Dog whistling… and the latest National Climate Assessment.

Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic whistling sound is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans. –  Wikipedia

The word of the Lord came to me:  “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman,  and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people,  then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head.  Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves.  But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.” – Ezekiel 33:1-6 (NIV)


Members of the American Meteorological Society, and hundreds of thousands of geoscientists in the United States and worldwide, labor day and night to advance understanding of the Earth and apply those advances to the benefit of mankind. We contribute to enhanced resource development. Public health and safety. Environmental protection. We’re (admittedly specialized) sentinels.

This is our calling.

Advancing understanding and applying those advances confer daily benefits. Every sort of government and private sector and individual decision and action is shaped by information the geosciences community develops and provides.

So far so good! But along the way, geoscientists, in the course of their research, have uncovered a host of longer-range concerns: unintended environmental consequences of resource development; long-term increases in community-level vulnerability to hazards; reductions in ecosystem services; impending limits to food, water, and energy supplies. Scientists and practitioners alike have communicated the growing risks in every way imaginable.

For decades, many of the looming problems have been lumped together under the label of global change, or global warming, or climate change. Successive United Nations IPCC assessments and special reports have characterized current trends and expected impacts with increasing specificity over this period. It’s clear that such changes are real, already underway, and pose great risks to society and to ecosystems; and that the human activity is the major (and largely preventable) cause.

The specifics are coming into focus. Individual nations have supplemented the IPCC work with detailed assessments of the domestic implications. In the United States, these have taken the form of National Climate Assessments. In fact,  the Fourth (2018) National Climate Assessment was released this past Friday, to considerable news fanfare.

The report makes for sobering reading. It points to new community-level risks, as well as exacerbation of old ones; losses to the overall U.S. economy; fraying of the linkages we rely on that connect natural, built, and social systems. The Assessment drills down to detail negative impacts on water, health, indigenous peoples, ecosystems and ecosystem services, agriculture, infrastructure, oceans and coasts, tourism and recreation.

Chances are good that upon receiving this, you and I were already in a sober state of mind. You might have contributed directly to the Fourth National Climate Assessment itself. Perhaps you worked on a recent IPCC assessment or report. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely part of the community of researchers and practitioners trying to advance the geosciences and put the new knowledge to work. You and I live and work in an ocean of such warnings and reports; from where we sit, the stream of newly-discovered reasons for concern is constant and unrelenting. How could anybody ignore it?

But we turn out to be the dogs in this dog-whistling metaphor. We get the message, loud and clear. But a sampling of the news coverage shows journalistic concern for the timing of the Assessment matched concern for the substance of the Assessment itself, however dire the latter. News media were nearly unanimous in concluding and reporting that the Assessment was released on Friday of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in order to bury it. American thoughts were elsewhere: family, Black-Friday Christmas shopping, a raft of football games, and recovery from the previous day’s gastronomic excess.

Some observations:

First, God’s words to the prophet Ezekiel might seem to offer some comfort to the thousands of geoscientists whose warnings seem to fall on deaf ears.  We gave the warnings; we did our best. But that comfort is scant. The National Climate Assessment makes clear that today’s efforts are inadequate to the scale and scope of the challenge, stating:

Communities, governments, and businesses are working to reduce risks from and costs associated with climate change by taking action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation strategies. While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.

What’s more, we know all-too-well from experience with natural disasters of every sort that in hindsight, many members of the public are quick to say “The tornado (hurricane, derecho, flood, volcanic eruption, earthquake, drought) hit with no warning,” despite well-documented evidence to the contrary. Even as the effects and impacts of climate change continue to grow more apparent, we can forecast that years down the road, our community will be blamed from all quarters: “geoscientists could have and should have done more to warn; nobody saw this coming.”

Second, people in today’s world (and Americans are no exception) are continually performing triage: distinguishing between calls for their attention that (1) can wait; (2) are time-critical, where prompt action has a payoff; or (3) are beyond any capability they may have individually for making an immediate and tangible difference. Collecting firewood, finding food for a starving child, or medical care for a sick one; meeting the boss’ deadline; doing the grocery shopping; picking up the kids from school or daycare all fall into category (2). Dealing with climate change, as usually framed, gets binned by the public into categories (1) and (3).

Thoughts about how to break this impasse in a future post. In the meantime, please offer any suggestions of your own.

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Real news, uncertainty, and urgency.

Quantification of ocean heat uptake from changes in atmospheric O2 and CO2 composition.

The ocean is the main source of thermal inertia in the climate system1. During recent decades, ocean heat uptake has been quantified by using hydrographic temperature measurements and data from the Argo float program, which expanded its coverage after 20072,3. However, these estimates all use the same imperfect ocean dataset and share additional uncertainties resulting from sparse coverage, especially before 20074,5. Here we provide an independent estimate by using measurements of atmospheric oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2)—levels of which increase as the ocean warms and releases gases—as a whole-ocean thermometer. We show that the ocean gained 1.33 ± 0.20  × 1022 joules of heat per year between 1991 and 2016, equivalent to a planetary energy imbalance of 0.83 ± 0.11 watts per square metre of Earth’s surface. We also find that the ocean-warming effect that led to the outgassing of O2 and CO2 can be isolated from the direct effects of anthropogenic emissions and CO2 sinks. Our result—which relies on high-precision O2 measurements dating back to 19916—suggests that ocean warming is at the high end of previous estimates, with implications for policy-relevant measurements of the Earth response to climate change, such as climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases7 and the thermal component of sea-level rise8. –  L. Resplandy, R. F. Keeling, Y. Eddebbar, M. K. Brooks, R. Wang, L. Bopp, M. C. Long, J. P. Dunne, W. Koeve & A. Oschlies Nature, volume 563, pages105–108 (2018)

This is what real news looks like.

Earth’s oceans appear to have been warming more extensively than we’ve realized. This insight comes on the heels of recent IPCC findings that the harm likely from 20C of global warming will likely be greater than previously thought, and that limiting warming to something more like 1.50C would be substantially safer. That IPCC report also suggested nations have only a brief time window in which to effect such a soft landing.

Two reflections:

  1. First, with regard to uncertainties in what we think we know. At some point in my youth (the 1950’s? 1960’s?) my statistician father shared a result he’d seen in a peer-reviewed paper somewhere that looked at “variations” in physical constants over time. His narrative went something like this (in italics here, but NOT an exact quote):

The authors found that experiments and careful measurements would yield a published value for this or that physical constant, complete with error bars. For the next several years, subsequent publications by different authors or groups would refine the estimate, but always within the earlier error bars. Then someone would come along with an entirely new and (arguably more reliable – that’s how it would get published) approach, yielding a new estimate, one outside the earlier error bars. For the next several years, subsequent estimates would refine that new number, again within the (now new) error bars. They demonstrated this phenomenon across several physical constants, not just one.

