COP-28 re-enters the real world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Similar skeptical reactions are easy to find online.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Advent season, there’s hope at COP 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 5. Reparations (by any other name)? Money is just the start.

In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines. – Proverbs 18:17

When I posted Part 4 a week ago, I breathed a sigh of relief. I figured this string had run its course, and I was entitled to (and should) start another thread. But then two things happened to make me change my mind. For one John Plodinec’s comment on Part 4 rolled in, and I want to call it to your attention. His perspective is always thoughtful, and usually divergent from mine – therefore doubly welcome. Readers are treated to another view, and then are better positioned to sort out their own thinking on the subject of the day. This has been well-known for some time; for example, the idea is captured by the Biblical proverb cited above, which dates back something like 2500 years.

(As you can see from John’s comment, he found even less to like about my post than usual. I possibly erred by thinking it would be clear from a read of the post as well as the opening quote – emphasizing fixing the problem rather than assigning blame, no matter how justified – that I wasn’t so much endorsing societal emphasis on reparations as I was advocating focus on the root problem. I coulda/shoulda been more clear😊.)

Secondly, it happened that on the same day another colleague reminded me – rather more gently, but in a way equally compelling – that nations and peoples suffering losses and damage from climate change generally need more than money; they need sustained presence and support alongside.

So, taking a deep breath – John, please don’t misinterpret this as doubling down – here goes.

For the well-off world to pony up the money to help poorer countries remediate loss and damage from climate change is only just the beginning. That support, to accomplish its desired ends, needs follow-through. This might take any or all of several forms. To start, donor nations should invest more assets – people, time, etc. – in listening, in seeking more understanding from the nations and peoples suffering loss and damage about the events and circumstances the latter see as leading to calamity, and how they seek to prevent recurrence. That might be followed or accompanied by on-the-ground collaboration. This can take several forms; America’s Peace Corps provides one relatively successful (though imperfect) model. One useful feature of that initiative is that even the most expert, trained individuals initially find themselves isolated and therefore forced to seek first to understand, rather than be understood.

This segues into a last example, which many people might have put first: the follow-through might include advice. (One prominent example is U.S. agriculture trade development and assistance since the Eisenhower administration.) U.S. international assistance has a checkered history, featuring both successes and failures.  

The bottom line is that loss-and-damage funding makes all this needed relationship building, which is the ultimate goal, more likely to happen. The reasoning here actually as a name: the Ben Franklin effect: a psychological phenomenon in which people like someone more after doing a favour for them. An explanation for this is cognitive dissonance. People reason that they help others because they like them, even if they do not, because their minds struggle to maintain logical consistency between their actions and perceptions.

The Benjamin Franklin effect, in other words, is the result of one’s concept of self coming under attack. Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in one’s personal narrative get rewritten, redacted, and misinterpreted.

(To quote Franklin: “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”)

In sum, the most important part of loss and damages payments is not the dollars themselves, but their role in opening the door to the myriad trusting, collaborative relationships that the world needs if we are to cope with climate change.

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The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 4. Climate (and other) reparations.

Don’t fix the blame. Fix the problem.” – (origin unclear…)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Climate reparations are indeed no place for wishful thinking – but perhaps the topic could stand a bit of thankful thinking. And when better to acknowledge this than over the holiday itself[1]?

Here goes.

__________________________  

Reparations have been part of the global conversation for quite a while – in the context of slavery, wars, genocide, and more. Here’s a working definition: the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.

The special climate case is more recent, but has its own Wikipedia entry. An excerpt: Climate reparations are loss and damage payments for damage and harm caused by climate change, which may include debt cancellation. The term climate reparations differs from simple “loss and damage,” in that it is based on the concept of reparations, that compensation holds countries accountable for historical emissions, and is an ethical and moral obligation.

“The idea behind calls for loss and damage funding is that the countries that have done most to pollute the atmosphere, and grown rich doing so, should compensate…” 

The damage and harm caused by climate change grows more evident with every passing year. It touches every aspect of life on Earth and reaches every corner of the globe. The array of woes includes the effect of rising temperatures on life and health of humans and ecosystems; the growing number of deaths, damage, and disruption caused by floods, drought, and other extreme events; sea-level rise; impacts on agriculture and food security; and more. And the tab is eye-watering – exceeding $150 trillion dollars by some estimates.

At the outset, the issue raises questions. Here are two: who should pay? And why?

In answering the first question, some cast a wide net. Developed nations, the fossil-fuel extraction sector, polluting companies, and even those individual philanthropists whose have fortunes derived in part from historic fossil-fuel use are in the frame. (An aside: the scale of the loss and damage requires special means for moving money in such large amounts, from diverse sources, and to myriad claimants.  Catastrophe bonds, debt for loss-and-damage swaps, dedicated finance facilities and other exotic instruments have all been proposed as fund-transfer mechanisms.)

