copies of this article to the opposing team.”

Hmm. Not quite the response I had expected. Or hoped for. But so spot on. In the 60 years since, I’ve thought of this incident again and again.

Which brings us back to Daniel Kahneman. His body of work is extraordinarily useful for critiquing the decision making under uncertainty facing all of us when we are confronted with daily weather information, especially when that information matters most. But what about the implications of this work for anyone contemplating writing a research paper on any subject, or a thought piece of any type – whether an article or book; or a blogpost or podcast? Facing so many pitfalls of thinking to avoid, how do we actually move forward? What misplaced pride possibly allows us to imagine we’ll be making a positive contribution, instead of adding to the world’s already stupefying stock of faulty thinking and misinformation?

Whew! What’s a thinker to do? I’ll have more in the next LOTRW post, but in the meantime,

Your (fast and slow) thoughts, please.

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A hidden gem at the AMS 2024 Annual Meeting? Rising Voices.

 “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  – Mark Twain? (No, not really[1].)

The AMS 2024 Annual Meeting reflected two major trends. The first is the rapid enlisting of new technology, especially AI, to address fundamental problems of the geosciences and related social sciences, in order to advance these disciplines. The second is the growing urgency and speed with which these advances are being harnessed for societal benefit. This latter is itself motivated and enabled by technology, again highlighting AI. These trends are combining to transform the meetings and indeed the AMS. They were everywhere evident in Baltimore this past January; they will likely be even more pronounced in coming years.

Step back a bit. A worldwide awareness and mindset is driving these trends. (To greatly oversimplify, in the interest of brevity) that worldview notes that population growth is slowing, but not everywhere. It’s growing most rapidly where the local populations remain impoverished. The worldview accepts as given: a universal, insatiable human appetite for more resulting in competition for acquisition, control and consumption of natural and financial resources. It sees economic growth, largely-but-not-entirely-free competitive markets and continuing innovation in these pursuits as the only way forward.

The world knows all this for sure.

But just maybe it ain’t so.

Worldwide, nations also see, amidst this mainstream perspective, the remnants of myriad indigenous cultures that once offered and continue to hold to different viewpoints and values. (Of particular interest here are the bits of these cultures and value systems dealing with the environment, with natural resource ownership and use, and with wealth and consumption more  generally.) Though diverse, and quasi-independent in origin, a number of these indigenous cultures have developed essentially similar ideas – for example, a degree of agreement that human beings “belong to nature” as opposed to “nature belongs to human beings” – that the human role is stewardship rather than ownership.

It’s easy to oversimplify and romanticize all this; to avoid that error here let’s limit the discussion to this restrained excerpt from a United Nations document:

Indigenous Peoples have, over the course of generations, developed rich sets of knowledge about the natural world, health, technologies and techniques, rites and rituals and other cultural expressions. Culture is… inextricably linked to Indigenous Peoples’ identity, their traditional knowledge, their experiences with the natural environment [emphasis added] and hence their territorial and cultural rights. Cultural practices, traditions and values of Indigenous Peoples – as long as they are in line with human rights principles – can play a critical and positive role in advancing and promoting gender equality and human rights.

It’s worth noting that the mainstream worldview sees indigenous perspectives as endangered – on the verge of extinction. For example, from the same UN document:

The importance of land and territories to Indigenous cultural identity cannot be stressed enough. However, Indigenous Peoples have continued to experience loss of access to lands, territories and natural resources. The result has been that Indigenous cultures today are threatened with extinction in many parts of the world. Due to the fact that they have been excluded from the decision-making and policy frameworks of nation-states in which they live and have been subjected to processes of domination and discrimination, their cultures have been viewed as being inferior, primitive, irrelevant, something to be eradicated or transformed.

This same UN document ventures to forecast that 90% of the 6000-7000 oral languages in the world today may be lost within the next one hundred years. To read some of the literature on these topics is to come away with the sense that the world’s chances of preserving any of this diversity are similar to those involved in preserving biodiversity in the face of climate change or reining in climate change itself. In other words, essentially nil.

The 2024 AMS Annual Meeting offered a window into this world. The experience led me to draw a different, more hopeful conclusion.

Start with some background. UCAR’s Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences collaborated with the AMS Committee on Spirituality, Multi-faith Outreach and Science (COSMOS) to put on Convergence Science: Indigenous Weather, Water and Climate Knowledge Systems, Practices and Communities. The program comprised three Monday panel discussions, entitled respectively Rising Voices, Changing Coasts: a new/old approach to convergence science; Tribal Story Maps: Integrating and Sharing Tribal Knowledge and Science through the Visual Language of Geography; and Convergence Science in the Context of Integrating Weather and Climate Science with Studies of Marine and Coastal Resources and Geophysical Processes. The conversations (captured by video recordings on these links, ICYMI) made for a memorable day. The meeting room was one of the smallest in the venue, and yet there was ample seating, in contrast to the standing-room-only AI sessions going on at the opposite end of the Convention Center. The pace was leisurely, but the conversation animated, and yet at the same time both informal and respectful. (To gain a better feel for the day and experience, read Isabella Herrera’s truly excellent post on the AMS Front Page blog, which I discovered belatedly in the act of posting this.)

But here’s the thing. The vibe didn’t have the feel of something fragile, endangered, needing protection – about to go extinct. It would more accurately be described as nascent, full of life and rich in potential, offering messages of hope and alternative pathways forward with respect to climate change, coastal resources and more that the larger world should be hungry to hear.

