Remedial reading: The Primacy of Doubt.

Last Saturday, a uniquely-trusted source sent me this e-mail: I am reading Tim Palmer’s new book “The Primacy of Doubt” … if, by chance, you have not yet read this one, I think you would love it.

Advice from a trusted source? The name Tim Palmer, a leading light, not merely in a single field, but two – meteorology and basic physics? And the subtitle: From Quantum Physics to Climate Change, How the Science of Uncertainty Can Help Us Understand Our Chaotic World?

How could a meteorologist remain unmoved? Of course I bought it! The book has already been out for six months (eight billion people are busily accomplishing a lot while our backs are turned), so my reading was belated. Fortunately, in this age of instant gratification, the Kindle edition was in my hands within minutes. Had finished my remedial reading[1] by midday Tuesday.

Bottom line? If you’re a regular reader of LOTRW, chances are good you’ll want to buy this book and master it. Unique in its accessible presentation of chaos theory and its application across basic physics, meteorology and climatology, economics/financial crises, pandemics, war, science of the brain; and even our free will, consciousness, and God. No chaotic system left unturned.

Those interested can find any number of more comprehensive reviews of The Primacy of Doubt online. These are uniformly positive. Instead of merely piling on, I’ll focus on a few quick initial impressions and personal takeaways.

Inter alia, the book makes clear:

  1. Doubt is truly primary. Back in 2007, NASEM’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate published a landmark report entitled Completing the Forecast: Characterizing and Communicating Uncertainty for Better Decisions Using Weather and Climate Forecasts. They captured the rationale this way “Uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of weather, seasonal climate, and hydrological prediction, and no forecast is complete without a description of its uncertainty.” Palmer is suggesting rather the opposite: characterizing the uncertainty is not some mere add-on, but rather a foundation of the weather forecast process. And furthermore, he argues it would make for a similarly useful starting mindset in the initial approach to economics[2], public health, and all the other applications he treats.
  2. Ensemble forecasting is essential – not merely useful. Palmer reminds us that when confronted with a chaotic system such as (but not limited to) the Earth’s atmosphere, the means to improved predictions do not lie so much through more detailed, accurate measurements of the initial state and greater model resolution, but rather through multiple less-detailed forecast runs designed to reveal the sensitivity of the forecast to slightly different initial conditions.
  3. Limits to the predictability of chaotic systems are intrinsic, not simply technological.
  4. Predictions per se differ from projections (the latter are conditionally dependent upon possible system responses to the predictions – e.g., human responses to environmental and economic forecasts).
  5. Uncertainty and doubt shape the implications of climate science for policy.

(Could add much more, but this gives a flavor…)

In closing, The Primacy of Doubt provided me a small personal gift – two (quite tenuous) touchpoints to my father Robert Hooke and his work, which I’ve mentioned from time to time in LOTRW. First, in discussing the geometry of chaos, Palmer dips into fractals, noting in passing that the arithmetic of fractals can be accomplished using p-adic numbers. I’d heard this latter term, but only because my dad had earned his Princeton Ph.D. with a thesis entitled Linear p-adic groups and their Lie algebras (published a year later in Annals of Mathematics, in 1942). This was an occasional dinner-table topic when my younger brother and I were growing up. At the time my puny adolescent brain absorbed little more than the thesis title and the idea (promulgated over my entire childhood by our mother, who was my dad’s biggest fan) that dad had mathematical superpowers.

Second, in The Primacy of Doubt chapter on weather, Palmer discusses a so-called annealing algorithm that uses noise to avoid being trapped by local peaks in searches for true optima.

This also struck me as vaguely familiar. In mid-career my dad had left pure mathematics to go into statistics and operational research, doing a postdoc under John Tukey at Princeton. Years later, while at Westinghouse, dad and a colleague, Terry Jeeves, published “Direct Search” Solution of Numerical and Statistical Problems in the Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery (JACM)., 8 (2) (1961), pp. 212-229. The paper described the mathematics behind an analog device they’d patented for identifying optima in the absence of guiding mathematical formulas (a paper that’s since been cited nearly 6000 times in this A.I. world). My (still) puny but now “mature” brain wondered if there might be an association between annealing algorithms and this work. Willy-nilly, I googled the phrase “simulated annealing Hooke Jeeves” – and was rewarded with a sizeable number of hits.

Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Tim Palmer’s wonderful book drives that point home, putting into context the work of Einstein, Mandelbrot, Lorenz, Penrose (and even Palmer himself). But at the same time we’re reminded that we stand equally on the shoulders of the ordinary but far more numerous unknown scientists who made quotidian advances into the endless frontier.

Thanks, Tim! (Thanks, Dad!)

[1] (Full disclosure), the word “read” in this context requires some explanation. The Primacy of Doubt is a serious work. Though intended to be accessible to the general public, in places it can be heavy going. Instead, I read this book the same way I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace – in a single day, years ago. I was home sick from high school; my 1950’s vintage world didn’t include today’s rich abundance of internet entertainment options. Needing something to do, I started reading before breakfast and confronted immediately a thicket of Russian characters, each with several patronymics. Impossible to sort out who was who! But I decided to forge on, willy-nilly, trusting that the people who mattered would be familiar to me by book’s end. Sure enough, it worked (though the material that “sticks” today deals more with the Napoleonic wars, Russia’s scorched earth policy, and conditions in tsarist Russia than any of its literary chops).

