Ed Lorenz chats up three caterpillars.

(Exercising a smidgen of creative license) In 1961, Ed Lorenz went for a brief walk on the MIT campus while waiting for the computer to run a recalculation. He happened to spot three caterpillars making their way across the quad. He stooped over for a closer look, wondering where they were headed, curious about what such small, insignificant creatures might be thinking. Suddenly:

“Hey, Big Guy, who ya staring at?”

Whoa! Straight out of Horton Hears a Who! Could it be my imagination, or is one of the caterpillars looking up at me? Now they all are!

Lorenz took a chance. “Hi, little fellas. What’s happening?”

Again, the inner voice. “Well, we’re not exactly sure. You’ve heard of The Big Reset?”

Lorenz. “The Big Reset? What’s that?”

Caterpillar 1. “All caterpillars talk about it. A lot are atheistic – they just scoff/don’t believe. But there’s the word afoot that all we caterpillars, whatever our journey, are headed for a period of time of inactivity and reformation… and after that, we’re reborn! Life becomes something more than moseying through vegetation and munching on the leaves – The Big Reset. After that, we’re something different.”

Lorenz. “Different? How so?”

Caterpillar 1. “”Opinions vary. Most caterpillars figure after that we’re incrementally bigger and better – but I have a larger vision. After The Big Reset, I won’t just be ten percent bigger and slightly more mobile – I’ll be twice as big – and truly zip around, blaze a bigger trail through the brush.”

Lorenz. “What about your buddies?”

Caterpillar 1. “Tsk! They’ve got some crazy ideas. I’ll let ’em speak for themselves.”

Caterpillar 2 (snapping out of a reverie). “Yeah, The Big Reset? I’m going to use the occasion to reinvent myself. I won’t wind up like my timid buddy here, just being more of the same. I’m gettin’ out of this grass. I’ll be able to fly! I’m going to fly hundreds of miles! I’m gonna to see the world!”

Lorenz (turning to the last of the trio) “and how about you?”

Caterpillar 3 (turning toward Caterpillar 2). “Like him. I’ll be able to fly. But for me, it won’t stop there. I’m gonna  make a difference, have an actual impact! I’ll flap my wings one way, and set in motion a tornado or a hurricane someplace far away – a place I’ve never even been! And I’ll flap my wings another time and in another way, and cut off a hurricane that might have developed in my absence. I’m not just gonna see the world. I’m gonna change the world! People will know I was here – that my life mattered.”

Lorenz. “I was tracking with your friends, but wow! I did not see that coming. A whole new perspective, definitely food for thought. Great talking to you guys, but I have to get back to the lab, see how that recalculation turned out.”

He rises to leave; if you’ve read this far, you probably know the rest of the story, but ICYMI, you can learn what happened next here.

Why this vignette in LOTRW?

Well, it happens that the American Meteorological Society is experiencing its own version of The Big Reset; collectively thinking through the history of its first 100 years and looking toward the future. Early in 2019, as part of this process, the AMS developed/refreshed its Strategic Goals. These made minimal splash at the time. However, all of us should give them a bit more study  – whether we are AMS members, or members of the larger Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise, or members of the larger global society.

Each of us has looked at these goals, or will look at and interpret them, through a different individual lens. Some may look and see only incremental change (and react differently, ranging from disappointment [wish they’d been more electrifying] or take false comfort [whew! Had feared they’d be disruptive/lie outside my comfort zone]. Others may see something more transformative. And hopefully, there’ll be a large group that see them calling us to existential future impact – pivotal to the 21st-century aspirations of eight billion people for ample food, energy, and water resources; resilience to hazards, and protection of vital ecosystem services.

My plan is to use future posts to unpack the individual AMS Strategic Goals from these three distinct perspectives. But don’t wait for me, or leave it to my limited, individual perception. Start (or continue) to sharpen your own thinking along these lines now. Chat with your friends. Don’t just prepare to be part of a world that’s substantially different. Position yourself to make an impact, to shape those differences.  

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Surviving the Plastocene.

Megatherium – the giant sloth – failed to survive the Pleistocene. Can we do a better job navigating the Plastocene?

The bar might seem low – but the stakes are high, and, fact is, only time will tell.

Some of us can remember a time when one of the arguments for weaning ourselves from fossil fuels was the precious hydrocarbons involved might be more needed and put to better use in the manufacture of plastics.

Today, however, those plastics have joined fossil-fuel use at center stage of the environmental discussion. A quick summary of where this stands:

Oceans. Recent plastics headlines have focused on the oceans. Read some of the media coverage, happen across reference to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch or one of the other major ocean gyres that trap such waste, and see some of the images that have been attached to that coverage, and you might be forgiven for getting the impression that a giant, visible mass of plastic debris is out there in the Pacific, a kind of Bayway-by-the-sea. The reality is less visibly dramatic, but cause nevertheless for concern. NOAA’s National Ocean Service provides this primer material:

While it’s tough to say exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, scientists think about 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. That’s the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers[1].

