What scientists want.

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”– Francis Bacon

Scientists want most of all to see their science harnessed for human benefit.

A simple idea, but it raises three questions:

1. Why? Why do scientists want this?

Scientists are first and foremost human. The greatest human yearning is to lead a life of significance, to make a difference – to matter. Gaining a new bit of knowledge and understanding? Realizing the implications of a physical or social experiment, or an observation of the natural world, or a bit of mathematics? That engenders a corresponding though usually fleeting measure of private joy. Sharing that advance, that new understanding, with others through a conference talk or a journal article? More gratifying still. A wonderful thing. But what scientists have known for centuries, and what Francis Bacon articulated so well, is that these are inferior satisfactions. And what brings a lasting peace of mind, and enduring contentment, and gratitude beyond imagining, is to see such understanding improve the human condition broadly and for the long haul. 

2. What is the reality – the situation on the ground?

Has science been – is science being– harnessed for human benefit? Most would see the situation as mixed. Science has led to great extensions of life and the quality of that life. Human numbers have exploded. In many ways, today’s much-larger populations are better housed, better nourished, generally more secure, longer-lived, and enjoying a better experience across that span of life than prior generations. The green revolution, the eradication of smallpox and polio, the harnessing of electricity and yes, even the development and use of fossil fuels – these and many more innovations have all played a role.

But much is left undone, or even heading in the wrong direction. Vaccines of proven efficacy and safety are not fully used. Root threats to human health – poor nutrition, stress, lack of sleep and exercise – though identified, remain unaddressed. Economic understanding of the need to balance opportunity for some with equity for many has been ignored, or used as a weapon for political debate. Information technology has broadened access to knowledge but at the same time has led to deliberate falsification of fact, malicious trolling and cyber bullying, and the erosion of privacy. Science has been harnessed to subjugate entire nations, to make war, to foment terror, to destroy biodiversity, shrink habitats, and degrade air, water, and soil. So far, science has merely made us better off; it has failed to make us better.

3. What will it take to use science more effectively?

More can and should be done to harness science to the benefit of life. But how can this be accomplished? 

The fuller answer requires myriad small actions, all woven together and interconnected, and sustained and evolving over time. Such work will in truth be never-ending – harnessing science for societal benefit will always remain an aspiration more than an accomplishment. But here are a few tangible first steps.

First, the world’s strategic planning should accommodate scientists at the table at the outset, and at the highest levels. National agendas are typically set with an eye to future needs and human concerns as best leaders can discern these. But the meansto their achievement are too often visualized or couched only in terms of the tools of the past. They fail to incorporate new possibilities offered by more powerful tools in the pipeline. Scientists are uniquely positioned to see such possibilities, but too often in the dark as how their efforts might be applied. We’d all be better off if leaders and nations were requesting help from science and eagerly awaiting it, versus sitting in critical judgment on it once the science arrives.

Second, leaders and peoples should do what they can to foster a culture of innovation. The future will always present constant change and demand the same of ecosystems and human populations. The societies that will thrive will be those comfortable with, adapting to, and when the occasion demands, even driving such change.

Third, toward this latter end, countries should invest far more heavily in public K-12 education, and especially STEM education, emphasizing critical thinking throughout. This is especially important in democracies such as the United States, where governments and the private sector need informed publics holding them accountable.

Fourth, and finally, it should go without saying (but since it doesn’t, it’s emphasized here) these goals can be achieved only by adopting diversity, equity, and inclusion as the essential starting point. 

All of this should be done out of what those Elizabethans called charity – what we today would call love.

If we look past our selfish, momentary preoccupations – superiority or fame or fortune or individual advancement – putting these things aside in favor of working together, scientists and non-scientists alike, for the benefit and use of life, we’ll make Francis Bacon proud.

And we’ll fulfill our God-given purpose.

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Enough is abundance.

(Note added Tuesday, December 10, 2019. In November several of us received phone calls, informing us that Dick was gravely ill, and asking that we provide some form of thanks and encouragement to him that he could receive and appreciate while still alive. This Thanksgiving post was one such offering, written to honor that request. Now, Dick has passed away. Heaven has been correspondingly enriched. It might seem that this world has been diminished in like measure. Certainly, we already miss him. But, fact is, his influence lives on, and is growing, through each of us. In the meantime, counting the moments, Dick, until we’re united with you again.)

It’s time for you and me to channel our inner Richard Krajeski.

Here in America, the last week of November 2019 finds us at the confluence of (1) ominous environmental news across virtually every front, and (2) this year’s annual Thanksgiving celebration. 

The word from the United Nations on CO2emissions is dire. We’re also learning belatedly that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, and that plastic is beginning to accumulate in our bodies (tonight’s PBS programming will unpack the story). Recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have stalled

Thanksgiving is also making the headlines, some in a not-so-good way: Extreme winter weather threatens to disrupt the busiest travel week of the yearFive things to talk about at Thanksgiving that aren’t politics. Sometimes easy to think that Thanksgiving can be equal parts celebration – and ordeal.

In the face of all this: how to be thankful?

This is where Richard Krajeski comes in. Everyone who knows Richard will know what I mean. Here’s a guy who unflinchingly faces all the good, bad, and ugly of everyday reality. He’s no Pollyanna. He sees dysfunction and brokenness – and yes, evil – for what they are, and names them. He stands up to the wrongheaded, even the powerful wrongheaded. But at the same time he sees good and hope and love and possibility at the very deepest levels of human experience, in even the worst of situations. He helps those around him get in touch and stay connected to our best selves. At meetings, and in groups, he’s most comfortable in the back, with the rest of us. But when he finds himself up front, whether at a conference lectern or a pulpit (he’s also ordained), he doesn’t merely talk; he proclaims.

