A Review of The Weather of the Future

Heidi Cullen, author of the new book The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, has a background rare for any research scientist, let alone a climate scientist: she worked for The Weather Channel, and gained a lot of expertise in communicating complex climate science to the lay person.  This work has given Cullen a unique understanding of where misunderstandings of climate science exist:

“This is the only way a lot of people can truly connect to the issue of climate science – via a long-term investment like real estate.  The more I thought about this question, the more I realized the scientific community had failed to communicate the threat of climate change in a way that made it real for people right now.  We, as scientists, hadn’t given people the proper tools to see that the impacts of climate change are visible right now and that they go far beyond melting ice caps.”

Cullen’s new book aims to provide those tools.  She explains some of the big reasons (single-action bias and the ‘finite pool of worry’) why many Americans understand the dangers of climate change, but not urgently enough to change our behavior.  More importantly, she explicitly separates the concepts of ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ and shows how the former shapes the latter.  Cullen’s writing reminds me of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, when she shows how climate science developed and where it stands today: she eloquently and economically conveys the complex science in a way that is pleasurable to read.   The groundbreaking part of Cullen’s book what comes next: she picks seven of the most at-risk locations around the world, explains how climate change is already impacting the weather, and uses state-of-the-art models to create climate projections for each of these places into the next half-century.  Two of the locations really hit home for me: Cullen examines the Central Valley in California, as well as New York City.  She also looks at the Sahel region of Africa, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Arctic, Greenland, and Bangladesh.

Cullen borrows a metaphor from Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who was among the first in Silicon Valley to take Y2K seriously: “Imagine you’ve got a sailboat and you’ve got to sail around an island.  You can start to circle when you’re a mile from shore and it will be easy.  But if you wait until you’re only 100 meters away, there will be rocks and reefs.  There will be a lot more drama.”  In her analysis of these climate hot spots around the world, Cullen makes clear the economic impact of waiting until the proverbial sailboat is close to the rocks and reefs.

The Weather of the Future lays bare the unequivocal nature of climate change, and the need to take actions, what Cullen calls “a million boring little fixes.”  In time, we will all make these fixes; the question for policy makers, skeptics, and citizens in general is, are we going to wait until those fixes become all the more expensive and painful?  This book is timely and necessary.

LiveScribe Echo rocks; Bloomberg fights for centrists

OK Go is at it again, this time with some furry friends.

After a marvelous weekend in Vermont, I am back to the real world.  In class this weekend, I put to use my new LiveScribe Echo pen in the classroom for the first time.  I bought the pen upon the recommendation of James Fallows in The Atlantic. My problem, and my motivation for purchasing, was that I found it painfully difficult to reconstruct quotes from interviews as ajournalist.  The LiveScribe pen solves that problem deftly.  It records high quality audio and syncs that audio to notes that you make in special notebooks.  It allows me to concentrate during interviews on listening to the source and thinking only about the interview, instead of also worrying about taking down precise notes.

In school, the pen serves a similar function.  In fact, we had a prestigious climate scientist, Dr. Alan Betts, speak to our class for several hours.  The material was complex and the talk went on for two hours, without a break.  However, with the Livescribe pen, I could concentrate fully on Dr. Betts with the knowledge that I could readily access the audio afterwards.  The Livescribe allows you to access certain parts of a long audio recording easily, by tapping the pen in the notebook at a particular point.  My friend Pete asked a great question, and I put ‘Pete q’ down in the notebook; by tapping that location I can readily access the actual audio.

The New York Times magazine featured the Livescribe in their Education and Technology issue this week, and I would agree with some of the conclusions that the author comes up with.  I don’t think this pen necessarily belongs in the hands of every child, but I do think it allows one to take effective notes and concentrate better.  For journalists, that is priceless.  For students, it can be very helpful.

On a final note, it was fascinating to see Michael Bloomberg in Providence to endorse Independent Gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chaffee.  Right now Chaffee is locked in a tight race with Democrat Frank Caprio, and Bloomberg’s endorsement was one of a series intended to strengthen the political center:

“[Bloomberg] is supporting Republicans, Democrats and independents who he says are not bound by rigid ideology and are capable of compromise, qualities he says he fears have become alarmingly rare in American politics… Mr. Bloomberg described the Tea Party movement as a fad, comparing it to the short-lived burst of support for Ross Perot in 1992. The mayor suggested that the fury it had unleashed was not a foundation for leadership. ‘Look, people are angry,’ he said. ‘Their anger is understandable. Washington isn’t working. Government seems to be paralyzed and unable to solve all of our problems. Anger, however, is not a government strategy,’ he said. ‘It’s not a way to govern.’  Mr. Bloomberg said he wanted to see more of the cooperation once displayed by SenatorsOrrin G. Hatch and Edward M. Kennedy. He said that he would not have voted for either of them (“one because he’s too liberal for me, one because he’s too conservative for me”), but added, ‘These two guys who went into the Senate together and were the closest of personal friends for 40 years, they were everything that democracy says a senator should be.'”

I applaud his effort.  Many of my friends who live in New York City endorse Bloomberg’s efforts to make the government there effective in communicating with its citizens and meeting their needs.  I would say that on a national level, his prescription of paralysis is also accurate, and after this election the paralysis is likely to increase.  Unfortunately, we have big problems at our feet, and the defeat of moderate Mike Castle by a Tea Party extremist in the Delaware Republican Senate Primary is emblematic of the unwillingness of our political parties to work together.  In the current environment political gain is more important that solving problems.

We will never be able to solve the difficult problems that are encompassed around entitlement spending and long term structural deficits unless we all work together.  We will never be able to face the threat of anthropogenic climate change, or invest in 21st century renewable energy future.  Business as usual politics, that the Republicans (The Party of No) practiced instead of compromising, will simply not work.  Without compromise and honest dialogue, our nation will be unable to face its problems and will instead suffer from them.  Our decline will be inevitable.