These plastics come in many different forms. Just think about all the plastic items you use daily: the toothbrush you grab first thing in the morning, the container your lunch comes in, or the bottle you drink water from after your workout.

All these things get used and, eventually, thrown out. Many plastic products are single-use items that are designed to be thrown out, like water bottles or take out containers. These are used and discarded quickly. If this waste isn’t properly disposed of or managed, it can end up in the ocean.

Unlike some other kinds of waste, plastic doesn’t decompose. That means plastic can stick around indefinitely, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Some plastics float once they enter the ocean, though not all do. As the plastic is tossed around, much of it breaks into tiny pieces, called microplastics.

The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of microplastics are the small beads found in some soaps and other personal care products. But microplastics also include bits of what were once larger items.

Microfibers, shed from synthetic clothing or fishing nets, are another problematic form of microplastic. These fibers, beads, and microplastic fragments can all absorb harmful pollutants like pesticides, dyes, and flame retardants, only to later release them in the ocean.

Airborne plastic. Researchers sampling the Pyrenees in southwestern France, 100 km from any nearby city, captured particles falling in dust, rain, and snow in numbers averaging some 300-400/day/m2, leading them to estimate that if the figure were representative, perhaps 2000 tons of such airborne plastic particulates might blanket France every year.

Plastic in humans. These figures hint that humans may be ingesting quite a bit of plastic; and some evidence is beginning to emerge showing that is so: new estimates put this in the range of some 40,000-50,000 microparticles per person per year. But to date, only a fraction of the foods we eat have been investigated. Scientists point a finger at seafood as a possible pathway; but environmental dust may be a comparable source for many of us. And that’s before we look into the plastic wrap protecting so much of today’s food in stores. So the actual figure might be substantially larger.

How you take your water also makes a difference. Tap water? Add another 4,000 plastic microparticles/year. Bottled water? Add another 90,000.

Thresholds for detectable effects on human health, and the nature of those effects, remain to be investigated.

The plastocene as a thing. Years ago geologists identified a K-T meteor impact some 65MY before present as likely responsible for a massive extinction of the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. That inference was based in part on discovery of a thin layer rich in iridium (an element common in asteroids, but rare in the Earth’s crust) found worldwide in sedimentary rocks of the period. In a similar way today, geologists have found layers of plastic waste marking flooding events, and have suggested such layers may oneday be evident in sedimentary records of the future. They’ve coined the term Plastocene.

There’s little joy in this (still fragmentary, but developing) picture. It seems unlikely that a touch of microplastics in our diet will be found to be the missing micro-nutrient that will now start to unlock massive, previously unrealized human potential.

Instead, our pervasive and growing dependence on plastics, the rapid emergence of the problem, prior experience with other environmental pollutants – the whole of our human experience – should encourage caution.

The problem is in these respects reminiscent of the CO2 issue.

Which brings us back to our Pleistocene icon, the Megatherium. Weighing in at 9000 pounds and some 20 feet long, it was hardly nimble, but apparently was a rousing ecological success for a few million years, presumably because it didn’t have to fear predation. Ultimately, however, it was done in, possibly hunted to extinction by early humans, during the Pleistocene.

Megatherium probably didn’t see extinction coming.

21st-century humankind, of course, is increasingly a Mega-creature of sorts: mega- in our impacts, even to the point of residing in one or another Megalopolis. When it comes to contemplating our circumstance, we are individually and in aggregate certainly far more aware than Megatherium. However, that situational awareness aside, we have yet to prove that when it comes to corrective action we are any less ponderous, or, for that matter, any less, well – slothful than this critter. (Perhaps we’re paralyzed not by lethargy so much as our disputatious nature, but the end result is the same.)

Cleanup doesn’t seem to be a useful option. We need a multi-media monitoring and study – coordinated development of understanding of plastic and its pathways and fates – from production to use to dispersal and fragmentation – spanning the meteorological, oceanographic, and public-health communities. In parallel, we need a vigorous, soundly based, internationally-coordinated action-oriented plan for reducing plastic use at its source, and capturing plastic materials at the end of their useful lives.

Sound familiar? Yes. Sound particularly tractable? Some think so; in fact, see it as a distraction from the main CO2 challenge. But others are less sanguine, particularly when it comes to developing the needed sense of common purpose.

[1] (footnote added). To size the problem, this is about 3% of global annual production/consumption.

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Teaching global warming? Here’s help.

“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.” ― Lee Iacocca

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.” ― Jacques Barzun

Lee Iacocca, the former chair of Chrysler who famously saved the company from bankruptcy, and who passed away just days ago, had it right: teachers – those who teach not merely facts but critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning and for the truth – are pivotally important members of society. And though the rest of us may not formally identify ourselves with this group, we can’t escape that existential responsibility. We are constantly teaching our kids, our parents (!), our family and friends, not just by word but by action and example. In equal measure, we’re continually learning from others. Every minute of every day, in every conversation, in every human encounter, school is in session.