And he models desired behavior. He doesn’t just opine about community resilience; he builds it, on the ground, one person at a time. Together with his wife, the fabulously energetic and insightful Kristina Peterson (she’s also a pastor), Dick has devoted a lifetime to faith-based, on-the-ground disaster relief. To be around him is to feel that school is in session. The headmaster is genial, to be sure, but still the headmaster. (And for that matter, Jesus himself is always in the neighborhood.) Dick is fully in the moment, but always with one eye out for the future.

So, for decades, within the hazards community, Dick has been supporter, participant, exhorter, comforter, spiritual measuring stick, contributing to and personifying what is best in the blend of academics, practitioners, survivors, and fellow travelers of that enterprise. He’s contributed original research, sermons, poems, and more, blending advice and encouragement of every sort.

But one note runs throughout:

Enough is abundance.

Just gotten an e-mail from Dick? There you find it at the beginning and/or the end: 

Enough is abundance.

Not that easy to wrap your head around the idea in the middle of the dozens of other e-mails and issues and the pressure of the day. But as you allow it to roll around in your head, you see the truth: enough really is abundance. And voila! The rest of the day – and maybe even life itself – is changed for you.

A graduate student worried about your thesis defense? A faculty member worried about tenure? A government worker burdened by lack of political support, or the threat of yet another (!) shutdown.? Or a daunting deadline?

Enough is abundance.

Lost everything and everyone you cared about in a disaster? Dick is providing you shelter and a hot meal. He’s not saying the words, but he’s telling you “enough is abundance.” Tomorrow you’ll see God’s love again.

Climate change realities got you down?

Enough is abundance.

Thanksgiving as much a hassle as harmony?

Enough is abundance.

Enough is abundance? Thanks for the thought, Dick! Just what we need to hear these days. We’re paying it forward. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours from all of us.

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Ethical disaster-zone research.

Ideally, weekends provide not just a chance to catch up on household chores, but also opportunity for reflection and centering, for meditation on things that matter. 

For this latter purpose it often helps to have a starting point – material giving some initial focus and structure to your thinking. 

JC Gaillard and Lori Peek have provided just such a rich source of ideas for you in their comment published November 20 in Nature, entitled Disaster-zone research needs a code of conduct.

They introduce the topic this way:

A magnitude-7.0 earthquake rocked Anchorage, Alaska, in late November 2018. Roads buckled and chimneys tumbled from rooftops. Business operations were disrupted. Schools were damaged across the district. This was the largest earthquake to shake the region in a generation, and there was much to learn. What was the state of the infrastructure? Might further quakes occur? How did people respond? Teams of scientists and engineers from across the United States mobilized to conduct field reconnaissance in partnership with local researchers and practitioners. These efforts were coordinated through the clearing house set up by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, California, which provided daily in-person and online briefings, as well as a web portal for sharing data.

But researchers are not always so welcome in disaster zones. After the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004, hundreds of academics from countries including Japan, Russia, France and the United States rushed to the region to collect perishable data. This influx of foreign scientists angered and fatigued some locals; many declined researchers’ requests for interviews. The former governor of Aceh province, Indonesia, where more than 128,000 people died, described foreign researchers as “guerrillas applying hit-and-run tactics”. Yet research on tsunami propagation and people’s response to the event has led to improved warnings and emergency-response plans.

Hooked? You should be. This dilemma runs across the whole of the social sciences – think, for example, about studies of poverty, or spousal abuse, or the rights of the LGBTQ community. But nowhere is it more raw or sensitive than when whole populations are devastated by catastrophe, rummaging around an apocalyptic landscape, devoid of much of the social and physical underpinnings of their former lives, coming to terms with a new normal. 

Hopefully you will want to peruse the complete Nature comment carefully. Again, to pique your interest, Gaillard and Peek argue that any code of conduct should embody three guiding principles:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Respect local voices
  • Coordinate locals and outsiders

They expand on each of these in turn, in crisp, unambiguous language. A good summary of the issues. Sound advice, making priorities clear, but stimulating thought, leaving room for situational flexibility. 

By now, you should be eager to get reading! But before you start, a few closing comments (admittedly from the perspective of a bystander, someone not doing research in this area):

Benefit those impacted. First (and the detailed discussion by Gaillard and Peek make this explicit) the scientists’ purpose can’t merely be clear, it has to contribute to the benefit and recovery of those who have been most impacted by the calamity, not only the myriad others who may hypothetically be impacted by similar events in future years. Social scientists should be doing more than merely “documenting human failure” ever more authoritatively.

Institutional Review Boards. Most universities, and many other entities, have established IRB’s to ensure that their researchers (especially in social and health fields) do no harm to those who are subjects in their studies. At least from my sideline vantage point, it seems IRB’s struggle when it comes to disaster research, just as communities and individuals struggle with disasters themselves. Sometimes it appears that IRB’s settle for protecting their institutuions from litigation, as opposed to heavier lift of respecting the needs of those recovering from disasters.

Participatory action researchWikipedia summarizes this as:

an approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection. PAR emphasizes collective inquiry and experimentation grounded in experience and social history. Within a PAR process, “communities of inquiry and action evolve and address questions and issues that are significant for those who participate as co-researchers”. PAR contrasts with many research methods, which emphasize disinterested researchers and reproducibility of findings.

