Bootstrap World.

Given present trends and recent events, it’s time to revisit and update a few notions basic to the LOTRW blog over the years as well as the book by that title. Today’s focus is on natural hazards and disasters:

  • Extremes of nature are Earth’s way of doing business. By contrast, disasters, that is community disruptions that persist after the extremes have come and gone, and exceed the communities’ ability to recover unaided, are the result of human decisions and societal actions.
  • Since disasters are socially constructed, they tend to aggravate preexisting inequities (that is, the impacts and burdens fall most severely on the already-poor and disadvantaged). Today’s social media coverage of this widening gap between the haves- and have-nots is building awareness that opportunity for advancement in society may no longer be so broadly available has it had once been. The result is diminished sense of community and trust.
  • Disasters are also continually mutating in response to social change and technological advance. One important mutagen is increasing societal dependence on critical infrastructure. Today such infrastructure takes many forms and performs a variety of vital societal functions. Infrastructures maintain energy, food, and water supplies and their non-interuptibility; maintain health care; enable government operations and corporate supply chains; underpin the financial sector; develop and disseminate news, data, and information; and more. Such infrastructures used to be local, or regional, or national; today much such connectivity is global.
  • The resulting trend is toward disasters that are fewer in number but have far greater geographic reach, impact far larger populations.
  • This matters because what has historically been termed disaster recovery is at least a misnomer if not an oxymoron. Those who experience and survive disaster, whether individuals or corporate, never really recover. They are forever changed. Only rarely are they able to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps[1].” What we call recovery is instead more often a matter of a larger unaffected population spreading into the originally impacted area and taking over.
  • As disasters increase in scope and extent, they can reach the point where they impact entire nations or exert a global influence. There are then few (or no) unaffected populations who enjoy the means to rebuild.

As recently as a few years ago, most hazards experts spoke of such worldwide disasters in the abstract – as matters of possible concern, but only in the future. They listed a few potential scenarios: an asteroid strike; nuclear war; climate change; a pandemic. Human experience with such events had been extremely limited. The K-T meteor strike responsible leading to mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred well before human beings arrived on the scene (and in fact accomplished a planetary reset in ways that allowed mammals to take over the scene). The Black Death killed a significant fraction of the world’s population during the mid-14th century AD. Two twentieth-century World Wars engaged many nations and peoples; battle zones popped up across several continents as well as the world’s oceans. This global-disaster-as-future-possibility perspective has been reflected in LOTRW posts throughout the blog’s twelve-year lifetime.

Today, however, global disaster is happening – a present reality. The covid-19 pandemic, though fortunately less lethal at the individual level than the medieval bubonic plague, encountered a global society and healthcare infrastructure unable to cope with the large numbers of people suddenly needing care at the same time. The Black Death killed perhaps as many as a third of the people living between Iceland and India over a span of a year or so, bringing the feudal economy (that had been based on a surplus of labor) to an end. Without serfs to do their work, the nobility lost power to the people, who built an emerging middle class. Though killing a much smaller percentage, the covid-19 pandemic eliminated many service sector-jobs, and led to work from home for large numbers of professionals. The breakdown of supply chains coupled with rising demand for goods following the pandemic’s peak has produced worldwide inflation not seen for 40 years. The world’s economy and labor force will never be the same.

Similarly. the intensity and pervasive extent of the season’s northern hemisphere heat waves are driving home the point that climate change is a present-day reality and not some unlikely or distant future prospect. Intermittent, localized food and water shortages and power outages are triggering massive economic shifts and migration of large populations that will accompany the transition to climate conditions of the 22nd century.

Finally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, though limited geographically, looks like a new kind of World War – not the nuclear holocaust feared during the Cold War era (though that remains a risk today), but nonetheless global in scope, and directly and profoundly affecting large civilian, nominally non-combatant populations. Russia and the Ukraine together constitute a significant fraction of the world’s grain supply. The conflict has reduced agriculture production and compromised the grain transport, and thus created or exacerbated food shortages and massive price increases on every continent. Russia supplies a significant fraction of European energy; in response to what it sees as European interference with its sovereignty, it has reduced these flows of gas and oil, and threatens further reductions.  The developed world has weaponized its financial infrastructure in response, attempting to bring Russia to heel through a range of economic sanctions. Armament and munitions manufacture are everywhere racing ahead.

None of these measures is, strictly speaking, new. But years of globalization and stresses on food and energy supplies triggered by climate change have combined to make them more potent. Their differing impacts on countries worldwide have led to patchworked (and often inconsistent and conflicted) multinational alignments.

The simultaneous overlay of these three global catastrophes, and the weaponizing of non-military infrastructures, comes at a time when trust in institutions, particularly governments, appears to be at a low ebb. American difficulties need no elaboration here. The British have removed their leader. Italy’s leader is stepping down. Winds of political change are sweeping though South America, with leadership transitions, Chile’s struggles to write a new Constitution, and more. Public unrest is rampant throughout Asia, reaching flashpoints in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Rebel forces challenge governments across Africa. Despots in several countries have taken a different approach. They’ve made it clear they can be trusted – trusted to detect and quickly punish any dissent or criticism.

In cope with all this, eight billion of us are called to lift ourselves by our bootstraps.

(Looking for any glimmer of good news, Bill…).

Good news? Okay. One starting point is that last notion – that despots are punishing dissent and criticism from whatever quarter.

Really. Stop for a moment and contemplate the sheer scale of effort required for unelected leaders, even when supported by police (and in some cases military), to stamp out criticism during troubled times. Moreover, since such suppression is inherently bankrupt, it requires increasing vigilance, energy, and effort with time, until it ends in spectacular or whimpering failure. It’s hard to imagine a more exhausting, debilitating, unsustainable task. Worldwide, time always favors dissatisfied majorities (the element majority being key here).

This is a special instance of a more general reality: stress is responsibility without authority. If despots, with all their (supposed) levers of power, lack the authority and means to keep the lid on change, it makes little sense for the majority of us to keep kicking the barge to move it in our wanted direction. Instead we might lean on it a bit. That requires nothing more than bringing to every action and interaction our own good will (that is, favoring outcomes to the advantage of all), a commitment to keeping our word (not promising any more than we can delivery unilaterally, and keeping those promises), and a predisposition to trust others (barring continuing evidence to the contrary).

Simple. Relaxing. Guaranteed to work in Bootstrap World.

[1] People understood the expression “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” to mean “attempting to do something absurd” until roughly the 1920s, at which point it started to evolve toward the current understanding: to do something without any outside help.

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A National Climate Emergency?

Ilya Repin. Barge haulers on the Volga
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

If you want a barge to move, and you kick it, you only hurt your foot. But if you lean on it, sooner or later it has to move your way.” – Joseph O. Fletcher[1]

News reports over the past few days tell us that the White House is contemplating formal declaration of a national climate emergency. We’re told the President himself is expected to speak on this topic later today.