Answers to the why? stem from a stark mismatch. Generally speaking, those peoples and nations hit hardest by the negative impacts of climate change are not the countries and individuals largely responsible for the problem. It’s this that makes the issue not merely economic, but moral and ethical. For example, the African continent’s historic contributions to carbon emissions have been minimal. But in some cases African countries find themselves poised to spend several times more to cope with climate change than their current budgets provide for other basic needs, such as healthcare. By contrast, it’s the G20 nations who are responsible for more than two-thirds of the historic CO2 emissions. Another, more recent case: Pakistan, responsible for less than 1% of emissions, experienced $30B in damage from 2022 flooding attributed in part to climate change. The numbers of such case examples and claimants are large.

Almost exactly a year ago, the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-27) concluded with an agreement providing for “loss and damage” funding for countries beset by climate-related disasters. At the time this was hailed as a groundbreaking step in international response to climate change. A year later, two realities are clear. First, the early, tentative funding amounts supplied by donors are falling far short of the need – by an order of magnitude or more. Second, developed nations, including the U.S. in particular, are emphasizing that the fund is a loss and damage fund, not a reparations fund, for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. John Kerry made this clear in July. The point is U.S. refusal to acknowledge any legal or moral culpability for past damages (the distinction made explicit in the Wikipedia article). On that basis, contributions by the United States and other developed countries to the fund can be decoupled from any actual damages or losses and can be determined by ability or willingness to pay. America would be supporting the fund out of a spirit of generosity instead of obligation.

Two examples of wishful thinking are evident. First, it’s wishful thinking on the part of developing nations to expect the developed world to acknowledge any blame or legal liability without argument, especially given the inter-generational nature separating the historical carbon emissions and the losses incurred. But it’s equally wishful thinking on the part of the developed world to think that the poorer nations are in any position to shoulder the costs of disaster recovery on the scale they’re experiencing. Money in the amount of $150 Trillion can only be collected from the haves-, not the have-nots. (This also accords with game theory: the well-off nations are the ones with the most to lose and will therefore foot the bill; see for example, the insightful book by Scott Barrett entitled Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods.)

But the reality all parties are so reluctant to embrace is also rosier than one might think. To begin, there are several positive motivations for the well-off to pony up. First, the $150 Trillion dollar figure needs to be compared with global GDP, which is already essentially $100 Trillion per year and growing. The loss and damage payout will be spread out over decades, meaning it will amount to, say 5% of GDP over the period. That’s a large figure, but not unimaginably large. Second, the most reasonable priority for such funding is to minimize or forestall future damage (here it’s a bit higher but not inconsistent with the earlier Stern-review estimates of this cost). What’s more, a healthy fraction of that will be spent on labor – and much of that labor will come from the world’s poorer countries – and even in richer countries like the United States, from the poorer subpopulations of those countries.. Wages are lower in these countries. At the same time, putting people, especially young people, to work in these countries will improve their lifetime prospects and pay an enormous peace dividend, greatly reducing the surge of climate-driven mass migrations, terrorism, war, polarization, and unrest worldwide. In short, the investments will achieve many of the purposes of reparations even if lacking the label.

We also have an historic example proving that this can work: the Marshall Plan following World War II. At that time US GDP was about $150B/year. U.S. national debt, after a decade of the Great Depression and World War II, was about $180B. Did the U.S. retrench? No! Instead, our forbearers decided to spend $15B – 10% of that GDP – over the next four years abroad, in Europe, and not just among our allies, but also among our enemies. The result was decades of unity between Europe and North America that saw them through the fraught years of the Cold War.

Imagine asking Americans today to invest $2.3T over the next four years in the U.N. Climate Change Loss and Damage Fund!

Well, that’s exactly what we need to imagine. And this is where the Thanksgiving season comes in. Once a year at this time, Americans sit at a ridiculously abundant dinner and go around the table asking each member present, “what are you thankful for?” And the answer comes back – we’re thankful for each other, and the abundance of the feast before us…etc, etc. But we can and should also give thanks that experience and science have made us aware that our planet is in trouble; and provided us with the technologies to set things aright, while there’s still time. We can be grateful that the first steps are being taken. We can also give thanks that indigenous people with a lot to lose welcomed our ancestors here in 1620 and earlier; that the millions who have emigrated from other countries since and the billions more who have partnered with us in international trade have blessed us. We can be thankful that all this history and generosity have put America in a position where we can give back. We could contribute $2T a year for four years to such a cause without breathing hard.

Okay, maybe we’d be a little out of breath. But only a little. And after all that food, we might need the exercise.

Happy Thanksgiving.


[1]A shout-out/thanks. Had been noodling this post along for a couple of days, when a close colleague reminded me today “you always do a Thanksgiving post.” That gentle nudge has changed my emphasis here quite a bit, and for the better…

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The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 3. (Water) Pollution.

Earlier LOTRW posts revisited the two of the three simultaneous challenges to living on the real world – building resilience to Earth’s hazards, and accessing Earth’s resources (with a focus on water). Today’s post returns to the third: minimizing the pollution resulting from the first two efforts.