As a statistician, he was always on the lookout for misuse, abuse, and misrepresentation of statistics, especially by scientists from other disciplines. Whatever paper he’d seen affirmed an innate skepticism he held.

In my career since, a couple of similar stories have stood out. Early on after I’d made a switch in graduate school from solid-state physics to geophysical sciences (late 1960’s), I read a paper reporting new estimates of the density of the Martian atmosphere, derived from radio occultation of probes orbiting that planet. The results showed an atmosphere perhaps one percent as dense as Earth’s at the surface, an order of magnitude less than what the researchers had expected to find based on prior estimates derived from other techniques/considerations.

Years later, I was working closely with Ned Ostenso, then Acting Chief Scientist of NOAA, who was telling me about his days as a graduate student in geology at the University of Wisconsin. He and several other students were tapped to do a transect of the Antarctic as part of the International Geophysical Year, and take soundings of the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet. They radioed back to their faculty advisers some estimates the order of ten thousand feet. Their advisors radioed back: You’re an order of magnitude high. Recheck equipment… Of course it turned out that the students had gotten their sums right.

  1. Second, the news from Resplandy et al. ought to be rocking our world. But it’s not. That’s because we’ve been swimming quite a while in another, stormier sea (itself increasingly devoid of life-sustaining oxygen?) that makes it hard for this heat uptake and its implications to register. That’s of course the virtual ocean of information, including seas and swell of breathless news headlines. competing for eyeballs and therefore focused laser-like on the inflammatory, the polarizing, the urgent, the personality-based aspects of our world – and less on underlying issues. Jobs, the economy, and trade? Healthcare? Education? Immigration? The environment? It’s easy to pay more attention to the messengers than the message.

Reminiscent of the cockpit resource management challenge: stay focused on situational awareness versus cockpit hierarchy and squabbling about irrelevancies.  It’s also reminiscent of a booklet by Charles Hummel that became a management classic in the 1960’s entitled The Tyranny of the Urgent. Hummel argued that the merely urgent and the vitally important constantly compete for our attention – and that the urgent almost always wins (think about what happens when you’re working on a project and the phone rings or an e-mail from your boss pops up). A corollary is that the urgent almost always has a deadline, where the vital (e.g., how will humankind cope with global warming) almost never does.

I’d write about this at greater length, but it’s time for me to go vote.

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Think and act like a meteorologist: VOTE.

Back on October 17th, the Washington Post ran an article with this sobering title: Despite rampant voter enthusiasm, the reality: many don’t plan to vote in November. Some excerpts:

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Interest in the midterm elections is at a fever pitch in much of the country, with both Democrats and Republicans far more passionate than they’ve been in more than a decade.

Could this be the year that Tennessee’s Montgomery County shows up to vote?

Located northwest of Nashville along the Kentucky border, this county often has one of the lowest voting rates in the state — in a state that often has one of the lowest rates in the country, and in a country that has one of the lowest rates in the world, trailing most developed nations.

During the divisive 2016 presidential election, Montgomery County registered its lowest turnout in the past six presidential elections. Of residents who were old enough to vote, just 42 percent actually did, according to a Washington Post analysis. Meanwhile, the national rate was 61 percent and statewide was 51 percent, according to the U.S. Elections Project. Historically, those numbers fall in midterm elections

…The reasons for not voting may vary by location but feature similar strains of disillusionment and skepticism. Tennessee has harsher voting restrictions in place than states with higher turnout rates, but few people cite those as reasons for not voting.

Montgomery County residents offered a list of reasons: The state mostly has been controlled by Republicans for years, so many right-leaning nonvoters say their chosen candidate doesn’t need their support to win and left-leaners say their candidate will never win. Both sides ask the same question: Why bother?

Others said they don’t care about politics — often citing its nastiness — and don’t want to pick a side. And still others said they just can’t get excited about the candidates on the ballot.

“I just think that it’s a waste of my time,” said Leo Meeks, 39, a lifelong Clarksvillian who majored in political science in college but hasn’t voted in at least eight years. Even if he did vote, he said, the winner is often determined by gerrymandered districts or the electoral college, not voters. “Because whoever’s going to get into office is not going to be influenced based on what my goals are or what my needs are or what the public’s needs,” he said. “It’s going to be driven by capitalism, by big companies. . . . Money controls.”

This is just one article, from one news source, focused on the 2018 midterms… but even the quickest, most superficial Google search turns up other similar coverage, spanning  the New York Times, NPR, Vox, Live Science, CNN and myriad others. Despite consequential national stakes, despite appeals to civic duty, American voter turnout remains stubbornly low. This has engendered a veritable cottage industry of analysis, which pops up every two years much like those fireworks stands that materialize in parking lots as the Fourth of July draws near. There’s a lot of attention to demographics: state-by-state and district by district; to Democratic turnout versus Republican turnout; elderly vs. the young; to variations in turnout related to ethnicity, etc. The search for root causes is unrelenting: barriers to voter registration, and how these target the poor, or ethnic minorities; gerrymandering the nation into largely safe Congressional districts, shifting the real battles from the elections per se to the party primaries; (every four years), idiosyncrasies in the electoral-college system that allow presidential candidates to win with a minority of votes. Remote polling places, long lines, conflicts between voting and job and family priorities all play a role. The landscape is rife with proposed policy fixes: making voting mandatory; shift in Election Day from Tuesday to a weekend, following a pattern prevailing across much of the world; districting commissions to reduce gerrymandering; same-day registrations; fewer restrictions on absentee voting; and countless others as well as variations on these themes.

One way or another, all these schemes confront what seems to be a human bias along the lines of “my vote doesn’t matter.”

Here’s where meteorologists ought to have an edge. We know that in chaotic systems like the Earth’s atmosphere, small changes in conditions at any moment or place can exert a big difference later on and downstream. Throughout our careers, we’ve confronted the reality that in weather prediction, everything matters, down to the smallest details – in wind, temperature, pressure, and humidity; the particulars in solar and infrared radiation balance; interaction with physical, chemical, and biological properties of the Earth’s surface, especially the water. Even down to:

the flapping of the butterfly’s wings.

Armed with that awareness, imbued with that knowledge, nothing deters us from the polls, right? We know our vote matters and we act accordingly. We show up and are counted.


Part of the reason for the question is that the meteorological demographic is not one that the pollsters examine. I don’t know of a single survey that breaks out a comparison between meteorologists and the general population. So the encouragement here is not evidence-based so much as it’s a hunch. Or perhaps only a hope.

Two concluding thoughts.

Vote like a meteorologist. You and I should think like meteorologists when it comes to deciding whether to vote, but it shouldn’t stop there. We should think like meteorologists when it comes to how (or for whom or what) to vote. We don’t base weather predictions on wishful thinking. We’re reality-based. Similarly, we don’t base weather predictions on the wind or pressure field alone, or what happened yesterday or a year ago. We approach prediction comprehensively, balancing all factors according to nature’s rules.

