The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya

 

#Russia, #Ukraine, and #Impeachment: some missing context

Administrative note: I had some problems with drafts being posted straight to the site/FB/Twitter, causing some confusion, broken links and partial posts.  Hopefully that is fixed! Update on storms will be coming this afternoon.

Sorry this article-length post isn’t about the weather, but it is on a topic I know quite a bit about, and like hurricanes it is an area that the US media and political establishment exploit for drama and manipulation.  And, like hurricanes, it is a complex and nuanced thing.  As the US House of Representatives gets serious about Impeachment over the Trump, Biden, Ukraine and Russia connections, I hope everyone will take some time to understand how and why we got here and realize it’s not really about Russian or Ukrainian attempts to interfere in our politics, it is blow-back as a result of over two decades of the US  manipulating and exploiting financially those countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how US domestic politics got entangled with them.  I hope you will take a few minutes to read it through, and not jump to a conclusion based on which political team you cheer for.  As in so many things, both parties have utterly failed you, and are blaming the “other” for the ensuing mess.  Although this post is long, it’s still overly simplified, but at least it’s a start.

It’s hard to know where to begin this story, but to avoid writing a book we’ll start it with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and why the shadows of that event are now cast in the heart of US Politics.  The Soviet economy was in shambles, and numerous deals were made to facilitate a peaceful transition between the Former Soviet Union (FSR) and the independent nation-states that resulted from the breakup.  There are two key elements of that breakup that are of interest to us here: the disposition of the nuclear arsenal, and  reforms of the “communist” economies (they weren’t really communist, and barely deserve the term “socialist,” but that’s the label that stuck).  First let’s look at the post-Soviet borders and military situation …

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Teacup in a Tempest: the storm over Trump, NOAA/NWS, and Hurricanes

Among the many topics I really don’t want to comment on, but will anyway, is “Sharpiegate”.  To say that the US President is divisive is an understatement, and the sad fact is that American Politics in general has become so insanely partisan that it is almost impossible to comment at all without being accused by one side or the other of being in league with evil – evil being defined as “the other side”.  So there’s probably no upside to commenting on this.  However, there are some important points to be made, if they could only be heard over all the noise.  And sometimes you get lucky and manage to irritate both “sides”. So let’s try that.

I don’t know what was said in the briefing that resulted in President Trump tweeting that Alabama was potentially going to be hit by Dorian.  I’m assuming that seed was planted on Thursday the 29th or Friday, 30 August, based on the “cone of error,” a product few really understand how to apply and I think everybody who really understands hurricanes hates, but hasn’t figured anything else out yet.  In fairness to the President, like the blow-up over nuking hurricanes, I can see how someone might think Alabama was at risk.  People see a track forecast and often ask “what will happen next.”  And given the uncertainty in the five day forecasts, I can see how a briefer might have said “on that track, then in 6-7 days, or if the storm is at the outer edge of the cone, yes Alabama might be at risk.”  The tweet that started the firestorm came on Sunday, but by then the tracks and models had shifted.  This happens all the time – as a track shifts, people get an earlier forecast stuck in their mind and keep repeating it to others long after it is stale, causing confusion.  Since it was the POTUS doing the repeating, this put the NWS WFO in Birmingham in a tough position that, again, all of us in this business get put in all the time: I’d guess for every “you’re doomed and gonna die” I have to dish out, there are twenty “no, you are not at risk from this storm, that’s an old forecast.”  It does raise questions as to how often the President is briefed and, perhaps, his attention span.  But, objectively, this shouldn’t have been much of a big deal had everyone been reasonable.

Thursday Evening Forecast

Forecast Sunday Morning

This could and should have been quickly defused, but the US President and his team are “doubling down,” while the opposition is pushing this as a catastrophic failure indicating various psychological or character flaws.  Modern political leaders have an extraordinarily difficult time in admitting they were wrong, some (most?) to the point of pathology.  And their opponents love to take innocent or common mistakes and blow them up for short term advantage no matter what the long term institutional costs. Now both pro and anti Trump sides are blowing this up for their own political reasons because they think it gives them some tactical advantage.  Real problem or manufactured political fight?  Probably both in this case, but that’s not my point here.

What *is* my concern in this is the continuing corruption of science in policy debates and public safety.  I find it ironic beyond belief that many major news networks who don’t hesitate to use one-off long range model forecasts that go well beyond the NHC forecasts, sowing fear and confusion as they go, are now piously condemning the US President for doing what they themselves do virtually every 5 minutes during a storm. The sheer hypocrisy of this is staggering.  Equally odious is putting your scientific (not to mention intelligence agency) staffs in the position of having to back your political positions and cover for your mistakes.  It is something most administrations do.  It’s always wrong, and while both parties do it this administration seems to be taking the practice to new extremes.  It’s a dangerous trend.  If you want to say “they” are worse than “we”, I might not argue, but like the saying goes, if you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil …

I’m also concerned that some scientific organizations, and some individual scientists and meteorologists, are now jumping into this debate in a way that is starting to feel, or is rapidly being turned, into partisan attacks.  The problem isn’t so much that they are wrong (many are in fact right about how this is evolving, and the potentially dire implications for government sponsored research and science applications), my problem is that they haven’t called out previous administrations for their abuse of the science because they agreed with the the politics of those administrations, or maybe they felt it just wasn’t bad enough, or both.   Unfortunately, like the climate change debate, this is dragging scientists (some willingly, most probably not) into political crap flinging that diminishes public trust in all of our institutions.