It’s easy for most of us to lose sight of this (hence the Barzun quote) – but teachers themselves retain that regard – and often feel weighed down by the responsibility.

All of which brings us to the teaching of climate science – and to a sliver of that subject especially timely and relevant for today’s young people: global warming.

As reported in Monday morning’s Washington Post, global warming isn’t exactly the most comfortable  educational terrain for teachers. An (extended) excerpt:

Schools across the United States are wrestling with how to incorporate the study of climate change into the classroom as its proximity and perils grow ever more apparent. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 86 percent of teachers and more than 80 percent of parents say the subject should be taught in school. But survey results in 2016 showed that while three-quarters of science teachers said they included lessons about climate change, they devoted little time to it and faced an array of obstacles.

The science behind climate change is complicated and evolving, and most teachers aren’t prepared to teach it well. Many textbooks don’t touch the topic, according to science educators.

“Climate and earth sciences more generally have been historically neglected in American science education,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which tracks anti-science education legislation and develops curriculums like the one Lau was teaching. “Lots of teachers feel they don’t have the content knowledge or pedagogical know-how to teach climate change effectively.”

Then there are the politics…

The article goes on to mention teachers are turning to online materials for help.

Are you among that number? Chances are you’re looking for material that is accessible and authoritative. You want material that you can not just read, but fully digest – material that is so clear and compelling that you can own it. That’s the level of comprehension you need if you’re too pass along enthusiasm and insight for the topic to your students. You want material that distinguishes clearly between (1) climate science and (2) the societal implications and options for response, which are inherently more sensitive, even contentious.

In that case you might give this material developed by the American Meteorological Society’s Education Program a look: DataStreme Earth’s Climate System[1].

From the website (there’s more, much more, but this gets you started, hints at the flavor):

DataStreme Earth’s Climate System is a 13-week course offered twice a year to selected participants nationwide. Directed toward middle-school teachers, but open to all K–12 teachers, you will…

  • Investigate the relationships between global climate, the Earth’s atmosphere, and the world’s ocean
  • Discover causes of both natural and anthropogenic climate change
  • Utilize real-time data from NOAA, NASA, and other reputable sources
  • Investigate data and results from the most recent National Climate Assessment
  • Learn about climate models, climate variability, and predicting and adapting to the future

Check out the public, real-time data portal for DataStreme Earth’s Climate System.

Funded by the American Meteorological Society, the DataStreme Earth’s Climate System course has a strong leadership component where participants become a climate science leader and a part of a national community facilitated by the American Meteorological Society.

These resources haven’t been simply hastily thrown together. Instead they’ve been painstakingly crafted by experts in the field and honed by experience and use with teachers nationwide for years. DataStreme is constantly being refreshed. And the climate module isn’t a stand-alone, but part of a broader ecosystem of similar resources including DataStreme Atmosphere and DataStreme Oceans.

Materials you can build on, to bring subject matter that counts to students who will change the world.

[1] Full disclosure: I work at the AMS DC Office, right down the hall from the dedicated folks who produce these and related educational resources. Proud to say it.

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Science and national interest.

“Be as shrewd as snakes, and as innocent as doves.” – Jesus (Matthew 10:16, NIV)

“In capturing the rattler, to be fair, [Pecos Bill] gave it the first three bites.” – part of the legend of Pecos Bill

Across the United States, scientists, policymakers, academic- and business leaders are scratching their heads, puzzling over how best to maintain America’s place in the world of discovery, invention, and things new – especially as the stakes for success rise and people – and nations – don’t always play fair. Oddly enough, the way forward might lie in blending the attitudes of history’s Jesus and the legendary Pecos Bill toward threats.

Here’s why – starting with the backstory.

As recently as a few years ago, for the United States to hold its commanding lead in innovation seemed straightforward. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. primacy was unmatched, not just in terms of military might, economic power, or political influence, but in virtually every sector of scientific and engineering effort. This was particularly true in the development of information technology and its application for both societal benefit and individual gain. The United States increasingly outsourced actual manufacture of much of the requisite hardware abroad, but the new ideas, the designs, the business models were born here. A powerful, well-funded and extensive ecosystem of research universities fueled and sustained this preeminence.

We could see a few problems – seemingly small clouds on an apparently far-off horizon.

The largest of these? Our lagging K-12 public education, particularly as evidenced by student scores on standardized tests. According to the Programme for international Student Assessment (PISA), our 15-year-olds rank only 38th worldwide in math and 24th in science. What’s more, many American youth seemed more interested in gaming and the development of new business models for IT firms than mastering the underlying science and technologies.

Back then, that raised minimal concern. Foreign talent was pouring in – more than enough to fill in any gap. Worldwide, young people woke up each day wishing they’d been born in America. Some of the brainiest (and their parents) found ways and means to get here. Once within in our borders, they entered and excelled in our top universities. Once graduated, they stayed – to teach and do research of their own, to incubate new firms or make existing enterprises better. They put down roots – not just economically, but by establishing families, earning citizenship.