In the same way, we shouldn’t pick a candidate for broad responsibilities based on a single issue. Immigration. Health care. Jobs. Judicial appointments. Foreign policy. Tariffs. Education. Innovation. Environment. Basic human values – honesty, fairness, integrity, etc. All these, and more, matter! And evidence and facts matter more than rhetoric – especially rhetoric that appeals to fear, or anger, or hate, or that is based on falsehoods.

We approach our complex meteorological science in a disciplined way. We ought to be commensurately measured and structured with our political choices. They make not make a difference with respect to how our science and technologies fare over the next two years, but they will make a difference in the way our science benefits the larger society over that period.

Vote for a meteorologist. Finally, vote for a meteorologist. We may not know how our political participation stacks up against other communities and sectors in our society. But we do have voting underway now for the volunteer leadership of the American Meteorological Society – our next president and next group of Councilors. The deadline to Vote is November 7, 2018. Not sure of the exact statistics on the percentage of our members who vote; let’s just say based on figures from previous years that there’s always room for improvement.

Did I mention we should vote?


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Tropical storms pummel, and bring to light, a third-world America.

“Out of sight, out of mind[1].”

Most of us of a certain age are familiar with “third world” nomenclature. When coined, in the 1950’s, the term referred to countries unaligned with either the NATO- or Soviet blocs during the Cold War. Over time, because a number of those Third World nations were also poor and non-industrial, the phrase morphed to this latter connotation. Since the Cold War ended, the term has fallen into disuse; it’s often replaced by developing countries, least-developed countries, or Global South.

Scholars have long recognized that even so-called developed nations contain pockets of poverty within their borders. From time to time, journalists pick up on this. Thus, for example, last fall, the Washington Post ran a story entitled There’s a Third-World America that No One Notices. It started this way:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Americans in Puerto Rico have spent weeks without reliable access to clean water, electricity and cellphone service. The conditions on the ground remain deplorable, with shattered homes and damaged infrastructure everywhere.

But what if hundreds of thousands of Americans lived in these conditions for generations and no one noticed? That’s exactly what some border communities in Texas experience on a daily basis: third-world conditions compounded by public and official indifference to their plight.

In the “colonias” of the American Southwest, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have lived without running water for decades (not to mention the lack of electricity, sewage treatment and drainage). Homes are built without regard for safety codes or regulations. The result is structures that look like shacks, hastily built by residents with little money and even less construction expertise…

As the reference to Hurricane Maria hints, natural hazards – floods, drought, storms, earthquakes and more – exacerbate such pre-existing social disadvantages. The rich are less vulnerable to hazards to begin with. Statistically, they live in better-built structures, on safer land, sustained by more robust critical infrastructure. The disadvantaged – the poor, ethnic minorities, elderly, the young – are more at risk. What’s more, statistically speaking the rich better understand the workings of the social safety net; following disasters they can and do use that understanding to gain better access to government aid, and recover more quickly and completely. By contrast, third worlders take it on the chin.

Speaking of Hurricane Maria, more than a year on, the news media continue to update the continuing struggles of Puerto Rico to deal with Maria’s aftermath. The news is sobering. Writers question whether and how Puerto Rico can ever recover from the destruction of the electrical infrastructure and a “year of darkness;” polluted water; access to school and education; the loss of tens of thousands of jobs; and even the minimal respect for the dead needed to depict accurately the toll.

Succeeding tropical storms have continued to expose additional vulnerabilities across America and its territories. This from the Huffington Post:

Super Typhoon Yutu ripped through the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory of some 55,000 people in the Pacific, early Thursday [October 25] local time as one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones to make landfall anywhere on the planet.

With maximum sustained winds of 180 mph, Yutu was the most powerful storm on Earth this year and the second-strongest ever to strike U.S. soil, topped only by the Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935. The eye of Yutu passed over the islands of Tinian and Saipan, causing what National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Aydlett described as “catastrophic damage.”

Michael Lowry, a strategic planner for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called it “one of the most intense tropical cyclones we’ve observed worldwide in the modern record.” The National Weather Service in Guam said it would “likely become the new yard stick by which future storms are judged.”

Despite its impact on thousands of American citizens, the historic and devastating storm seemed like something of an afterthought back in the continental U.S.

Hurricane Michael. But challenges to recovery aren’t limited to U.S. territories. Here on the mainland, the response to Hurricane Michael is on a similar track. This from the October 29th New York Times:

Residents and officials from Panama City, Fla., are urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to speed up its response to a worsening housing crisis that has left thousands homeless or living in buildings damaged when Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle nearly three weeks ago.

Officials in Panama City gave FEMA high marks for its initial response to the storm, which slammed into the Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on Oct. 10. But as electricity and other services come back on line, they are becoming frustrated with the agency’s complex bureaucracy and increasingly alarmed by what they see as an uncoordinated effort to prevent a permanent exodus of storm survivors from their communities.

Estimates vary widely on the number of people rendered homeless by the storm — local officials place the number at 10,000 to 20,000, with more than 1,000 living in three shelters around the city

…As of Saturday, 48,665 households in Bay County, where Panama City is, have applied for aid through FEMA — about a quarter of all people living in the Gulf Coast county.

So far, 2,273 homeowners and 6,145 renters have received FEMA rental assistance payouts, totaling about $16.5 million, according to the most recent statistics gathered by the agency’s Atlanta regional office.

Another $17.5 million has been paid out to homeowners for repairs or replacement of their wind-battered houses, a small down payment on what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar federal recovery and rebuilding effort that will span years.

And this from the October 26th Huffington Post hints at the reality on the ground:

…More than two weeks after the powerful eyewall of Hurricane Michael passed over Bay County, Mark Ward wonders when the power will work again. And the sewer. And the water.

“We’ve been living out of coolers. We’ve been grilling out.” He points to a red cooler and two grills in front of his mobile home. He has to shout to be heard over the buzz of a generator.

Although electric, water and sewer service were restored to Panama City residents on Wednesday, those like Ward who live in the rural parts of Bay County still lack basic services.

“It’s a struggle. You feel frustrated because our local government seems to care more about the tourism industry than the hard-working people,” says the 49-year-old. “You go off some of these dirt roads that are still unpaved, these houses are crushed. These people have no resources.”…

…Bay County is known for its sugar-sand beaches. Panama City Beach, which made it through relatively unscathed from the storm, is a mecca for spring breakers each year. Mexico Beach, another stunning community on the Gulf of Mexico, was almost obliterated by the storm. Stark, stunning visuals of the destruction there have been a staple of post-hurricane news coverage.