Why? Because the world’s prevailing approach to climate change and related challenges – maintain enthusiasm for acquisition, control and consumption of resources, but sustainably support these through improved technology – seems to be falling short. In particular, the pace of transitioning to renewable energy seems to be lagging what’s needed to maintain climate conditions favorable to life on Earth – for technological, economic, and political reasons. The world needs some new ideas – with some new intellectual DNA. Rising Voices has these on offer.

An analogy: this is not unlike the struggle individuals and populations the world over face with obesity, highlighted in a recent WHO report (worth the read), which has received a great deal of media attention the past few days. Efforts to regulate weight through pure self-control tend to come a cropper for both biological and psychological reasons.

But new medications, including some developed originally as therapies for type-2 diabetes, have been found to help. In the same way, it might be hoped that a kind of reverse acculturation – in which the world’s dominant consumption-based cultures take up some of the desired features of the minority/indigenous cultures, rather than the other way around – would be of help.

LOTRW readers might be tempted to see this possibility as unrealistic – dismiss it out of hand. Here are three reasons to reconsider.

First, meteorologists and climatologists are engaged every day in this same process of reverse acculturation. Our urbanized, climate-controlled world tends to see weather, climate and environmental conditions more broadly as irrelevant or at most minor compared to their more pressing daily concerns. We’re constantly in the business of encouraging that world to see climate change, hazard vulnerability, pollution, and reduction and habitability as requiring more priority and urgent action. In this respect, we should see ourselves as fellow travelers with indigenous peoples.

Second, climate scientists and professionals in related disciplines have long recognized there isn’t a single silver bullet for coping with these challenges. Instead, they’ve developed wedge-based approaches, grouping individual interventions into climate stabilization wedges each incrementally reducing carbon emissions. Indigenous perspectives on natural resources and their consumption might form the basis for an additional wedge – as well as strengthening some of the others.

Third, some might argue that respect for nature and stewardship rather than ownership reflect hunter-gatherer, nomadic ways of life, where resource acquisition is difficult and by definition traveling light is not just an advantage but a necessity. But it might be that closer examination of developed-country life reveals that it often brings not satisfaction, but anxiety. For most, this means the anxious striving to meet not just needs but wants – to have not just enough, but to have abundance. For a privileged few who “have all they want,” it’s the fear of somehow losing it. When it comes to happiness, even the privileged might not be better off than the nomads. (This idea is especially poignant in light of the latest World Happiness Report which suggests that world happiness is generally down; that America’s ranking among the nations has fallen from 15th to 23rd, a new low; and that American youth, who used to be happier than the middle-aged, and about as happy as the elderly, are now the least happy.)

In conclusion, it was a privilege to be in the Rising Voices room at AMS – and a shame that more people weren’t. One of the more encouraging outcomes of the day was an idea tabled to raise the visibility of indigenous perspective and approach at a future AMS Annual Meeting – possibly by organizing a plenary-level session inviting tribal leaders as well as indigenous scientists. In that room, on that day, it was even possible to imagine future AMS meetings where these topics might be receiving their 10th or 20th annual airing, and where talks and attendance might have grown by an order of magnitude or even two.


[1] Sadly, as the link demonstrates, yet another “quote” apparently misattributed to Mark Twain. The quote’s actual origins remain unknown. Its roots might more accurately be described as the result of crowdsourcing and wordsmithing over time by several persons.

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The AMS 2024 Annual Meeting: Schumpeter’s gale hits, this time from the user side.

A Venn Diagram of AMS Annual Meetings

The previous LOTRW post focused on the growth and importance of AI to the meteorology and to the AMS 2024 Annual Meeting. To recap:

The rapid growth of AI’s capabilities and reach are transforming research and science-based services in meteorology, climatology, oceanography and the other geosciences. And that reworking isn’t trivial. AI is not merely augmenting the use of physics to generate weather products and services; in some cases it is supplanting them[1].

But it’s not just the supply side of meteorological sciences and services that is changing, and in this way. The demand side is being utterly transformed as well. Historically, the application of meteorological information to guide weather-sensitive economic sectors comprising agriculture, energy, environmental protection, public health and safety, transportation, water resource management and more has been limited by two factors. First, the rudimentary forecast skill of the past often failed to meet sector-by-sector requirements for useful decision-making. But second, sector-by-sector decision-making wasn’t particularly nimble. Given the weather sensitivity, and limited ability to do much about it, weather-sensitive sectors had over the years developed muddle-through approaches – especially the build-up and maintenance of the excess capacity and operating margins needed to accommodate weather variability. More recently, however, population growth and economic pressures have made such excess capacity a luxury no one could afford.

Enter technological advance. Technology generally, IT, and artificial intelligence in particular are transforming the economic world. Along the way, they’re transforming weather-sensitive sectors, making them more agile: better able to incorporate weather variability into their optimization strategies – to capitalize on opportunities offered by favorable weather, and avoid the risks posed by hazards, etc. The emergence of renewable energy sources harnessing solar, wind, and hydrologic power exemplify this trend.

[What follows is conjecture, offered in the spirit of Charles Darwin’s quote to the effect that false views cause little harm to science because everyone takes salutary pleasure in proving them wrong.]

It seems to me that these trends in supply push and demand pull have been and are continuing to transform the AMS Annual Meetings (and the AMS as a whole, and the field more generally) in a way captured by today’s Venn diagram. AMS meetings focus on the advance of “meteorological” sciences (writ large – really the whole of the geosciences) and associated technologies, and their application for societal benefit[2]. That latter bit has come to mean that the AMS and its meetings also encompass and reflect the advance of social science that both studies and enhances societal uptake of meteorological science. But these disciplines are merely the intersection of the two main elements of AMS Meetings, and the Venn diagram: S&T and application more broadly.