Applied the same strategy here. Figured that even if I didn’t get a concept that mattered the first time around, the topic would be revisited, applied to another context, expanded, and clarified later on. This worked to some extent, though not so well for the quantum-mechanical bits! Spent some time the past couple of days rereading those, with good results, though if Tim Palmer were to show up at my door brandishing a pop quiz, I’d flunk.

No worries! The Primacy of Doubt is now a member of that small handful of books worth reading again and again. I’ll master it eventually (though, by then, Palmer will likely have turned his quantum mechanical conjectures into groundbreaking theoretical advances… and further papers and books).

[2] Palmer cites Richard Bookstaber’s The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction here. LOTRW provided a review when the book was first published.

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Everything, Everywhere, All at Once!

(writing this post in haste – wanting very much to post it before tomorrow evening’s Oscar Awards. Apologies in advance for any resulting rough edges.)

Meteorologists are in the business of making forecasts. And although the Navier-Stokes equations are silent on the Academy Awards selection process, I’ll venture a prediction: The Oscars will be a big night for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. (Space prevents a detailed summary of the film here; many of you may have already seen it. The link provides extensive background; you might also watch the trailer to get a flavor)

Hardly going out on a limb! Reviewers such as Roger Ebert who make such projections  for a living give the film strikingly high marks. The praise is near-universal. Even seasoned critics are offering comments such as “This movie is easily going on my top 10 favorites of all time list.”  Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, compiled from 381 reviews, gives it a 95%. And expert Oscars forecasters see a big night ahead, subject to their usual caveats that the Academy process is political. (To say the least. Many influences come into play, reflecting the needs and aspirations of the industry, the demographics of the voting population, and more.)

Importantly, the critical acclaim is more favorable (slightly) than the audience reaction; the Rotten Tomatoes audience score is a (still high) 88%.

(Full disclosure) the movies my wife and I watch recreationally have this ratio of audience score to critical assessment reversed. We don’t normally watch films that make us think too hard. And preserving our absolutely wonderful marriage is my top priority, so I normally defer to my wife’s viewing preferences. (Incidentally, this means a lot less attention to the NFL and MLB than I might prefer.)

But occasionally (for the Super Bowl; or for this-or-that important individual game) I request a special dispensation. And I did so here. A two-hour time block is a big commitment for us. Given this, saying “let’s watch an action movie about a woman who owns a laundromat and is dealing with family issues and with the IRS” is a hard sell. Worse, I had to admit in advance that while viewing, we would struggle to follow the plot line even in the most general way and be bewildered/overwhelmed by a rush of complex, sometimes violent action and detail (another forecast that verified). Also watching this movie through a home-streaming option is (relatively) expensive. But I wanted to see it. So I begged.

Why? And why do I recommend/wish to inflict this experience on you?

Two reasons. The first applies to everyone living on the 21st-century real world. The film mirrors much of our actual lives. However real the multiverse may be, we don’t really live in it consciously day-to-day. But the chaos of actual 21st-century living gives the flavor. Most of us daily attack stupefyingly complicated and relentlessly demanding careers. Whether at home or at the office the day job is a grind. The larger context? Hardly stable or in any way reassuring. Our world constantly teeters on the brink of collapse: the global economy. Co-existing unemployment and workforce shortages. War in Ukraine. Tensions with China. Terrorism. The reverberations of the pandemic. Immigration: populations  on the move in the face of climate change, famine, geopolitics. Drugs. Drought. Floods. Unusual winter storm patterns. Earthquakes. A sense that our daily individual actions and decisions at the same time (a) have profound consequences and (b) don’t make a difference. Family relationships – spousal, parent-child, etc. – fraught even in the best of times – are dangerously frayed by this world’s pulls.

To repeat: the whole multiverse shtick, profound or unfamiliar as it may be, doesn’t feel like much of an extension of today’s real-world challenges. So at the movie’s end, when everything comes down to those deep family relationships, it’s a strangely reassuring reaffirmation of what matters most to all of us. It’s actually celebratory.

Second, the LOTRW readership is largely a community focused daily on understanding big, chaotic systems like the Earth’s ocean and atmosphere, the Sun, and their impact on individuals and social systems. The chaos seen here is mother’s milk to meteorologists.

As a small, whimsical footnote to drive home the point. When the movie came out, the title had a bit of familiar ring that I couldn’t place. Finally, last night, during a bout of insomnia, I remembered why. It’s associated with this bit of doggerel, dating back to 1957 (!) from our AMS community[1]:

More data, more data,

Right now and not later.

Our storms are distressing,

Our problems are pressing.

We can brook no delay

For theorists to play.

Let us repair

To the principle sublime:

Measure everything, everywhere,

All the time.

More data, more data,

From pole to equator;

We’ll gain our salvation

Through mass mensuration.

Thence flows our might,

Our sweetness, our light.

Our Spirits full fair, our souls sublime:

Measure everything, everywhere,

All the time.