But the rural folks in Bay County say they feel invisible. About 180,000 people live in the county, and according to the Census, 14 percent of them live in poverty

Ronald Lauricellaowns a mobile home [in the area].

[His] yard is a mishmash of downed limbs, piled-up garbage and two tents. Two dogs and a small kitten roam the property.

Lauricella is staying in one tent and keeping food in another.

The inside of his mobile home is another explosion of chaos. The front door and his bedroom window were blown out from the hurricane’s winds. Water soaked the carpets and drywall.

“There’s bugs everywhere,” he said. “It smells. You can smell the mold growing.”

Lauricella, 19, has no property insurance. He’s in between jobs, and hopes to make it to an interview at a restaurant this week if he can scrape up enough money for gas. He figures it’s his only hope to recover from the storm.

“No one’s really sending help our way,” Lauricella said.

No one’s really sending help our way?

Initial reaction? You and I might get defensive, beg to differ. We could cite ways we are already doing something about that, as individuals and as a community. In our work across government agencies, the private sector, and universities we’re improving forecasts, emergency management, and saving lives. The social scientists being added to our numbers are improving our awareness of and outreach to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our midst. In our work at NGO’s ranging from the American Meteorological Society, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and myriad other groups we’re also tackling the land-use-, building-code-, and social-justice aspects of the problem.

But we can and should be doing more – leveraging our work by entraining others, building coalitions, buttressing pertinent areas of K-12 STEM education. We can’t allow Ronald Lauricella – and millions more like him in our own American backyard as well as abroad – to fall out of sight and therefore out of mind.


[1] ‘Out of sight out of mind’ is a proverb that has existed since at least the medieval times. We’re told its first printed usage is possibly in a 1562 collection of proverbs by John Heywood.

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Real-World management? Governance is the hard part.

Transitioning from happy-go-lucky living on the Real World to managing the planet poses daunting scientific and technical challenges. But these are the least of our problems. My younger (smarter, richer, better-looking, and only) brother noted this in an e-mail:

“… I think a critical factor in determining whether “earth whispering” will succeed or not is time frame. 

       The Wright brothers were able to become effective “airplane whisperers” within a relatively short period of time. Thus, they saw the chance for success and remained focused enough to achieve it. Further, the two of them were able to make significant strides on their own. That must have also helped their continuing motivation.

      Learning to be earth whisperers is obviously a much bigger—and potentially a much longer duration—job. But we do have some fancy tools going for us—-everything from artificial intelligence to instantaneous, world-wide communication. But we also have a big, extra impediment to progress: The fact that a wide array of governments will have to figure out how to work together towards success.”

Well said! Governance is the challenge.

“Earth management” implies some level of understanding of how the planet works, and how it will change in response to human activity, but also – and this is the tough part – some degree of consensus among the 200 nations representing seven billion people from diverse cultures and economic circumstances, about what to do and how and when to do it. Married couples, and partners, know all too well that reaching agreement on consequential matters can be difficult; achieving unanimity among 233 people can be even more so (it might be more in the ratio of 2 to 233 factorial). Government-to-government engagement obviously helps but is by no means a silver bullet.

The world’s track record in this arena is chequered. The United Nations provides seven decades of experience with respect to an array of humanitarian and public-interest issues. More narrowly, global efforts to cope with climate change, centered around the work of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), offer a recent look. The latter actually provides some reasons for cheer. The world started with cookie-cutter approaches demanding nations all contribute “equally” to reducing carbon emissions. These proved an abject failure. Efforts then shifted to the more nuanced idea that each nation will initially contribute what can be supported by its internal domestic politics, to be followed by periodic adjustments, each driven in part by a bit of international shaming. In so doing, the world’s nations seem to have hit on an approach that so far has proven robust even in the face of US withdrawal from formal participation (a withdrawal that will likely be only temporary).

Thus far, scientists have entered such waters with laudable caution, even with regard to governance of the conduct of research itself. For instance, in 2015 the U.S. National Academies of Science issued companion reports on climate intervention research, looking at both Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration and Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. In both, they explicitly acknowledged the governance issue but refrained from making recommendations. Instead they pleaded their study groups weren’t constituted for such a task.

That is about to change. The Academy is embarking on a new study, Climate Intervention Strategies That Reflect Sunlight to Cool Earth, which addresses both research and governance in an integrated fashion. From the statement of task:

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposes to undertake a study that would develop a research agenda and recommend research governance approaches for climate intervention strategies that reflect sunlight to cool Earth. The proposed study would aim to address research needs and relevant research governance in tandem, such that the understanding and thinking on each can inform the other.

The study will focus on sunlight reflection strategies that involve atmospheric interventions, including marine cloud brightening, stratospheric aerosol injection, and cirrus cloud modification. It will consider trans-disciplinary research related to understanding the baseline chemistry, radiative balance, and other characteristics of the atmosphere; estimating the potential impacts and risks, both positive and negative, of these interventions on the atmosphere, climate system, natural and managed ecosystems, and human systems; technological feasibility of these interventions; and approaches and metrics for detecting, monitoring and quantifying the multiple physical and societal impacts of solar climate interventions.

The study will explore and recommend appropriate research governance mechanisms at international, national, and sub-national scales. It will consider research governance that already exists, examples of research governance mechanisms currently being used or considered for other areas of scientific inquiry that could be adapted to the realm of climate intervention research, and any potentially new frameworks required.

To accomplish this, the NASEM study group will be composed of two subpanels. The first will develop a detailed trans-disciplinary research agenda for sunlight reflection strategies. The second (our focus here) will explore and recommend appropriate research governance mechanisms. To quote again from the statement of task: 

The committee will assess questions such as:

  • How best to foster meaningful public participation and consultation in research planning and oversight, and to ensure transparency and accountability regarding a project’s goals and plans, potential risks, and eventual results?
  • How to ensure that research is designed to minimize the chances of unintended impacts and is aimed at promoting the collective benefit of humankind and the environment?
  • How to identify and apply professional standards of good scientific conduct?
  • How to balance adequate oversight, review, public consultation, and approval mechanisms with norms for freedom of scientific inquiry?
  • How to harness the benefits of potential private sector involvement (e.g., innovation, capital investment, cost minimization) without creating vested financial interests in operational deployment, inappropriate intellectual property claims, or threats to national and international public good?
  • What statutory limits might affect what work can be funded by federal agencies and what research may need to adhere to particular existing federal policies or international agreements or processes?
  • How to identify the governance mechanisms that should be in place in advance of field research at various scales?

A disciplined look at such issues is sorely needed and should be most welcome.

Three comments in closing: First, as social scientists in the crowd will quickly (and correctly) note, the answers to these governance questions are probably not so much in hand as they remain to be explored, teased out, investigated, and addressed as  research topics in and of themselves.

Second, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the international conversation, and indeed governance/oversight that would be needed to scale up governance of such research to governance of worldwide operational intervention sometime down the road.