Other immigrants – perhaps not so financially favored or educationally equipped in their countries of origin, sometimes persecuted because they stood out, politically or ethnically, or both, but hungering for freedom and opportunity, and possessing the courage, energy, and strength of character needed to overcome the gravitational pull of their homelands – also made their way here. They plugged in where they could, shouldering menial, temporary, and seasonal work no one else would take on. They learned English and mastered job skills in whatever way they could and thus improved their circumstances. Through both nature and nurture they passed this drive on to their children. As a result, immigration had been continually infusing fresh blood and intellect, over the 243-year lifetime of the United States. America enjoyed not only a surplus of talent, but also a youthful demographic, especially compared to rapidly aging societies across Europe and in China.

That was then. Today the picture is different. The United States today looks to be a less-welcoming place, in both reality and reputation. Our borders have become and have been revealed as a Kafka-esque zone. Life inside those borders, though still the envy of most people worldwide, has never been perfect. Today every shortcoming and fault are repeatedly exposed and disseminated through social and news media (here’s an example). The advantaged of other countries increasingly decide to seek their educations and fortunes elsewhere. The world’s top universities are competing for students globally, in many cases setting up shop in the wealthier bits of the Middle East, and in big markets like India and China. Many students still come to the United States and stay, but more and more are seeing opportunities elsewhere, and many of those who come here for an education see alluring employment prospects back home – in the big, emerging markets of China, India, southeast Asia and Africa. They’re returning to their roots.

And they’re carrying their nascent innovative ideas back with them – often to countries and circumstances whose respect for and rules governing intellectual property are different from our own. This is the challenge facing the U.S. scientific, academic, political, and business establishment today. We amount to only 4% of the world’s population and therefore the world’s store of brainpower. We may have appeared uniquely desirable in terms of opportunity in the past, but we see a future where this uniqueness, and our leadership will likely be eroded.

One natural tendency in the face of this change is to circle the wagons – to tighten physical borders; to be more protective of intellectual property, especially around non-citizens; and to introduce more disincentives for U.S. trade, investment and outsourcing abroad. We come by this approach honestly. It’s well known about the human species that we are quickest to see the flaws in others that we ourselves possess. Here Americans have form. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, the United States benefited greatly by imitation (extending to actual theft?) of British industrial technology (we all remember this being recounted with some pride in our schoolroom U.S. history classes, but here’s a refresher). However, both social science and history tell us that while such a protectionist approach may buy time, it fails over the long haul. Ideas diffuse and spread every bit as inexorably as particles diffuse and waves propagate across physical media.

Wisdom demands we pay attention to legal protections. To do otherwise is to be naïve. But the fact is, danger lies in preferentially channeling the cleverest people in our population into the legal arts, rather than incentivizing creativity, ingenuity, and deep insight in everything we do more broadly. We risk lapsing into paranoia – getting more and more secretive and protective about less and less. Isolationism is a bankrupt strategy.

Instead – if we’re determined to stay on top – we need to go in the opposite direction. We should never lose sight of the reality that any swarm of collaborators contains a few more interested in stealing ideas than contributing in a positive way to advance the whole. But we should remain aware that in the process of generating new ideas and widely sharing them, we don’t ourselves run dry; rather we grow even more creative, gain even richer insights, attract a widening group of ever-brighter, more stimulating and energizing partners, and thus build greater capacity to innovate in the next round. It’s a virtuous spiral. By contrast, free riders and IP hacks are be forever consigned to playing catch-up – never amounting to better than second-best. Grasping that blends the wisdom and innocence Jesus characterized as being shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Grasping that, Pecos Bill didn’t fear the rattlesnake, didn’t think it necessary to contain him, but instead preferred to beat him at his own game.

Easy to comprehend all this from the sidelines. Also easy for the United States to maintain confidence and be magnanimous while enjoying a huge technological lead. What’s triggered the current case of jitters is growing awareness that (1) artificial intelligence promises to be existentially disruptive in the future scheme of things; and (2) China is catching up fast – in fact, just might be ahead – in terms of investment, and in terms of a huge-billion-plus population and little in the way of privacy concerns blocking the mining of their associated data to develop  and apply machine learning algorithms (take your pick of this news coverage to learn more).

Going forward, we can (and will) throw up roadblocks to competition here – whether from China or some other direction. But we might better return and refocus on the basics that got us here in the first place: (1) recommitting to the U.S. as a welcoming destination for anyone and everyone seeking freedom, equality, opportunity, a better life; (2) investing in our kids’ education, especially their critical thinking skills; and (3) honoring and rewarding innovation and creativity.

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July 4, then and now.

“…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  – concluding words of the Declaration of Independence

Here’s a real-world thought: often our national celebrations of today commemorate events or moments that were not at the time occasions for joy. Instead they mark some historic shouldering of grave responsibility and commitment at great personal cost and corporate peril. Labor Day reminds us that work in whatever form has never been easy and should always be honored. Veterans Day and Memorial Day prompt us to remember, and be grateful for, lives of service – and acts of sacrifice – by men and women in the military. Martin Luther King Day memorializes not just the man but the broader struggle to overcome racism and prejudice of every form.  