The enemy here is the iron reality imposed by the second law of thermodynamics: the entropy (or disorder) of the universe always increases. Building order in one sector of the universe (Florida, say, or your kitchen or desk – or even closer to home, ordering the thoughts in your mind) always requires energy, and necessarily involves polluting/degrading the environment elsewhere.

Recent studies and associated news reports have shown a spotlight on such problems as they relate to water. Take, for instance, today’s NYT report on water use in Dubai. The article opens this way: For a desert city, Dubai appears like a water wonderland. Visitors can scuba dive in the world’s deepest pool or ski inside a mega mall where penguins play in freshly made snow. A fountain — billed as the world’s largest — sprays more than 22,000 gallons of water into the air, synchronized to music from surrounding speakers.

But to maintain its opulence, the city relies on fresh water it doesn’t have. So it turns to the sea, using energy-intensive desalination technologies to help hydrate a rapidly growing metropolis.

All of this comes at a cost. Experts say Dubai’s reliance on desalination is damaging the Persian Gulf, producing a brackish waste known as brine which, along with chemicals used during desalination processing, increases salinity in the Gulf. It also raises coastal water temperatures and harms biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities.

The article goes on to note: The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority supplies water to more than 3.6 million residents along with the city’s active daytime population of more than 4.7 million visitors, according to a 2022 sustainability report. By 2040, the utility expects these numbers to grow, increasing the demand for clean water.

The city desalinated approximately 163.6 billion gallons of water last year, according to the sustainability report. For each gallon of desalinated water produced in the Gulf, an average of a gallon and a half of brine is released into the ocean.

In Dubai, the Jebel Ali Power and Desalination Complex — the largest facility of its kind in the world — pipes water from the sea, sending it through a series of treatment phases, then to the city as drinkable water. But Jebel Ali’s 43 desalination plants are powered by fossil fuels. The U.A.E. produced more than 200 million tons of carbon in 2022, among the highest emissions per capita worldwide.

Before we start clucking our tongues stateside, the next paragraph notes: Seawater desalination has been a lifeline in the United Arab Emirates for almost 50 years, but other coastal regions, like Carlsbad, Calif., have recently adopted the technology in the face of severe drought. Florida is a national leader in desalination, and farther inland, Arizona is considering piping desalinated water from Mexico.

The links focus on urban drinking water, but recall that agriculture is by far the biggest water consumer. In this respect, a recent study by a University of Maryland researcher, Sujay Kaushal, and coauthors is causing a bit of a stir. From their abstract: …Anthropogenic activities have accelerated the processes, timescales and magnitudes of salt fluxes and altered their directionality, creating an anthropogenic salt cycle. Global salt production has increased rapidly over the past century for different salts, with approximately 300 Mt of NaCl produced per year. A salt budget for the USA suggests that salt fluxes in rivers can be within similar orders of magnitude as anthropogenic salt fluxes, and there can be substantial accumulation of salt in watersheds. Excess salt propagates along the anthropogenic salt cycle, causing freshwater salinization syndrome to extend beyond freshwater supplies and affect food and energy production, air quality, human health and infrastructure. There is a need to identify environmental limits and thresholds for salt ions and reduce salinization before planetary boundaries are exceeded, causing serious or irreversible damage across Earth systems.

Rather dry prose, but the implication is that human activity is affecting the salinity of agricultural soils globally over an area comparable to that of the United States. Soil salinity resulting from irrigation-based farming is a problem that has been with us for thousands of years (it contributed to the downfall of Mesopotamia) – but when evident on this global scale (even toning down some of the alarmist rhetoric) the problem is sobering.

Space and time limits prevent fuller description here, but entropy is also the root cause of the crumbling water infrastructure currently challenging many US urban water systems.

In all these instances, overcoming the ravages of entropy can only be accomplished locally (entropy decreases always occur at the expense of entropy increases in some larger system) and always involves the input of energy. Use of renewable energy instead of fossil fuels buys time (but only buys time; infrastructure comprising windmills and solar panels need continual maintenance and has a finite life cycle). Ultimately, the solar source of this energy will itself run its course, but that problem is hopefully a billion or so years distant.

Energy of course has its own surrogate – money. A look at that reality in the next post.

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Remembering Richard E. Hallgren, 1932-2023.

On November 5th, the Nation and the world lost a towering figure. Only a relative handful may have known his name. But all eight billion people worldwide owe Richard Hallgren a debt of thanks every day for his contributions to weather forecasts: predictions and outlooks that provide everyone a measure of health and safety in the face of hazards, that support agricultural production to meet global food needs, that guide water-resource management of rivers and their dams and reservoirs, that optimize solar- and wind-energy capture, and that help detect and predict climate change.

As much as any individual over the last 100 years, Richard Hallgren took weather services in the United States and the world from their rudimentary skill post-World War II to today’s global array of satellite-, radar-, and information technology that meets the increasingly high-stakes, up-to-the minute requirements of the modern world for weather information. Others advanced the vast science and technology making this possible, but Dick’s role was catalytic. He and a handful of collaborators provided the leadership at the highest national and international policy levels needed to put all the bits together and make them work for societal benefit.