This suggests that social science researchers do well, particularly with respect to the ethical dimensions of their work, when they embed themselves to the extent possible in the communities where they work, make their goals and aspirations congruent to the extent possible with the interests of those communities, and work together to develop the knowledge and understanding that will lead to recovery and to improved future outcomes.  Again (to an outsider), it looks as if many of the conflicts of interest facing researchers disappear by the application of such methods, the more so as the ideal is approached.

Gaillard and Peek go on to discuss first steps. They’ve teed up a much-needed conversation. Now it’s time for the rest of us to join in both the conversation and (more ethical) action.

Everybody have a good weekend!

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This week’s House S&T Committee EPIC hearing.

Wednesday afternoon I had occasion to participate in an iconic 21st-century American pastime – decamping from the office in order to wait at home for the cable guy, who then never shows up until well after the agreed-upon time window (essentially valuing the residents’ time at zero). The silver lining? An opportunity to watch the live-streamed  U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing on EPIC.

Folks living outside the Beltway might be forgiven for thinking that nothing is going on in Congress outside the much-ballyhooed impeachment hearings. But the reality is quite different. For the most part, the nation’s business continues. There’s a focus on meaningful priorities, and there’s comity and bipartisanship, all resulting in worthwhile discussion. That was the case in Wednesday’s hearing.

What made the hearing EPIC was not this conjunction of rational elements, but rather the subject matter: the notional Earth Prediction Innovation Center. (Taking a few liberties), here’s a thumbnail version of the background: In 2017 Congress passed the (remarkably nonpartisan) Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, which among other things called for a national weather forecasting capability that will surpass that of the Europeans. The hearing was focused on what’s been done to date, future plans, and the resources that will be needed. The committee heard from a distinguished panel:

  • Dr. Neil Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, performing the duties of Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA
  • Dr. Clifford Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington 
  • Dr. Peter P. Neilley, IBM Distinguished Engineer and Director of Weather Forecasting Sciences and Technologies, The Weather Company, An IBM Business 
  • Dr. Thomas Auligné, Director of the Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)

The full discussion is worth your viewing, but here are a few takeaways/reflections:

Goal. To people of a certain age, this goal of surpassing the European weather forecast capability calls to mind the 1960’s challenge of reaching the moon by the end of that decade. At the time, President Kennedy referred to this as a race that the United States would win, but he also referred to a loftier goal of building on innovation more generally to “explore the stars.” EPIC’s framing has some elements of a race as well. Some comments at this week’s hearing seemed to suggest that U.S. research expertise in weather prediction is unsurpassed, so that achieving superior weather forecasts for societal benefit was largely a matter of (1) NOAA’s opening its doors and providing greater academic-research-community and private-enterprise access to operational models and model development (unifying not just the codes but also the supporting community computing infrastructure), and (2) substantially increasing the computing power available to government, academia, and the private-sector.

These steps can indeed accelerate U.S. progress. But there’s probably little joy in seeing this as a race, for several reasons. First, unlike going to the moon, where there’s little ambiguity about “who gets there first,” superior European weather-forecasting skill is something that can only be discerned from statistical analysis. Second, the European capability is not fixed, but a moving target. Equaling their current level of skill will be easier than catching up to where they’ll by that time. Third, and most fundamentally, European Center and U.S. centers have historically cooperated, and the Europeans are not an enemy. By contrast, during the Cold War, the connection of the space race to nuclear missile capability was obvious, and the Soviet threat to U.S. and indeed world interests was tangible and real.

It’s therefore important to keep in mind, and perhaps even elevate, the broader idea that America hosts the world’s widest variety of weather challenges: great cycles of drought and flood; winter storms matching those of other high latitude countries; hurricanes matching those of lower-latitude nations; severe warm-season convection; and a virtual lock on the world’s tornadoes. Better weather forecasts are therefore fundamental to every American aspiration: renewable energy, food production, and water management; life and safety in the face of extremes; and protection of the environment and ecosystems. The goal is a better life for every American, and indeed every person, plant, and animal on Earth. (The idea is not to choose between either of two quite different framings, but rather balance them and realize the benefits of both).

Time frame. The prepared statements, the questions, and the answers to those questions could have left viewers with unfounded expectation of a “quick win.” The idea that American university research expertise is a vast underutilized resource only needing to be tapped is a bit simplistic. Incentives for advancement within the academic research community are not exactly aligned with the personal investments needed to contribute to the practitioners’ world. The cultures are wildly different – and for good reasons. The difficulties of “unification” of codes, hardware, etc., were largely unaddressed or glossed over. Big data, artificial intelligence, and other nations are competing for the same talent pools. The governance issues are themselves non-trivial, as is the need for…

Resources. There was universal agreement across the panelists and committee members that more resources will be needed. Discussion focused on money and computing power. The current budget discussion in Congress shows perhaps $7.5-15M available the first year, depending on the Senate or the House mark. All parties agreed that either mark would be wholly inadequate, but there were no suggestions about how the needed higher levels of funding might be achieved.

Governance. The funding discussion played into considerations of governance. Everyone agreed that the Center should be hosted/housed outside of NOAA (but with NOAA (and other federal agencies strong participants). This point was emphasized beginning with the opening statements and reaffirmed throughout, as if to assuage fears that NOAA would somehow capture the entity, and the country would wind up no better off than before. The NOAA-veteran-of-32-years part of me was a bit put off by this tone, maybe even defensive, but it is right decision. One exchange suggested that this extramural location would ensure sustainability following the end of the current administration. However, follow through over the long term will stand or fall based more fundamentally on whether at its core EPIC is a good idea.

