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My column in Nature this week

February 8, 2012
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I have a column in Nature this week about the soon-to-be released strategic plan for the US Global Change Research Program. In that column I talk about the encouraging steps this program is taking to craft a more realistic approach to generating useful climate science.

You always end up leaving stuff out when writing something like this, and there are a couple of points that I would have added if time/space had allowed. I may write more about those once the actual final draft is released (and that’s currently looking to be in late February).

I’ve outlined some of the shortcomings of the GCRP up ’til now in much greater depth in this journal article (PDF).


Innovative Journalism in Australia

April 14, 2011

I have an article up at a very interesting new endeavor here in Australia, called The Conversation. This is an impressive effort to combine university expertise with competent journalism, through a very well-engineered online system. The Conversation is jointly funded by a group of universities, the CSIRO, and some private supporters. The core  staff, as I understand it, is made up of journalists and communications experts, who work on stories with academics.

At this point, it appears that anyone affiliated with one of the participating institutions can create an “author profile” and pitch stories to one of the thirteen editors on staff, who then help them frame and write it in an engaging way.

There seem to be a lot of advantages to this. It is very well-integrated with existing social media, so the potential for wide publicity is very high. And that system is bringing attention to academic debates in an engaging way, often directly relevant to current events. This doesn’t feel like a university communications office, with a central mission of promoting a single institution. Instead it is promoting academic ideas and open discourse. Publicity for the supporting institutions probably comes along with it, but that outcome is secondary.

I had a really positive experience learning how to use this system and working with the staff at the Conversation. Anyone lucky enough to be at one of the participating institutions should start up an account and pitch a story.

Water and Wealth

February 22, 2011

One of the more awe-inspiring experiences of the Dialogues on Country trip was our drop-in visit to Cubbie Station. Cubbie Station is a cotton plantation in Southeast Queensland (in)famous for its enormous water licenses. When its reservoirs are full, Cubbie controls an amount of water roughly equivalent to Sydney Harbour! Lizzy Skinner describes her reaction to seeing this monstrous amount of privately held water stretching across the land in this video:

In the course of our travels we encountered a lot of anger toward Cubbie Station. Graziers to the south have been severely impacted by all sorts of environmental, social, and economic change in recent years, but the blame for much of this is easily placed on the large, mysterious, and apparently very greedy operation just up-river. As Lizzy points out, Cubby Station is merely a symbol of a general trend–both wealth and water are gradually being consolidated to the north, in the hands of large irrigation operations. To many, this seems to come at the expense of livelihoods and ecosystems downstream.

For me this raises a very important question with respect to adaptation. Many people are focused on the question of what we are adapting to: what climate extremes are in store? How will rainfall patterns change? But equally important is the question of what we are adapting. What values are most important for us to fulfill as we move forward? It is not clear that the current system is working for people as it should. And if that’s the case, we don’t just want to preserve that system in the face of climate change; we actually want to change how the system works and who it works for, even as it adapts.

This raises some very difficult questions. For the example of agriculture, is it more important to preserve or augment productivity of the industry as a whole, or should we be really focused on maintaining the viability of small to medium sized farming operations? It is not clear that those two goals are the same. I was struck by the amazing contrast between the dwindling town of Goodooga (population 250), with its historic reliance on grazing, and the massive irrigating empire just to the north. It really drives home the point that adaptation (whether to climate or any other kind of large scale change) creates winners and losers.

Science as a cover for politics, values

February 17, 2011

Today’s NY Times has a great example of a strategy often used by politicians to distract from the distinctly political, values-based nature of their decisions: using science as a cover for political decisions. The issue reported on today in the times, is the value of a human life. More specifically, it’s the value of a human life as used in complicated the cost-benefit analyses conducted by regulatory agencies that set policies for a wide range of areas.

In short, under the Obama Administration, the Times reports, that number has been going up significantly. There is nothing objective about this. Cost-benefit analysis may be technical, quantitative, and complicated, but it inevitably involves making choices about squishy, moral issues. The question of how to value a human life (not to mention whether or how to use cost-benefit analysis) is fraught.

But what caught my interest in the article was the reaction from government officials interviewed by the reporter:

“This administration utilizes the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation, drawing on widely accepted methodologies that have been in use for years,” Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the rule-making process, said in an e-mail.