He did not build today’s community of practice through top-down command and control. Even in his more senior positions he was never at any point in charge of the whole. Instead he led the hard way – from below. He tirelessly built trust and relationships – not only among his peers but with early-career professionals entering the field. He always started with listening, watching, learning, respect for various viewpoints. From that understanding he developed a great vision, and freely shared it. He understood that weather forecasting for public benefit was an inherently cooperative act, requiring an Enterprise, a sustained collaboration spanning nations, governments, industry, and academia, constantly reinventing itself, comprising not just weather service providers, but also users – and not just in the developed world, but including and benefiting rich and poor alike on every continent. Toward this end he identified and articulated programs and frameworks that made the work of everyone around him more effective, more purposeful, more rewarding, providing them opportunities for personal and career growth even as they served others. He not only oversaw and fostered the creativity and innovation of the period but instilled a set of shared values across the Enterprise – innovation, partnership, unity, service, perseverance, integrity, energy, positivity – that has deepened and should endure for decades to come.

Dick himself took on many roles during his career. He served in the U.S. Air Force. He worked at IBM. He was scientific advisor to the Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology in 1964, and then worked at the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA; 1966–1970) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) headquarters. In 1979 he was named Director of the National Weather Service. From that latter position his specific contributions included, but were not limited to:

-maintaining U.S. (and international) commitment to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization’s work toward free and open exchange of weather data (the technological and social contracts that together form the lifeblood of global weather forecasts).

-modernization and restructuring of the U.S. National Weather Service from top to bottom during the 1980’s.

-formulation of U.S. policies and frameworks accommodating government-private-sector-academic partnerships in the development and communication of weather forecasts. This had many dimensions, but one stands out: his role in strengthening the role of private weather services broadly, and broadcast meteorologists in particular, in delivering critical NWS weather information to the public.

In 1988 he retired from government to take on the executive directorship of the American Meteorological Society, completely transforming that group over the decade of his tenure into an NGO with robust disciplinary reach and capacity matching the needs and maturation of the Enterprise. He strengthened the existing publications program. He expanded the purview of the annual meetings to include major sessions on observing- and information technologies. He added a crucial international dimension to the meetings. He worked with Ira Geer (who, sadly, also recently passed away – on October 23)to create a unique Education Program to equip teachers and support nationwide K-12 geosciences education. He continued the work he’d begun while at the NWS to support broadcast meteorology. But he drew his greatest pride and satisfaction from the money he raised through decades of personal cajoling (and the occasional arm-twisting) for undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships – especially to support minorities and underrepresented groups.

For these accomplishments and others, he was duly showered with awards and honors. These included: a fistful of the highest recognitions available to U.S. government executives; membership in the U.S. National Academy of Engineering; Honorary Membership in the American Meteorological Society; and the International Meteorological Prize of the World Meteorological Organization (its highest honor).

All this said, such formal recognition mattered less to Dick than his accumulated personal relationships – with individual members of his WMO global family and with his NWS and AMS professional community. He selflessly invested countless hours in face-to-face and phone conversations to keep these current. Years of all this wore well: those who came to know Dick the best and the longest liked him the most.

Within that vast set of relationships, Dick particularly treasured his family. To be around Dick was to hear a stream of vignettes about sons Scott and Doug, and daughter Lynette – Dick was always bursting with pride about their latest accomplishments. Above all, he loved and revered his wife Maxine. He admired her many virtues: her strength, courage, wisdom, and her patience (especially with him).  

Dick, you made such a difference in all our lives. Thanks to you, the outlook for our generously-resourced, hazardous, fragile planet Earth is a bit brighter. We’ll do our best to pay it forward.

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The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 2. (Water) Resources.

Recent LOTRW posts noted that the real world punishes us if we fail to face hazards realistically. What does realism demand? That we do better than merely redistribute risk; that instead we actually reduce it. We need to go beyond simply saving lives, and take the measures needed to ensure that those saved lives are then worth living. For example, we shouldn’t complacently turn our backs on disaster survivors while they struggle for years to remake their lives. A recent New York Times article vividly describes how disaster survivors, (especially the poor and already-disenfranchised) all too often find themselves in destructive sequel: dealing with America’s disaster recovery system. As individuals and as a nation, we can and should do better.

In the same way, we need be clear-eyed in facing our food, water, energy and other resource challenges. Though the earth holds abundant resources, they are finite. We need to be wise in their extraction and use. We need to recognize that not all uses are equally beneficial, that not all locations can yield resources equally, and not all uses or rates of use are sustainable, whether locally or globally considered. We need to understand how these resource challenges are connected; that is, how efforts to feed ourselves place big demands on our water and energy use, and so on.