The entire Enterprise is growing rapidly in size and in its importance to the larger world. But in the last decades of the 20th-century, a disproportionate amount of the growth of the field and the AMS Annual Meetings in particular came from IT. That trend is continuing now – with AI providing a huge new burst. The geosciences and related social sciences are growing as well; after all, they’re also augmented by AI and technology (as well as other trends). But they’re not growing proportionately; the intersection is a smaller part of today’s meeting.

In short, meteorology and social sciences are struggling to keep pace. This was reflected, for example, in the number of AMS talks focused on the rise of AI-enabled forecast techniques that sidestep rather than build on basic meteorological physics, and remarking that evaluation of such approaches was both lacking and sorely needed. We’re likely entering an extended period of catchup.

This is not a bad thing! It’s to be celebrated! The world urgently needs a new vision and new capacity to cope with growing demands for food, water, and energy, and the accompanying threats to the environment, habitats, and ecosystems.

But scientists of all stripes like to think that science leads the way – that scientific advance fosters technology, which in turn is then applied to meet societal needs. This happens some of the time. But science can also be a laggard.

We can take comfort from the fact that this phenomenon is not new. In the second half of the 19th century most developed countries established weather bureaus, not because of any great new theoretical breakthrough, but because the Victorian internet – the telegraph – enabled the world to track weather in real time. The scientific insights would come later.

This reality doesn’t hold true only for the geosciences. Early in my career (and before most of you were born), the military conducted Project Hindsight, looking at the role of science and technology in contributing to the military systems and weapons developed and use to effect in World War II. Science was found to be pivotal in only a small fraction of the cases examined; 90% were technological. Scientists of the time took umbrage at this. Yet the overall conclusion was positive – that S&T were among the best investments of the war effort.

The forecast? Expect AMS meetings (and AMS journals, and AMS membership) to grow dramatically over the next 5-10 years. Expect the overall vibe to be positive and energetic. Expect rapid world uptake of our science and technology. But don’t be surprised if meteorology and the social sciences as you learned them are slowly submerged as the topic of conversation, in much the same way and for many of the same reasons that machine programming language isn’t the focus of the meetings.

The world is begging: please keep the progress coming!


[1]Some (not all) current AI approaches are exploring the feasibility of ignoring the governing mathematics and physics entirely. The attitude seems to be: if the difficulties of the N-S equations are daunting, we’ll just go around them. Years ago Laura Furgione, then NWS Deputy Assistant Administrator, raised academic hackles at a UCAR-AMS-AGU heads and chairs meeting when she suggested that operational forecasters might no longer need to know calculus; that algebra (closer to the language of digital computers) would suffice. Calculus would be necessary only for researchers. The idea, which seemed so revolutionary at the time, now might be considered mundane.

[2] Essentially the AMS Mission.

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Schumpeter’s Gale makes landfall at the 2024 AMS Annual Meeting

The previous LOTRW post found me eager to attend the (then-upcoming) American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting, which took place from January 28-February 1 in Baltimore – and sold on the importance of conferences and meetings to the progress of science and its application for societal benefit. Closed in this vein: “Bottom line? Meetings are an engine for innovation – not a vacation from it.”

Proved to be an understatement. AMS 2024 meteorologist-attendees got to witness Schumpeter’s gale[1] up close and personal. (More generally known as creative destruction, Schumpeter’s gale is an economic process in which new innovations replace and make obsolete older innovations.) Was blown away.

Let’s dig in – but first, a caveat or two. My experience of the AMS 2024 Annual Meeting was different from prior years – more personal, and more limited.

It was also more Lagrangian than Eulerian. For two decades, it had been my good fortune to work at AMS. In those years, my Meeting-participation meant staffing Council and committee meetings, arranging and participating in policy-related side events, doing a collection of meeting-related jobs that the organization needed done. The Meetings – at least that small sliver of the meetings – came to me, as it were. The experience was Eulerian; a perspective confined to a single “fixed” point, as the Meeting week flowed past.

This time around, at least for a few days, my experience was again confined to a single point, but that point was more like a tagged particle, at times moving relatively freely through the Meeting, at times carried along, following the crowd. I could choose where I wanted to go, and/or respond spontaneously to opportunities as they were presented.  My experience was Lagrangian.   

Which brings up the second caveat. My 2024 perspective and experiences were therefore greatly limited. This had always been true, but as a staffer I’d always been privy for months prior to the larger aspirations, preparations, and issues driving the conferences, sessions, and side meetings. Not so much this time around. And like a blind man sampling only a single feature of the elephant, my experience most likely differed substantially from that of others (including yours, if you were there).

Okay, you’ve been warned! But this is what I found and felt…

First, the atmosphere. In the Convention Center Sunday afternoon and evening, and through the week, the vibe was lively: 7000+ scientists; engineers; international attendees; domestic and foreign government-, industry-, and academic leaders; sales reps; and 1300 student registrants for the student conference. A bigger (and younger?) crowd than ever. By my subjective estimate somewhere between 25-33% of the participants were early-career (a demographic that bodes well for the meeting, the AMS, the field and the larger world). The ebb and flow of participants, the swarms at the posters and in the exhibit hall? Tremendous vitality, freshness. Promise. Sparkling reports of innovation newly completed and inspiring visions of innovation to come filled the air. You had to love it.

The AMS Annual Meeting always offers a buffet of topics. Here’s my experience at one end of the buffet table. (The other end? I made it there as well. But that account will have to wait until the next post.)