It’s easy to see the motivation. The climate challenge is a present reality, and dire. Average global temperatures continue to ratchet upwards. Britain saw temperatures exceeding 1000F Tuesday – temperatures unheard of throughout more than 300 years of recordkeeping (and Britain itself has declared a state of national emergency). Temperature records are also being broken elsewhere across Europe.  Here in the United States, 40 million people are under heat advisories; more than eighty wildfires are underway (more than half of these in Alaska). Congress seems stalemated on the climate issue, and the Supreme Court has recently ruled against EPA efforts to regulate carbon emissions – and all this in the face of administration promises for climate action. Invoking the National Emergencies Act allows the president to take a range of needed actions unilaterally.

If he does so, President Biden will not be breaking new ground. His predecessors had form, using the policy tool to contend with a range of issues. President Carter invoked the Act (2 times); Reagan (6); G.H.W. Bush (4); Clinton (17); G.W. Bush (12); Obama: (13); Trump (7).

In the present instance, expectations should remain low. For starters, options available to the President under the Act are limited. They’ll necessarily address only pieces of the climate change problem. Benefits and costs will impact Americans unequally. What’s more, the very nature of the Act and the circumstances typically surrounding its use hint at departures from America’s normal governance and democratic procedures. At a time when elements of one political party are calling for suspension of elections-themselves-as-usual, this might not be the best look.

Thanks to the recent (still current?) U.S. covid emergency, all these realities, both positive and negative, are fresh in the public’s mind. Emergency actions slowed the virus onset, buying precious time for America’s healthcare system, keeping it from being overwhelmed by patients in the critical early months. At the same time, accompanying Congressional action reduced household and macro- economic loss. The national emergency allowed time to develop vaccines and inoculate much of the general populace; this limited illness and loss of life and brought the crisis per se to something of an end. By these and other measures, the corresponding National Emergency declaration was a success.

But only barely. Despite the continuing (and still-evolving) threat, Americans show issue-fatigue.  They have tired of precautions. Large public and private gatherings are on the rise after a season of prohibition. For many, mask use is lackadaisical. And in hindsight, some emergency measures were counterproductive. For example, wholesale, extended school closures probably hurt the vast majority of K-12 students more than they were helped by isolation from the virus. The impact on parents of school-age children was also severe.

There’s a mismatch between a “national climate emergency” and the climate change problem in three core respects.

The first is time frame.  Climate change itself is a trend extending over decades. The actions needed to forestall it – e.g., weaning eight billion people off centuries of reliance on fossil fuels – must be sustained over a similar period. This vastly exceeds the duration over which nations and individuals can maintain a sense of urgency.

The second is scale. Fossil-fuel dependence and the reliance on trillions of dollars of investment in corresponding infrastructure can’t be unwound by the small dollar-size, fragmented efforts that can be enabled by presidential directives. Viewed against climate change, these will at best be seen as symbolic and aspirational in nature, and at worst be scorned by detractors as wholly unresponsive, given the scale of the problem. (By contrast, the current British national emergency is laser-focused on minimizing excess death rates due to heat stress, and is commensurate with the time frame of the immediate threat.)

(These mismatches fall squarely within the purview of Joe Fletcher’s “you only hurt your foot.”)

 A third and final mismatch also matters. The urgency and unprecedented nature of the covid pandemic riveted world attention. By contrast, at least here in America, climate change is currently low on the list of public concerns. People are more worried about other issues: e.g., the economy, health care, government taxes and spending, the pandemic, and education. Labels matter too; for example, a recent Gallup poll shows climate change ranking near the bottom of environmental concerns – lagging behind polluted drinking water; polluted rivers, lakes, and reservoirs; loss of tropical rainforests; air pollution; and species extinction.[2]

Fact is, climate change isn’t really even a topic of conversation for most folks. A Yale opinion poll found that only 35% of Americans admit to talking about climate change with others. even occasionally. The other 65% claim they never talk about it.

It’s only natural for those of us in meteorology or the Earth sciences to decry this. We conclude, based on what we know, that we should talk about climate change more, and more effectively convince those around us that the issue is important, even vital, perhaps even existential. After, this is our wheelhouse. We know the subject, and surely we’re most qualified to speak on subject matter we know.

Some work along these lines is certainly needed. However, by itself it will bring little joy. This is a matter of triage – well known in emergency medicine. Doctors are trained, in emergencies to quickly classify incoming patients into one of three categories:  those beyond help; those who can hang on, essentially unaided, at least for a bit; and those that can be saved but only if given immediate attention now.

But every human being, whether young or old, of whatever gender or ethnicity or nationality, does triage continually. Each hour of each day we know what can be ignored, often indefinitely; what exceeds our power to influence; and what our civic or job or family responsibilities dictate we need to do now. For me to come upon you in your thought process and suggest you drop what you’re doing and focus on climate change will be no more welcome, and no more appropriate, than looking over your shoulder and saying, unasked, “forget buying groceries; you need to pay the rent.” Or “you can’t pick up the kids from school; you need to finish your boss’ project.”

Accordingly, those of us in climate science, or climate adaptation practice, etc., should at least some of the time and maybe most of the time take as our starting point with others questions of the character “What is your greatest/most urgent problem at the moment and how can I help?”

If we’re willing “to lean on the barge,” that is, to work with others, however incrementally, to grow the economy and generate jobs, reduce the cost and improve the quality of health care, foster high quality public education, etc., we’ll over time build a public and a world more concerned and better equipped to climate change.

And that public support will make it easier for our leaders at the federal level – the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court – work together where possible and independently where necessary to cope with climate change.

[1] I worked for and with Joe Fletcher for an extended period of years; over time he shared this particular wisdom more than once. I doubt very much he originated the saying, but a quick Google search has failed to turn up anything useful. Would welcome any reader information on proper attribution.

[2] This despite the fact that climate change aggravates all these issues.

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Acknowledge the Lorenz butterfly…but don’t blame it.

This past week the news media have been abuzz about Senator Joe Manchin and his stance on climate change legislation. Much of that coverage lays the blame for America’s struggles to cope with climate change on his shoulders.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the media laid that same blame at the feet of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. There was outrage, with this flavor: Is it right that such a small handful of unelected men and women should exert such outsized control on such an important issue?

Fact is, the media seem to flit (butterfly-like?) from narrow cause to narrow cause, fixing and isolating the blame in turn:

  • on inaction of the current president of whichever party;
  • on Republican obstinacy, or liberal Democratic over-reach;
  • on covid, or inflation, or the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the resulting global fuel shortage, or Amazon deforestation;
  • on any of myriad other sensitivities in the climate system to human influence.

then, weeks or even just days later, recycling through this list.