These notions might seem obvious, not worthy of mention. Unfortunately, it’s equally obvious that decisionmakers (acting on our behalf and with our tacit approval) are focusing instead on short-term convenience instead of stewardship. Some examples (focusing on just one resource, water):

The Colorado River Compact. U.S. management of its western water is equal parts allocation and allegory (. Wikipedia provides a nice overview. It begins this way:

[The Colorado River Compact is]… a 1922 agreement among seven states in the southwestern United States that fall within the drainage basin of the Colorado River. The pact governs the apportionment of the river’s flow between the upper and lower division states

The Compact did not address a number of issues, including Indian or Mexican water rights, or how evaporation would be shared among the basins. Later studies of flow found that the Compact apportioned more water than would be reliably delivered at the boundary between the two basins [emphasis added]. The Compact allowed use of surplus flows by downstream states, but did not provide clear rules addressing shortages.

The problems have been widely recognized for decades, but never truly faced. The compact made headlines this year as the parties have worked out a notional short-term fix and a proposal for addressing the problem longer-term (that may involve revisiting the aforementioned short-term fix).

Reality:  Water availability over the longer haul doesn’t always match that of a few favorable years. And, remarkably, some 56% of the U.S. Colorado River water is used to grow livestock feed; another 24% goes to other agriculture (a recent New York Times article provides a nice discussion). It’s been well-known for some time that the desert southwest might not have been the best venue for this (see, e.g., Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner).

Which leads us to a popular policy choice/technology fix for dealing with water shortages…

Overpumping groundwater. In a series entitled Uncharted Waters, The New York Times recently published findings from an investigative study of U.S. aquifers. An overview lays out the national problem: America is overusing its aquifers from coast to coast in damaging ways that threaten our economy and our food security. Follow-on articles track the skyrocketing amounts of water needed to support fracking; drill deeper into the use of groundwater for agriculture, etc. 

A final article provided these five takeaways[1])

-Aquifer water levels are falling nationwide. The danger is worse and more widespread than many people realize. We know this because we built a database of more than 80,000 wells nationwide.

-Overpumping is a threat to America’s status as a food superpower.

-It’s not just a problem in the West or for farmers. It’s a tap water crisis, too.

-Weak regulations allowed the overuse.

-Now, climate change is leading to even more pumping.

Reality: The problem feels disturbingly similar to the perils of maxing-out a credit card, only on a vastly larger scale. We’re using water for the wrong purposes in the wrong places. Pumping groundwater is losing its efficacy as a policy tool. The time to reduce dependency on groundwater is before it runs dry..

The tap water crisis would seem to pose particular peril. The Times reporting notes that one-third of America’s total volume of drinking water comes from underground wells. Ultimately, desalination of sea water may be the only policy option for replacing US water use at such scale. A 2015 USGS estimate of US use of water at home is some 80 gallons per person per day. The average US household uses about 30kwh of electricity per day. One analysis (Zhou (2005) suggests membrane desalination per se may not be a budget breaker, but the cost of water transportation over large horizontal distances and the lift to the higher elevations to supply water to inland U.S. sites may be substantial.

So, the good news? The reasons for hope? The technological solutions are out there. There are also many policy options available: conservation in all use sectors; use of so-called grey water; redirection of American agricultural efforts, etc. But given the current polarization of American politics and the deep divisions already on display across state and local lines, the country seems ill-positioned to handle looming water crises.

This is no time for America’s policy preference of denial. A key to stiffening our adult spines and taking realistic action versus merely wringing our hands? Why don’t we let our children in on the secret? Make geocivics a K-12 priority. Educate our children on the problem, don’t merely let them hear about it in passing. When our kids start asking us what we’re doing about it, maybe you and I will get moving.  


[1] an apology; I may have broken out the takeaways differently from the authors; there were more than five emboldened bits in the original article.

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The path to getting climate change sorted goes through babies and toddlers.

My daughter is fond of reminding me that climate change can’t claim to be the #1 challenge facing the world today, and that it never will be. At the very most it can aspire only to be #2 – taking a back seat to the following worldwide imperative:

to ensure that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life.

That’s the mission statement from the organization where she works, Zero to Three, which goes on to envision:

a society that has the knowledge and will to support all infants and toddlers in reaching their full potential.

(Full disclosure: increasingly over the years, my daughter has morphed from toddler herself into my adult supervision. An example, from another publication, dating back to 2015; you can also find more of her wisdom in LOTRW posts from 2010, 2012a, and 2012b.)

Hard to argue with those Zero-to-Three goals.

Especially with her.

But occasionally she throws her old man a bone. Take her most recent e-mail: “Thought you would be interested in this new resource.”

Clicking on the link took me to Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities, and a Stronger Nation: The U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan.

The report opened this way: Caring for our children and caring for our planet are inextricably linked. However, connections between the two areas are rarely present in policy or practice.

What possibilities are we missing?Answering this question is both overdue and urgent. As a country, we are making progress in advancing climate solutions. Yet too often the needs of young children (0-8 years)-who have the most to lose-receive little attention.