(emphasis added).

Meteorologists have known for decades that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can change weather, and therefore change history. We make our living not just witnessing everything, everywhere, but quantifying and predicting it – and not just “all at once” during the occasional violent event, but “all the time.”

Everything, everywhere, all at once? We’ve got this.

[1] Poem by A. Fleisher. Originally published in 1957 in the Proc.Sixth Weather Radar Conf., American Meteorological Society, Boston, MA, p. 59. Slightly modified by Peter Black, NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division.

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Per Tony Stark, (re-)inventing human herd immunity to natural hazards.

(completing the thought of the previous LOTRW post)

Humanity is far down the path to developing herd immunity with respect to covid-19 and derivatives. Time was, our paleo-forebears “invented” an artificial but similarly effective resilience with respect to weather, climate and other geophysical extremes. How?  By observing and mimicking the innate behavior of animals and plants – following the latter’s seasonal migrations and changes. In this way nomads and pastoralists not only maintained a (somewhat) steady food supply but also gained a side benefit: they minimized the worst impacts of a sometimes-violent Earth’s rhythms of flood and drought and intense heat and cold. In retrospect, this prehistoric way of doing business might be thought of as an early form of  sustainable development (call it sustainability-version-1.0).The characterization is too grand by half; aside from the pastoral overlay, human practice did little more than plagiarize the behavior of other predators in the ecosystem.)

However sustainable, nomadism had its limits. Humanity, individually and collectively, imagined greater opportunities. Generations of such vision and ambition led to today’s agriculture, advanced economies, urbanization, and the accelerating technology and social change. Millennia of innovation have greatly increased human numbers, extended lifespans, and enhanced the quality of those lives.

The improvements have also exposed humanity to new and unanticipated downsides. These include, but are not limited to, climate change; loss of habitat and biodiversity; and a widening gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged, accompanied and aggravated by the complacency of the former and a backlash of the latter. Human successes have also occurred in a time short compared with natural climate variability and the recurrence of Earth’s extremes. As a result, year-by-year flood and drought, hurricanes and winter storms continue to surprise – to expose unforeseen vulnerabilities and risks of unprecedented scale (illustrated most recently, for example, by the Pakistan floods and western U.S. water shortages) latent in our current (often novel and therefore untested) ways of doing business.

In sum, we have exchanged sustainable development for brittle, possibly short-lived, affluence – and even that small advance isn’t equitably accessible to and enjoyed by everyone[1]. Can our current practices can be maintained over the long haul? The jury is out.

Hence societies’ worldwide efforts to overlay our ways of doing business with various forms of protection against hazards. Akin to The Avenger Tony Stark’s development of his Ironman suit of sci-fi armor, we seek to create and “wear” improved resilience.

Many early attempts have focused on engineering: levees and dams to deal with cycles of flood and drought; HVAC to cope with seasonal extremes of heat and cold; new methods of building design and construction to withstand storms and high winds. Because these and similar first-generation fixes provide mere resistance to hazards (as opposed to true resilience) we might call them Ironman v1.0.

Today’s globally-connected ways of living have altered the vulnerability profile. Though loss of life and property damage still matter crucially, hazard threats are in equal measure about disruption of flows of commerce and trade through impacts on critical infrastructure, such as roads and rail; electrical power and other forms of energy; water supplies; waste disposal; etc. Here in the United States, the ice storms and heavy snows of the winter season have brought home the importance of keeping the lights on, roads passable, and more.

Think of it this way. Ironman v1.0 “protected the wearer from physical harm,” but Ironman v2.0 focuses on uninterruptible critical infrastructure, equipping the wearer to “continue to function, not simply survive.” Such extended capabilities require nations and peoples give attention to land use; assess and reduce hazard risks to physical plant-and-function of networks responsible for maintaining power, food and water supplies, waste disposal, transportation, communications, financial transactions; and more.

 An aside: Weather, climate and other geophysical extremes present themselves quite differently around the globe. Polar threats are different from the hazards at tropical latitudes. Coastal threats differ from those inland. Earthquakes and vulcanism are driven by plate tectonics. Many of the threats are quite local in nature, and they encounter local populations and settlements that vary widely in terms of urbanization, economy, technology, and culture. The world therefore presents many microcosms of the larger hazard challenge. This has led to piecemeal approaches and a corresponding diversity in appearance and function of Ironman suits worldwide. The effect has been to accelerate innovation (a good thing) but at the same time progress has been uneven and blind spots and gaps still remain (and remain to be discovered) in the protection needed.