Other comments under this heading included whether EPIC should be a completely new entity, whether it should eventually morph from a virtual organization (demanded by the small size of the budget increment) or something more concrete featuring bricks and mortar. A cautionary note: Formation of a new entity risks creating yet another marginally-supported institution likely to be drawn into turf wars with existing (also marginally funded) players. Even a proposal-driven process that results in an existing institution taking on this additional role will be similarly vulnerable. This suggests that all stakeholders, including the Congress, devote equal attention to community-building across the so-called Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise.

Near the hearing’s close, two questions were raised that ought to be of special interest to all of us.

Return on investment. The first was: What will be the return on investment here? It’s likely that none of the panelists is satisfied with the answers they were able to mount. The interlocutor seemed satisfied after hearing that several trillion dollars a year of U.S. economic activity is weather-dependent. This answer is a bit glib. The foot-shuffling highlights the importance of ongoing efforts across the Enterprise to develop better analysis and characterization of the value of environmental intelligence.

What will change? The second was: Let’s go out five years. EPIC has been a success. What will be/feel different to the average American? The answers were variations on a theme that Americans can have more confidence in their forecasts.

True enough. But’s that not going to change the experience for those in harm’s way. That’s because forecast improvements are barely keeping pace with increasing demands on forecast quality imposed by population increase, urbanization, the rise of social media, and other social change and technological advance. So long as emergency response requires mobilizing larger numbers of Americans ever-sooner in the face of approaching threats, under major uncertainty about their options and associated risks, American lives will continue to disrupted, even forever changed by weather, water, and climate extremes. Americans can feel safer and enjoy more control  in the face of natural hazards only when land use, building codes, and more robust critical infrastructure systemically reduce hazard risk; when public education and public policies restore equity and agency.

EPIC alone, as currently viewed, will not by itself change that. Still a lot of work ahead.

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Living in the (Rabbit)-Hole-ocene

Go down the rabbit hole: 

To enter into a process or journey that is particularly strange, difficult, problematic, complex, or chaotic, especially one that becomes increasingly so as it develops or unfolds.

Geologists tell us that we’re living in the Holocene, which is the name they’ve given to this, the second epoch of the Quaternary period.  The Holocene covers the 12,000 years, give or take, since the last glacial epoch, the Pleistocene[1].

Some would say that human beings have defined a new epoch, the Anthropocene – the age of it’s all about-us. There’s a good case to be made for this. However, it just may be that the current epoch is actually morphing into something less:

The Rabbit-Hole-ocene.

This reality dawned on me during the morning’s commute to the office on the Metro. I’m old school, so each day I bring the home-delivered print edition of the Washington Post along to prepare me for the day. On the ride in, I read, in succession, that

  • The U.S. signaled intent to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change at the earliest possible moment (meaning the day after the 2020 presidential election)
  • California wildfires were knocking out the state’s air quality monitors, just when the air was approaching its smokiest
  • New Delhi is losing the battle against air pollution
  • Another forest “guardian” was killed amid the rising tensions over logging in the Brazilian Amazon
  • Bauxite mining would harm Ghana
  • Chocolatiers are fueling deforestation
  • California burns. Always has. Where there’s smoke, there’s California.
  • (from the science section) that physics only works if we supply a giant fudge factor, bringing in “dark matter” and “dark energy
  • (from Dogbert) that “dark matter” must be “stupidity” – and when Dilbert asks “why didn’t I see that,” Dogbert drives his argument home: “because you’re 85% dark matter.”
  • (and all this is just the job-relevant news, before I get to the Nats’ White House visit or Carolyn Hax’ always-lucid advice).

Yup. Each day’s world’s events, and their retelling, are strange, difficult, problematic, and complex on the face of things, and become even more so as we delve in.

Not just during the morning commute, but each and every hour of the day, you and I are confronted with a choice between keeping up with what eight billion people are doing while our backs are turned, or making our own contributions, while their backs are turned. Seeking to understand, vs. seeking to be understood. Balancing the two, especially when engaged in knowledge work, is problematic, almost existentially so. Getting it right matters!

That’s why I’m glad I also read this morning’s Washington Post articles on

  • The prevalence of worry in our society (who knew “GAD – generalized anxiety disorder – was a thing?)
  • The benefits of coffee (these articles on coffees effects appear frequently; as a six-cup-a-day-guy I hold my breath whenever I see such a headline; each time (so far) I’ve come away relieved if not reaffirmed.

To repeat: if we fail to immerse ourselves in news and social media of every stripe, we risk irrelevance in 21st-century society. But if we do nothing else, if we fail to make our own contribution to the general noise, we will lack utility.  Two quite different skills, traits. The former rewards those of us who are ADHD, and extroverted. The latter calls for focus and favors the introverts among our number.

Well, now I’m late, I’m late for a very important date. Gotta run – on to my day job, and its focus on the value of environmental intelligence.

(With a tip of the hat to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – who saw this all coming almost two centuries ago.)


[1] If you succumbed to the instinct to click on this link, you’ll agree we live in the Rabbit-Hole-ocene.

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Value and Worth.

The real world’s value doesn’t decrease based on our inability to see its worth. (paraphrase of an inspirational quote)

Most of us, as individuals and in community, are a bit preoccupied, and rightfully so, with our worth. Do we matter? Are our lives significant? What gives those lives meaning? Is my company, my NGO, my government, my university, our nation making a difference? These and other questions rule our thoughts and also our emotions. 

Hardly surprising that our moods can swing wildly up and down depending on the feedback we get from others. Hence the motivational posters: your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.

The reality? Each of us knows better than any outsider that we are daily falling short of our potential — and precisely how. We’re constantly striving to do better. Those outside critics are merely piling on – taking a break from contemplation of their own shortcomings to focus on our deficiencies.

