Xi Jinping, Donald Trump… and H.R. 353, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017.

Last week saw two major events in the United States. The first, the historic encounter between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, was duly accompanied by pomp and by breathless, nonstop media attention. Meanwhile, under the media radar, the Congress on April 6 presented to President Donald Trump for signature H.R. 353, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017.

You might have missed that second milestone, or fail to see the two as comparable – or at all related. But the stakes represented by H.R. 353 could not be higher – and they might prove fundamental to U.S. China relations.

Here’s a summary of the Bill’s particulars:

This bill authorizes a number of programs to enhance weather forecasting and alerts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

 NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research must conduct a program to improve forecasting of weather events and their effects, with a special focus on high impact weather events.

The National Weather Service must collect and utilize information to make reliable and timely foundational forecasts of subseasonal and seasonal temperature and precipitation. Subseasonal forecasting is forecasting weather between two weeks and three months and seasonal forecasting is between three months and two years.

The bill provides for technology transfers between the National Weather Service and private sector weather companies and universities to improve forecasting.

NOAA must complete and operationalize the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (a weather satellite program which develops observational techniques using global navigation systems).

Additionally, NOAA may contract with the private sector to obtain data for weather forecasting.

NOAA must continue its Environmental Information Services Working Group, which advises NOAA on weather research and opportunities to improve communications between weather stakeholders.

Taking all this at face value, mainstream media and most Americans might be forgiven for understanding the Bill’s passage as mattering only to a few federal and private-sector weather service providers and their stakeholders. But it’s entirely possible that like Lorenz’s butterfly, that seems inconsequential in and of itself, but by merely flapping its wings produces a downstream hurricane, H.R. 353 might change the course of world history – and in a good way.

Here’s the why and how.

First, it’s worth noting that Democrats and Republicans together accomplished this bipartisan passage in the midst of extraordinary political wrangling – during a month in which it seemed that they couldn’t agree on anything, ranging from health care to Supreme Court appointments. H.R. 353 makes clear our leaders and the people they represent are united in wanting improved public safety in the face of weather hazards and improved weather services to support economic growth, especially in sectors such as agriculture. They also see closer collaboration between public and private sectors as a necessary means to these ends. Implicitly, in so doing, political leaders and the public recognize that Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) are non-partisan, and themselves represent critical infrastructure. All Americans ought to draw encouragement from this display of comity.

But Earth OSS is a special kind of critical infrastructure, guiding and leveraging and adding real value from far more extensive American efforts to meet its basic needs for food, water, and energy, while simultaneously protecting against hazards and minimizing any loss of vital ecosystem services. Those latter efforts require a far greater infrastructure outlay, amounting to $4T in the United States alone over the next twenty years. Good Earth OSS can reduce this $4T figure substantially, even while improving the return on the investment. In calling for more research, H.R. 353 also acknowledges that Earth OSS, though improved considerably in recent years, is still not where it needs to be to meet these stringent, high-stakes demands of tomorrow. More research and development is urgently needed, especially with respect to weather extremes and seasonal to interannual outlooks. Time is of the essence, because the $4T investment is continually underway. Decisions are being made and options foreclosed. Improved weather forecasts and longer-term outlooks can’t come a day too soon.

That leads to the second thread – the Trump-Xi meetings.

Writing in the Washington Post following the historic meeting last week between President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping, Lawrence Summers[1] shared some thoughts on the economic challenge posed by China. He briefly offers persuasive arguments asserting that neither unfair currency manipulation nor unfair trade practices pose either a problem for the United States. Instead, he sees a far greater challenge in another direction. He concludes:

If currency issues are invalid and commercial diplomacy is unlikely to have much positive effect on the U.S. economy, what should be the focus of economic policy with respect to China?

It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which China is seeking to project soft power around the world by economic means. Xi’s speech in Davos , Switzerland, in January, quoting Abraham Lincoln and laying out a Chinese vision for the global economic system at a time when the United States is turning inward, was the rhetorical edge of a concerted strategy.

Of course there is Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which envisions infrastructure investment and foreign aid to connect China and Europe. In a little-noticed development, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-sponsored competitor to the World Bank, has announced that it will invest all over the world. Already, Chinese investment in Latin America and Africa significantly exceeds that by the United States, the World Bank and relevant regional development banks. And China will soon be the leading exporter of clean energy technologies.

This investment will, over time, secure Chinese access to raw materials, allow Chinese firms to gain economies of scale and help China to win friends.[2] The United States has chosen not to join the Asian infrastructure bank, to undermine rather than lead global cooperation on climate change and, if the president gets his way, to sharply cut back foreign aid. In doing so, it is accelerating a loss of its preeminence in the global competition for prestige and influence. Perhaps this development is inevitable, but it is a mistake to accelerate it.

A truly strategic U.S.-China economic dialogue would revolve around the objectives of global cooperation and the respective roles of the two powers. It is important that such a dialogue start soon, but this move will require the United States to focus less on specific near-term business interests and more on what historians will remember a century from now.

Summers echoes[3] the message of recent LOTRW blogs[4], that the real decision facing countries of the world is twofold: (1) whether we can and will work together to meet basic needs for food, water, and energy, while simultaneously protecting against hazards and minimizing any loss of vital ecosystem services; and (2) whether at the end of this process our world will look, think, and act more like the China of today, or instead look, think, and act more like today’s United States – or (as he suggests) end up somewhere in between.

Somewhere in between? May God grant all seven billion of us the wisdom and grace to keep the best parts of both, rather than settle for something less. And may those of us laboring on different aspects of this challenge bring all our noblest motives and energies to bear – today and every day.


[1] According to Wikipedia (in one of its admittedly less-well-curated entries), Lawrence Henry “Larry” Summers (born November 30, 1954) is an American economist, former Vice President of Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank (1991–93), senior U.S. Treasury Dept. official throughout President Clinton‘s administration (ultimately Treasury Secretary, 1999-2001), and former Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama (2009-2010). He is a former President of Harvard University (2001-2006), where he is currently (as of March, 2017) a professor and director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. (making due allowances for these Democratic roots, his thoughts on this subject on this day feel measured and essentially non-partisan by today’s polarized standards.)

[2] emphasis added

[3] unknowingly; just as LOTRW unwittingly borrows from the insights of others; seven billion people think and write and do a lot of things while our backs are turned.

[4] and indeed, the 2014 book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet

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