What a great start! I had to read more. And the link encourages and facilitates this. Simple scrolling takes the reader through the entire narrative. It begins by discussing those linkages. It then focuses serially on what the federal government, state and local governments, early year (care) providers, the business community, philanthropy, and researchers (at the nexus between early years and climate change) can do. A wonderful flow, concrete illustrations, and compelling arguments inspire in-and-of their own, but also motivate reading of the full report.

The report is chock-a-block full of recommendations for the sectors. These are both broad and general, yet clear with respect to direction and goal. All merit thought. With respect to the private sector, for example, the report notes:

The business community plays an important supporting role in addressing the impacts of climate change on young children and families. Employers should provide material assistance and flexibility to employees with children. They should step fully into their role as members of the broader community

Three recommendations follow:

Create climate-aware policies and programs for employees with young children.

Foster partnerships between businesses and early years facilities to fund essential upgrades.

Partner with local communities to build climate-resilient green space and community infrastructure.

The full report also provides a bit more background on its provenance: The Early Years Climate Action Task Force is a group of early years leaders, climate leaders, researchers, medical professionals, parents, philanthropists, and others who came together to learn about the intersection of early childhood and climate change.

We learn that the task Force was co-convened by three groups:

Capita, an independent, nonpartisan think tank with a global focus. Its purpose is to build a future in which all children and families flourish.

This Is Planet Ed, an initiative of the Aspen Institute Energy & Environment Program that intends to unlock the power of education as a force for climate action, climate solutions, and environmental justice to empower the rising generation to lead a sustainable, resilient, and equitable future. This Is Planet Ed works across early years, K-12, higher education, and children’s media to build our societal capacity to advance climate solutions.

The Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world.

Please check it out! I can make the following promise, especially to my tribe, comprising meteorologists and Earth scientists of related stripe (and even many of my social-science colleagues working in climate-change and weather risk-comm and related fields). Clicking and scrolling through this material will provide a refreshing, positive take that’ll motivate you in your current efforts and open your eyes to additional possibilities for place-based collaborations.

A concluding thought. This early-child generation needs nurturing now, but soon will be spending its entire adulthood closing out the climate-change work today’s grownups have merely started. Since we’re counting on these youngsters, let’s not only protect them but also equip them. That last piece could and should be fleshed out a bit.

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The real world – no place for wishful thinking. Part 1. Hazards. An (extended) postscript.

(For starters, I hope that all of you who read the previous LOTRW post on hazards will revisit that post and read John Plodinec’s thoughtful comments).

Here are just a few examples of articles published this past week that shed additional light on what’s involved in extending the NTSB-approach from commercial aviation to natural disasters.

Two come from the New York Times.  The first is entitled Years of Graft Doomed 2 Dams in Libya, Leaving Thousands in Muddy Graves. The article merits a careful read from start to finish. An excerpt:

For years, the two aging dams loomed in the mountains above the Libyan city of Derna, riddled with cracks and fissures, threatening the thousands of people living in the valley below.

A Turkish company, Arsel Construction, was eventually hired by the Libyan government to upgrade the dams and build a new one. The work, Arsel said on its website at the time, was completed in 2012.

By then, the government had paid millions of dollars to the Turkish contractor for preliminary work, according to a government assessment dated 2011. But Arsel left Libya in the turmoil of the 2011 popular revolt against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the country’s longtime dictator. Neither dam was ever repaired, the assessment said, and no third dam ever materialized.

When a lethal storm rolled up the Mediterranean Sea toward Derna two weeks ago, dumping far more rain than usual on the Green Mountains above the city, the dams burst. An avalanche of water boomed down into the valley below, driving much of Derna out to sea and killing at least 4,000 people. More than 8,000 others are still missing.

Why the dams went unfixed despite repeated warnings is key to understanding the muddy disaster that wrecked a storied city and traumatized a country. It also goes to the heart of the dysfunction and corruption that have consumed Libya ever since rebels overthrew Colonel el-Qaddafi.

This tale is not unique to Libya. Shoddy construction has also been blamed for much of the 43,000 lives lost in the recent Turkish earthquake. Nor is the problem confined to dams or to Africa and the Middle East; no nation is immune. Here at home recall the role of electrical power lines in triggering the 2018 Camp Fire resulting in the destruction of Paradise CA. Some have suggested a similar contributor to the more recent Lahaina fire. Recall that shoddy construction is in some sense a root problem, but it is also a symptom – of the high cost of building-in and maintaining resilience, and the long time scales that may be involved before a recurrence of a rare hazard allows a society to reap the return on its investment. As a result, shoddy construction isn’t always a matter of simple greed, but the result of a complex interplay of financial systems, equity, education, and more.

The second NYT article is a guest essay by Sarah Stodola entitled If Hurricane Rebuilding Is Only Affordable for the Wealthy, This Is the Florida You Get. She says this: When Hurricane Ian, the costliest storm in Florida’s history, made landfall nearly a year ago, a storm surge as high as 15 feet left the town of Fort Myers Beach nearly submerged for several hours.