That’s why criticism, however it might seem merited by those who offer it, is generally worse than useless. “Constructive criticism?” An almost negligible subset of the larger critical noise in our world. Essentially an oxymoron. (Encouragement? An entirely different matter – but a subject for another day.) 

My community – the gaggle of people developing environmental intelligence[1]– is no exception. We constantly assess the value of what we do. Historically, these self-assessments have been piecemeal, subjective, anecdotal, flawed. That may have been adequate to the need in past years. Natural resources were, for practical purposes, unlimited. Whether they were renewable or non-renewable mattered little. Our vulnerability to extremes was localized; there was little critical infrastructure to be affected. The environment was pristine; natural ecosystems were thriving alongside agriculture. And the costs of monitoring all this, with the rudimentary tools we had available, together with a bit of research, was a negligible fraction of government budgets and national economies.

But today, and going forward, the picture is different. Eight billion people are consuming resources at a per capita rate tenfold greater than our ancestors. Extremes of weather and climate are disrupting megacities, destroying economies, and displacing whole populations. Signs of habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity and environmental degradation are disturbing. What’s more, the trends in these respects are worrisome.

And at the same time the costs of monitoring – making the basic measurements and observations, assimilating the data, predicting immediate weather threats and assessing longer-term global changes, and factoring in the likely societal impacts – are themselves growing. 

Two ideas are emerging in this new landscape. The first is an awareness of ecosystem services

  • provision: of food, energy, water…
  • regulation: control of climate, disease…
  • support: of nutrient cycles, atmospheric oxygen, etc.
  • culture: spiritual, recreational benefits.

Unsurprisingly, monetized estimates for the value of these are rudimentary and these vary. They tend to fall in the $10T-$50T/year range. Researchers have also estimated that the value of such services are trending downward, in response to environmental degradation, at rates that would reduce the value by 50% in a few decades or even more rapidly.

A second, related notion is that of a so-called green GDP. This is, as the name applies, a recalculation of the usual GDP estimates factoring into account the environmental consequences of that economic activity (i.e., in economics-Speak, internalizing those externalities).

Even this barest of descriptions should make it obvious: the value of ecosystem services, and hence world GDP itself, will be increasingly dependent on policy: with respect to carbon emissions, solar- and wind energy development, land use and development, and much more. Economic growth will swing up or down depending on the extent that we formulate policies congruent with the way our planet works. What’s more, policies will allocate costs and benefits, determining winners and losers. And finally, policies can either foster or suppress innovation, directly, through funding of research and development, especially in the environmental sciences and related technologies, but also indirectly with respect to K-12 public education, especially STEM education. These realities hold not just for countries individually, but for their future prospects among the international community. Countries that get their policies right will gain in influence and their ability to lead and shape the destiny of the world as a whole. 

If ecosystem services and green GDP matter, then we need to get far better, rapidly, at keeping score. Thus the one policy that matters most in this future world is our policy with respect to environmental intelligence. Here, especially the race will be to the swift. We need to gain a predictive understanding of the coupled Earth-human system, one allowing us to shape a favorable destiny – versus a retrospective understanding, one that merely lets us see after the fact where we went wrong.

A couple of closing notes. The AMS 2020 Centennial Annual Meeting includes a presidential session Monday morning that will examine these issues: The Enterprise: Worth More Than You Think. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The issue is moving to center stage at relevant federal agencies, across academia, the private sector, and NGO’s (including AMS, Resources for the Future, and others). It has been and will continue to be the topic of conversation at AMS Annual Meetings, the Washington Forum, and the Summer Community Meeting for years to come.

The Enterprise is indeed worth more than you think.

BTW? so are you.


[1]The provision of observations, science and services based on weather, water, climate, and more.

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Stay in the fight.

Inside-the-Beltway Democrats and Republicans, making common cause.

(a bit bleary-eyed this morning – getting up at 4:50 a.m. after staying up until 12:15 a.m. watching the Nationals win Game Seven of the 2019 World Series. Hardly a sustainable lifestyle – but what a climax to a special season![1])

The Washington Nationals have some advice for those of us here in DC, those of us in the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise, or Earth Observations, Science, and Services, or in ____________ (fill in the name of the family or enterprise or institution or group with whom you self-identify here).  Or, for that matter, those of us here in the United States, or anywhere across the larger world:

Stay in the fight.

Like most good advice, this is general enough to allow broad interpretation – or, for that matter, misinterpretation.

Let’s start with the latter. There are nearly eight billion of us on the planet these days. And here’s the truth. Almost every single one of us, barring possibly the merest handful – wake up each morning and start the day hoping to make the world a better place.

We all share the same goal! And what better goal or happier circumstance could there be? But our work and our aspirations are dogged by tragedy:

Instead of embracing this wonderful reality, instead of seeing ourselves as embedded in the center of a similarly-minded, eight-billion-person support group, we think we are the tiniest minority of “the only (righteous) ones.”

In this misdirected frame of mind, we see the world as divided into us and others. We see those others as hostile to our work and goals. And we therefore see the fight as directed against those others. We divide up, take sides with respect to virtually every aspect of our lives: on the basis of politics, ethnicity, geography, gender, wealth, and values and spiritual beliefs. You name it – we can polarize ourselves on that basis. And in the process, the common, lofty goals we should be pursuing – equity, education, public health, prosperity, peace, stewardship of the planet, resilience to hazards, to list a few – fall by the wayside. We delude ourselves into thinking that shelving these larger, communal aspirations is only temporary, but after many days or months or even entire careers, if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that what we thought we were working on we’ve really been ignoring all along – in favor of “pushing back,” against any and every other, day in and day out.