In other words, they are hiding behind the technical, science-based methods to legitimate their values-based decisions. The article points out that determining the value of a human life for regulatory purposes is awkward. Put the number too low and you are pandering to big business at the expense of human life. Put it too high, and you are strangling American competitiveness by increasing the cost of doing business.

It would be great to see the Administration taking an open, straightforward approach to this. They could just come out and make a very reasonable argument that, based on their values, they feel that human life should be more important than it was under Bush. Instead, they’ve disowned the decision entirely, hiding behind a scientific-seeming method.

American Spies Not Clairvoyant. Duh.

February 17, 2011

An interesting article in today’s LA Times focuses on the limits of US intelligence in the Middle East. Top American spies, hauled in front of Congress to report on their performance amid the spreading turmoil, said tha, despite access to huge amounts of information, they were still unable to predict the sudden waves of protest:

Over the last year, the CIA wrote more than 450 reports that discussed “dangerous” factors in the region, such as repressive regimes, economic stagnation and lack of freedoms. Since mid-December, the U.S. intelligence community has produced 15,000 reports from the Middle East and North Africa that followed what was being talked about in local media and on the Internet.

But the high volume of reports could not predict what would trigger the mass protests in Tunisia — a fruit vendor lighting himself on fire — or that President Zine el Abidine ben Aliwould flee the country so suddenly on Jan. 14, [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper said.


It is not really possible to predict events like this, even if you understand perfectly the various factors that lead to them. It’s not all that different from earthquakes. We know a lot about the geophysics of earthquakes, and we can pinpoint places where the risk of earthquakes is particularly high. But we can’t say exactly when they will occur.

In either case–political turmoil and earthquakes–this does not mean we need to give up trying to understand how things work. But it should inform the way that we approach that task. If we believe that we can build a deterministic model that will tell the exact conditions and timing of a successful uprising in, say, Iran, then we’re in danger of wasting a lot of time and resources trying to squeeze relevance out of every little bit of information we can find. The LA Times article suggests that CIA Director Leon Panetta may be headed in that direction:

To better predict what events might trigger such uprisings, the CIA has assembled a 35-member task force to analyze trends on social media websites and events as they develop, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told the committee. But there’s a “massive amount of data,” Panetta said, noting that there are 600 million Facebook accounts and 190 million Twitter accounts and that 35,000 hours of video are uploaded toYouTube every day.

Trying to use all that data to predict events that are essentially un-predictable is not just a waste of time, it’s potentially dangerous, as another witness testified:

Having to commit more energy and analysts to understanding the political instability in the region has the “potential to take our eye off the ball with regards to the jihadi terrorists themselves,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

We can do a lot better by focusing efforts on understanding the causes of these events, and what we can do about them when they happen, as they inevitably, but unpredictably will.

Dialogues on Country

February 16, 2011

Last August I traveled through Murray-Darling Basin with a group from Engineers Without Borders to learn about Indigenous perspectives on environmental policy and water policy. There’s a lot to say about this project, which will hopefully become a yearly activity undertaken by EWB. I’ll start by posting the first of a series of short video pieces that I’m putting together with the help of the DOC participants.

This particular piece deals with a point that, despite being fairly obvious, is quite often forgotten in discussions of indigenous culture: it’s an ongoing, evolving, and very rich culture. As Clare says, there’s a “persistence in non-aboriginal culture in Australia, to denigrate aboriginal culture to the past. And it’s almost denying that it’s still a living culture, and will go forward into the future.”

More to come! (See here for a collection of resources related to the DOC)

And… We’re Back!!

November 26, 2010

Hello Blogosphere!

After a few months off I’m ready to jump back into this little blog-project. In the coming months I plan to focus a little more on adaptation specifically in Australia. I’m going to be talking a some about this crazy academic project I’ve just finished (and defended!), as well as some other neat stuff that I’ve been doing (e.g. here).

Stay tuned!

Water politics when it rains…

August 31, 2010

A quick break in my dissertation hibernation to point out an interesting development in Australian water politics (e.g. here, and here). Brumby (Premier of Victoria) and Rann (Premier of South Australia) are both relaxing water restrictions, and now you can wash your car with a bucket. Coincidence? I think not. It’s all about politics and perception.

If you paint water restrictions as temporary hardships to be endured during a temporary condition such as a drought, then people will expect those restrictions to be lifted when things appear to be going better. We’ve had a lot of rain this year.