To build true resilience to hazards across our society – to build true herd immunity to natural hazards into our DNA – something much deeper and more pervasive is needed (Ironman v3.0 as it were). An exhaustive treatment can’t be given here, but the basic elements include:

  1. Learning from experience. Instead of merely rebuilding-as-before after disasters, and therefore condemning future generations to live under the same cloud of disaster risk, we need a culture change. We need to achieve holistic understanding of the causes of disasters we suffer (an example in the current news might be nailing-down the origin of the covid virus; another, ongoing example might be the attribution of certain disasters to climate change) and make appropriate changes in action or behavior. Building-back-better (though unfortunately identified with a single political party) comes to mind. Also, as has been noted many times in LOTRW posts, we would do well to adopt the NTSB mantra: “this or that calamity must never happen again.” (The original LOTRW post on this topic was followed by many others over the past decade.)
  2. Learning period-full-stop. Learning-from-experience is part of a larger context of education more broadly. That begins with the subjects of natural hazards and the engineering and social approaches towards hazard risk reduction specifically. Experts tell us that K-12 public education on these topics is middling-to-poor at best. But the problem is far broader: trained-labor shortages pose one of the biggest challenges facing the implementation of green technologies. And mere technical training is not enough. Education – setting these topics in the context of societal values is essential. That’s because the last element needed is…
  3. Equity. In today’s connected society, resilience can never be fully realized until it’s universal. All of us, whatever our role in the world’s interlaced demand and supply chains, need to cooperate from protected platforms to keep economies going and social fabric intact in the face of natural hazards. Game theory and social science continually show that fairness is essential, not merely helpful here.

A closing thought. Avengers:Endgame audiences might recall Tony Stark/Ironman’s role in disintegrating the supervillain Thanos[2] and his army once and for all, thereby saving the human race from extinction.

Stark sacrifices his life to this end. If humanity is to build and sustain resilience to natural hazards, many of us will have to give our lives to this cause – not in some cataclysmic climax, as Stark did, but through the steady, continued expenditures of our time and talents.

😊Totally worth it!

[1] LOTRW – the blog and the book – explore this.

[2] One source, Michael Jung, tells us that  Thanosthe Mad Titan, has one of the most threatening names in Marvel Comics. In Greek, the name “Thanos” is a short form of the personal name “Athanasios,” which means “immortal.” The name, however, is also derived from the name “Thanatos,” a Greek mythological figure who carries humans off to the underworld when their lives are done.

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To build “herd immunity” to natural hazards, channel Tony Stark.

Herd immunity to pandemics is a thing – actually, something of a human superpower.

However, herd immunity to other hazards, including weather and climate extremes, is not. No human superpowers here! But perhaps we could emulate the fictional Marvel character Tony Stark – and invent some.

Digging a bit deeper:

Humanity is more-or-less successfully coping with covid-19 in much the same way as it has handled previous pandemics over past millennia – through the buildup of:

Herd immunity (also called herd effect, community immunity, population immunity, or mass immunity) is a form of indirect protection that applies only to contagious diseases. It occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through previous infections or vaccination, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity.

Today, we recognize herd immunity as an example of a basic biological process we call natural selection. The idea (and the label) has been around long enough that today it seems ordinary. But when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced it in 1858 it was electrifying. To recapture the feel for the early impact of that notion, let’s speak of a human superpower – one built on a three-fold foundation: 1. The pre-existing diversity in people’s immune systems allow some – perhaps many – to survive a pathogen’s initial attack. 2. Human immune systems are trainable. 3. Virtually all human beings share these traits; generally speaking, access is not (directly) restricted to a limited, privileged few. The ultimate result? Successive pathogen onslaughts encounter a more resilient population and fewer pathways for infecting any remaining vulnerable human hosts.

A key point. As the definition notes, innate herd immunity can be augmented by intentional societal action. In the covid-19 instance, researchers quickly mapped the virus genome, and drew inferences on its sources and ways of working. Others developed tests to detect the presence of the virus. The pharmaceutical industry invented vaccines to train and strengthen natural immunity at the individual level (as well as antivirals to constrain the severity of individual infections). The larger society adopted habits such as mask wearing, social distancing, teleworking, and remote learning to protect against disease transmission.

Pandemics, however, are not the only doomsday challenge we face. And when it comes to the others, we lack a built-in physiology that might help us survive. What to do? The answer differs from challenge to challenge, but let’s start with natural hazards – primarily cycles of flood and drought, and severe storms such as hurricanes, but also including climate change, earthquakes, and vulcanism. These matter because our host planet does its business through extreme events. Earth’s ecosystems and the individual plant and animal species they comprise have nearly-perfectly adapted both their structures and their behaviors to the timing and nature of these extremes – capturing their benefits, and minimizing their associated hazards.  The global migrations of birds and whales, seasonal births of many species timed to take advantage of plentiful food supplies, and hibernation are just a few examples.

Early on, the human race enjoyed a similar success, through nomadism: hunter-gatherers simply followed the migrations of wild game, and pastoralists moved their herds and flocks to productive grasslands. In this way they kept losses low and at the same time kept food on the table.

But wait! There was no table. No furniture of any kind. No shelter of any permanence. Keeping pace with migrating animals and seasonal changes required traveling light. Shelter and possessions were kept to a minimum. Nomadism had its limits; work was relentless and wealth accumulation not in prospect.

Human creativity and cleverness helped our ancestors see clear opportunities – advantages of truly marvelous consequence and scale – that would be offered by agriculture, by trade, and by built environments, if we would only root ourselves in fixed place. What we saw less clearly was that these advances would be accompanied by novel vulnerabilities to hazards[1]. An earthquake threat is magnified by building collapse. Drought poses a greater hazard to a society dependent on monoculture. And so on.