Start with Artificial Intelligence. In prior years while I’d been spending all my time at AMS Annual at the side meetings, I’d always been missing a lot of the science and technology advance. This would be my chance to catch up. And what better place to start than at AI?

This got off to a sobering start. The program informed me this was the 23rd Conference on Artificial Intelligence for Environmental Science.

23rd?

23 years of AI sessions? Where have I been? Reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s song in the musical Hamilton. While Washington, Hamilton, Madison et al. had been fighting the Revolutionary War, doing the hard work of standing up the young country, Jefferson had been off in Paris, representing US interests (it’s a hard job but someone has to do it). Lin Manuel Miranda captures this nicely. He has Jefferson coming back to New York, all posh and refined, and asking, in rap and song, What’d I Miss?, belatedly concluding that “I guess I basically missed the late 80’s.”

It got worse. My at-the-Conference AI experience itself? A massive fail. Showed up to the several sessions, held in big rooms. Big rooms, but not vast rooms. Meaning – by the time I would get there, slowed by encounters with friends along the way, those meeting-rooms were packed. People standing cheek-by-jowl along the entire four walls. People clustered three deep at the door.

Young people. Realized I wouldn’t have the staying power/stamina to get much out of the sessions. The good-and-bad news? To the good – the sessions were all recorded! Since then, I’ve made a start of viewing them from the comfort of home. The bad news? Given the pace of advance of AI, the two-three-week delay means my understanding is already hopelessly out of date.

This isn’t entirely hype. To get a feel for the new pace of progress, watch Imme Ebert-Uphoff’s core-science keynote entitled A Research Agenda for the Evaluation of AI-Based Weather Forecasting Models. (The link to her abstract is here; the video can be found here.) The Schumpeterian gale she depicts is one in which improving NWP from physical principles and established technologies is plodding along at a (loosely coordinated) few big centers of effort such as ECMWF and EPIC. Meanwhile, multiple, competitive AI-based (NWP-free) prediction efforts are proliferating worldwide. Wholly new initiatives are emerging monthly. The ECMWF-EPIC work is informed and shaped by forecaster feedback; by contrast, the AI-ML work has enjoyed very little forecaster scrutiny. The expertise/disciplinary backgrounds required of the two approaches are largely disjoint; so are the hardware requirements; so are the updates on progress.

Or watch Amy McGovern’s talk from the next day. There’s a fair amount of overlap here. She hints that over the next 3-10 years we can expect to have personalized forecast models at our fingertips. However, she also warns of the high probability that one of the many un-peer-reviewed AI models now on offer will blow a consequential forecast – resulting in fatalities, economic loss and damage to public trust that will cause years to repair. (Picture something analogous to the occasional autonomous-vehicle crash we’re currently experiencing, but on a bigger screen. Creative destruction is creative – but it can still be destructive.)

Speakers made reference to Trust and trustworthy artificial intelligence: A research agenda for AI in the environmental sciences, a multi-authored paper published last year in Risk Analysis, a journal of the Society for Risk Analysis. The authors lay out a convergent approach to review, evaluate, and synthesize research on the trust and trustworthiness of AI in the environmental sciences and propose a research agenda. The agenda makes good sense; its authors read like a Who’s Who of the field. But came away feeling that the needed evaluation will be inadequately funded, resourced – and therefore all too likely to lag the progress it’s intended to evaluate. Likely too little, too late to keep pace with the “move-fast-and-break-things” culture.

As stated, Schumpeter and others see creative destruction as an ongoing process. That’s true in meteorology; even here AI’s creative disruption has a prequel. Half a century ago, AMS Annual Meetings were sleepy affairs that brought together a few hundred people at most. The exhibits area – located in a hotel lobby or even a hallway, featured card-table-top displays, with retired NWS employees either offering individual consulting services or selling Belfort anemometers and other meteorological instruments. Then-AMS-Executive-Director Ken Spengler and his assistant Evelyn Mazur would look a few months in advance for meeting venues at small hotels that offered last-minute bargain rates. Then, in the 1980’s, Dick Hallgren, while Director of the National Weather Service, formulated and led NWS through what was known as the 10th Modernization and Restructuring. The main features included an upgrade to the weather radars, the introduction of the Automated Weather Information Processing System or AWIPS, and elimination of myriad small NWS Service Offices in favor of a smaller number of larger, more-capable NWS Field Offices, to be collocated with the new radars. The AMS initiated a new conference at the Annual Meeting on information processing (now known as the Conference on Environmental Information Processing Technology and in its 40th year). Participation in this one conference quickly dwarfed all the other annual conferences and symposia comprising the Annual Meeting. When Hallgren took the AMS reins as Executive Director in the late 1980’s he had the vision to see the possible synergies between the technology advance, increasing private-sector roles, and international interest. The big government satellite, radar, and IT buys grew the exhibits into splashy displays of today. Hallgren invited WMO officials and the heads of national meteorological and hydrological services worldwide to collocated annual workshops. These visitors would shop the trade exhibits. The crowds attracted U.S. government officials, business- and academic leaders to the conversation. The connectivity/critical mass allowed the field’s leaders – not just the bench scientists – to accomplish in days what would require weeks back at the office. AMS Annual Meetings doubled in size and then doubled again (requiring, inter alia, that the meeting planners book larger hotel- and conference venues a decade in advance).

