Situational awareness, taken to a new level: from GPS to CPS.

This week, the American Meteorological Society and its Policy Program, under the leadership of Paul Higgins, issued the report Climate Information Needs for Financial Decisionmaking, summarizing its June workshop by the same name. The report looks ahead to a future world where knowledge of prevailing climate conditions – global, regional, and local – and the trends in those conditions, will be part and parcel of everyday situational awareness.

Wikipedia tells us that situational awareness is the perception of environmental elements with respect to time and/or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event.

In most circumstances, situational awareness begins with the question “where am I?” Today, geographical location is taken for granted. Younger readers may never have known a day without the Global Positioning System, or GPS, which was developed in 1973 and became fully operational in 1995. It locates people and objects on the Earth’s surface to within perhaps 10 feet or so, or even better when ionospheric corrections are applied. When first developed, GPS required cumbersome electronics, then later, a separate gadget; today it’s simply and cheaply incorporated in everyone’s smartphone.

But those of a certain age can remember automobile-door pouches filled with atlases and maps, and post-World-War-II radiolocation devices by names such as LORAN (Long-Range-Navigation), which was good only to a quarter mile. In fact, during the war and prior, uncertainty in location was a major threat to marine and aerial navigation. Historically, latitude at sea could be relatively accurately determined for centuries by fixing the angle of the sun at noon but the uncertainty in longitude was responsible for many shipwrecks. (For a fascinating, highly readable account of the 18th-century invention of chronometers sufficiently accurate and seaworthy to permit an estimate of longitude (inferred from difference in time between local noon and Greenwich mean time) readers might be interested in Dava Sobel’s classic book, Longitude.)

Situational awareness may begin with location, but it quickly moves to context: What are the conditions here? How are these conditions changing? Who and what else are nearby? What are they doing? How are they behaving? Do they represent threat or opportunity? Stores, workplaces, events, and people in a given vicinity all contribute to this context. So do air and water quality and other environmental conditions.

Especially the weather. Under most circumstances, weather is relevant, if not pressing. Even when we’re ensconced in home or office, we’ll leave soon, and weather will determine our transit to the next destination. Weather threats trigger emergency response. Farmers use weather information to make virtually every decision: when to plow; plant; apply fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; harvest. Utilities rely on weather forecasts to anticipate changes in energy demand, and increasingly, energy supply (from wind turbines and photovoltaics, for example). Weather shapes flight plans, ship routes, and trucking schedules. The list of weather-sensitive decisions and actions is large and growing.

Each passing year has also extended the time horizon over which weather conditions matter to humanity. And these days, when supplies of food, water, energy and more depend on critical infrastructure which takes years to fund, design and implement and which has a useful life measured in decades, climate information is increasingly recognized as a vital component to situational awareness – needed by governments, corporations, financial institutions, and individuals. Uncertainty or limitations in forecast specificity and skill translate directly into increased costs, lost performance, and magnified risk.

These impacts are multi-dimensional and richly textured. As the AMS Policy Program report notes:

Weather events create and exacerbate risks to financial investments by causing 1) direct physical impacts on the investments themselves, 2) degradation of critical supporting infrastructure, 3) changes in the availability of key resources, 4) changes to workforce availability or capacity, 5) changes in the customer base, 6) supply chain disruptions, 7) legal liability, 8) shifts in the regulatory environment, 9) reductions in credit ratings, and 10) additional impacts that alter competitiveness (e.g., shifts in consumer preferences).

The financial implications come in for special attention:

Critically, a great deal of information relevant to financial analysis is already available and could be used if characterized more clearly and compellingly.

Here are the study’s key recommendations:

1) Identify climate-related risks and opportunities for financial decision making.

2) Create a framework to translate scientific information in clear and actionable terms for financial decision makers.

3) Analyze existing climate assessments and translate projected impacts into possible, probable, and effectively certain impacts.

4) Improve climate projections with respect to precipitation (timing, amount, and intensity), extreme events, and tails of probability distributions (i.e., low- probability but high-consequence events).

5) Increase spatial resolution of climate projections in order to provide climate information at the scale most relevant to financial investments.

6) Improve projections of the societal consequences of climate impacts through integrated assessments of physical, natural, and social sciences.

7) Create a user-friendly information repository and portal that provides easy access to information relevant to financial decision making.

8) Create and maintain opportunities to bring together financial decision makers, scientists, and service providers.

The report goes into each of these and their supporting rationale in more detail. It merits a thorough, complete read. Look for follow-through from the American Meteorological Society and its many collaborators.

And look forward to the coming day when a “Climate-Positioning System,” or CPS, locating where we find ourselves in the changing climate context so important to human affairs, takes its place alongside GPS as a vital (and yet taken-for-granted) societal tool for building situational awareness.

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