Third, perhaps you’re reading this and thinking you know someone who could contribute usefully to the NASEM conversation, or you might be thinking you could be that person.

Don’t be bashful! Go on line and nominate them – or yourself. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are looking them – and for you. Raise your hand!

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Horse whisperers…Earth whisperers.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”[1]

The 21stcentury – the age we live in – will be remembered by historians as the period the Earth transitioned from a wholly-wild planet to a managed one.

This awareness is relatively new. For most of human experience, Earth management has been the furthest thing from our minds. Our Real World has been merely resource and threat. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari puts it this way:

2 million years ago… there was nothing special about humans… they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.

Little ambiguity or doubt about this. Where the uncertainty lies is in the next question: what will that future, managed Earth look like? Will it retain much of its current vibe – the landscape, natural ecosystems and by extension their wondrous variety and function most of us have taken for granted all of our lives? Or will it be a sterile, salt-water bathtub of largely denuded dust and rock, offering only minimal ecosystem services[2]?

The answer – the actual outcome – won’t be something that happensto us. It will be a future we create.

We could aim low– allow ourselves to be content with largely technological fixes to the basic problems of water, food, and energy resources; resilience to hazards; and environmental degradation. In that case the planet will likely look and feel austere. Or, we could aim high– and achieve something far richer, more diverse, maybe even glorious.

The two previous LOTRW posts have compared our planetary ride with aviation. Here’s another metaphor that is illuminating: taming and riding a horse.

Note the key difference: the hot-air balloon, or the plane, is inanimate; it has no mind of its own. A horse is an entirely different matter.

A retrospection: When I was growing up, though living in eastern towns and cities in the 1950’s, I was fascinated by the Old West. Much of that culture focused on horses – their innately wild nature, and their domestication. For the most part, that latter process was framed in books (both history and fiction) and on film as “breaking the horse” – teaching the horse, using physical restraint and punishment as needed, that the rider was the master, and had to be obeyed, however reluctantly.

It was easy for the urbanite child reader to accept this uncritically. As I entered adulthood, the demands and allure of work and forming rich relationships with people around me took over; the Old West receded into the background.

Then came 1998 and the film The Horse Whisperer, starring the iconic and singular Robert Redford, and introducing Scarlet Johansson. The movie’s stars and popularity acquainted even urbanite minds with the idea that instead of “breaking” a horse, it is possible to begin with a different premise: a basic respect for the horse and an understanding of equine psychology, and to found horseback riding on a more equitable relationship – a partnership. The film made “whispering” a thing in popular culture. The years following would see the National Geographic series “Dog Whisperer;” a “Ghost Whisperer” TV drama; Vin Diesel in The Pacifiersardonically referred to as ‘the duck(!) whisperer;” and more.

Back to our present discussion: Without too much of a stretch, then, it’s possible to see options for intentional management of the Real World as ranging from “breaking the planet,” to Earth whispering.

Again, the differences find their analog in the “Langley-“ and “Wright-brothers” approaches to flight. Langley and his team sought to make the atmosphere a passive backdrop by upping engine power. The Wright brothers acknowledged that while pilots might have a destination, the atmosphere would always shape the journey. They sought to control the aircraft in the face of head- and tailwinds, updrafts, and down drafts, storms and turbulence.

Reflection on these  (and other!) analogies is constructive. There are at least as many takeaways as there are human participants in this great managed-Earth endeavor.

That said, two lessons matter above all the others. First, we can never know enough about the Earth, the Real World – how it works, what it will do next, and in particular how it responds to the actions of seven billion people. And our efforts to learn more will succeed or fail based on our investment in critical infrastructure: The Earth observing platforms. The instruments. The data assimilation and analytics. The research. The conceptual and numerical modeling. STEM education of the public and professional training for the workforce. Information access for policymakers and the public.

Second, instead of attempting to impose our will on the Earth we live on (show Earth who’s in charge), we need embrace reality (the atmosphere is warming; sea level is rising, ecosystems are struggling, and here’s why; the built environment, especially the coastal built environment, is fragile with respect to storms, and here’s why; air, water and soil quality, habitat, and biodiversity are under siege, and here’s why).

Partnering with the horse begins by listening to it, and respecting it. Start with that, and then a whisper from us will do.


[1]This quote or something closely akin has been various attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker – and even to Alan Kay and Jeff Bezos. If interested in deeper analysis, consult quoteinvestigator.

[2]Not unlike what Mars looks to be, based on the views and science we’ve collected so far.

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“Human flight” on the 21st-century Real World? 2. Think like the Wright brothers, not like Samuel Langley.

everything under control

Wilbur and Orville Wright lived at a time in history when inventors of every stripe were feverishly building flying machines. Americans were particularly focused on the efforts of Samuel Langley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It was widely assumed that he and the Smithsonian, with their relatively large financial and intellectual resources, would win the world’s race – would be the first to achieve powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. (This despite several publicly-visible failed attempts; surely the Langley effort would ultimately win out.)

the Langley failure, nine days prior to the Wright brothers success

The key technology enabling the buzz – the widely-held optimism that the 1900’s would prove to be the historic moment – was the newly-developed internal combustion engine. Langley, the Smithsonian, indeed all active competitors for the prize and their sea of spectators, were keenly aware of the challenge to maximize the power output while minimizing engine weight.

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers were working in relative obscurity, supported by the income from their Ohio bicycle shop. They recognized the power-weight problem, but focused on an additional challenge – the control of the aircraft. One source puts it this way:

The Wrights appear to be the first to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve the power and control problems. Both problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest. They solved the control problem by inventing wing warping for roll control, combined with simultaneous yaw control with a steerable rear rudder. Almost as an afterthought, they designed and built a low-powered internal combustion engine. They also designed and carved wooden propellers that were more efficient than any before, enabling them to gain adequate performance from their low engine power. Although wing-warping as a means of lateral control was used only briefly during the early history of aviation, the principle of combining lateral control in combination with a rudder was a key advance in aircraft control. While many aviation pioneers appeared to leave safety largely to chance, the Wrights’ design was greatly influenced by the need to teach themselves to fly without unreasonable risk to life and limb, by surviving crashes. This emphasis, as well as low engine power, was the reason for low flying speed and for taking off in a head wind. Performance, rather than safety, was the reason for the rear-heavy design, because the canard could not be highly loaded; anhedral wings were less affected by crosswinds and were consistent with the low yaw stability.

The Wright brothers would continue to work on aircraft-control for the remainder of their lives.

Which brings us to “human flight” on the Real World. You and I might prefer not to think of this as “flight,” but by whatever name our generation is living-out a great human transition – from happy-go-lucky living, to active management of the Earth’s surface, oceans, and atmosphere. The challenge going forward is whether we and our descendants intentionally shoulder this responsibility and carry it out well.