Advancing human knowledge and understanding of all these problems is not just useful but necessary. So is building public awareness of these challenges across all sectors of society. But overlaying blame doesn’t appear to have been particularly helpful.

Meteorologists are well-positioned to see this. Thanks to Ed Lorenz and others, we’re well aware that the smallest details of atmospheric conditions in the right places can magnify quickly into enormous differences in weather development and outcomes. We’ve given this reality a name. We call it the butterfly effect, encapsulating the idea with a metaphor: a butterfly flapping its wings can lead to chain of events culminating at a later time in a tornado or hurricane somewhere downstream.

Meteorologists stop at recognition. We don’t blame the butterfly (or the seagull, or the breaching whale, or any other creature) for causing bad weather, or for failing to maintain favorable conditions. None is aware of their larger, longer-term impacts. Each is remaining true to its nature. We don’t say, butterflies are dangerous! We must eliminate butterflies!

Similarly, we wouldn’t blame a jogger. By the same logic, a jogger’s particular timing, or route, or speed, or arm movements, or even choice of clothing could ultimately trigger an extreme weather event – but no jogger knows that outcome. Our forecasts aren’t that good.

But, Bill, the clear difference is that Senator Manchin, the Supreme Court, and the other human players in your bulleted list are aware of their climate impacts. They have a good idea of the damage they’re causing, and they have other options open to them.

Yes and no. They’re undoubtedly aware of at least the first-order, initial impacts of their decisions. But they have little or no knowledge of the emergent consequences of their actions – how the larger society will respond over time, or even initially. And the tools at their disposal are limited. So is their so-called agency. As media coverage has made clear, Joe Manchin is ideally suited to be a Democratic Senator from today’s West Virginia in much the same way as a butterfly, or a seagull, or a whale is ideally suited for its unique role in the global ecosystem. The same holds true for the Supreme Court justices, and the other actors in the bulletized climate change roles above. And just as you and I see our influence on our circumstances to be limited, and however free we might imagine leaders to be, they likely see little more room for maneuver than you and I enjoy – in fact, possibly much less, as they’re in the media limelight. This is especially the case if they hold true to their nature – that is, the set of principles and ideals and history of action that led them to their current position in the first place. Asking or expecting them to change just because they’ve arrived in a particular leadership position might be disingenuous on our part or even irresponsible.

(By the way, we don’t hold that jogger to be entirely blameless either, do we? We don’t pick a quarrel with their exercise regime per se, but should we decide that their workouts increased their appetite for, say, corn-fed beef versus something vegetarian, or other-than-locally-sourced produce, then we start to feel free to weigh in.)

Hopefully, by now, everyone is convinced that no one person or small group is any more or less of the problem than each of us. To a lesser or greater extent we’re also shaped by and prisoners of our cultural and social context. We all hope that on net our influence on the world is positive, but we can’t ever really know.

Okay, Bill. Suppose all that is true. How then do we make progress with respect to climate change, or any of the other problems that bedevil us?

I was hoping you had the answer. Beats me. But I do know that the really difficult problems of today are all wicked. That is, they

  • are characteristics of deeper problems
  • offer little opportunity for trial-and-error learning
  • exhibit no clear set of alternative solutions
  • exhibit uncertainty, but strongly feature contradictory certitudes
  • hold redistributive implications for entrenched interests
  • yield only to coping strategies, and grudgingly at that

It’s risky to zero in on any of these in isolation; it’s the combination that’s the challenge. Furthermore, the 21st-century issue is the cocktail of such wicked problems that confront us: limited natural resources, including but not confined to food, energy, and water; environmental degradation; natural hazards, including pandemics. We need to address all these simultaneously.

Nevertheless, the root issue on this list that seems to me most problematic is “redistributive implications for entrenched interests.” At a personal level, virtually all of us feel that “we want just a little more” and “what little we do have is at risk to being stripped away by others.” But here in the United States we’re merely worried about the price of food while others are starving; about the cost of education when others, especially young women and the poor are going entirely without; about the need for fine-tuning the justice system while others are struggling to survive in failed states, where there is little or no rule of law. Paradoxically, it seems that those of us most willing to share what they have with others are the neediest – those who have the least.


In conversation on all this at breakfast, my wife pointedly asked, “so what is your solution?” To which I replied I didn’t have one. But one place I’d start? Remembering the ancient advice dating back to the Old Testament (but featured in other cultures as well) that wealth stems from generosity as much as the other way around:

One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
    another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.

A generous person will prosper;
    whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

People curse the one who hoards grain,
    but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell
. – Proverbs 11:24-26

On a national and international level, the United States could emulate the precedent of the Marshall Plan implemented at the end of World War II. Ten years of Depression followed by five years of conflict had drawn down US coffers, but from 1948-1951 inclusive the United States gave away something like 2% of its GDP to a host of foreign countries (including its enemies, notably Germany). Today that would be something like $400B. Difficult to imagine reviving this commitment today, given current domestic- and geo-politics. But the postwar payoff to the United States in terms of increased trade and geopolitical stability, the respect of other nations (and domestically, our respect for ourselves) quickly made this look much more of an investment than a gift. The same outcome would likely obtain today.

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The universe takes a selfie.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.  He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yetno one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. – Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 (NIV)

This week NASA released early images from the Webb telescope, including the one above, of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 (aka Webb’s First Deep Field). The images are truly beautiful and at the same time tug at the eternity set in our hearts.

An excerpt from NASA’s accompanying description of SMACS 0723:

Webb’s image is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, a tiny sliver of the vast universe. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying more distant galaxies, including some seen when the universe was less than a billion years old. This deep field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks. And this is only the beginning. Researchers will continue to use Webb to take longer exposures, revealing more of our vast universe.

Wow. Absolutely. Breathtaking.

From the language of this NASA narrative, it’s only a small step to the metaphor of a selfie. In such an analog, it’s important to realize the human race played an important but nevertheless supporting role. We merely manufactured the (Webb) “cellphone.” Webb’s orbit itself might be considered the “selfie stick.” The selfie’s subject is of course the universe writ large.

Unlike ordinary selfies, which capture a single instant, this one also embodies a time span – a huge one, approaching the full age of the universe. Light from the distant objects originated more than ten billion years ago; light from the closest objects a mere fraction of that, much closer to the present day, but many cases still more ancient than the whole of human history.

Otherwise, there are several similarities. For example, like most selfies, this one offers a narrow field of view, only hinting at a much larger context. Most selfies are celebratory, and so is this one. It’s the culmination of decades of planning and technological achievement. (This author remembers a visit to Ball Aerospace in Colorado years ago that included quick side trip to a cavernous room where the Webb mirrors and instrument were being assembled; to be seeing Webb’s first images this week has been an exciting experience – and that’s from the viewpoint of a mere bystander. Can’t begin to imagine the profound emotions that must be running through those who actually conceptualized, built, and deployed Webb, along with the gaggle of scientists who are only just now beginning to examine and analyze the outputs. What a head rush!)