The same is true of July 4th.

As we observe Independence Day tomorrow, we should certainly enjoy and take the fullest measure of its contemporary delights – the family and friends, the food, the ball game, the fireworks, and more. I’m looking forward to every minute of all that! Aren’t you? But perhaps for us the joy could begin with something deeper:

  • calling to mind that in 1776 the mood was somber in the colonies. It was no small step to revolt against the mightiest power of the world at that time.  
  • tempered by a sense of how much there remains to do, and marked by personal recommitment to making the United States and the world a better place.

It’s sobering to note (as Richardson Atkinson has done in the Washington Post) the that England of that period was basking in glory. Colonial successes not just in America but across the world. Military victories over the French and Spanish in the Seven Years’ War. Mastery of sea power and projection of strength to the farthest reaches of the Americas and the Philippines. There was economic prosperity to match; industrial and agrarian revolutions were underway. England felt comfortable dictating terms of trade to all and sundry, including the colonies, taxing as they saw fit. King George III had every reason to feel good; triumphalism reigned. A little grumbling in one of the colonies across the Atlantic? Nothing to worry about. As Atkinson points out, all that bears disturbing similarity to the America of today.

The cure for such hubris begins with an unflinching inventory of the problems we face. Public health. Jobs. Education. Cyber threats, including foreign interference in our elections and more. Some are more fundamental in nature, for example, climate change and immigration.

These latter two, and others, require that we act individually, but also institutionally; that we act domestically, but also internationally. They require attention that probes beneath the symptoms – in the case of climate change, the rise in global temperatures and sea levels, the die-off of plant and animal species; in the case of immigration, the massive rise in refugee populations, the squalor and hopelessness of their circumstances at national borders. Instead they demand we start with the root causes: complacency about the fate of others, reluctance to shoulder responsibility, timidity when it comes to embracing the idea that we’re all in it together, putting our lives, our prosperity, our integrity on the line. Given our addiction to our personal comfort and well-being, we might, like those in Alcoholics Anonymous, have to appeal to a Power greater than ourselves.

Sound familiar? That brings us to the truest, deepest spirit of July 4th, namely, reaffirming, declaring to each other, and to ourselves, our continuing commitment to meeting these 21st-century challenges, maybe in the following way “…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  

ICYMI. Here are two LOTRW Independence-Day thoughts from prior years:

2011. In(ter)dependence Day

2014. Let freedom ring!

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Followed by… and following?

My morning rhythm includes joining 800,000 others (give or take) in a DC-area-wide Metro commute. During rush hours, this includes navigating crowded platforms to-or-from street level.

The key to success involves following.

The path from train exit door to any given escalator and street level (or the reverse) is always filled with people headed in the same direction, adjacent to comparable numbers headed in the opposite way. Following in the slipstream of those in front, approximately matching speed and direction, results in a smooth transit. To step outside those invisible and undulating lanes is to invite abrupt fits and starts, confrontations, and in the worst cases, jostling those you find rushing right at you.

Blazing your own trail is not necessarily your best idea.

Even in DC, a city riven by partisan, polarized politics, violent disagreement on every momentous issue – health care; tariffs, trade, and jobs; immigration; social equity; and more – each and every day begins with this massive, nearly perfect display of unity and collaboration. Even at street level, a mix of cars, trucks, pedestrians – and now, scooters – the same cooperative spirit prevails.

And it’s all founded on a willingness to follow.

Would that we could carry a greater element of that into the workplace itself! These days, it seems that following isn’t held in high regard. Take politics. Right now, over twenty candidates are vying in one party to carry the banner into next year’s presidential election. It’s more attractive to run oneself than pile on to support a colleague’s campaign. In the Congress, thousands of competing bills are introduced each year, only to neutralize each other. The merest handful develop any sort of following, let alone pass into law. Or take social media. Each day the blogging and the tweets dish out dirt, as an array of critics remind us that there’s no individual or group or cause on the planet worth our following and support.  And the detractors don’t just focus on a single shortcoming for any individual or institution. They’re generally able to come up with several.

This scenario is a fractal. It’s not confined to the top. In many offices across the city – whether public sector or private sector or NGO – teamwork, partnership and collaboration are always constrained. They’re compromised (either a little or a lot) by those who see this or that larger purpose incongruent with some self-interest. Bottom line? For every putative leader, there are dozens of others thinking: given that leader’s many flaws, I’d make an equally good or better trailblazer myself. Why follow him/her?

Which brings me to a second part to my morning rhythm: a Starbucks coffee and a few minutes with a current edition of The Economist. By chance (?), this morning’s reading led me to Bagehot, a regular feature of the magazine. The focus was on Britain’s followership problem.

Hmm. Sometimes it’s easier to consider a sensitive but important issue when seen through a remote lens. So here are a couple of snippets:

[in a 1997 conversation on leadership] came this “I don’t know why people are so fixated on the subject of leadership,”  [Peter Drucker] said… “What we really need to think about is followership.”