One way to approach the problem might be to apply technology to the threefold task of meeting resource needs, coping with hazards, and minimizing pollution. Ultimately, we might feed our (now slowly) growing numbers by “3-D printing” of food – using growing understanding of fundamental biology to manufacture food wholly artificially. We could apply other technology to desalinate seawater at massive scale. To power both these advances, we would deploy renewable energy as required. We would build resilience to natural extremes through better design and construction of buildings and critical infrastructure. We could continue to add energy capacity to minimize pollution and environmental degradation.

This is arguably the path we are on[1]. It is brute force. It seeks to make nature irrelevant. But so long as we can minimally get-along with our neighbors in the process, controlling warfare, terrorism, cyber-attacks, etc. (an admittedly big “if”), this approach can “succeed.”

This might be called the Langley approach (with apologies to the great man).

At the other end of the spectrum, we could balance such technology efforts with additional innovation in an entirely different and complementary direction –accelerating our understanding of how the Earth’s natural systems are interconnected and work together, and harnessing this knowledge to maintain Earth’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and function to the extent possible while moving to sustainability.

In short, a bit more emphasis on planetary stewardship and control. Let’s label this the Wright brothers approach[2].

(Others have suggested different terms to describe these two futures: for example, the technocene and the symbiocene. Some might consider the former too harsh; others might see the latter too flowery.)

A closing thought. You and I will not live to see any final, steady-state Langley- or Wright-brothers future scenario. Our entire careers will be spent transiting from where we are today to that future state. All the while we’ll be asked to make weather, water, and climate forecasts on every time scale, as best we can. Year after year, we’ll be daily providing impact-based decision support services – of ever-increasing consequence. (A reality that recent experience with weather extremes worldwide drives home.) But history will judge us not so much by any of this day-to-day work. Instead, future generations will ask how we helped make it possible for them to manage the planet wisely and sustainably.


[1]A possible answer to the LOTRW masthead question: what kind of world is likely if we take no action?

[2] A possible answer to one or both of the LOTRW masthead questions: what kind of world do we want? Or, What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

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“Human flight” on the 21st-century Real World? 1. The cockpit dialog.

Seven billion of us are co-piloting a 1.317 × 1025-lb, unpressurized, open-air planet through the hostile environment of space.

You might not be impressed with this reality. You might even be tempted to dismiss it as no more than a flawed and unhelpful metaphor.

But it’s a perspective that we need to embrace. Easier said than done! For most of us, glued to the LED-laptop screen embedded in the virtual reality that is today’s artificially-lit, temperature-controlled, urban office, several degrees-of-separation removed from the planet we live on let alone the larger universe, it’s hard to get in touch with such an idea. A chaotic jumble of urgent demands and seductive distractions make it tough to focus.

To pursue the flight analogy a bit further: the National Transportation Safety Board tells us that regardless of the flight equipment, the safer flight cockpits are those that tend toward the egalitarian, where communications are good, flightcrew members are on the same page, and everyone maintains focus and situational awareness. The more dangerous cockpits are those with top-down hierarchies, and where flightcrews are distracted and fail to work together:

Crew resource management (CRM) training is designed to improve crew coordination, resource allocation, and error management in the cockpit.  CRM training augments technical training, enhances pilots’ performance, and encourages all flightcrew members to identify and assertively announce potential problems by focusing on situational awareness, communications skills, teamwork, task allocation, and decision-making within a comprehensive framework of standard operating procedures.  Two aviation tragedies provide noteworthy examples of what can go wrong when flightcrews fail to work together.  The deadliest aviation accident in history, the 1977 collision of 2 B-747s on Tenerife, Canary Islands, in part occurred because the co-pilot and engineer failed to challenge the captain’s decision to initiate takeoff before confirming that the runway was clear.  In the 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 accident, which killed 78 people, the NTSB cited the captain’s failure to reject the takeoff during the early stage when his attention was called to anomalous engine instrument readings…

 Of course, co-piloting planet Earth is more like co-piloting a hot-air balloon, with minimal control over where the balloon is going (except up-and-down, and the incidental impact of that on direction and speed of travel). It’s not the same as co-piloting in what engineers refer to as aerodynamic flight. It’s primarily control only of conditions onboard[1].

But now let’s ask ourselves: what kind of flightcrew are we? First off, to repeat, no one of us is a mere passenger. We’re each crew members, in the sense that our individual actions influence conditions onboard: resource consumption; resilience vs. vulnerability to hazards; the rate at which entropy and pollution increase. We have agency. What’s more, we can’t opt out. We own a bit of responsibility.

Second, we’re distracted – essentially oblivious – with respect to “flight operations.” And few are thinking long-term. One billion-plus people eke out a hard-scrabble existence and struggle day in and day out to meet basic needs of water, food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their children over the next twenty-four hours. Several billions more are better off, but only slightly – living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep jobs, maintain a problematic web of family and social relationships, living in an urban world offering little direct evidence of trends in planetary conditions.

Third, we’re hierarchial, operating under a high degree of top-down command-and-control. A small minority of the seven billion – the world’s leaders – are in this analogy, true pilots – not mere co-pilots. Their number includes monarchs, political and business leaders, the rich and super-rich. Their perspectives, though nominally different from yours and mine, are similarly short-term and often self-interested. Pilot-status is inherently fleeting and under incessant threat; in our king-of-the-hill world these favored few find the free-for-all to maintain their favored positions breathtakingly relentless and time-consuming, leaving little margin for addressing longer-term issues or the larger good.

Lastly, we’re not just distracted and hierarchial, we’re squabbling, struggling to like each other or even politely get along. This is true at every level – globally and internationally, within-country, down to states and localities, and across private industry. It’s not that we don’t all see eye to eye. That’s a strength – we don’t share the same blind spots. But we find it increasingly difficult to work through these differences to find needed consensus and wisdom.

Hmm. The NTSB would say our cockpit is dangerous one – likely to prove unsafe when under threat.

Nevertheless, in this problematic cockpit environment, a handful of the co-pilots have mounted a structured look at Earth’s situation, sustained over several decades. They have identified a set of proximate threats under the label of climate change. Along the way, they’ve been attempting to get the attention of the rest of the flight crew, with some success.

Of course this refers to the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Most recently, they’ve put out an IPCC special reporton the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.” The wide media coverage notes that the latest IPCC conclusions are both new and yet similar to previous findings. Here’s a sample of the reporting, this from Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis in The Washington Post:

The world stands on the brink of failure when it comes to holding global warming to moderate levels, and nations will need to take “unprecedented” actions to cut their carbon emissions over the next decade, according to a landmark report by the top scientific body studying climate change.

With global emissions showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before, the group found.

“There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy, transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement[2]

…Meanwhile, the report clearly documents that a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would be very damaging and that 2 degrees — which used to be considered a reasonable goal — could approach intolerable in parts of the world.