Today, a drive across the island reveals countless properties recently cleared of debris selling for millions and even tens of millions of dollars. The rapid redevelopment of coastal communities like Fort Myers Beach in the face of sea level rise and more intense storms and hurricanes mirrors a phenomenon sweeping beachfronts around the world: upscaling, the practice of replacing old or more modest homes, condos and hotels with more expensive versions, largely thanks to the high cost of building up to new storm resistant codes, and the potentially uninsured risks associated with doing so.

Despite their intent to make coastal communities safer and more resilient, Florida’s building codes can actually complicate resilience efforts in the long term. Buildings constructed with concrete and other stiff materials represent a doubling down on Gulf Coast living as climate change makes Atlantic hurricanes more powerful, and more likely to hit that very coast. And taxpayers, along with the federal, state and local governments, must foot the bill to maintain structures on eroding beaches and flood-prone coasts.

And yet we could be making other plans for these communities. There are policies that would encourage people to move away from the coast, as well as new possibilities for movable and flexible structures.

Ms. Sodola surfaces issues and trends prevalent along the entirety of the US hurricane-prone coast. Engineering fixes are so expensive as to favor massive complexes that provide high economic returns. (It would be as if improving commercial aviation safety could be accomplished only by constructing bigger planes.)

A third article comes from USA Today, entitled Deadly disasters are ravaging school communities in growing numbers. Is there hope ahead? This excerpt frames the problem:

An increase of natural disasters from wildfires to floods to hurricanes to tornadoes – exacerbated by climate change – have ravaged America’s schools since students returned to in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic. And manmade disasters from lead in drinking water to asbestos in school buildings are playing a role.

This school year alone, devastating wildfires exacerbated by winds from Hurricane Dora ravaged one school and damaged three others in Maui. And winds from category three Hurricane Idalia destroyed the roof of an elementary school in Hoboken, Georgia. Kids attending schools without air conditioning were sent home at the beginning of the school year in Puerto Rico, Philadelphia and in other areas of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast because of extreme heat.

Last school year, torrential rains and damaging winds from Hurricane Fiona ravaged schools in Puerto Rico, schools closed in pockets of California after a bomb cyclone and Pacific storms caused flooding. A tornado in Whiteland, Indiana, dismantled internet connection for families across the region. Lead in drinking water Jackson schools closed campuses in the past few years more times than one teacher could recall in an interview with USA TODAY.

And old buildings that were found to be lined with asbestos led to closures of at least six campuses across Philadelphia – sending thousands of kids to cram into other occupied schools.

The focus is on schools, but study of disasters quickly reveals that building community-level resilience to hazards, unlike the aircraft case, is much more than a matter of changing a single component’s defective design or manufacture, or training pilots or air traffic controllers to deal with a novel scenario. The problems facing schools are mirrored in the vulnerabilities of hospitals, or electrical or financial infrastructure, or maintaining continuity of food and water delivery, etc. As a rule, disasters reveal vulnerabilities in each of these that the recovering communities must address simultaneously.

The human cost of failing to get this right is staggering. Consider this article from the Washington Post: What one motel tells us about survival in post-disaster America. To spend even the few minutes required to read this article is to experience anguish, sadness, survivor’s guilt – every known negative emotion. Actually living a full year, one minute at a time, under these circumstances has to be soul-crushing, even to the bravest and staunchest. Multiply by the number of El Rancho Motel residents; multiply that by the number of motels similarly filled with Ian survivors alone. Consider that this past year might not even be the halfway point for many if not most of them. Reflect that Lahaina survivors are even now only experiencing the earliest stages of this nightmare. Recognize that a full catalog of people who’ve never recovered normal lives following other US disasters of the past two decades would number in the thousands. Realize that virtually all these survivors are living in close daily contact with and in obvious contrast to others who were largely unaffected by the respective disasters – people who are complacent/oblivious to the survivors’ diminished circumstances and prospects. Recall further that most of the people who find themselves in these dire straits did not choose to live this way; they were constrained in their options by poverty, and their pre-existing poverty has been exacerbated by the hazard. It’s heartbreaking. And, at scale, it’s socially destabilizing.

The reality is that hundreds of millions of people live in hazardous areas – floodplain, seismically active areas, etc., where future risk is hardwired in – disaster is only a matter of time. Disaster prevention options available in the commercial aviation analog (e.g., simply grounding unsafe aircraft until modifications are made) are not available. Governments can’t demand, for example, that all residing in hazardous areas evacuate forthwith. Instead, we humans have to be more cautious and strategic about where we settle in the first place.  This morning’s NYT story, Flood Threats Are Rising. Here’s Where People Are Moving Into Harm’s Way, makes clear that quite the opposite is happening worldwide. As difficult as it is, governments and peoples should implement policies (blending incentives and proscriptive regulations governing land use, building codes, and infrastructure performance) This is the last point at which it is inexpensive and possible to build resilience to hazards and forestall future tragedy.