By analogy, it’s tempting to forecast that future AMS Annual Meetings may soon be double the size of this year’s[2]. And that doubling? That’s at most only half the story. Note that the influence of AI is not just changing the size of the meetings – and the so-called Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise. It’s changing its intellectual/disciplinary center of gravity, shifting it from emphasis on geophysical fluid dynamics, chemistry, and radiative transfer to technology. And winds from at least one other Schumpeterian gale are blowing across AMS these days – a growing urgency to apply these advances for societal benefit.

But that is a topic for another day.


[1] Treated Schumpeter’s gale earlier in an LOTRW post from 2015 (slightly different context).

[2]In the face of this trend, some AMS members bemoan what they see as a loss of the intimate feel of the meetings. That may well be, but part of me says this loss is more imagined than real, or at least more under individual control. AMS Annual meetings are a colony of more specialized conferences, symposia, and diverse side meetings. Participants may find themselves spread thin – but that’s a choice. They can retain the small-crowd feel by confining their attention to one or two of the many parallel conversations on offer.

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In praise of meetings.

“I meet, therefore I am.” – (what Descartes might say were he alive today?)

“It’s the community, stupid!” – (with apologies to James Carville)

As I write this, the AMS 104th Annual Meeting is underway up the road in Baltimore, bringing together a few thousand scientists; engineers; corporate-, government-, and academic leaders together for several days – roughly one work week. Most come from the United States, but there’s global representation. The meeting purview covers the whole of the Earth sciences and their application for societal benefit.

Hmm. Where does it fit in the scheme of things? To find out, I Googled “number of business conferences held annually.” As you might guess, such a poorly-constructed query produced a squirrelly set of results. One sample gives a flavor:

“The answer to this varies, but according to our estimate, there are around 2 million business events, which includes tradeshows, conferences, seminars and other public business networking events. On 10Times we cover approx 300000 such shows and see the number growing every year.”

That’s a lot of meetings. A lot of work time. A lot of travel. A huge carbon footprint. I tried to get an estimate of the latter using Google and Chatbox; my rudimentary skills and limited time didn’t generate a crisp answer, but did surface estimates such as the one that academics attend four conferences and perhaps one international conference annually. That feels a bit high/I’m guessing that figure might better describe senior academicians than those who are early-career. Another figure that caught my eye in passing was a statement that some 35% of scientists’ carbon footprint might be such travel.

We’d probably all be skeptical of efforts to reduce this carbon footprint of this magnitude through offsets (another squirrelly realm). So then the question arises, given the opportunity cost of the time spent, and the environmental impact, is science conference travel worth it? Quite a bit of the writing out there speaks to the contrary, extolling the virtues of virtual meetings, etc.

My personal experience as a manager of scientists was wholly subjective, and mostly preceded the carbon-footprint concerns, but concluded the opposite. My experience has been that conferences offer a hugely favorable cost benefit, even with environmental costs a consideration. Meeting travel, accompanied by the criterion that it would be funded only if the traveler were presenting a paper, seemed to be a major driver of productivity. If a scientist produced one more paper a year as a result, given his/her annual salary and overheads, the travel cost was a small price to pay from my standpoint and that of our employer.

Some might raise questions about the quality and impact of those papers – but again, to me, that’s where the payoff truly begins. Scientists working in isolation tend to become too absorbed in the problems and details of their work, losing sight of bigger questions such as its broader applications and whether it has any real potential for application and/or accelerating the overall advance of science. Meetings provide a bracing reality check.  The sight of all the progress in myriad directions accomplished by so many colleagues reawakens perspective, broadens horizons, and pushes every participant to do better. Given that our science is a major guide used by nations, energy corporations, agribusiness and individuals to cope with climate change, hazard resilience, and environmental quality challenges that periodic spur to greater productivity is vital to humanity’s future.

All this highlights the importance of community. Scientific conferences build community at the same time they harness it for societal benefit. Good ideas are contagious, like viruses. And scientific conferences are indeed spreader events – not just for covid-19, but for innovation.

Descartes didn’t have this advantage. In his time, there wasn’t much in the way of community to engage, and the means for such engagement were severely limited. He had to work in isolation, with largely his own thought to guide him. Progress was slow.  

Bottom line? Meetings are an engine for innovation – not a vacation from it.

_______________________

As evidence for this, I’m racing against the clock this morning to finish and post this LOTRW post in response to a text message from a colleague that came in last night: “you’ve been quiet on LOTRW”(everything okay?). Still have to finish packing and have a spot of breakfast before my Uber to the train station and the quick trip to Baltimore. Meetings give a jolt even to the retired octogenarian. Looking forward to seeing colleagues and being inspired by their progress.

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Regifting: personal (and meteorological) reflections on Christmas Day 2023.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” – John 3:16 NIV

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” – Luke 2:8-11 NIV

Christmas and the holiday season hold complex and different meanings and emotions for each of us – some cultural, some intensely personal. This should be no reason for surprise. This time of year sees an amalgam of holidays celebrating different histories, faiths, traditions and ends such as Hannukah and Kwanzaa, ancient pagan celebrations noting the winter solstice, and more. One worldwide feature today is a period of gift exchange, mirroring God’s gift of His Son (as recounted in the above verses from the Bible).

Such gift exchange is vulnerable to commercial excess, as is lamented annually. And gifts often miss their target; they fail to satisfy a longing or wish of the recipient. As a result, regifting – giving a gift received to someone else – is a thing.