It is worth remembering Drucker’s words whenever people talk about Britain’s crisis of leadership. There is no doubt that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are singularly unimpressive figures… Regardless of their abilities, political leaders have to perform before an increasingly hostile audience which routinely questions their motives and trashes their achievements. Followers are a tougher crowd than they used to be…

Walter Bagehot argued that, in order to survive, a political regime needed to gain authority from the citizenry, and then use that authority to get the work of government done. Since Bagehot’s time, British politicians have employed three mechanisms to gain that authority. The first is deference, when voters support leaders they consider their social superiors. The second is class-loyalty, under which people vote for those who represent folk like themselves. The third is competence, when people vote for a candidate the same way they might hire a plumber—because they can fix a problem.

On this side of the pond, you and I would likely have little appetite for deference or class loyalty, in and of themselves[1].   But setting that aside, the rest sounds similar.

This is cause for concern. We have great challenges facing us as a people: sustainability in the case of stressed resources; resilience in the face of hazards; environmental protection in the face of growing populations and economic pressures. To prosper, to live any life worth living, demands that the great majority of us pitch in to move forward a handful of big ideas, as largely framed by others.

In part, the solution requires each of us be bit more inclined to follow. Instead of standing in judgment and insisting on perfection, we might settle for aligning ourselves with those working, however imperfectly, on generally compatible goals. We could be more open to compromise; sometimes even accommodating major adjustments. We might fret less about who has the lead and be more appreciative of imprecise progress toward a common goal.

This same caution applies to the “leaders” themselves. Leadership isn’t a matter of imposing our will on others; it’s more about tapping into the common anxieties and hopes of others, giving those voice, and laying out a framework that will help people reach their ends.

Come to think of it, not much different from that morning-commute-hustle on the subway platforms: there we are content with achieving inexact convergence of interest rather than precise detail; adjusting moment-by-moment. We don’t question the credentials or intent of those ahead of us (any more than those behind us question ours).

Why should cooperation and followership end there?

[1] The original article’s fuller material gives a bit of context/deeper understanding of these preferences and their benefits, again, in the uniquely British setting. Accordingly, the column deserves reading in its entirety, but is difficult to access without a subscription.)

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The latest UN report on species extinctions – climate change’s “nuclear winter?”

Print and virtual media have been abuzz these past several days with the rollout of a new United Nations report suggesting that around a million species of animals and plants face extinction worldwide as a result of human activity. The report goes further, linking that species loss to reduced quality of life and perhaps even threatening human existence itself.  

Big news indeed.

But perhaps not really new? Scientists have been studying and reporting on human-caused reductions in biodiversity and associated declines in ecosystem services for as long as any of us can remember (think Endangered species Act).

Reminiscent of events a third of a century ago, with respect to the nuclear threat. During the Cold War years[1] (dating from the end of World War II through the collapse of the former Soviet Union), the general public rated nuclear conflict as one of its greatest concerns. But such concerns spiked in 1983 when Carl Sagan and co-authors added nuclear winter (a period of abnormal cold and darkness posited to result from a nuclear war, as it produced layers of smoke and dust in the atmosphere blocking the sun’s rays) to the list of impacts.

At the time, the great groundswell of public concern seemed puzzling. Here nuclear warfare threatened wholesale loss of civilian populations, resulting directly from bomb blasts in urban areas, followed by radiation sickness and decades of mutations and cancers for the survivors. Who needed to hear more? Wasn’t that enough to prompt calls for disarmament and peace? But for many people, the threat of cold, darkness, crop failures for months or years was the last straw.

Even early on, it seems that the current UN report, by virtue of the immense and widespread species loss it documents and the way it explicitly links that species loss to decline in human prospects, may have touched a similar public nerve. Perhaps this will prove to be the tipping point, coming on top of the other United Nations products – the periodic IPCC Assessment Reports, and special IPCC reports on extreme events and hazards, the difference in impacts between 1.50C and 20C of warming – that builds the level of public support needed to spur international action.

 We can only hope.

Speaking of hope, some might have noticed in the fine print that the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (commonly called the IPBES), which compiled the assessment, is chaired by none other than Sir Robert Watson. That’s the same Bob Watson who played a pivotal role in standing up the U.S. Global Change Research Program three decades ago (and, even earlier, giving the world’s ozone protocols a positive push) while working at NASA. He would come into interagency  planning meetings back then and instantly energize the room. Early-career geoscientists take note: this is proof of the importance of enthusiasm, insight, and staying power.

Good on you, Bob!

[1]And even since. Today those concerns get the occasional boost as tensions mount between the U.S. and Iran or North Korea, or the Middle East roils, or India and Pakistan get ructious.  

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A 72-hour exploration of the climate-change challenge – distilled into 5-10 minutes of your time.