We all know from personal experience that some selfies age better than others. Many capture a special moment, are shared on social media, but we think of them no more. Others capture a moment or commemorate relationships that grow more precious with time. We revisit them frequently, re-post them on anniversaries, etc. The long-term impact of Webb’s initial images will depend on subsequent data and discoveries resulting from the research, but also, like other selfies, on the trajectory of relationships that bind the human race. Should society grow more inclusive, equitable, and generally fairer and more peaceable, these and future images will grow in power and influence. They’ll shape and ennoble our human self-image and understanding of how we fit in to the cosmos. If instead the current tears in the world’s social fabric be exacerbated by war, terrorism, economic exploitation, failures to cope with challenges such as pandemic and climate change, then any of the current wonder occasioned by this scientific and technological accomplishment will wane in the face of growing chaos.

Which brings me to the above excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. To me it seems as relevant today as it was a couple of thousand years ago.  On the one hand, we might imagine that our view of eternity today is far more developed and nuanced than it had been back then, especially given present understanding of the age of the universe, and the physical processes at work throughout. On the other, as our knowledge has been refined, new uncertainties have emerged – and not just in the details. Today we rely on fudge factors like dark matter (some 85% of matter in the universe?) and dark energy (some 70% of the matter-energy of the universe), neither of which has been satisfactorily detected, let alone studied, to make certain cosmological sums and observed phenomena work out. It might seem that science still has some way to go.

These are large uncertainties. To see this, suppose you took your car to the dealer’s for a muffler replacement, expecting a bill for labor and parts of $300.  At jobs end, you were presented a bill for $2000. When you protested, the dealer said, “you’ve forgotten about the dark surcharges, which are 85% of the total bill.” (So of course you apologize: “silly me! I forgot all about that!”)

In this moment of scientific and technological achievement, there’s still plenty of room for humility, for a sense of wonder, and for eagerness to get to the work remaining.

Thanks again, NASA! Once again you’ve awed us, humbled us, elevated our sights, and at the same time given us reason to draw closer together.

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SCOTUS on EPA: Stephen Jascourt weighs in.

The previous LOTRW post, focusing on the recent Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency, occasioned a bit of comment, not on the blog site directly, but rather through e-mail and on community platforms.

At one end of the spectrum, a reader saw the EPA action as “a clear case of Administrative overreach.”

Other readers saw things from the other direction.

Stephen Jascourt provided a wonderfully thoughtful, extended and wide-ranging analysis. I asked and received his permission to reprint his thoughts verbatim. He assented; you’ll find his full post here. He had some significant disagreements with what I wrote; you’ll find his main points and supporting arguments compelling. He was also gentle, polite, perhaps to a fault – as you’ll see immediately from his opening:

Dear Bill,

I know you have deep understanding of the slow and interlocking mechanisms of society and our three branches of government, but I think you sort of went off the deep end to find a silver lining in this cloud of a Supreme Court decision.

Your thesis is entirely correct and obvious, that the decision is a result of inaction by Congress. This is not an uncommon situation – Congress does not act and the Court decides either that existing vague law can apply or cannot apply to a situation in front of the Court.

[Then he opens up a bit…]

But beyond that is where I see an entirely different understanding of the dynamic.

To start with, the Kagan opinion clearly states that Congress did NOT need to act further, that the law as it exists now IS applicable to the situation at hand. The majority opinion is a major turn of the way in which the Supreme Court interprets Congressional intent and the laws as they stand. Laws are made vague in this manner for two reasons: 1. future developments that are not imagined at the time the law is passed need to be either included or not included in the scope of the law, which is largely the issue in this case, and 2. compromise in the lawmaking process results in things being made less explicit so that one side can claim that it is supportable and vote for it or be willing to not stand in the way, things that lawmakers know are right to do but don’t want the messaging coming out in a particular way that they voted for X while their support base does not support position X. The new Court argument can and probably will be used to narrow the scope of applicability of many laws that protect us and our environment and our societal systems. Matters that many in Congress believed were settled in existing legislation will suddenly be declared beyond the scope of existing law.

[Then he hits full stride… 🙂]

But that’s relatively minor detail compared to the broader dynamic at play.

Your claim that “No one is happy or complacent about this…. It holds regardless of political persuasion” is definitely not true. Corporate right wing (petroleum PACs, tobacco companies and their PACs, etc.), Koch brothers, etc. have been pouring money into politics to have their interests take control and the restricting of scope of legislation is one of their top priorities because it is how they can weasel out of responsibility and increase their profits while reducing their legal risks. And to help promote their agenda, they have advertising campaigns, they buy off legislators – which creates part of the dysfunction in Congress, and they convince people of their message via “grasstops” campaigns in order to amplify their voice or position and make it appear more popular or make it actually more popular in an uninformed populace and to help garner voter support for the candidates who will do their bidding. This is a long-term strategy that underlaid the Reagan rhetoric focused on less regulation, less government, and lower taxes in order to starve government that has been the rallying cry of the Republican Party my entire life. The reasoning behind this decision and the power to implement this reasoning (of narrowed scope of laws) by having a majority on the Court who support it is the result of this long term strategy and is clearly supported by those behind that strategy. They are rejoicing over this. The dysfunction of Congress intentionally created by this strategy and the argument that this dysfunction can be used to limit regulation is all part of this strategy. There are many who are surely rejoicing now because their decades of effort to reduce corporate accountability and risk has been achieved in this case and may be achieved more broadly as more decisions are rendered based on the same reasoning.

Your claim “High-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated men and women populate, even dominate the chambers of the Supreme Court, the halls of Congress, the headquarters and field offices of the agencies” is only partly (mostly) true and the (smaller) part that is not plays an outsized and pivotal role. You cannot honestly say after January 6, 2021 that Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley or any of their staffers who still work for them are dedicated to preserving the United States constitutional system of government and transfer of power. You cannot look in the mirror and honestly say that. And that is just the most obvious example. There certainly are and always have been many “high-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated men and women” of differing viewpoints and who may often not be able to agree on some matters, but when you put sand into the gears of the democratic machinery as we have allowed to happen by voting for people like Cruz and Hawley, it undermines the already intentionally slow and self-limiting functioning of Congress. And, turning to the executive branch, many of the Trump agency appointees clearly were not “high-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, and dedicated.”