While the opportunities posed by fixed settlement, economic specialization, and technology advance were evident and immediate, it has taken time for the attendant shortcomings and vulnerabilities to manifest themselves. What’s worse, even as the risks have become more evident, continuing scientific and technical advance and social change have further mutated the vulnerability. Particularly challenging has been the rapidly growing dependence on critical infrastructure – early on, in the form of civilization’s dependence on roads, on water supplies, and waste disposal – and more recently on energy (especially electricity), and on communication; and on soft infrastructure like centralized financial, educational, and healthcare networks.

Enter the (entirely fictional) Marvel character Tony Stark, who:

…is initially depicted as an industrialist, genius inventor, and playboy who is CEO of Stark Industries. Initially the chief weapons manufacturer for the U.S. military, he has a change of heart and redirects his technical knowledge into the creation of mechanized suits of armor which he uses to defend against those that would threaten peace around the world. He becomes a founding member and leader of the Avengers.

Mr. Stark possesses no superpower. But being clever, he conceptualizes and builds some, most notably his Iron Man apparel. As a society, we need to do the same if we want to cope with weather, climate, and other geophysical threats with superpowered effectiveness.

What might that look like? More details to come.

[1] And disease as well; pathogens have historically found new opportunity in crowded urban environments.

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Existential threats, and human superpowers.

coronavirus and the asteroid Dimorphos, compared

To be human these days is to have a lot to worry about. News media play into this mindset. Joel Achenbach’s recent post, appearing in yesterday’s print edition of The Washington Post Magazine, provides a particularly thoughtful and comprehensive example. Here’s his list of existential worries, compiled under the foreboding title What Doomsday Looks Like Today:

10. Solar storm or gamma-ray burst.

9. Supervolcano eruption.

8. Asteroid impact.

7. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic plant pathogen affecting staple crops.

6. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic human pathogen.

5. Orwellian dystopia. Totalitarianism. Endless war paraded as peace. The human spirit crushed. Not a world you’d want to live in.

4. Cascading technological failures due to cyberattack, reckless development of artificial intelligence and/or some other example of complex systems failing in complex ways.

3. Nuclear war (may jump soon to No. 1).

2. Environmental catastrophe from climate change and other desecrations of the natural world.

1. Threat X. The unknown unknown. Something dreadful but not even imagined. The creature that lives under the bed.

Cringeworthy indeed.

The doomsday piece was short on suggestions for global fixes. Achenbach closed with a focus on NASA’s recent successful attempt to impact and redirect an asteroid. He points out that this is less of a success story than a promising start, ending with these words: Sometimes you just celebrate the win – and get ready to fight another doomsday.  

Well said! A lot of work left to do, and we need to stay on our guard. But let’s admit it. Sometimes, confronting the challenges we face in today’s world, you and I wish that – like Tony Stark, or Thor, or Hulk – we could simply and naturally bring to bear a superpower to make things right.

Well, it turns out we all can and do. You and I – every single one of us – have a truly remarkable superpower, one that we call on each and every day, one that carries us through an unending series of life-and-death battles. Fact is, we don’t contend with a single enemy, but swarms of them. And they’re comparably super-powered, superbly equipped to do us in. Among their powers? They’re invisible. They enter our bodies unnoticed. Once in, they rapidly penetrate and spread. Even as they destroy and disable, they multiply in numbers, they feed, and they gain strength. They use us as launch pads to sneak up on and attack others.  They even take up permanent residence when given the chance. And it doesn’t end there; they also mutate. They’re constantly changing shape and form in a relentless effort to render themselves unrecognizable and/or more dangerous. Give these myriad enemies a single name, like Legion, or Pandemos, and we’d have the makings of an Avengers blockbuster film.

The real-life enemy? pathogens. Our comparable, contending superpower? The human immune system.

Over the course of history, the human race has suffered many casualties from these wars – most notably in the plagues and pandemics triggered by bacteria and viruses. To date we’ve always survived, and eventually emerged the stronger for the experience.

The recent covid experience is illuminating, and rather amazing when you think about it. Covid-19 encountered a world population of eight billion people. By official counts, some 6 million people died. (By studying excess deaths over the period, most public health experts conclude this figure is a serious underestimate. The true death toll so far likely numbers between 15-30 million.)

But most people’s immune systems enabled them to shake off the disease with little apparent difficulty; for them, the typical course was not that different from common influenza. Partially as a result, monitoring proved a challenge. Global statistics of confirmed covid cases come to some 600 million, or about ten percent of the population. But we’re told undiagnosed or unreported cases were most likely three or four times that figure. (And even this trivializes covid’s impacts. Research suggests that 40% of covid survivors experience long-covid[1].)

Three attributes contributed to this success.

1.Diversity in human immune response has helped the human race survive so far. Smallpox, the bubonic plague, and myriad other threats have ravaged society over millennia, but have always left survivors. As any particular pathogen mounts successive attacks, it encounters a population of those survivors and their descendants, whose immune systems just happened to be better suited to fend it off. In that way, populations repeatedly exposed to any given infectious disease tend to build up an inherent herd-immunity, rendering pandemic threats self-limiting over time. (That’s certainly proved true of covid. The repeated waves of the disease, though more contagious, have been less severe.)