Last Saturday (April 27th), at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, Ernest Moniz, former Energy Secretary for President Barack Obama, and Daniel Nocera, Harvard chemistry professor (and inventor of the artificial leaf and the bionic leaf) – longtime friends – held a conversation on “a path to a low carbon energy future.” Their talk was webcast live; an edited version will be posted online at some future date.

Hard to do justice to the conversation – only the actual video will do, and for that you’ll have to wait a bit. But here’s the pith[1] of it. Mr. Nocera opened with a bit of background on his artificial leaves (you can find links to articles or videos of different lengths and going into varying degrees of detail here). Both fascinating and encouraging.

For his part, Mr. Moniz began with a quick overview of energy policy. He decried what he called “the magical thinking” at both ends of the political spectrum – denial at the one end, and completely impractical ideas at the other (such as a carbon-free energy economy in five years). By way of contrast, he pointed out that the so-called Green New Deal offered much to like. Specifically, it spoke to less carbon (not zero), and it simultaneously tackled social equity; it avoided some of the regressive policy options often associated with different versions of carbon taxes. He argued, in the realistic spirit of the Green New Deal, for settling – that is, for “making progress as fast as we can,” versus “as fast as we need.” He reminded the audience that electrical power generation per se was the easiest bit to implement; decarbonization of transportation and other economic sectors was more difficult. He emphasized that the challenge consisted of numerous pieces: electrical power generation; large-scale grids; nuclear; fracking and CO2 sequestration during the transition; etc., etc. And he summed up by saying that to focus on any single favorite of these pathways would be to fail. Instead, he said we need to pursue all these avenues, in parallel – and what’s more, we need to “hit a home run,” do the absolutely best we can, in each.

Sitting there, my mind was half on the AMS workshop scheduled to start two days later (this past Monday, April 29th) entitled New Minds for New Science: The Forecast for Work in Weather, Water, and Climate. I was thinking that Mr. Moniz could well have added workforce to his list of areas where we needed to hit a home run.

Sure enough, this week’s workshop reinforced that idle thought. Monday and Tuesday’s presentations and discussions made it clear: in each of the above areas in the energy challenge, in each sector of application (agriculture, industry, transportation, etc.), and in environmental intelligence itself (understanding how the planet and its lifeforms function and interact, and what they’ll do in response to human intervention), a diverse, inclusive, educated, trained, equipped, and motivated workforce will be the difference between success and failure. The workforce will need to master two skills:

  • IT generally, but in particular artificial intelligence, and
  • Social/collaborative skills

Workshop dialog also made something else clear. Both these capabilities will rest on the extent we can strengthen STEM education at every level: K-12, especially in public schools; undergraduate; graduate; and continuing education over a career or lifetime. But conventional approaches to learning, and traditional institutions, and even traditional disciplines, may be casualties in this future. We heard that both private- and government-sector employers are frustrated by the need to serve as “finishing schools” for entry-level workers, sometimes training scientists and engineers for 2-3 years in these skills before they’re useful, functioning members of the agency or company. At the same time, companies are reaching past universities down to the high-school level to identify and hire truly precocious talents (more reminiscent of the way professional athletes are identified, recruited, and developed today, skipping college either partially or entirely).

If artificial intelligence is to be the tool of the 21st-century workplace, then just as today’s students are “one-with-their-smartphones,” we can anticipate that future students at every level will be engaging with personal-AI – helping them learn, at their own pace, subjects largely of their own choosing, informed according to an individually tailored, AI-enabled, iteratively-developing understanding of what they like, what they’re good at, what’s meaningful, and what will earn them a living – their ikigai, as one speaker put it. It’s possible, perhaps even likely that instead of facility with AI being part of the finishing needed by physicists, chemists, biologists, meteorologists, sociologists, et al., that these disciplines of the past will be the finishing added-on to a generic, AI-enabled, learning-to-learn.

A closing vignette illustrates the essential importance of STEM education, not just for the workforce but for the broader society. We’re coming up on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in a few weeks. In historical accounts, much is made of the prevailing weather and the forecasts for same; the tides on the beaches; efforts to mislead German intelligence as to Allied intentions over that weekend, and so on. All these aspects determined Allied casualties and the day’s events. But the reality is that by that point the ultimate outcome of the war had been predetermined. Behind the massive armada of military and conscripted vessels, the soldiers, the tanks and artillery, and vehicles and supplies that would be landed on the beaches of Normandy over that 24-hour period, there was a far more massive pipeline of personnel and material extending across the Channel back to England, and across the Atlantic back to America, that would continue to pour soldiers and resources onto the European continent and sustain those human and mechanical assets for as long as necessary. Entire, unified populations in the Allied nations were accepting the accompanying priorities and the sacrifices needed.

In the same way, to cope with climate change, and an associated host of 21st-century resource-, hazard- and environmental challenges, we need not just the workforce of today, the workforce of the moment, but an educational pipeline producing and sustaining the workforce required across a succession of outyears, and a supportive, scientifically-savvy society committed to such investment over the long haul.

We have to hit a home run.