Same for Reagan’s. The civil servants serving under them were hamstrung by orders from the appointed leadership. You can see this by the history, by the convictions, by the lies that have become exposed, by the manipulations, by the conflicts of interest and abuses of power that have been widely reported. But these appointees had the power to push government in a certain direction, and they were allowed that power by confirmation by a majority of Senators, most of that majority confirmed because they supported the agenda of the nominees and placed that agenda ahead of integrity, and some of whom confirmed because they incorrectly assumed positive intent, competence, and dedication of purpose to the public good even if they disagreed with the nominee politically. And some Senators voted to confirm some nominees whom they normally wouldn’t have in order to “pick their battles” to focus their political capital against a few even more egregious nominations.

[And shows mercy at the end…]

In conclusion, your painting of the decision as a cloud and painting a considerable silver lining in that cloud I think is not a realistic painting. Instead, I view the cloud as the way our government and society functions that has allowed things to reach a point where such a decision was possible and the decision is simply a byproduct, the rain from that cloud. Rain of course is part of the cycle of life and rejuvenation, and there is much work to do to claim or reclaim our democracy. And I would guess we are in agreement on that conclusion! 🙂 At least if I keep it that vague. Once we start talking about exactly what is involved in claiming or reclaiming our democracy, we might find some more points where we disagree, but probably many where we do agree, and working through those is the essence of democracy itself.

Best regards,

Stephen Jascourt

Thanks again, Stephen, for contributing to the discussion in this way.

By way of defense, I’ll simply note that Stephen’s response exemplifies the promise of my favorite Charles Darwin’s quote, which had appeared on the LOTRW masthead for many years (only just today noticed it’s no longer there; now puzzling as to why, and how to restore it): “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.”

Certainly I have no quarrel with what Stephen has to say; I can only admire it.

But what he has to say is itself stimulating in Darwin’s sense. Stephen recognizes this. In his followup correspondence, he asked that I correct a few typos (have tried my best). He went further:

I am a bit concerned that I made some sweeping assertions that I can support but would take many more pages of text and looking up citations etc. to support which is more work than I have time for and would go beyond the bounds of your blog. My concern is that supporting those assertions would be required for any scholarly debate or publication, and those smart people who want to challenge my assertions would probably use that lack of rigor as a hitting point.

He has stumbled on the blogger’s lament! I worry about this with every post. The problem is aggravated by the artificial deadline I give myself for every post, in an attempt to keep thoughts timely versus polish them incessantly.

Two closing comments, prompted by Stephen’s inputs, but more along the lines of that’s what I meant to say, or that’s what I should have said:

First, Stephen noted in particular that my claim that “No one is happy or complacent about this…. It holds regardless of political persuasion” is definitely not true. He adds supporting material to make this point clear.

I intended to convey a different meaning, but failed to express it well. It’s this: Stephen and I are frustrated/disappointed in the Court’s decision. We’re both unhappy with that result. But I don’t think those on the other side, though “happy” with the victory, as Stephen notes, are happy in any deeper sense. They’re exhausted by the fight they’ve been in. They’re all too conscious of the price they paid, not just in dollars but in making upcoming battles even more difficult. They’re smart enough to recognize that they may have “won” this battle, but they’re losing a larger war. At best they’re buying time. In the end they’ll lose out to inexorable realities: global change itself; growing awareness of the human causes; increased public understanding of what will be needed to restore things.

Second, Stephen notes that a minority of people who are not high-minded are playing an outsized political role. But my point is that the majority of that group are not setting out to turn the planet into a dumpsite, or destroy American values. The tragedy of Washington is that it’s populated by half a million people who were raised by mom and dad to make the world a better place, but they come to DC and instead of seeing themselves part of a 500,000-strong support group, they think they’re the only ones. They wake up every morning and instead of seeing the day as a chance to seek truth and solve problems together, they think it’s necessary to do battle. It’s only a minority of the minority who are actively, eagerly, consciously trying to do the rest of us in versus save us.

This is not a new phenomenon. The prophet Jeremiah laments (Jer. 17:9 NIV): The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? The lament is not that we deceive others. We deceive ourselves first. Perhaps Jeremiah was thinking of even old literature, this from Proverbs 21:2: A person may think their own ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart. Whatever our side, we we’re in the right. This thinking was already familiar to the human heart before being codified by Middle East thinkers thousands of years ago. (Much) more recently, in his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln made a similar observation about the sides in the Civil War: Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. Interestingly, Lincoln was just as mystified then as we are with respect to the present West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency decision. Lincoln went on to say:  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

There’s very little joy in approaches to conflict resolution that start with trying to convince the other side they’re in the wrong. The starting point is to build the trust needed to bridge differences, find compromise, and solve problems. Stephen Jascourt modeled that behavior in his approach to both the blogpost and the larger issue. For that:

Thanks, again, Stephen!

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SCOTUS on EPA; and Independence Day 2022

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…“ – the U.S. Declaration of Independence

On Thursday of last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. The decision put limits on EPA’s regulatory authority to control carbon emissions, triggering a flurry of news reports and analysis. For the most part, media narratives described the decision as a setback for efforts to deal with climate change. Some quarters saw instead a welcome correction to federal over-reach into Americans’ lives and affairs. Generally speaking, the analysts either impugned the (majority) justices’ motives or lauded them for their courage and integrity as protectors of Americans’ rights. There was little in-between.

A few reflections:

The decision didn’t come as a surprise. Though draft texts were not leaked as in the case of Roe v. Wade, the expectation was that the ruling would go against EPA.

The intent behind the decision is open to interpretation (and may never be fully known). But it seems to be more far-reaching than simply declaring a winner and a loser.

Justices themselves were not of one accord. The vote was split 6-3. And at first glance, differences in individual views appeared to be vast. Consider these quotes (from the Washington Post):

Gorsuch: “When Congress seems slow to solve problems, it may be only natural that those in the Executive Branch might seek to take matters into their own hands. But the Constitution does not authorize agencies to use pen-and-phone regulations as substitutes for laws passed by the people’s representatives.”

Kagan (writing for herself and for Breyer and Sotomayor) “The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decisionmaker on climate policy…I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

But look a bit deeper. There’s actually agreement here. In this decision and parallel rulings with respect to CDC and OSHA, the justices seem to be saying that sweeping regulatory authority can’t be left to a small handful of unelected civil servants, whether in the courts or in the agencies. Instead, they’re asking that Congress step up to the role envisioned by the Declaration of Independence – specifically that members of Congress roll up their sleeves and actually come to grips with climate change, the pandemic, racism, abortion, the right to bear arms, and other thorny issues, in each instance seeking- and hammering out compromise that reflects the will and needs of the governed, and enacting responsive legislation. They’re reminding members of Congress that they were elected to work together to achieve desired societal ends (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come to mind). They weren’t sent to Washington simply to fight each other and then look to the courts to declare winners and losers, as if politics were some kind of sports event and justices merely the referees.