 …Specifically, the document finds that instabilities in Antarctica and Greenland, which could usher in sea-level rise measured in feet rather than inches, “could be triggered around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming.” Moreover, the total loss of tropical coral reefs is at stake because 70 to 90 percent are expected to vanish at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report finds. At 2 degrees, that number grows to more than 99 percent.

The report found that holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could save an Alaska-size area of the Arctic from permafrost thaw, muting a feedback loop that could lead to still more global emissions. The occurrence of entirely ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean goes from one per century to one per decade between 1.5 and 2 degrees, it found — one of many ways in which the mere half a degree has large real-world consequences.

Risks of extreme heat and weather events just rise and rise as temperatures do, meaning these would be worse worldwide the more it warms.

To avoid that, in barely more than 10 years, the world’s percentage of electricity from renewables such as solar and wind power would have to jump from the current 24 percent to something more like 50 or 60 percent. Coal and gas plants that remain in operation would need to be equipped with technologies, collectively called carbon capture and storage (CCS), that prevent them from emitting carbon dioxide into the air and instead funnel it to be buried underground. By 2050, most coal plants would shut down.

Cars and other forms of transportation, meanwhile, would need to be shifting strongly toward being electrified, powered by these same renewable energy sources. At present, transportation is far behind the power sector in the shift to low-carbon fuel sources. Right now, according to the International Energy Agency, only 4 percent of road transportation is powered by renewable fuels, and the agency has projected only a 1 percent increase by 2022.


IPCC scientists have won over the thinking of a larger group – but that still leaves a large fraction of the co-pilots too preoccupied with the short-term to take effective action – or maybe even to notice or care.

Moreover, the response from world leaders – the pilots – has been varied. For a leader to acknowledge that (1) climate change is real, (2) largely of human origin, and (3) poses great risks implies he/she publicly shoulders responsibility to formulate a response and act. Unsurprisingly, some pilot/leaders find it convenient to deny one or more of these features of climate change in favor of maintaining some short-term status quo. They say, for example, that climate change might reverse itself. Alternatively or additionally, some of these same leaders raise a hypothetical specter of losses of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. As the NTSB reminds us, in a hierarchial world, leadership failure to come to grips with reality contributes disproportionately to the danger facing the crew as a whole.

(At the opposite end of the spectrum, other leaders, bringing their countries in train, are moving to embrace renewable energy[3], or invest in afforestation[4]. Coincidentally, these two countries happen to be experiencing above –average economic growth.)

Okay! Deep breath! In this existential Earth-piloting moment, what can and should you and I do? In short, continue to be, and/or improve our performance as flightcrew members, as judged by the NTSB metric. Focus on doing our bit, in place, to slow global temperature rise. Respect existing hierarchy, but don’t exacerbate it; respectfully push back in the up-direction as external events dictate, while not demanding special deference from others. We need to be sinks for squabbling, not sources. To build consensus, not win debates, should be our aim.

Want to see a good example of this approach in action? Check out the American Meteorological Society take.


[1] Those conditions do matter to the safety of the balloons and their occupants..

[2] This lack of successful precedent combined with the sheer technical challenges involved prompts some to say that the battle is indeed lost.

[3]According to the Global Wind Energy Council, China has one-third of the world’s wind energy power, and is rapidly adding more; the United States has about half of the Chinese figure.

[4] In Pakistan, an ambitious effort to plant 10 billion trees takes root.

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Public-private partnerships and innovation.

Two weeks ago, Andy Miller of our group here in the AMS Policy Program DC office suggested we should all give a listen to Freakonomics radio episode #348, dated 9/6/18. What great advice! So, paying it forward. We all should want to listen and learn.

Perhaps a couple of snippets from the transcript of the interview will whet your appetite:

We all know the standard story: our economy would be more dynamic if only the government would get out of the way. The economist Mariana Mazzucato says we’ve got that story backward. She argues that the government, by funding so much early-stage research, is hugely responsible for big successes in tech, pharma, energy, and more. But the government also does a terrible job in claiming credit — and, more important, getting a return on its investment…

Mazzucato’s latest book is called The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. When it comes to the relationship between government and economic growth, Mazzucato knows how the popular narrative goes. It goes like this:

MAZZUCATO: “My God! The government, what a basket case. A group of bureaucrats. They don’t know what they’re doing!”

But she sees it differently:

MAZZUCATO: You know, what would Uber be without GPS, publicly financed? What would Google be without the Internet, publicly financed? 

Today on Freakonomics Radio: in the modern economy, are governments the ones who are getting a raw deal?

MAZZUCATO: Today, all the discussion is about getting the state out of the way, completely ignoring the fact that these government investments were critical for innovation to happen.

And, when you look at big, rich sectors of the economy like finance and pharmaceuticals — how much value are they really creating?

MAZZUCATO: We have to make it much more difficult for different actors in the economy to call themselves wealth creators without really being asked, “Well, are you, or are you not?”…

So to someone who says,“Free markets are almost always good, and governments are almost always bad,” you say what?

MAZZUCATO: The first is,“What do you mean by the free market?” And it’s curious, if you read Adam Smith, one of the first economists back in the late 1700’s, he actually meant by the word “free market” not free from the state, but free from rent-seeking, free from those activities that extract value. So what I say to those who say that we need less state in order to be more innovative, more dynamic, I say, “Let’s look at one of the most innovative parts of the U.S. economy, which is Silicon Valley. Did that come from the free market or from an active, visible hand: the state?” My point is, actually, the state was involved in almost everything in Silicon Valley. Not to exclude the role of the private sector, of course — we all know the very important companies in that area. But the role that public actors played was really across the whole innovation chain.

DUBNER: Now we’re talking about agencies like DARPA and NASA and the National Institutes of Health and so on, yes?

MAZZUCATO: Exactly. I’m talking about both agencies that do basic research like the National Science Foundation. But also agencies more downstream, doing applied research like DARPA but also its sister organization, in more recent times, called ARPA-E. The National Institutes of Health, which continue to spend more than $30 billion a year in the most radical, uncertain, high-risk research.

Hopefully, at this point you want to read, hear, and learn more. With any luck, you’re also seeing connections to the public-private partnership that lies at the foundation of the Weather Enterprise. One aspect of this partnership familiar to LOTRW readers is the routine, day-to-day collaboration that develops meteorological intelligence and delivers that intelligence to the multiple publics who need it. Hurricane Florence provides a recent case-in-point. Public agencies and the private-sector were jointly responsible for collecting the observations, doing the numerical weather prediction, and disseminating the information. Emergency managers and public officials communicated risk and desired actions to the general public. State Departments of Transportation temporarily reconfigured roadways to speed evacuation. Utility operators – the power companies, water and sewage managers, and others, took measures to reduce disruption of vital services and speed restoration of service as the hazard passed. State and federal environmental protection agencies looked at special problems posed by hog lagoons and coal-ash storage – facilities and functions that threatened pollution hazards downstream if and when surmounted by floodwaters.