So much for the misinterpretation of stay in the fight. What then, is the fight we’re in?

It’s the fight to be our best truest selves. To help see this, let’s go back to those Washington Nationals. Ask them, give them a chance to reflect, and they’d say the Houston Astros and the remaining 28 teams in major league baseball were not the enemy. They were the community – the family, the tribe, the Enterprise (whatever label you might choose). They might be the competitors on a given afternoon or evening, but without them there wouldn’t be a game, or an industry. No, the enemy was back pain, and sore arms, and muscle spasms, and general weariness accumulating over a 162-game, seven-month season. The enemy was flagging enthusiasm, and the temptation to lose focus – to go through the motions versus give the work its due, and to lose a daily sense of gratitude for the physical and mental gifts that allow them to compete on such a high level. The enemy was self-doubt, and feelings of personal inadequacy and comparative failure. The enemy was the predisposition to shortchange teambuilding and communication in the home locker room.

Now let’s bring this closer to home, to LOTRW readership. We’re in the business of sustainable natural resource development and use (think food, energy, water). We’re in the business of building community resilience in the face of natural extremes. We’re working to protect ecosystem services and prevent environmental degradation. But the enemy is not the climate-change denier. The enemy is not the Senator or Congressional Representative from the coal-mining state. The enemy is not the big-oil corporate executive, or the neighbor who owns the gas-guzzling SUV. The enemy is not the real-estate developer building in the floodplain. The enemy is not the Indonesian or the Brazilian farmer burning the rainforest; or the fisherman dynamiting the coral reef. The enemy is not the person of a different background or income level or sexual preference. No, these are just folks we haven’t gotten to know, and come to respect and befriend, just yet.

No, for us, the enemy is something else entirely. It’s our tendency to see environmental problems as the disease we must treat (requiring that we temporarily toss our relationships with each other aside) when instead we should see environmental problems as a symptom of dysfunction in our relationships. It’s that relational dysfunction we should fight.

Here’s a prediction: If we focus only on the symptoms (if we, say, attempt to reduce CO2 emissions by imposing draconian, clearly partisan policies) we’ll fail in that effort, while the bickering lives on. But if we focus instead on reducing that portion of society we call “enemies;” if we concentrate efforts on building relationships and trust across the whole of society, not just our tiny home turf; if we embrace diversity of every kind, and insist on equity and inclusion at every step, we’ll succeed as a species. We’ll not only solve the climate change problem, but a wide range of other societal challenges as well.

So today, let’s stay in the fight – the fight to be our best, most equitable, most inclusive selves.


[1] With the win, the Nationals joined elite company – the NHL Capitals and the WNBA Mystics – making D.C. the District of Champions.

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The Spirit of Elijah

Elijah Cummings 1951-2019

“Mr. President, you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing you and I need to do is figure out what we can do – what present can we bring to generations unborn?” –  Elijah Cummings (recently recalling a conversation with president Donald Trump)

This coming Thursday and Friday, the U.S. Congress will be memorializing and honoring Elijah Cummings, The Democratic Congressman from Maryland’s 7th District, who passed away on October 17, much too soon. The sense of loss is deep and widespread, evoking memories of last year’s loss of Senator John McCain and former president George Herbert Walker Bush.

As was the case with those two gentlemen, this week’s heartache is also non-partisan, coming from both sides of the aisle. This might seem surprising, given recent political turmoil and its escalation over the past month or so.  But today’s quote reveals the man’s heart and values – his sense of responsibility toward future generations, and his sense that politics was and is about service to the American people – a service shared equally by both Republicans and Democrats.

Elijah.

Most given names – say, Jane, or Donald, or Bill – leave a bit of mystery, raise questions about the choice, the motivation, the significance. Why that particular label? Was the naming after this or that historic figure, an entertainer, a special friend, or a family member? What message or encouragement were the parents giving to the child when they chose that name? To learn the answer, you and I have to ask. Every person bearing such a name will offer a different narrative.

But that’s not the case with Elijah. The reference leads directly or indirectly to a single figure, the prophet Elijah of the Old Testament. To see the narrative Mr. Cummings was encouraged to live out, the example he knew every day of his life he was supposed to follow, you have only to go back to  1st and 2nd Kings. (And what more fitting tribute could we pay the man than to read or re-read this story sometime over the next few days?)

The Elijah of the Bible led an extraordinary life, demonstrating at every turn the power of his God. He attracted disciples or followers along the way. One of them stood out among the rest – Elisha. Elisha was singularly devoted – not just learning from his master but caring for him in his latter days. In addition to those two concerns, Elisha also wondered, who would God choose to be Elijah’s successor? Where would his spirit rest? The Biblical account tells us that he witnessed Elijah being taken by God up to heaven. According to 2 Kings 2:14, he then tested God:

14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

Elisha got his answer.

In the same spirit, most if not all of us might today be asking Elijah Cummings’ question of ourselves:

what present can we bring to generations unborn?

Turns out, of course, that those amassing the environmental intelligence needed for sustainable use of natural resources, building resilience to hazards, and protecting the environment and ecosystems have one possible answer. We know what present we’re working to provide. We’re trying to meet Greta Thunberg’s plea on behalf of children everywhere – bequeathing them a world that is at least as functional, as inviting, as awe-inspiringly beautiful as the world we grew up in.  

A closing thought:

Even this side of heaven there’s widespread appreciation and gratitude for those who craft such presents. One concrete form of recognition? The so-called Sammies – the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America awards made annually to federal civil servants. The 2019 awardees recently announced include Jamie Rhome, of NOAA, who:

Created a new forecasting model and warning system that more accurately predicts the deadly storm surge caused by hurricanes, saving lives by alerting residents sooner of the approaching danger.