2.But covid survivors aren’t merely more immune by default or heritage. The human immune system that protects us against pathogens doesn’t consist solely of a generalized, innate component; it also has a built-in adaptable piece. The latter can be trained by prior exposure to identify and destroy specific pathogens. Individuals, once exposed, can be much more disease resistant the second time around.

In effect, our immune system learns from experience.

3.Importantly, this ability to adapt and learn from experience at the biomolecular level has been hardwired into our individual physiology over millions of years of human evolution.

As a result, it is nearly universal (essentially everyone is included) and involuntary. It’s not something we consciously control – and it’s always “on.” You and I can’t choose to opt out – anymore than we can prevent others from bringing it to bear.

This threefold combination – preexisting population diversity, learning from experience, and inclusion and unity in the face of the threat – is the key to herd-immunity. Remove any one of these three attributes, and humanity would be far more vulnerable to pathogens.

Unfortunately, humanity possesses no comparable natural immunity to other “existential worries.” Or do we? And could attention to these three attributes hold the key to reduce other risks we face?

More next time.

[1] Lingering fatigue affected more than one in five. One in eight reported shortness of breath, insomnia, joint pain, memory loss, and other problems. A smaller group develop more severe complications and conditions such as heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and even chronic fatigue syndrome.

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Long-term (covid, Fiona, Ian): a postscript.

Journalism has been artfully described as “history’s first rough draft.” Blogging is something less: perhaps “thought’s scratchwork?” Posts are certainly ephemeral – and often they deserve to be. They may be short of context: they typically contain only a single idea, and or only the germ of that idea. The ideas aren’t even guaranteed to be good. They often lack the kind of rigor enforced in science by experiment and peer review; and imposed in journalism by legwork and consultation with original (usually multiple) sources, followed by the steely-eyed scrutiny of editors. Like scratchwork, blogposts are most useful only when/if they capture, improve upon, or contribute to a larger, more deliberative thought process of the author or others.

On the positive side, that feedback process can be quick. Take Wednesday’s LOTRW post, drawing comparisons between hurricane losses and long-term covid. Less than 24 hours after posting, this email came in, containing gentle advice from a close colleague:

Meant to share a very interesting storymap with you, Bill. Here’s a link, if you haven’t seen this already —

My ignorance was even greater than she realized. Storymap? Is that even a thing? The new-to-me mashup-word sent me scurrying to the internet, to find this:

A story map is a graphic organizer that helps students learn the elements of a narrative. Learning to identify a story’s characters, plot, setting, problem, and solution prompts students to read carefully to learn the important details. There are many different types of story maps.

Closer to my colleague’s point, there is also this description from an ESRI website:

A story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of storytelling. ArcGIS StoryMaps can give your narrative a stronger sense of place, illustrate spatial relationships, and add visual appeal and credibility to your ideas.

(Okay. Yet another wondrous-but-simultaneously-humbling reminder of the marvelous advances eight billion people can and do make while our backs are turned…)

So, then, jumped to the NOAA storymap in question. Published this past June, and entitled In Harm’s Way, it tracks the impacts of last year’s Hurricane Ida (not to be confused with this year’s Ian) as it tracked across the United States.

What a remarkable piece! It starts out this way:

In the past, storms like Hurricane Ida could have simply been seen as a natural disaster, affecting both economically advantaged and disadvantaged alike. But it’s becoming readily apparent that low-income communities suffer more damage and are at greater risk from extreme events. Research shows they are less prepared for the effects of extreme weather events. 

Often, residents of low-income communities don’t have the resources to evacuate, recover, or adapt in the face of extreme events. Additionally, the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations are frequently compounded—such as the COVID-19 pandemic, inland flooding, and rising global temperatures, in Hurricane Ida’s case.

With every climate-related disaster in the nation, economic damages are measured and addressed, while the human toll is less readily assessed. Residents of the most-at-risk communities are increasingly pushed into permanent displacement, homelessness, or deeper into poverty. As disasters become more frequent in a changing climate, vulnerable communities find it more challenging to recover and too costly to try to rebuild or retreat.

Hopefully, you’ll find time to read the full NOAA storymap. Definitely lives up to that earlier promise: a story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of storytelling. But a warning! Don’t expect it to be a quick read, the way so much web-based content can be. It’s information rich – has more in common with poetry than with prose, with rich chocolate than potato chips.

A big takeaway for me in the context of yesterday’s LOTRW post? In the comparisons between hurricane and covid impacts I failed to make explicit the important role of pre-existing conditions. In the case of covid, adults and children who are immuno-compromised or suffering from chronic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease, sickle cell anemia, etc., are at greater risk. What’s more, these vulnerabilities correlate with age-, income-, education-, and race-ethnicity disparities. The NOAA storymap and many other sources drive home the connection of these preexisting susceptibilities and inequalities to the hurricane case.

A final postscript on a postscript? Yesterday the Washington Post ran a story highlighting the scale and degree of the suffering and impact of Ian on those at ground-zero, especially those with preexisting vulnerabilities.


