Whether thinking about Hurricane Sandy or the IPCC and climate change, our choice doesn’t have to be “either-or.”

Maybe it should be “both-and.”

With all the damage from Hurricane Sandy on our minds this week, my thoughts have turned this morning to property insurance in general, and to Nationwide in particular, for two reasons. First, we’re already seeing signs of the perennial problem posed by separating flood insurance from insurance against damage due to other hazards. “Did my basement flood because Hurricane Sandy blew the roof off and then the rains came in?” or “Did my house flood because of storm surge, while the roof came off independently?” Homeowners up and down the Atlantic coast are going to be looking at this either-or question, which will determine whether private insurance pays or FEMA pays through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The ambiguity inevitably leads to argument and to delay in settlement. The tragedy is compounded because many coastal residents either don’t carry NFIP protection or have let it lapse. Nationwide took the initiative a few years ago to offer customers an extra-cost option for private coverage of flood damage, meaning the company would be on the hook for all damage from whatever cause, and offering those who could afford it extra piece of mind.

Secondly, though, Nationwide used to use the tagline “Life comes at you fast.” With the hurricane, the elections and much more going on, there’s a lot to do and little time. The pace is exceeding the baud rate and the buffer of my 69-year-old brain.

But two recent posts out of many trigger today’s (belated) thought. First, Mike Smith has just posted on his blog Meteorological Musings that the National Weather Service should not investigate itself. He’s noted that the NWS is standing up a service assessment team to review its performance during Hurricane Sandy. This is an NWS tradition; Mike cites the Joplin Service Assessment (he isn’t a big fan). NOAA/NWS just released its Irene Service Assessment. [Full disclosure; I was a member of the Irene assessment team…and a couple of others in the 1990’s when I was still a NOAA but not a Weather Service employee.] Mike suggests a list of issues stemming from Hurricane Sandy that merit an outside look. Certainly such an independent review is the only way to remove conflicts of interest that crop up. If there’s widespread dissatisfaction on the outside with how the NWS performed, such an external study should be carried out. As Mike notes, the NAS/NRC sometimes provides a useful agent for such evaluation. And as I think that Mike would also agree, Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath raise many issues that go far beyond the meteorology: how do communities ranging in size from Seaside Heights to New York City build resiliency? How does the nation want to balance its investments in emergency response as against learning enough from experience to reduce the future need for such response? Should the nation invest in storm surge barriers to protect New York City the way the English have on the Thames or the Dutch have done on their coasts (maybe those Dutch colonists named NYC New Amsterdam for more than one reason).

That doesn’t mean, however, that these internal assessments aren’t of considerable value. In fact, just the opposite is true. Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living. Don’t all of us do such self-evaluations on a frequent basis? We ask: how am I doing as an employee in my workplace? Could I contribute more? Contribute differently? What are my strengths? My weaknesses? What can and should I do to improve? We ask those questions at home: am I a good partner to my spouse? A good parent? A good neighbor? Shame on me if I have to wait for my boss or my wife to tell me I’m letting them down. We wouldn’t want to work with a person or an institution that wasn’t constantly in such a process of rigorous self-reflection. The record of the NWS service assessments shows they do lead to corrections and improvements. An outside review might surface more, but even in such an event the internal review helps an agency go through the thought process needed to respond to external advice.

This same notion has come up in another context: the IPCC and its role in shaping a world’s response to climate variability and change. Judith Curry wrote a very thoughtful post – Climate Change: no consensus on consensus (based on a paper to be published shortly) – over the weekend on this subject, one she and others have thought about a lot. Like Mike’s column, it makes excellent reading, in full. Here’s an excerpt:

The debate surrounding the consensus on climate change is complicated by the complexity of both the scientific and the associated sociopolitical issues. Underlying this debate is a fundamental tension between two competing conceptions of scientific inquiry: the consensual view of science versus the dissension view. Under the consensual approach, the goal of science is a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field. The opposing view of science is that of dissension, whereby scientific progress occurs via subversion of consensus in favor of new experiments, ideas and theories.

She then asks:

When is it reasonable for a person to conform to a consensus and when is it reasonable to dissent?

She goes on to highlight the issues of consensus and bias; the role of scientific consensus in decision making; the unintended consequences of the IPCC consensus. [These sum up to a really useful framework for thinking about the issue.] She offers some thoughtful ideas on the way forward.

As with Hurricane Sandy, it seems we should be more interested in and supportive of both-and versus either-or. As Ms. Curry notes, the climate change issue is complex and rife with policy implications. You might make the case that we’ve really profited from the investment in the IPCC process, particularly if we see it as itself a research project. It’s taught us a lot! We’ve learned what such efforts to build consensus entail. We’ve seen their strengths and limitations. It’s prompted ideas on how we might do better in future assessments on this or any other subject.

Just moments ago the federal government released its job growth and unemployment figures for October. Here in the closing few days of a presidential election campaign, the stakes couldn’t be higher. There’ll be some suggestions the figures have been manipulated for political purposes. There’ll be high-rpm spin from both political parties. But the arguments will be muted. The figures and the process have been around a long time. It’s a good example of what “both-and” (versus “either-or”) looks like in maturity. The government’s been releasing such monthly figures for decades. Its strengths and shortcomings are well-known. They’ve prompted a cottage industry of academic and private-sector analyses that study possible improvements, attempt to predict what next month’s corrections to these figures will prove to be, and more. Society has internalized the process in a way that has yet to be realized with IPCC but will be, over time. This example, and Judith’s IPCC discussion, remind us that when it comes to Hurricane Sandy, we need not only independent consensus assessments but individual perspectives such as Mike Smith’s to round out the picture.

Both-and. It’s a good way to go.

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2 Responses to Whether thinking about Hurricane Sandy or the IPCC and climate change, our choice doesn’t have to be “either-or.”

  1. Jen Henderson says:

    Hi Bill,

    What a thoughtful post. Couldn’t agree more that we need both internal and external reviews. The best complement of evaluations would also include collaborative conversations with and assessments of private weather companies, such as The Weather Channel, which certainly must have shaped public perceptions of the storm, as well as the communities of EM and law enforcement professionals. And of course, members of various publics should be consulted. While some of these groups are often included in service assessments, they’re relatively tangental (in my experience) to the larger emphasis on operational meteorology offices.

    I remember attending the town hall meeting with tornado survivors at the NWA meeting in 2011. It seemed surprising to me that this was one of the first times meteorologists had invited the public to the table, so to speak. Yet it was a one-way conversation, with the public functioning as a large focus group. What we also need to include, I think, is more sustained and significant conversations with different publics that recognize their various expertise and resources. This, combined with the internal & external review of different aspects of the weather enterprise (federal and private) can give a more complex and nuanced picture of how to move forward.

    Thanks so much for the thought-provoking post!

    Take care,

    • William Hooke says:

      Great comment Jen…a reminder that with today’s IT, the societal hygiene of “learning from experience” can take all sorts of forms. We don’t have to give up the internal and external assessments that have served us so well in the past. But we can add a variety of other means of sharing knowledge, providing feedback.

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