But regifting is not a simple thing. It’s not only complicated but fraught. There are many ways it can go wrong and can damager the re-gifter’s relationships with both the giver of the original gift and the recipients. As a result, the internet is chock-a-block full of lists of do’s and don’ts. A sample list, just one of many (the original article gives a rationale for each element):

  • Regift only if the item is in its original packaging with all of its parts.
  • Don’t regift a handmade gift.
  • Avoid regifting within the same circle.
  • Only regift if the item is new.
  • Make sure there are no monograms or hidden notes.
  • Regift only if you know the recipient would like it.
  • Elevate the presentation.
  • Be upfront with the people close to you.
  • Tread carefully if questioned about a regift’s origins.
  • …(the list goes on)

Hmm. Maybe it’s just me, but the common theme of these suggests that while you may need to regift something or want to justify the practice, it’s not your best idea. If possible you should try to avoid simple mistakes that reveal what you’ve done, especially to the original gifter and the ultimate recipient.

Fearing that something you contemplate doing might come to light? Usually, that warning sign is telling you to go in a different direction.

But reflect on that early gift of love recounted in those Bible verses. It was a gift of love itself (caring, putting another’s interests and needs first, even at the expense of some sacrifice). It was not a gift of a necktie, or a crazy sweater, or even gold, frankincense and myrrh. The magic, the secret sauce, the unique feature of that gift of love was that it was meant to be regifted. The Giver not only wouldn’t mind, but might take it amiss if the recipient held on to that love, keeping it only for themselves. Furthermore, the supply of that love wasn’t limited to some small bottle, or carton. Attempting to give that love away has only increased the total supply. So for this particular gift, some of those proscriptions on regifting should be tossed.

Curiously, some of the regifting cautions remain. In a 21st century world where arguably the greatest need is for more love, most people are happy to accept the gift, whatever the source. But a few, if told or otherwise made aware that they’re receiving love in whole or in part because the giver has first been given that love by a Higher Power of whatever sort, or even through a chain of human giftgivers that can be ultimately traced back to such a Higher Power, may feel and express anger or resentment – and refuse to accept it, let alone pay it forward.

This is a great tragedy, but one that must be respected. In such instances, instead of celebrating the Ultimate Source of the gift, it’s important, even vital (since the human need for love is universal (and really, insatiable as well) to hide the fact of regifting, as best we can.

Anyway, this is my best opportunity to thank all of you, and all my friends and family, and so many strangers, for all the love you’ve given and/or regifted to me and my family over this past year. Even more importantly, it’s a chance to thank you for sharing even more copious quantities of love to so many others around you. That love is holding things together as the world goes through a difficult patch.

Please persevere in regifting that love you’ve been gifted.

_________________

A final thought – this about public weather, water and climate services. With the limited exception of a few services provided privately to a small number of paying customers, the Weather Enterprise provides information, warnings, outlooks, advisories and other services that are so-called public goods. They are both that non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Use by one person neither prevents access by other people, nor does it reduce availability to others. In that sense, they too are meant to be re-gifted. Regifting not only doesn’t diminish the supply but also magnifies the value – saving lives, reducing injury, protecting property.

Weather forecasts and services? Gifts that are always in season, that are always welcome, and that can always be re-gifted, throughout the year.

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COP-28 re-enters the real world.

Earth’s atmosphere is warming, but when it comes to institutions of marriage and honeymoons, the air seems cooler, bordering on frigid. Statistics show that marriage is on the decline, especially in the wealthier countries. The duration and scheduling of honeymoons are increasingly constrained or delayed, by work demands and other factors.

The same seems to hold true of the so-called honeymoon period – that short stretch of time at the beginning of a new job, political government, etc. that is – or used to be – free of criticism.

An example, close to home: at the close of COP-28, a blogpost on the UN website was upbeat,

COP28 closed today with an agreement that signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance.

In a demonstration of global solidarity, negotiators from nearly 200 Parties came together in Dubai with a decision on the world’s first ‘global stocktake’ to ratchet up climate action before the end of the decade – with the overarching aim to keep the global temperature limit of 1.5°C within reach
.

but went on to acknowledge that work remained:

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

But COP-28 participants and their 70,000 hangers-on were barely able to board their flights from Dubai before the spin went the other way and the criticism began. A sampling:

The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts was quick to weigh in, publishing a list of winners (the oil and gas industry, the recipient of many favorable loopholes; the United States and China, relatively unconstrained going forward; Sultan Al Jaber; clean energy companies, in for a bonanza; lobbyists) and losers (the climate, small island states, climate justice, future generations and other species, scientists). The details are worth the read. With respect to the climate, for example, Watts stated that

The Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C was left nominally alive by Cop28, but has been killed off by the lack of urgency and specifics in the agreement. Despite the hottest summer in 120,000 years, the oil, gas, coal and farming companies that are heating the planet can continue to expand production for the foreseeable future.

Writing for the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells’ skeptical take included this takeaway: …despite Al Jaber’s claim that COP28 has kept the 1.5 degree goal alive, hardly anyone believes it’s still plausible.

(Similar skeptical reactions are easy to find online.)

One special sticking point for COP-28 and the critics has been the issue of loss and damage payments. COP-28 saw the issue addressed and funds promised, but critics were quickly dismissive. An example, this time from The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani:

$700m pledged to loss and damage fund at Cop28 covers less than 0.2% needed. Money offered so far falls far short of estimated $400bn in losses developing countries face each year…

Wealthy countries most responsible for the climate emergency have so far pledged a combined total of just over $700m (£556m) to the loss and damage fund – the equivalent of less than 0.2% of the irreversible economic and non-economic losses developing countries are facing from global heating every year.

In a historic move, the loss and damage fund was agreed at the opening plenary of the first day the Cop28 summit in Dubai – a hard-won victory by developing countries that they hoped would signal a commitment by the developed, polluting nations to finally provide financial support for some of the destruction already under way.