Mr. Rhome is not the first NOAA scientist to win such recognition. In 2008 Eddie Bernard was cited for his work in creating:

a tsunami detection system that has dramatically increased warning times and decreased the risk of catastrophic loss of life.

Both Mr. Rhome and Mr. Bernard were careful to emphasize that their NOAA work represented a team effort, sustained by collaboration of many individuals inside and outside of NOAA over a period of many years. Truth be told, those working to benefit future generations comprise thousands of NOAA employees. Civil servants at DoD, DoE, EPA, USGS, USDA, NASA, NSF, and myriad other agencies. Their partners in private industry and academia. The practitioners who illuminate and motivate their work. Not just in the United States but worldwide.

So, today, if you’re wondering “where is the spirit of Elijah?” – you have only to look inside yourself.

Someday soon – sooner than we expect – each of us will be dancing with (both) Elijahs and the angels.

In the meantime, let’s all keep up the good work.

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Takeaways from yesterday’s Global Climate Strike

Photos taken at the Global Climate Strike in London.

“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader[1]” – Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

Populism – a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups–is in the air. We see it threaded through today’s U.S. presidential campaigns, across Britain and other countries in the European Union, in Latin America, and elsewhere. Often in the implementation it’s a rhetorical tool cynically wielded by elitist leaders who drape themselves in its mantle as a means to snatching power. 

But sometimes populism appears in a purer form, as an (almost) spontaneous outpouring of concern. Something like that was demonstrated in yesterday’s Global Climate Strike. Millions of children in over one hundred countries worldwide ditched school and hit the streets to demonstrate their concern about climate change and to press the adult generation to act. What an extraordinary event! Eight takeaways:

1. The power of K-12 STEM education and critical thinking. The climate-change issue is complex, scientifically and socially challenging, and features shades of grey as opposed to black-and-white. The young people we all saw yesterday had to learn what they obviously know and articulated so well from somewhere. All you teachers  out there? Give yourselves a pat on the back. Your years of effort and dedication are paying off.

2. The clout of IT and social media. This critical infrastructure for so much of today’s living has emergent flaws that we debate daily (threats to privacy, contributions to the attention-deficit, trolling, fake news, and more). But yesterday it proved its mettle. Imagine pulling together the Global Climate Strike without IT and social networks. (The same could be said of recent protests in Hong Kong.)

3. The butterfly effect and the power of the individual. One year ago, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, began striking every Friday demanding climate action, virtually alone. Yesterday showed the first fruits (more is likely to come from this remarkable person in years ahead) of her commitment and perseverance (as memorably captured in these juxtaposed images). 

4. The nature of leadership and vision. As the Ledru-Rollins quote above reminds us, leadership is not about getting society to do a 1800 turn; instead, it starts with listening to people as they share their powerful but pre-existing concerns, finding the main notes and commonalities, giving those voice, and offering a framework for action. To the extent that leadership is about dreaming a dream and sharing it, then it is about dreaming a great dream, not an inconsequential one. By coincidence, yesterday’s news also drove home that point. An effort to mobilize yesterday’s “storming” of the secretive U.S. Area 51 (said to hold specimens and other proof of aliens) brought fewer than 200 people to the facility’s gates.

5. Parents and others of the older generation should beat themselves up. As younger people have forcefully reminded us, the Global Climate Strike was necessitated by our years of inaction in the face of this clear and present danger. Shame on us!

6. Parents and others of the older generation should congratulate themselves. Beat ourselves up? Not so fast! Why did the young people notice the problem? They heard the older generation talking about it. 

Who encouraged the young people to participate? Who helped them with the signage? Who ferried some of these young people to and from the marches and demonstrations? And whose dinner conversation over the years reinforced the concerns the kids were bringing home from school?  Whose efforts to recycle, buy high-mileage vehicles, and encourage vegan lifestyles showed young people by example how to walk the walk? Parents, join the teachers in giving yourselves a pat on the back.

7. Follow-through. It’s often said that climate change is a daunting problem because it is slow-onset. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s rapid onset compared with the time for eight billion people to reach agreement on what to do about it. Yesterday’s Global Climate Strike was a milestone in the world’s dialog. But it’s incumbent on all of us, young and old and everywhere in between to follow-through. One place to start is at the polls, to prove what politicians (a supremely intelligent lot) are already beginning to suspect:

8. Political leaders fail to get on board and in front of this issue at their peril. Enough said.


[1]Some attribute this quote to Mahatma Gandhi, but it seems to date back to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. For years, Jack Townsend, a deputy administrator of NOAA under Robert White, had this quote displayed in his office.

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An aspirational goal for the next administration: crafting a superbloom in the predictability desert?

Superbloom” by snowpeak is licensed under CC BY 2.0

(Yesterday’s LOTRW post introduced the subject of transition documents. Today’s post continues that train of thought.)


Yes, a superbloom is a thing. Of course it is! This is the 21st century, and we like to supersize everything, from our hamburgers to our storms. Let’s start with a factoid: in the southwestern United States, perhaps as many as 10,000 seeds can lie dormant in each square meter of desert (!!). Each seed patiently awaits the perfect set of moisture conditions – in short, enough for the plant not just to germinate, but for the resulting plant to live out its full life cycle and reproduce. When the needed conditions align, the result is a superbloom.