This would seem to be a stretch for Congress, given the polarization and rancor characterizing recent sessions. For years, policy analysts have informed the rest of us that Congress’ job is less that of passing legislation, than that of ensuring that flawed legislation isn’t enacted. In recent years, however, that tendency has been carried to an extreme, culminating in what Francis Fukuyama has termed a vetocracy – a dysfunctional system of governance whereby no single entity can acquire enough power to make decisions and take effective charge.

No one is happy or complacent about this. That holds for incumbents in any branch of federal government – executive, legislative, judicial. It holds for both leaders and staff. It holds regardless of political persuasion. All participants are wearied, frustrated, fearful, angry. High-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated men and women populate, even dominate the chambers of the Supreme Court, the halls of Congress, the headquarters and field offices of the agencies. All want to do the right thing. The challenge lies in finding a structured, stable path to walk back the current animus and get to a more workable, sustainable place.

Progress starts with you and me. There is no roadmap. But one starting point is clear. Thanks to the generation that gave us the Declaration of Independence and all the generations in between, we live in a free democracy. We have the government we want, the government we asked for, the government we created through myriad action and (far too much inaction) over years of elections, through times of scarcity and plenty, across seasons of peace and war. The present situation, with all its problems and opportunities, is the present we created. We have the same power over the future. What happens next depends upon want we do, and what we ask of those we elect and install across government at federal and state levels. It depends upon whether we work to fix problems instead of fix blame, whether we choose to keep moving forward, meet present and new challenges head on versus waiting to receive or take any credit we might think we are due. If they are to do their jobs, the courts, the Congress, and the federal agencies need an engaged public that both provides support and calls for accountability.

(Closer to home? As we contemplate West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency, those of us in meteorology, or the broader geosciences, might reflect on our role in shaping the decision and in redefining its significance. Our research and services led first to scientific awareness of human impacts on climate and the climate change and global change underway. We have worked for years to expand that awareness from our small group of science- and service providers to the public at large, worldwide. We’re in part the reason the court case arose in the first place. But we’re also a major reason that it didn’t occur in a vacuum, but rather in the context of a world mobilizing to live more sustainably. Fact is, that mobilization and the attendant progress haven’t really been slowed so much as a single day by the ruling. Today, efforts to green the world, though nascent, are building a momentum of their own. At national and local levels. Across public and private spheres. And that larger world continues to look to us for new ideas on next steps. Accordingly, we do well not to obsess or complain overmuch about particulars of West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency.)

In closing, some words to live by (hint: they’re not new…)

In support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

We have nothing more to offer; nothing less is called for.

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The Times, They are A-Changin’.

This post is the last of three planned LOTRW posts examining Bob Dylan’s body of work and its implications for (and possible inspiration from?) meteorology. The first was built around Blowin’ in the Wind. The second, on It’s a Hard Rain aGonna’ Fall. Today’s focus is on The Times, They are a-Changing. Wikipedia tells us that Dylan likely composed this song in 1963, and quotes him to the effect that “This was definitely a song with a purpose… I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”

The same Wikipedia piece tells us that one critic, Michael Gray called it “the archetypal protest song.” Gray commented, “Dylan’s aim was to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public—to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet. He succeeded, but the language of the song is nevertheless imprecisely and very generally directed.” Gray suggested that the song has been made obsolete by the very changes that it predicted and hence was politically out of date almost as soon as it was written.

Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But the song’s message might not seem so dated to today’s ears. But you be the judge; here are the lyrics:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Those who study prophecy for a living make a couple of points that seem relevant here. First, they tell us that prophecy often is not so much some prediction of the future as a deeply perceptive analysis of the present. Second, they note that prophecies may share a similarity with wines – the good ones improve in taste and reputation with age, revealing themselves to be more broadly relevant and enduring with passage of time and the emergence of new issues, while the quality and standing of weaker prophecies continue to fade.

(All well and good, Bill, but I don’t see obvious reference to meteorology in the same way as you find it in the previous two numbers.)

Given my background, it’s most natural to read this through the relatively narrow lens of climate change. (And, no, I’m not attempting to draw any connections between the lyrics and, say, sea level rise. That looks like way too much of a stretch. It’s actually got a bit more to do with the call to writers and journalists to not be too quick to call winners and losers, to political leaders to engage, and to people of a certain generation not to dwell in the past – all of which would seem to apply to today’s climate debate.) In our world and in my lifetime attention to climate change has morphed. It began as quiet study and concern largely confined to scientists. It then grew into today’s rancorous, verging-on-violent uproar entraining populations and nations as a whole. Views of the issue have expanded commensurately. In the United States, the issue first enlarged to include climate impacts. Later (dating back to the 1980’s) scientists and the government began framing the challenge as more than mere climate change. Rather, they saw global change, including changes in the oceans, cryosphere, and biosphere. The U.S. Global Change Research Program was the result.  Meanwhile, the social scientists weighed in, most notably in a massive, multi-year, multi-authored study entitled Human Choice and Climate Change, published in the 1990’s and (excuse my continuing rant, dating back to 2012), receiving far less attention than should have been its due. They saw social change and technological advance as both major drivers and impacts.  

Enter the artist (Bob Dylan), who notes, in effect: It’s not just the climate that’s changing. It’s not just the physical and ecological Earth. It’s not just the monumental social change. It’s more than all these. The times themselves, they are changing.

Think of this as perhaps the third in a graduated succession of aphorisms:

1. History repeats itself. Or, similarly, Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The origins of this first quote are so ancient and widespread as to be lost in the mists of that very history. The latter quote is attributed to George Santayana. Often, for minor perturbations in a society – a routine election cycle, an economic boom, a seasonal flu outbreak, or a dry year out west, history and precedent can provide a guide as to what might come next. Of course, history doesn’t really repeat itself[1]. Which brings us to:

2. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. This quote is frequently attributed to Mark Twain (but with little basis, as it turns out). Captures the idea that in some instances, history’s lessons might not apply in detail to new circumstances, but nevertheless remain useful.

3. The times, they are a-changin’. However, every so often, challenges arise that differ radically from those of the past, or last occurred so distantly that the past circumstances bore little correspondence to the present conditions. In these instances, the past no longer provides a useful guide. Dylan saw the civil rights movement as of this nature. Michael Gray’s critical view that this problem had been ameliorated and Dylan’s protest outdated has proved too sanguine. That old enemy – racism – has never gone away. Today it combines with other inequities, climate change, pandemic, war and economic upheaval. This cocktail of woes has fomented worldwide discontent and unrest that tears at the social fabric – from global to neighborhood levels. Trust across our society is at a low ebb, just when it’s most needed. Everything is changing – all at once, and suddenly.

Where, Bill, is the good news in any or all of this?