But so far pledges have fallen far short of what is needed, with the loss and damage in developing countries estimated by one non-governmental organisation to be greater than $400bn a year – and rising. Estimates for the annual cost of the damage have varied from $100bn-$580bn.

Recent LOTRW posts (here, here, and here) have touched on this issue. They’ve drawn comments from John Plodinec. He offers interesting explanations for the paltry contributions to correct loss and damage (including competing needs) and suggests other climate-change challenges (e.g., labor shortages) merit more attention. His second comment was thoughtful and extensive; I’m taking a blogger’s prerogative to reproduce it in its entirety here so that it’ll get the attention it deserves:

Bill:

Maybe not doubling down, but I spotted your not-so-sly attempt to sneak in money payments (again). I won’t go into that (again) except to reiterate that it won’t be the well-off in the well-off countries who will pay.

But let’s look at this in another way – in terms of all forms of capital.

First, governance capital, in this case, how do we prioritize potential investments. As William White has pointed out, we are moving from an Age of Plenty to an Age of Scarcity. The tide of globalization is receding; the number of skilled workers isn’t keeping up with the demand; more and more industry is moving from efficiency to resilience; the supply of energy and – especially – metals is highly constrained; the low-hanging fruits of digital connectivity have been eaten. All this at a time when the cost of financial capital (i.e., interest) has increased to high levels. Not to mention our nation’s unsustainable personal, corporate and public debt.

In an Age of Scarcity, we have to make choices, we – and our representatives – have to prioritize. You point to the dearth of spending on our own infrastructure – where does that rank on our national list of priorities? In particular, we will need massive amounts of financial capital to upgrade our grid so that we can have the reliable power for electrified everything. Reliable estimates are that we’re spending about $10K per person per year on health care. We are supplying arms in support of freedom in the Ukraine and of the only democracy (and our best friend) in the Mid-east. We appear to be woefully unprepared – both in munitions and manpower – to counter an increasingly aggressive China in Taiwan. Our higher education system – once the envy of the world – clearly needs reforming to provide the human capital we’re lacking. The bills for reinventing our immigration and border systems are in the mix as well. Where do all of these rank vs your desire for us to “help” the developing world? And even if it’s high on your list, how much political capital will politicians be willing to risk knowing that “climate change” ranks somewhere in the teens in importance to voters? So significant expenditure of financial capital is probably a pipedream.

Second, human capital, both “ours” and “theirs.” It is becoming increasingly apparent that the US does not have enough technically skilled human capital to meet its own needs. Not enough journeyman plumbers or electricians all the way to professional engineers. And in the developing world, the situation is even worse. Deployment of advanced technologies in some of them is almost impossible simply because of the lack of skilled personnel to operate and maintain those technologies. I am all in favor of taking some of the multi-billions we spend on the UN (for example, but there are lots of targets in our foreign aid budgets) and having exchanges so that developing countries can increase their human capital. This can be a win-win – they build up a core group of the technically skilled by working here, our technically skilled get more experience – and become more adept at coping with scarcity – by working overseas.

We have to keep in mind cultural capital, though. I’ve seen too many attempts by well-intentioned First-Worlders fail because they did not fit the local culture. As an example, a team developed a novel technique – elegantly simple – to provide drinking water to remote villages. The technique was simple enough so that even the unskilled villagers could have easily used it. And yet it failed because the “old ways” were too engrained in their culture.

Bill, I would like to see the developing world develop as much as you do. But I think I’m more like a Fox compared to you as a Hedgehog (think Antilochus). We can’t achieve this through trying to guilt our own people, or by using resources we don’t have, or most of all by forgetting that we achieved our marvelous lifestyle by following a path. A path shaped by our history, our culture, our geography and the adversities we faced. Their paths – the developing countries and communities – start from different places. It’s not even clear how much their paths may intersect with ours. We can point out pitfalls; we can provide advice and counsel; we can and should provide any and all forms of capital (on mutually beneficial terms) to help them along their paths.

But we must – above all – be aware that it is THEIR path. There’s a marvelous little essay by Brenda Phillips: “First Eat the Gumbo.” It details how the Eastern Mennonites approached aiding the people of the Gulf Coast after Katrina. They first sat down with the people and just listened. Only after actively listening to what the people wanted and needed did they offer how they could help them. In my terms, they offered how they might help them walk down their own path. Compared to other groups, the Mennonites’ success was phenomenal. So I suggest that we, too, first eat the gumbo with these less developed countries. We try to discern their paths, recognizing that those paths won’t all be the same. We then and only then should consider what we have to offer each of these, and how by helping them to advance along their path we can advance along our own.

(John provides a very kind coda on all this on his own blog, Resilient Communities.)

What’s more, his position has been eloquently supported by Eduardo Porter, writing in the Washington Post. Porter’s short article also deserves a full read; but only two excerpts are provided here. He opens in this vein:

What’s fair?

The question flares up at every United Nations climate summit. The 28th Conference of the Parties, which ended Wednesday in Dubai, was no exception. Countries agreed to “transition away” from fossil fuels. They were encouraged to come up with more ambitious decarbonization paths. But who should transition first? What should determine each nation’s ambition? These efforts will be expensive. Who should pick up the tab?

The “Global Stocktake” from Dubai, like statements from earlier conclaves, got around these questions with the standard diplomatese: Countries’ commitments should reflect “equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in the light of different national circumstances and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

Countries, it turns out, have rather different takes on this question, potentially complicating efforts to make progress against climate change. Legitimate though the need for equity might be, perhaps it makes sense to set it aside…

And closes with this: …The argument from guilt — built on the assumption that rich nations’ past development and emissions have incurred a moral debt to the rest of the world — will likely short-circuit the best case for action. Better to draw on a different moral principle: to expect results from nations according to their capabilities and to assist them according to their needs. [Emphasis added.] That frame could allow the job to get done.