Ms. Mazzucato’s focus is a bit different – it’s on the public sector’s vital role fostering the higher-risk initial steps in innovation. Given the rapid evolution in provision and use of weather services, healthy, vibrant partnerships in R&D and the transition of advances into services will continue to be important to the Weather Enterprise for the foreseeable future.

This subject is important enough to all of us that you might want to assign yourself a grade. For reading this far, give yourself a C. If you click on the Freakonomics website and speed-read/skim the interview transcript, you earn a B. Listen to the interview – savor the full half hour – and you’ll be more than rewarded for your A. For extra credit, you might tackle Ms. Mazzucato’s full book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy[1]. I’m reading it now…


[1] Here’s a book review from The Financial Times.

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Reflections on Hurricane Florence…human nature…and the Ulysses pact.

Is it just me? Or are hurricane forecasts and the resulting media coverage of hurricanes improving? Some subjective impressions: Forecasts, and forecasters and broadcasters, are providing more advance notice – Florence has been on the public radar screen a long time. From the beginning, relative forecast emphasis on water (rainfall, storm surge, and inland flooding) and wind has been focused on impacts, and has been balanced. Forecasts have indicated, and the media have duly stressed, that depending on location, the inland-flooding event would be delayed, and then be many days, even weeks in duration. Messages from the National Hurricane Center, from broadcasters, and public officials have been clear, detailed – and subjectively, based on really limited sampling – consistent[1]. (Might note that half a world away, the same could be said of warnings for Typhoon Mangkhut. There the impacts have been wind-related as well; again, the high winds were anticipated.)

All that seems to have been reflected in local-, state-, and federal actions, and the resulting public response. Evacuations have been underway for days. Hundreds have had to be rescued from their homes after the rain and winds made landfall – but not many thousands. Of course it’s early-on in the event; the fullest impact of Florence – especially that following the flooding – has yet to be felt. But that’s the subjective impression for now.

We continue to struggle, however, as individuals and as society, with the larger challenge of managing weather risk. At the last minute, we scurry out of harm’s way, as best we can under the chaos that is constant companion to imminent threat. But we make poor choices with respect to where and how we build, where we locate and how we protect critical infrastructure, how we dispose of waste, and other long-term choices and decisions that compromise our resilience for years into the future. Evacuation by no means makes us whole.

Social scientists continue to improve understanding of the psychological and social causes at the root of this. The literature is extensive, but also scattered. Fortunately, The Ostrich Paradox, Why We Underprepare for Disasters, by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther of the Wharton School, provides a thoughtful and welcome synthesis. Just how welcome? Well it seems that Hurricane Florence triggered a spate of news coverage and commentary  built around the book. Last week’s USA Today article  — just one example of many – provides a nice distillation of the six unconscious biases that undercut our ability and willingness to prepare:

  • Myopia:We focus on the short term and have difficulty understanding long-term consequences, such as the 100-year flood.  
  • Amnesia: We forget the past. We buy a condo in complex built where a storm once blew away a shopping center.
  • Inertia:We do what we’re doing until something drastic happens, when it’s too late. See New Orleans and Katrina in 2005. 
  • Selectivity: We don’t look at all the information, or simplify to the point of inaccuracy. If we have an emergency checklist, we lose interest after covering a few items, without making sure they were the most important.
  • Herding: We make choices based on what the other person is doing. And so we both wind up treading water.
  • Optimism: This most American of traits leads us to underestimate risk, ignore worst-case scenarios and think bad things will only happen to others. It’s a great attitude for someone starting a business, not so much for someone living in a flood zone.

The fuller book expands on these and gives context.

Most of us, if we’re honest, recognize ourselves in some or all of these traits. The authors advise us to start here in the search for cures – doing what they call a behavior risk audit. As individuals and communities, our tendencies towards these thought patterns vary; we can assess our strengths and weaknesses in these respects, then formulate policies that address these biases and maybe sidestep them. In a video interview based on the book, Howard Kunreuther provides an example:

…Myopia is one of the biases that we have. We all have short-term horizons. We want to get immediate returns. If there are things that we can do for the long term, we often find they are very prohibitively expensive. Let’s take an example of having to make our house safer against a flood or hurricane. There’s a lot of cost to doing that. You could elevate your house, but that’s very costly. You could maybe flood-proof it. People will say, “What are the benefits that I’m going to get from that in the next period?” They’ll be very reluctant to put in the money because they say the benefits are going to be very short run. And they’re right. If you’re going to get a short-run benefit like a reduction in your insurance premium, you’ll say, “Well, I’m not going to get enough to pay for that expense.”

We would recommend that instead of thinking about just the long term with respect to this, there are two things that one can do. One is, you might give a person a loan to help them out and spread the cost over time. The other thing to deal with is the “it won’t happen to me.” Instead of saying, “It’s going to be a one in 100 chance of a flood occurring next year,” stretch the time and say, “Think about the fact that there might be a hurricane in the next 30 years, and that likelihood is greater than one in four, or one in five.” Then, people will think about the long term and maybe decide that they can take some action.

To read the six biases is to have a flash of recognition. By contrast, to ponder the suggested cures is more sobering than encouraging. Every day’s news accounts of disasters suggest we’re going another way. (We see the same challenge when it comes to the self-control we need to take command of our lives with respect to needed work-life balance, diet, rest, and exercise.)

Arguably, the greatest opportunities, the most likely to work real-world, would seem to lie in social measures – in policies – versus individual actions. This ought to be true for two reasons. First, to be personally resilient in a brittle but interconnected world is an oxymoron. That line of thought starts with going off the grid, then progresses to moving to Idaho or Montana, then … to ever more extreme and self-evidently bankrupt measures.

Better to put handcuffs on ourselves, metaphorically speaking, with respect to risk management. This might seem extreme, but we do this all the time in life to good effect: agreeing to drive on the right side of the road; instituting and obeying speed limits; settling on 110-120 volts 60-cycle AC electrical power; ISO 9000 standards; and more. We even do this in the hazards arena, most notably in aviation.

Similar ideas have been with us since antiquity, in the form of the so-called Ulysses pact. From Wikipedia: Ulysses pact or Ulysses contract is a freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. The term is used in medicine, especially in reference to advance directives (also known as living wills), where there is some controversy over whether a decision made by a person in one state of health should be considered binding upon that person when he or she is in a markedly different, usually worse, state of health.

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.

Time to get our heads out of the sand.


[1] Coincidentally, Mike Smith sent me a link to his reflections on this subject just moments ago. Just one example of hundreds driving home the point that weather information infrastructure undergirds and enables a range of individual efforts.

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