[1] “Pith” variously means the core or the essence of something – or in biology, it refers to tissue in the stem of vascular plants. Thus we have “pithy,” referring to “concise and forcefully expressive,” and pith helmets, made from pith material from an Indian swamp plant.

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Inadequate priority to STEM today? A compromised U.S. workforce – and a correspondingly weaker Nation – tomorrow.

Years ago, a friend of mine moved into a new house. In the process, he discovered one of the electrical outlets was non-functional. Curious, he pulled the cover and did a bit of disassembly, to find the outlet had been connected to a few feet of electrical wire that led nowhere.

The proposed administration FY 2020 federal budget repeats FY 2019 calls for cuts in some federal-agency STEM related programs, again citing a mandated strategic plan for these decisions. (You can start tracking down further details here.)

What remains in the budget requests are programs targeted at those on track for science careers, and programs providing education for those already in the workplace.

This strategy is reminiscent of my friend’s experience. Best he could figure, when the house had been under construction, someone had done the wiring infrastructure. Someone else had subsequently swept the flooring clean at day’s end, but the loose cable was left dangling over an edge, the unattached end invisible. Drywallers had come in, saw the bit of cable, and naturally enough cut a hole for the outlet. A finish electrical worker had duly wired it up. No single person was to blame. But the end result was dysfunctional.

Federal inattention to K-12 STEM education has the same flavor, and risks leading to the same sorry result. Certainly the fundamental policy premise of public education is local (maybe state-level) control, with all the diversity, high degree of motivation and attention, and other benefits that approach brings. Stultifying federal regulation is contraindicated. But that doesn’t mean the federal government should be hands off. It can and should supply critically-needed resources. Education funding and other resources (teachers, classroom equipment, etc.) available at local school districts vary widely; many districts struggle. And K-12 education for millions of kids powers the workforce of tomorrow. Limiting federal STEM funding only to the downstream end (the adult workforce) is equivalent to installing an electrical outlet without looking at its connection to the energy source.

The United States comprises only 4% of the world’s population. A highly educated people is essential to our future prospects: sustaining our fundamental values, maintaining innovation, ensuring our national security, and for that matter, the world’s geopolitical stability.

(Last year the Congress failed to support the proposed FY 2019 cuts.)

Three closing comments.

  1. This coming Monday, the AMS begins a two-day workshop here in DC looking at workforce issues. Considerations of K-12 STEM education won’t be the sole focus, but will be woven through the conversation. You didn’t register? We won’t hold it against you. If you have the chance, please sign up and show up.
  2. The AMS runs an Education Program that works with K-12 teachers and reaches deep into schoolrooms across the country. Young people’s interest in weather and related topics constitute a portal for STEM education more broadly. Chances are good, if you’re reading this, you can help and be involved.
  3. Federal attention to education actually needs to extend to pre-school ages – much earlier than the point at which Head Start kicks in. This coming Monday, ZerotoThree, a non-profit, will highlight such issues by bringing babies and their families to the office corridors of Capitol Hill in an outreach they call Strolling Thunder. (Full disclosure: my daughter works there.) Gotta love the meteorological theme and the reference to the Vietnam veterans’ Rolling Thunder coming up over the memorial Day weekend.
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How to close out Earth Day, April 22, 2019

The sun is setting on Earth Day 2019. All the commemorations, celebrations, and orations – a world of them! – are winding down, wrapping up, time zone by time zone.  

Perhaps the Day’s festivities and more solemn observances have consumed you, either because you were staging them or you were pouring yourself into some form of active participation. Alternatively, your plans for Earth Day may have gone awry, escaped your grasp, eluded you entirely. For you, today may instead have been ruled by competing claims for your attention, whether the daily cacophony of work or family that dominates our 21st-century first-world routine, or emergencies ranging from the merely urgent to the truly dire.

At either end of this spectrum, that excess of passion or those jangled nerves are begging you for some kind of reset – something focused on the Day and its meaning, but not just piling on more of the same. Something different.

Problem is – it’s the end of the day. You don’t have all the time in the world. So it’s got to be a little something – brief, and yet absorbing.

Here’s a suggestion – music. One special beauty of music is that it can’t be rushed, but only experienced as it was intended – a note and a chord at a time. 

But today it can’t be just any music. After all, it’s Earth Day.

So – try this: a short instrumental piece composed by Patrick Williams, entitled Theme for Earth Day, performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra, under the direction of John Williams (no relation). Dates back to the early 1990’s, but chances are good you haven’t heard it. And even if you have – especially if you have – you’ll want to hear it again. You can listen here.

But don’t multi-task. Stop what you’re doing. If you have access to that Earth Day sunset, watch it. Contemplate it. Stuck in an urban canyon? Then close your eyes as you listen. You have a favorite evening beverage? Okay, that’s permitted – but that’s it. Let the music permeate your soul.

4 minutes and 16 seconds of your time – in exchange for 

  • appropriate closure for Earth Day 2019,
  • and maybe, just maybe, a new lease on life?

A decent trade.

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