In a word – awareness. The discontent, frustration, fear, anger is nearly universal. Hardly anyone is sleepwalking through present-day realities complacent about present circumstances or future prospects. On whatever continent, whether rich or poor , whether nominally powerful and influential or in a clearly humble position, eight billion people are dissatisfied, to say the least. People lack a sense of agency. Because it’s the times themselves that are changing, no single person or small group or government or industry can envision let alone accomplish the work to be done.

Passivity in the face of despair on this scale is unsustainable. It will necessarily give way to action. Countless individuals, institutions and nations will combine – are already combining – in myriad small, exploratory efforts to make things better. Many will fail and be abandoned. But others will achieve a degree of success, and with that success garner attention. The attention will trigger competition and imitation, and at increasing scale.

 All of us have read enough about the past to know this cycle. Some of us have lived long enough to experience the full cycle directly. Times of prosperity and well being never last, but neither do times of despair.

Expect improvement. And don’t be surprised to find that you aren’t just witnessing that positive change. You’re playing a role. These tough times too are a-changin’.

[1]Since science is focused on events and processes that are repeatable, history sometimes struggles to get outsiders consider it a social science, but this limit for both science and history is a subject for another day).

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A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.

(Note to self: Always, always, ALWAYS begin any project, no matter how humble in concept, with a lit review. Opening today with an apology to Alan Robock, as well as a tip of the hat – more precisely, a recommendation that you read his wonderfully thoughtful (and many years prior!) work on Bob DylanRobock, Alan, 2005:  Tonight as I stand inside the rain:  Bob Dylan and weather imagery.  Bull. Amer. Meteorol. Soc., 86, 483-487. You’ll discover the Robock paper to be definitive [his signature trait], and you’ll also see how a scientist can write on subjects and in ways that are themselves truly poetic while remaining scholarly. As a bonus you’ll find a short companion piece by Guido Visconti.

Thanks, Alan!)

I’d planned to follow up yesterday’s LOTRW post by noting that if someone were to merit the label poet laureate with respect to any particular subject matter or themes, they should be able to point to a body of work and not a single piece. Alan Robock makes the case for Bob Dylan far more strongly than I could, listing a number of Dylan’s works that make vibrant use of weather imagery, and delving deeply into key lyrics of those works to support that view.

Alan was careful to mention that his list of weather references in Dylan’s work wasn’t exhaustive, or intended to be. Instead he ends up “discussing [his] two favorite weather songs and giving examples from others.” Interestingly, at least to me, the second song I’d picked to illustrate Dylan’s emphasis on weather metaphors and imagery was one that didn’t make the cut for Alan in 2005: A Hard Rain’s aGonna Fall. Here are the lyrics:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Wikipedia provides some background to this 1962 work. The Wikipedia entry merits a thorough read; here are a few snippets:

A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a song written by Bob Dylan in the summer of 1962 and recorded later that year for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

The song is… communicating suffering, pollution, and warfare. Dylan has said that all of the lyrics were taken from the initial lines of songs that “he thought he would never have time to write”… Dylan attributed his inspiration to the feeling he got when reading microfiche newspapers in the New York Public Library: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”

Dylan originally wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in the form of a poem…[ultimately building it into]… a complex and powerful song built upon the question-and-answer refrain pattern of the traditional British ballad “Lord Randall“, published by Francis Child.

…While some have suggested that the refrain of the song refers to nuclear fallout, Dylan disputed that this was a specific reference. In a radio interview with Studs Terkel in 1963, Dylan said:

No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen … In the last verse, when I say, “the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,” that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.

In closing, if you have the time, you might try repeating yesterday’s exercise with this song. Read the lyrics through a few times. Meditate on their multiple meanings. Ask yourself: What seems dated? [I’m guessing very little.] What seems timeless? Why? Consider the lyrics’ message to you. Then listen to the words as set to the music…

Now you’re ready to provide impact-based decision support to the tumultuous world of 2022 in which we’re imbedded – a world of suffering, pollution, and war – a world seeking and hungering to find elements of hope, and encouragement, and opportunity in your message.

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The answer, my friend, is Blowin’ in the wind.

Weather forecasting is inherently difficult; in the past, meteorologists used to be chastised (often gleefully so), when their forecasts went awry,[1] for their failure to “look out the window.”

Back in the day, the critics referred to the literal window’s literal view – which might reveal blowing snow, or wind or hail, or their opposite, a bright sunny sky – in contradiction to the forecast du jour. But today, meteorologists are expected to know what’s happening outside a metaphorical window. They asked not just to predict the atmosphere’s physical state, but its impact on society – on the evening commute, on the safety of flood-prone areas, on the integrity of built structures, on an agricultural crop, and more.

To provide their impact-based decision support in light of these broader, yet place-based needs – to make so-called actionable forecasts – meteorologists have discovered the need for additional input, this time not from physical scientists and technologists, but from social sciences. In particular, the current preoccupation extends beyond more detailed observations and enhanced numerical modeling to the science of (mass) risk communication.

So far, so good. But these days, there’s an extra level/degree of difficulty. To look out that virtual window is to see “stormy weather” – a world in tumult, a world in a season of challenge, dysfunction and conflict. Challenge? Endemic poverty and social injustice. Raging pandemics. Climate change. Dysfunction? Polarized governments, not just in the United States, but across the world. Governments that have forgotten or choose to ignore their legitimacy and purpose, as captured by the Declaration of Independence: to secure (unalienable) rights…instituted and deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Conflict? Mass shootings. Terrorism. Racism. War. Weather and climate forecasts are daily consulted for their possible bearing on any or all of conduct and outcomes of this social storm as well as for their more quotidian, “fair weather” purpose.

These challenges span the whole of human aspiration and the world’s agenda. What’s more, they share a common feature; they are wicked problems. That is, they offer little in the way of real solutions. Instead, they demand continuing coping strategies from a variety of sources. All, to one degree or another, are shaped by influenced by our generous, dangerous, fragile planet. We will never see the back of these issues. This combines to frustrate meteorologists, who know their services are of greatest value when providing incremental advice to, tweaking the actions of, otherwise equitable, functional societies. Equity and justice and the stability they can bring are nowhere to be found.

A society verging on chaos and riven by perceived and real injustice requires of meteorologists a deeper level of risk comm, one that touches on core values at individual and societal levels. To be salient and effective in meeting the needs of such a world requires help from the humanities and even the spiritual disciplines.

Where to look for such insights? Well, poetry is one field that comes to mind. Fact is, many nations, states, and other entities have established the institution of the poet laureate – a poet retained by the state to commemorate special occasions (or issues or circumstances their society faces, as seen through the lens of the artist).