And yes, the predictability desert is also a thing. But it’s not a place. It’s a time gap. It separates the several-day horizons of weather forecasts and the decadal outlooks of long-term climate forecasts. Weather forecasts have improved as measurements of initial conditions have improved  with respect to global coverage, space and time resolution, and accuracy; as data assimilation has become more rigorous; and as numerical weather prediction (sheer computing power; computational methods; ensemble techniques, etc.) have advanced. Similarly, in recent years, climate forecasting on time scales of years to centuries have improved as the governing boundary conditions have been better characterized. But improvement in weather prediction on intermediate time scales – ranging from a few weeks to a few seasons or so – has lagged. Hence the emergence of the predictability desert.

There doesn’t seem to be a single missing piece to the puzzle. Rather it’s been widely recognized that a variety of improvements need to be stitched together to make progress. Here’s a list of research priorities the World Meteorological Organization published a few years back,

  • Understanding the mechanisms of subseasonal to seasonal predictability.
  • Evaluating the skill of subseasonal forecasts, including identifying windows of opportunity for increased forecast skill, with special emphasis on the associated high-impact weather events.
  • Understanding model physics and how well the important interaction processes in the Earth system are represented.
  • Comparing, verifying and testing multi-model combinations from these forecasts and quantifying their uncertainty.
  • Understanding systematic errors and biases in the subseasonal to seasonal forecast range.
  • Developing and evaluating approaches to integrate subseasonal to seasonal forecasts into applications.

The WMO buttressed that list with a few examples of processes that could improve predictability, if better incorporated into the NWP:

  • The Madden-Julian Oscillation: as the dominant mode of intraseasonal variability in the tropics that modulates organized convective activity, the Madden-Julian Oscillation has a considerable impact not only in the tropics, but also in the middle and high latitudes, and is considered as a major source of global predictability on the subseasonal time scale;
  • Soil moisture: inertial memory in soil moisture can last several weeks, which can influence the atmosphere through changes in evaporation and surface energy budget and can affect the forecast of air temperature and precipitation in certain areas during certain times of the year on intraseasonal time scales (e.g. Koster et al. 2010);
  • Snow cover: The radiative and thermal properties of widespread snow cover anomalies have the potential to modulate local and remote climate variability over monthly to seasonal time scales (e.g. Sobolowski et al. 2010);
  • Stratosphere-troposphere interaction: signals of changes in the polar vortex and the Northern Annular Mode/Arctic Oscillation (NAM/AO) are often seen to come from the stratosphere, with the anomalous tropospheric flow lasting up to about two months (Baldwin et al. 2003); and
  • Ocean conditions: anomalies in upper-ocean thermal structure, in particular sea-surface temperature, lead to changes in air-sea heat flux and convection, which affect atmospheric circulation. The tropical intraseasonal variability forecast skill is improved when a coupled model is used (e.g. Woolnough et al. 2007), while coupled modes of ocean-atmosphere interaction, including the El Niño–Southern Oscillation in particular, can yield substantial forecast skill even within the first month.

The problem is not a new one; it’s been recognized – and resisted efforts at improvement – for a while. This lack of progress matters. Good forecasts in this time range would support more effective agriculture, water resource management, and energy production and use; they could also reduce disaster impacts and improve public health. Benefits would not be confined to the United States but extend worldwide.

Good news! The time just might be right for such forecast improvement. Both the needed technological and political conditions seem to be aligning.

Start with technology. (1) New observing tools continue to come on line, promising to expand geographic coverage into currently under-monitored regions of the world (the oceans, polar latitudes, and the developing world), improve time resolution, and enrich diagnostic power and accuracy. (2) We stand on the threshold of exascale computing, the better to explicitly incorporate additional observations and physical processes into the models. (3) Artificial intelligence is poised to make significant contributions to data quality control and model interpretation, to tease out new connections that influence oceanic and atmospheric developments in sub-seasonal to seasonal time frame, and that translate these changes in environmental conditions into human impacts.

Then there’s the favorable politics. (1) Here in the United States, there’s bipartisan political support for more work on sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasts, as reflected in the Weather Research and Forecast Improvement Act of 2017 and in its subsequent reauthorization as part of the NIDIS 2018 reauthorization. (2) The World Meteorological Organization is emphasizing similar improvements as part of its Global Framework for Climate Services. (3) Observations and study of the oceans – a key piece of the puzzle – have been targeted for special attention by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which is launching a Decade of Ocean science for Sustainable Development.

Why dwell on this, and why entertain an approach to a transition document along these lines? Three arguments.

First, the transition document immediately becomes something more than mere pleading from a special interest group. It doesn’t look like a laundry list of policy priorities designed to make the Earth observations, science, and services community well. Instead, the focus is on a single grand national challenge – much like the Manhattan Project during World War II or the effort to put men on the moon during the 1960’s.

Second, the oasification (yes, that’s a thing, too) of the predictability desert will necessarily be most evident at the fringes. On the one end, it will reflect progress on, and at the same time contribute to other U.S. national initiatives on short term prediction such as EPIC. On the other, it will enable earlier detection of skill and flaws in longer-term climate predictions. Its influence will be felt across the entire spectrum of environmental intelligence and related security- and economic concerns.

Third, it’s impossible to contemplate such a venture without paying attention to a range of infrastructure needs facing our community, as detailed in transition documents from prior election cycles. Requirements for modern, more capable observations and computing infrastructure. Attention to workforce trends. Social science ranging from risk communication to economic valuation of the new products and services. But now these are seen for what they truly are – means to a larger, desired national end, versus ordinary welfare appeals.

Advancing seasonal-to-sub-seasonal forecasts provides just one example of a possible organizing goal; there are others. As our community looks ahead to articulating a vision for the next administration, it would be useful to hear your proposals and views.

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