Makes it all the more important to look for ways and means to build up community-wide resilience to hurricanes and other hazards analogous to the herd immunity acquired in the face of infectious disease. That can be done! More on that in the next post.

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Long-term covid…and Long-term Fiona, Long-term Ian…

Downed trees and power lines in Bartow, FL following Hurricane Ian – 52393701499” by State Farm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Consider this working definition of a natural disaster: disruption of an entire community, persisting after the hazard has come and gone, and exceeding the community’s ability to recover unaided.

For the moment, focus on the idea that the impacts of disasters don’t quickly fade, but linger.  

Start with the pandemic. Covid’s long-term, persisting disruption grows increasingly evident day by day and month on month. Over the past three years, one hundred million cases have been documented here in the United States. Fortunately, the great majority of these cases have proved mild, and recovery quick and seemingly complete. For most sufferers, the experience was hard to distinguish from a bad case of the flu. As a result, up to an additional 50 million cases nationwide may have gone unreported.

Of course, the fuller picture is more sobering. For a small minority the outcome of the infection was far worse – requiring hospitalization, and even proving fatal, in some cases.

What’s more, it appears that as many as one in five infected (whether severely or mildly) may experience symptoms of so-called long-term covid, that persist and are debilitating even months later. Those symptoms are both physical and mental. They vary in severity, but they include headaches, difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”), sleep problems, joint or muscle pain, dizziness when standing, shortness of breath, diarrhea, or stomach pain, and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given this list of woes) depression or anxiety. Victims may also be more vulnerable to type-2 diabetes, kidney failure, and heart problems. Long-covid, though defined only in the most general terms, and difficult to diagnose unambiguously, currently devastates millions.

In the face of these health impacts, and given the large numbers of people affected, experts have estimated the associated effect on the national economy. They’ve concluded that long-term covid:

This eye-watering figure is itself undoubtedly an underestimate. Additional covid long-term impacts include the following:

  • enduring financial and psychological, and spiritual burdens on the family members of those who died.
  • Inflation, stemming from governmental actions to ameliorate the impacts of widespread lockdowns. (Additionally, the specter of recession looms.)
  • A generation of school-age kids who have seen their educational progress impeded or even interrupted for 1-2 years, at a critical point in their maturation/development. Standard test scores have plummeted.

War – disaster by another name – imposes similar long-term losses. Some time back, economists made similar efforts to assess the cost to the United States of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They arrived at a total approaching some $3 trillion. What’s especially sobering? They have noted that only a third of this cost has already been incurred – and most of that money was borrowed, embedded in the national debt. Little of this has been pay-as-you-go. Two thirds of the expenses have yet to be experienced. The cost includes nearly $2 trillion in health care, disability payments, burial and other costs not yet incurred that will be due to 4 million veterans over the next several decades, peaking, we’re told, only around the year 2050 (!).

As the case with covid, any impacts of the wartime deaths on the families (say, the effects of the loss of a breadwinner at a critical stage in a family’s life; the grief of family members and the pervasive, continuing influence of that grief on family prospects) haven’t been factored in.

Which brings us to natural disasters. Take Hurricane Ian. On September 29, as many as 2.7 million of Florida’s businesses and homes – a quarter of the total – were without electrical power. By October 3, that figure had dropped below 600,000. On October 14, the Washington Post reported the remaining outages numbered only a few thousand. It could be argued that as has been the case with covid, the millions of people in the hurricane’s path who were homebound for a few days, or suffered a temporary loss of electrical power, were merely inconvenienced. But the same report ominously noted that

At Ian’s ground zero — places like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel — it may be weeks, perhaps even months until the lights come back on. While many have sought refuge elsewhere as the islands are rebuilt, some vulnerable, elderly residents refuse to leave — meaning they are living without consistent access to lighting, refrigeration and, in some cases, even water.

On October 19, the New York Times reported that hundreds of people are still living in shelters following Hurricane Ian. The article contained this excerpt:

As of Tuesday, 476 people remained at two public shelters in Lee County, most of them at Hertz, an ice hockey and concert arena. The county took a direct hit, with 5,041 residential properties destroyed and 13,052 suffering major damage, records show. Many of their occupants have second homes or relatives with a guest room to fall back on, or can secure rental properties while they await federal disaster assistance, insurance adjusters and general contractors to help them begin rebuilding their lives.

But many of the people relying on shelters have none of those options. Sleeping side by side on American Red Cross cots and air mattresses are service-sector employees who are newly homeless and unemployed, retirees dependent on Social Security checks, and newcomers to the region with neither resources nor connections. Many were renters in North Fort Myers and other lower-income areas, barely making it even before Ian.

The Post article focuses on those living in shelters. But those displaced who are now living with relatives or in other rental properties are not much better off. At best their lives have been put on hold.

They’re experiencing long-Ian.

Amidst much media fanfare (occasioned by covid’s novelty), the covid virus is mutating into new variants, which in turn trigger surges of cases across the population. In the same way, hurricanes come and go, triggering surges of death, suffering, and economic loss. There’s the Hurricane Fiona variant. Go back a few years and we see the Hurricane Maria variant. The Harvey variant. The Katrina variant. The Andrew variant. Each of these has claimed its long-term casualties. Those who survived these and other natural disasters, but were severely impacted, are still alive – and many find their present circumstances, years later, still dictated by that single catastrophe. (Much as college graduates find themselves still enmeshed in college debt. However, long-term disaster survivors lack any benefit corresponding to that of the educational experience, or any political prospect of debt forgiveness.)