Today’s meteorological community has no such formally-acknowledged position, but should it establish one, perhaps it would help to have a few criteria in mind when selecting an incumbent. For example, we might prefer a poet who used meteorological metaphor. To use the vernacular of the oenologist, that would the poetry’s“terroir.” All else being equal, we might favor a poet and poetry that had “notes of prediction“ – and it would be best if those predictions verified, held true, for substantial periods of time (just as wine of a good vintage improves with age). Finally, the poetry – just like the meteorological forecasts – needs to be useful, appealing to diverse audiences.

Speaking of notes, perhaps poetry set to music would be best. After all, if the poetry is to be relevant and real to today’s daunting times, it will necessarily hold both lament and warning. In the same breath, however, it can’t just foster despair; it should also embolden and encourage. Music has this magic.

Some may feel that these multiple requirements have left us with a null set. But here’s an existence theorem – a name demonstrating that the set contains at least one member:

Bob Dylan.

As proof of a sort, consider this song, whose origins go back to the spring and summer of 1962: Blowin’ in the wind.

In the title and throughout the text, brimming with weather metaphor. Offering both lament and warning. In many ways, as fresh on its 60th anniversay as it was at its genesis. And continuing to invite, even demand, wide, diverse interpretation. Whatever your background or personal preferences, you’ll find a resonant thought or two in the lyrics:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
And how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

As an exercise, if your schedule today permits, you might try reading through these verses a time or two. Then access the song either here or through your favorite app, and give it a listen. Or two or three. In background? Better than nothing. But for the fuller experience, perhaps pause what you’re doing. Take time to savor Mr. Dylan offers here. Listen, along with him, to the blowing wind. Ponder its answer.

See if it doesn’t help you put your present task, whatever you’re about, in perspective. See if it doesn’t make you a bit more strategic (and therefore more effective) in your efforts to make the world a bit safer in the face of weather hazards and a bit more adept at seizing weather’s benefits. Maybe, just maybe, this exercise may even make you a bit more hopeful throughout the rest of the day. (For extra credit, identify and put forth your own candidate for meteorology’s poet laureate, along with a sample of their oeuvre.)


[1]a much rarer circumstance these days than when I entered the field more than half a century ago

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Science Convergence in an Inclusive and Diverse World

The previous LOTRW post noted a new, and welcome, Sigma Xi initiative. From the Sigma Xi website:

The Scientific Research Honor Society announces plans to hold the first International Forum on Research Excellence (IFoRE) November 3–6, 2022. The four-day conference will welcome scientists, engineers, students, artists, and supporters of science worldwide to participate in discussions and demonstrations of excellence in the research enterprise. Attendees will be invited to present, connect, and collaborate on diverse ideas through symposia, panels, workshops, and networking sessions. The hybrid event will be held in-person in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as online.

The theme for IFoRE ’22 is “Science Convergence in an Inclusive and Diverse World.”
[Emphasis added.] Attendees will take part in a variety of multi-track sessions that explore the strength of scientific research when diverse minds converge as well as ideas that conquer the challenges of increasing equity and inclusion in the research community.

Science convergence (alternatively convergence research) is certainly a popular notion these days. The National Science Foundation has been one of the leaders in this charge. They provide this description: Convergence research is a means of solving vexing research problems, in particular, complex problems focusing on societal needs. It entails integrating knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation.

Similarly, the current world attention to diversity and inclusion is also badly-needed and long overdue – and not just in the research community.

All this prompts a few initial thoughts:

On convergence. To draw from my own background, most geoscientists and Earth scientists are keenly aware that their work has always been multidisciplinary. To paraphrase the country singer Barbara Mandrell (with apologies): “geosciences were convergent when convergence wasn’t cool.” Taking meteorology as an example: the question what makes weather? has long been wedded to the forecast problem what will the weather do next? Improving the answer to both has required drawing from a mishmash of disciplines – mathematics, physics, chemistry, even a bit of biology (as for example, in examining the role of plant transpiration in moisture supply to the atmosphere over land surfaces). And all that is before we come to the questions of what makes the weather matter? and how might we better capture its opportunities and protect ourselves from its threats? These bring in the social sciences and more. The progress of meteorology has been tied less to the notion of convergence as an ideal than it has to the quick-and-dirty application of whatever scientific disciplines have been found to be useful or needed. These have all been incorporated into meteorology well before the idea of convergence became a thing. (Parenthetically, meteorologists have given priority to the problem to be solved at some expense of their reputation and standing among the pantheon of science disciplines. Good for meteorologists.)

That means that meteorology and other geosciences (and other fields, such as medicine or social science) might be viewed as more akin to engineering than to science. That’s reflected in the reality that meteorologists, hydrologists, et al., are more fully populated in the National Academy of Engineering than in the National Academy of Sciences. Convergence is a means to an end as well as an end in itself, as implied by the NSF text above. A challenge for Sigma Xi is to address and balance both.

On inclusion and diversity. Like convergence itself, these ideals are both a means to an end and a desirable end in themselves. The hopes and aspirations of eight billion people can be realized only to the extent that all share equitably in (1) opportunity to contribute to the progress of science and innovation, and (2) access to, and benefit from the results of that progress. Sigma Xi is right to give this emphasis.

As a step in this direction, what is Sigma Xi planning, or how might it plan to engage other scientific and professional societies in its initial and multi-year IFoRE efforts? And are those other societies (thinking personally of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union that have played so great a role in my own career as examples) taking corresponding steps to contribute? (Addressing my own community here) If not, we should be. Being intentional and strategic about such engagement now could greatly enrich and accelerate IFoRE impact.

On bench-level scientists as participants versus spectators. A reexamination of what makes research “excellent” in light of urgent societal needs as well as the progress of disciplines per se is certainly called for. Periodically hearing from a handful of high-profile speakers at annual conferences – giving their reflections a wider platform – will ennoble us all. But social scientists (and our parents) remind us we learn best by doing. That suggests explicit attention to a second question that could be raised in every science sphere, at multiple levels (individual, institutional, programmatic; local as well as national and global): how can this particular bit of science in this discipline or area of application or local place be made “more excellent?”

Such incremental improvement at the margins is the quotidian stuff of journal peer review, of exchange at professional meetings, of laboratory program reviews – an already (if imperfectly) diverse and inclusive set of activities across the sciences. These have as their aim more-excellent science and they are well underway. They have their established traditions shaped by trial-and-error experience. It’s part of the basic hygiene of science.

That said, it could all stand some improvement. Attention to ways and means to enhance these processes should accompany focus on the bigger picture. And it’s a path to fostering the desired diversity and inclusion, especially the inclusion of early-career scientists.

At such local levels, seeking to make science “more excellent” at the margins, and doing what scientists do best – experimenting, accompanied by early detection of success and failure, and sharing of those findings in both Sigma Xi and other science and professional societies? That would surely make for a better world – at the rapid pace matching the urgent needs emerging across today’s world. That, and nothing less, is what’s at stake with IFoRE.

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