That might sound a bit Marxist for some ears. But parse it carefully, and it reads like just as much a purely practical matter as a moral principle. It calls to mind Willie Sutton’s apocryphal statement to the effect that he robbed banks “Because that’s where the money is.” If the rich world wants to wait for the poor world to bear a significant part of the climate-change burden, then perhaps we’ll all bake together.

Our honeymoon with Earth is over. Time to experience the joys and live up to the responsibilities of marriage.

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This Advent season, there’s hope at COP 28

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. – Lyrics from the Christmas hymn O Holy Night[1]

As I write this, the COP 28 United Nations Climate Conference is still underway but wrapping up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 30 through December 12, 2023.

Hope is not necessarily the first word you might associate with these conferences of the parties. In general, the conversations focus on the growing-ever-more-visible-and-generally-negative impacts of global warming on ecosystems and human affairs, the inadequacy of national and international responses to the challenge, and the dire outlook ahead if we don’t dramatically step-up our efforts. Emphasis this 28th time around is on bringing fossil-fuel extraction consumption use and emissions under control – getting to net zero. Methane is also drawing attention, as are funding instruments for getting money from nations who have it to nations who need it if they are to play their needed role.

But hope is in the (still-inexorably-warming) air. Consider this message from Rick Spinrad, NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, reprinted in its entirety:

As the world gathers in Dubai this week for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), we do so against the backdrop of an unprecedented year of worldwide extreme weather events and record-breaking heat. The challenges we confront are daunting, and they demand our collective resolve, but they also require us to continue to foster a sense of hope that propels us forward in the fight against one of the greatest existential threats of our time. 

“Let me share a few reasons for hope as we confront the climate crisis:

“Science and Innovation: Science has never been more advanced. At NOAA, we have a deeper understanding of the Earth’s systems than ever before, including how they act and interact. Innovations in renewable energy, carbon capture and sustainability are within our grasp. Thanks to historic investments in renewables and green technology, we have the resources and tools to make a real impact as we advance these solutions.

“Youth and Activism: The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The enthusiasm, determination, knowledge, and activism of the younger generation have ignited a global movement demanding action on climate change. They remind us that the future is not lost and that we must strive for a world that is sustainable, just and equitable for all.

“Global Collaboration: COP28 is a testament to the power of global collaboration. Countries, organizations and thousands of individuals from around the world are convening to collectively address climate change. When we are committed together, our determination is uncompromising.

“Hope is not a passive sentiment — it is a call to action. It reminds us that we are not helpless in the face of climate change. NOAA is in every community in the U.S., committed to working hand-in-hand with partners locally to build a ‘climate-ready nation’ and to sharing these best practices globally. No matter the need, people know they can turn to us for reliable, easy-to-use climate and extreme weather information to help make informed decisions that help save lives and livelihoods.

“As the Administrator of NOAA, as a scientist and as a concerned citizen, I know that our agency is committed to continuing vital work in climate research and prediction, supporting sustainable practices and sharing knowledge with the world. And I know that it is equally essential for all of us to play our part.

“In the spirit of international collaboration that powers COP28, let us remember that there is hope, and it’s a powerful force that drives change. Let it motivate us to make bold and ambitious commitments, to hold ourselves accountable and to work tirelessly to combat climate change every day.”

Well said. Worth noting, especially considering the source, for two reasons. At the institutional level, the message comes not from a COP-bystander, but from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose work and mission for many decades[2] has been at the heart of, and a major impetus for, the COP discussions. NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory has housed much of the work of Charles David Keeling and atmospheric chemists in monitoring the CO2 trends that are cause for concern. NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory gave us the early model results (Manabe and Wetherald, 1967) quantifying the connection between rising CO2 levels and atmospheric warming – results that would win Syukuro Manabe a quarter share of the 2021 Nobel Prize in physics.

At the individual level, throughout his career and in this message, Rick Spinrad has demonstrated those qualities we so hope to see from our leaders. This starts with clear-eyed vision and scientific integrity, to be sure. But it doesn’t stop there. It extends to an ability to inspire – not through mere empty words, but through establishing meaningful connections between work that needs doing and societal benefit.

But hope also entered COP28 from another quarter. The COP28 hosts established the first-ever Faith Pavilion for the participation of religious communities. The link provides extensive detail; this Pope Francis video message for the inauguration gives the flavor. Thoughtful and inspiring, it’s worth two minutes of your time.

Getting the science right? Acknowledging the profound spiritual issues such as equity, love, and responsibility at the heart of the problem? Laying out concrete international steps for getting to net zero; coping with the emerging methane challenge; financing the whole?

COP28 finds realism and hope existing side by side, working in concert.


[1] Full disclosure, this has long been one of my two very favorite Christmas hymns. Want to get in the seasonal spirit? Take time for this low-key video version by Malakai Bayoh and Aled Jones. LOTRW has considered hope in the context of O Holy Night and Advent in several prior years. In chronological order: January 2012 (a little late, I know); December 2012; 2013; 2014. Want to add a bit of variety? Try Mary Did You Know?, a hymn which captures the full global and personal  emotional impact of Jesus’ birth like no other. Here’s a version by Pentatonix.

[2] NOAA had yet to be established by that name at the start; the work began under antecedent agencies.

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