And the political pressure is worsened by the fact that desalination plants under construction in both states are proving extremely costly. As I have pointed out before, it is politically very difficult to argue for financial and practical sacrifice on water at the same time, especially when some are questioning whether desalination has turned out to be a costly overreaction. If you’re going to make me pay for water security through higher taxes and water prices, then I’m not as open to being told when and how to water my lawn. And maybe I’m not as open to voting for the party that is putting me in that position.

So, this raises the question about water politics: can we engineer our way to water security through desalination, and ALSO promote water efficiency?

Maybe, but the current approach doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

I’ll be back to blogging more regularly in November. See you then!

Provocation and Debate

July 1, 2010

At a big-giant-conference such as this one, I find that I’m drawn to the more subversive presentations. For example, one of the few things that is keeping me from ditching the last session and going to the beach is this provocative title:

Circling from Virtuous to Vicious: How the IPCC stopped helping and began hindering adaptive behaviour.

Ann Henderson-Sellers of Macquarie University really delivered a barn burner with this one. I found myself swinging violently back and forth between vehement agreement and vehement disagreement. YES we really do need to stop focusing on uncertainty! YES, we need to ditch the IPCC, which assumes we need a consensus on facts to precede policy decisions. NO, there is no reason to assume that climate change should be the top priority for international politics (what a ridiculous assertion!). Good times.

Another really interesting one yesterday called into question our assumptions about the nature of migration. Francois Gemenne of Sciences Po Paris presented the results of a very ambitious global study under the title:

Migration doesn’t have to be a failure of adaptation. An escape from environmental determinism.

So many in the climate community are laboring under the assumption that migration is a last resort, to be undertaken only when the impacts get unbearably severe. And migration is painted as a security risk. What will we do with the hoards of environmental refugees crossing national borders and destabilizing the communities where they arrive? Gemenne argues convincingly that these assumptions are a bit naive. Migration is usually a response to insecurity–one which actually improves the security situation. Migration is usually within countries, and transnational migration is the exception. And migration requires resources. The poorest of the poor, and the most severely impacted generally cannot migrate, and are forced to stay in place.

At his plenary presentation on Tuesday, Mark Howden dangled some provocative ideas in front of the crowd. He suggested, for example, that we need to abandon our climate centric view of adaptation, and move toward a decision centric model. Understand the decisions people are making first, and then shape your science around that. Amen! He also suggested that our Panglossian view of the climate – our insistence that any deviation from the norm will be entirely negative – has alienated us from those we are seeking to help out. We need to find more positive and optimistic ways of talking about climate change. Focus on the opportunities. This was clearly not something that everyone in the room agreed with!

It’s great to see these assumptions challenged, even if it doesn’t make the issue any simpler. And it’s great to get some conflict and debate at a conference, especially after a couple days of soul-sucking fluorescent conference rooms! As Ann Henderson-Sellers said at the beginning of her talk in this last session of the week, “by this point everyone’s over it!” Time to head home.

Big Conference; small fish

June 29, 2010

“I hope you’re enjoying it!”

These were Penny Wong’s opening words of encouragement to the staff and participants in Australia’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Conference. Penny Wong is the minister of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and she was referring to the fact that her department is responsible for funding one of the key organizers of this conference, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF). To be honest, her words sounded disinterested and patronizing. Less like a champion of important work, and more like your aunt casually mentioning that sweater she knitted for you last Christmas.

And the rest of Wong’s address, which opened this Conference on Adaptation Futures, pretty much confirmed to a room of almost 1000 adaptation researchers that in the big political game of climate change, climate adaptation is a small fish at best. Adaptation research barely rated a mention in the 20 minute speech, which focused mostly on scoring political points and underscoring the scientific consensus on climate change.

Apparently in Penny Wong’s world that’s what science is for: building consensus and convincing people of facts. It’s hard to see where adaptation research fits into a mental model like that.

It’s too bad. Personally, I think adaptation research is about helping people do things. It’s not necessarily about convincing them, and it is not premised on the (false) idea that once we all agree on what is happening in the world, the solutions will come easily. Today I’ve seen some great examples of work that embraces complexity, acknowledges values, and honors many different kinds of knowledge. It is encouraging to see this, but it’s too bad PM Wong couldn’t stick around to see it for herself.