Some closing observations. First, the discussion here has focused solely on the hurricane “variants.” Natural hazards losses extend to flooding, drought, wildfire, tornados, and other events as well. Although definitive economic analysis of the long-term costs of natural hazards has yet to be accomplished, NOAA estimates that natural hazards losses totaled $145B in 2021, a figure roughly equal to the average for the past five years. At that rate, losses are aggregating at a rate of a trillion dollars every seven years. According to one estimate, one in ten U.S. homes (14 million!) experienced disaster loss in 2021. (That figure which primarily represents damage from winter storms, appears a bit extreme; it’s probably better characterized as “weather-related damage.”) More extensive, definitive economic analysis of these impacts would be useful.

Second – in contrast to the pandemic – the U.S. economy, its building stock, and ways of doing business have not been “vaccinated” against future losses, nor is there a buildup of any “natural immunity.” Successive weather and climate events can be expected to produce every bit as much shock and disruption as those in recent experience.

Third, and finally, the burden of these losses (covid-, military-, and hurricane-) is spread unevenly across the population. What’s more, the relatively unaffected world quickly moves on. Hurricane Ian no longer commands the headlines. For most Americans, today’s focus is on the upcoming mid-term elections, on gas prices, . But for the elderly on Sanibel island, or those families still in shelters and without jobs to return to, the nightmare is only just beginning, its full dimensions just coming into view. Just as long-covid sufferers or wounded veterans who’ve lost limbs or suffer from PTSD struggle to get medical attention, let alone actual relief, so Ian survivors experience loneliness and isolation – often leading to alienation – in the face of desperate need.  

This fraying of the nation’s social fabric may represent the greatest cost of all.

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Bootstrap World: the Climb-out.

[note added: John Plodinec has provided a quick yet quintessentially thoughtful response to this post. There’s much to like. I encourage readers to consider and reflect on what he’s had to say.]

The previous LOTRW post noted that

(1) disaster survivors and their prospects are fundamentally changed from the challenges they experience and never return to their pre-disaster condition;

(2) what we call “disaster recovery” is therefore often little more than a matter of unaffected populations entering the disaster area and displacing those (and what) that had been there before;

(3) the current impacts and scale of what are viewed as separate and perhaps localized disasters – covid, climate change, and the war in Ukraine – are really so pervasive that there is no corner of the globe and no sector of society that is unaffected. We are experiencing worldwide disaster. And;

(4)  as a result, instead of relying on any outside help, all eight billion of us must lift ourselves by our own bootstraps to “recover.”  

This explains a lot of what we learn from our own introspections, our personal encounters with each other, and our assessment of the world mood as reveal by news and social media.

Hardly anyone is in an entirely good place.

(Looking for a kernel of reality-based good news here, Bill…)

There’s an end to this tunnel, and light at the end. To see this, consider a link, and two observations. The link, which comes from the Huffington Post, provides a bit of scholarship, reminding us that the bootstrapping notion was indeed intended to be wholly nonsensical but suggesting that over time we have lost sight of those origins and allowed the expression to denote something less.

The first observation is that bootstrapping of this achievable sort has become a thing in the business world. Here the phrase is used to describe startups that don’t rely on venture capital provided by others to get going; instead, they seek and draw on venture capital only at a later stage, if at all. (The link provided here is only one of many.)

The second observation comes from the allegory of the long spoons. Versions of this allegory exist in many cultures worldwide; one version often cited is attributed to Rabbi Chaim of Rumshishok, born in 1813. The story illustrates the difference between heaven and hell. The Wikipedia link briefly encapsulates it thus:

In each location, the inhabitants are given access to food, but the utensils are too unwieldy to serve oneself with. In hell, the people cannot cooperate, and consequently starve. In heaven, the diners feed one another across the table and are sated.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that if we brace ourselves from our own position, however low, we can lift another by their bootstraps. Paradox resolved/impossibility surmounted.

At the same time, it’s immediately obvious that this process is sustainable and therefore of some practical use only if we act out of more than our self-interest (that is, out of a selfless love), and act from a stance of trust (that others, once lifted, will turn back and elevate us… and so on).

The good news is that human beings seem to be hardwired a bit this way… we have form. Following the Black Death scourge of the mid-14th-century, for example, we cast aside the feudal society and created a more equitable, prosperous, satisfying world.

We have done it once. Chances are we can do it again. And chances are you and I are already doing that already, in myriad small ways in our day-to-day lives.

Without, necessarily, any great degree of self-awareness. So please contemplate that today. Take time to see all the ways you’re helping others. And the ways others are helping you. Affirm yourself. Allow yourself to be a bit more intentional. And show your gratitude to those around you.

And, most importantly –  keep it up.

Oh. And thanks!

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Bootstrap World.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple. Relaxing. Guaranteed to work in Bootstrap World.

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

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A National Climate Emergency?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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