No place on a planet doing much of its business through extreme events can be entirely safe. But we can and should do better in where and how we choose to live and work.

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The real world – no place for wishful thinking. Part 1. Hazards

This week’s print edition of The Economist includes an article entitled Uninsurable America. The subtitle reads, succinctly: Insurance is supposed to signal risk. Policymakers should let it. The article merits study in its entirety, but here are a few key excerpts:

For decades Americans have been moving to beautiful places that are vulnerable to extreme weather. Florida, once a swampy frontier, is now America’s third-most populous state. It is also the state most often hit by hurricanes. By 2015, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts boasted more than $13trn of real estate. Look West and the story is similar. Homes are proliferating in the wildland-urban interface, where nature and development anxiously coexist and wildfire season seems never to end

Those who enjoy the benefits of living in high-risk areas (such as a majestic ocean view) should shoulder the costs. However, both federal and state governments ensure that they do not, by subsidising or suppressing property insurance rates in such places. This has encouraged reckless building

Private insurers burned by huge payouts after disasters are abandoning risky markets such as Florida and California. Homeowners are turning to state-backed insurers of last resort, which offer less coverage for a higher price. When these plans cannot cover claims, taxpayers are often left with the bill.

The article concludes with this ominous forecast:

Eventually, … some Americans will need to move to keep safe from rising seas, roaring floods and fast-encroaching flames. … make no mistake: the longer politicians subsidise building in dangerous places, the worse the pain will be, and the bigger the final bill

The underlying reality here? Insurance per se merely redistributes risk; it doesn’t reduce it. Private insurers aren’t asking high premiums because of greed; they’re asking high premiums because they’ve calculated the true risk. State and federal governments can’t insure at lower rates because they’re more efficient. Instead, they’re merely gambling that their bad bets won’t be exposed any time soon. They’re encouraging their state residents, and others contemplating a move in, to live in a state of denial.

As individuals and as a nation, we can and should face this challenge more dutifully. And the United States can do better. We’ve proved it. Commercial aviation provides a singular success story. In the 1960’s, commercial aviation was already the safest way to travel; only one or two thousand people were dying in accidents each year. But those in the sector realized that aviation was about to take off; that in a few decades, air travel would quadruple, and if airline safety didn’t improve, that growth would imply a fatal commercial accident about once a week. Statistical safety or no, the optics would not look good to the traveling public. Government and the private sector joined forces to establish a National Transportation Safety Board to investigate accidents, discover causes, identify and implement fixes – basically instilling a culture of “this must never happen again.” Half a century later, even in the face of that fourfold travel increase, in most years U.S. carriers experience zero fatalities.  

In the same way, if property insurers can characterize wind, flood, fire, and other risks to individual homes, to communities, and to business sectors, that same information can and should be used to drive the search for prevention strategies – more intelligent land-use, more effective building codes, and more realistic public-policy governance and regulation. Surely, driving down risk, no matter how slowly, offers a much healthier, happier way to spend the next half-century than merely watching in dismay as suffering and losses mount.

When it comes to natural hazards, the emphasis should expand from a focus on saving lives per se. More accurate, timely hazards warnings are already increasingly effective in triggering evacuation and sheltering. But not enough is being done to ensure that those saved lives are worth living. The homelessness and joblessness resulting from many hazards devastates communities and ruins individual and family lives for decades, not just months or years. More than ten years after Katrina (2005), some survivors still experience post-traumatic stress. The 2020 Census shows the New Orleans population still down 100,000 from the 484,000 people who lived there in 2000. One 2023 report found many New Orleans homeowners still trying to put their finances back together following the disaster. Chronic health impacts can persist for decades. Hurricanes Hilary (west coast) and Idalia (east coast) took the headline attention off the Lahaina (Hawaii) fires, but survivors of all three of these events will still be picking up the pieces years from now, even as yet other disasters pile on, whittling away at the available relief funding and attention. More and more Americans will experience nightmarish loss. News- and social media will pour salt on those wounds, providing daily reminders of the contrast between the diminished circumstances and prospects for disaster survivors, versus those of the larger, thus-far unaffected American public.

Politicians get blamed for downplaying and subsidizing risk, and (for the associated inequities that favor the already well-to-do, at the expense of the poorest). Shame on them – maybe. But they’re operating in a democracy, and delivering only what the voting public demands and rewards. Politicians see that we don’t like to face facts and not just those associated with hazard risk. So, some politicians allow campaign rhetoric to degenerate to some form of looking us in the eye and saying “You’re living in a fantasy world… and I can keep the fantasy going four years longer than my opponent.” Any shame is therefore on us. We need to seek something more responsible from ourselves. Only then will our would-be leaders take notice and follow suit.

Living on the real world demands nothing less.

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A closing thought. Meteorologists have a special opportunity to foster the needed social change. During the extended periods of calm that separate intermittent hazards and our life-saving warnings, we can be a voice for building societal resilience through land-use, building codes, and critical infrastructure protection – much as our dentists encourage us to floss and brush our teeth between visits.

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