Number 35, September 2002
Déjà vu All Over Again … But It Doesn’t Have to
Be That Way
Nothing generates interest in the weather more than a weather or climate extreme.
This year is one of those years when droughts, floods, bush and forest fires,
and vector-borne diseases are capturing the headlines on a daily basis in the
United States and abroad. It is interesting to note that missing from headlines
this year (so far) are news stories about ice storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an editorial entitled “Render unto weather
…”. Admittedly, this title was then a play on words, an attempt
to get people to stop blaming specific weather anomalies for all the damage
that happened to occur during those anomalies. In those days, there was a tendency
for governments at all levels to blame nature for the damage that occurs during
an extreme event. That way decision makers can blame the heavens for loss of
life and property and by doing so convince others that the anomalies were not
their responsibility and the damage was beyond their control.
Since the late 1970s, however, an increasing number of social scientists have
questioned “blaming nature” for disasters. They set out to devise
ways to separate what could legitimately be blamed on a specific weather or
climate anomaly from what could legitimately be blamed on societal decisions.
Sadly, governments continue to blame nature whenever an extreme event turns
into a societal disaster.
For example, in the late 1980s a Congressional bill was put forth in order to
“end famine” by deploying a monitoring satellite over drought-prone
parts of Africa. The truth of the matter is that droughts often have much less
to do with famine than the various underlying political, social, and economic
conditions existing in a region at the time of the drought.
As another example, Hurricane Andrew was a very damaging and expensive extreme
event. Although damage was of course caused by this hurricane, studies have
since shown that a considerable amount of damage could have been avoided, had
the construction companies simply adhered to southern Florida’s building
codes. As another example, floods along the Mississippi in the summer of 1993
were very damaging to “protected” settlements in the floodplain.
In retrospect, it became clear that decisions to allow for development in the
natural floodplain bore as much responsibility for the damage as did the heavy
rains and resulting high water in the river system.
Despite the obvious need to identify what to blame on nature and what to blame
on the arrogance or ignorance of decision makers, weather and climate impacts
researchers remain poorly funded, often ignored by the physical science research
In the late 1990s, meteorologists discussed weather-proofing the United States
– a laudable goal, but a very difficult if not impossible task to achieve.
Such talk misleads the public about the ability of the scientific community
to protect society from weather-related harm. I would argue that most social
scientists would have cautioned against talk of “weather- or climate-proofing”
Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the U.S. government has questioned
scientific research’s relevance to addressing societal needs. Now, just
about every scientific endeavor seeks to show such relevance, in part by claiming
its value to society, at least in their opening paragraphs or colorful brochures.
Yet, science budgets do not provide adequate funding to identify the societal
aspects of these issues, even though many of the solutions to climate- and weather-related
problems lie in the realm of social science research. A better forecast of the
trajectory of Hurricane Andrew would likely have had little impact on the physical
damage it caused; likewise for the floods in the Mississippi or the famines
Since I wrote that editorial for Climatic Change in 1978, the physical side
of our understanding of the atmosphere and its impacts on society has improved
dramatically, as has the monitoring of the climate system. Social scientists
whose interests in the weather-climate-society nexus have grown sharply are,
however, still considerably short of the funds needed to better sort out the
impacts of decisions from the impacts of anomalies. Justifications for climate
research today invoke societal needs as the primary reason for public support.
When can we expect funding trends to follow the new verbiage?
If I have one fear to express, it is that the next generation of researchers
will decades hence be asking the same questions I am asking toward the end of
my career in impacts research.
National Center for Atmospheric Research