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Number 35, September 2002

Guest Editorial

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 community.

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” society.

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 in Africa.

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.

Michael Glantz
National Center for Atmospheric Research