So for what it’s worth, here’s the TL;DR …

  1. That the President thought Alabama was at risk in the future, on Thursday or Friday, based on the Thursday/Friday forecast doesn’t bother me too much.
  2. That he was still saying it Sunday bothers me a lot: by then he should have had a fresh briefing. If not, that’s a problem. If he did, and was still saying it, we have another problem.  Either way, not a good situation.
  3. Attacking WFO/BHM is scary: they were doing their job.
  4. The media is being utterly hypocritical and self righteous over this – they extrapolate beyond the NHC forecast all the time, sowing fear and confusion.
  5. Scientists should vigorously defend the science, but tread carefully over being perceived as overly partisan.  Especially in the climate debate, some have already crossed that line, advocating specific politically based solutions rather than sticking to underlying problems, and evaluating the effectiveness of proposed solutions.  That kind of advocacy hurts credibility in situations like this.

Science is the only credible tool we have for understanding how the world works, and should be the underlying basis for devising policies that address the problems our society faces.  Once that credibility is lost, we are in fact doomed.  This whole debate, especially how it is evolving, is destructive and does not bode well for the future.

Nuking hurricanes?

The US President is alleged (he vehemently denies it) to have suggested on more than one occasion that we use nuclear weapons to disrupt hurricanes.  This has received a lot of attention in global news sources the last 24 hours; as with virtually all issues in the US what people think generally breaks on tribal (political party) lines. I won’t take sides on that aspect.  Many people have a gut reaction one way or another to the substance of the idea, but there is a long history to this idea, as this 2016 (pre-Trump) National Geographic article shows.  In fact, I can’t recall a lecture on weather, climate, or hurricanes that I’ve given to the general public where it didn’t come up.  So what is the reality of using a nuke specifically, or other modifications generally?

Trying to diminish the power of hurricanes has been around since at least the 1940’s.  The first practical project was to use cloud seeding as part of Project Cirrus in 1947, then more systematically in Project Stormfury in the 1960’s.  The 1947 Project Cirrus illustrated a key problem: during the seeding process the storm, which had been headed out to sea, turned around and made landfall near Savannah, Georgia.  America being America, lawsuits were started, but were ultimately thrown out.  Later attempts had mixed results, but the consensus was that the project was a “successful failure”: a failure, in that hurricane modification didn’t work, but a success in that it greatly improved our understanding of hurricanes.

Castle Bravo test, 1954. USDOE Photo.

The idea of using nukes also dates back to the late 50’s and early 1960’s, and was suggested by no less than the head of the US Weather Bureau (predecessor of the National Weather Service) in 1961.  The idea is that the thermal effects of the detonation would disrupt the thermodynamics and circulation of the storm.  In one sense it’s not a completely insane idea; megaton class nuclear weapons have a dramatic impact on the atmosphere.  Some argue (like in the NOAA page devoted to the question) that because a mature hurricane dissipates on the order of a megaton nuclear blast of energy per minute a nuke is pointless.  I think that misses the point somewhat because a megaton class blast in the eye or eyewall would have disruptions to the convective processes far out of proportion to the average energy.  Unfortunately that discussion edges into classified modeling and data, and besides misses the point that you can’t use a nuke in a hurricane for one very important reason that was overlooked or dismissed in the discussions of the early 1960’s.

Of course, bottom line is that even if it “worked”, it’s pretty dumb to nuke a hurricane due to one key side effect of nuclear weapons: radioactive fallout.  Before you laugh too much at that, recall that in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s we were just coming to terms with the long term radiation impacts of nuclear weapons, and many of the worst effects were still classified and suppressed to reduce the fear of nuclear power.  At the time Project Plowshare was proposing all kinds of uses that, today, we would call “crazy”  like widening the Panama Canal (this as late as 1970) or creating harbors.  Twenty-two bombs were even seriously proposed to create a road cut through the Bristol Mountains to facilitate Interstate 40!

So while folks are making a lot of political hay over this because of the latest source of the idea, it’s not a new idea, and wasn’t considered all that crazy maybe as little as 40 years ago.  For a lay person with minimal understanding of science, I can see how it might seem an attractive idea.  There are lots of very bad, scientifically unsound ideas and the policies they drive floating around across the political spectrum.  It does highlight a key problem, that major world leaders and most of the people they lead often don’t have a very sound understanding of science and engineering that are so vital to our modern world.  (Or economics.  Or …)  So I’m not at all surprised that a President (especially this one) asked the question.  I just hope his advisers took the time to explain to him why it’s not a great idea, rather than do what I think many advisers to world leaders do all too often: just nod and say “we’ll look into it.”

Big City Nights

I love flying at night.  The air is generally smoother, traffic is lighter and Air Traffic Control is less frantic even around busy air space.  Over the years (I got my pilot’s license in 1996) the changes in nighttime lighting over time have been fascinating.  Of course, development and suburban sprawl across the southeastern US (where I do much of my flying) means that stretches of darkness are fewer and fewer.  Military bases/restricted areas such as the Savannah River Site, parks, and wetlands stand out.   But there is another significant change over the last decade.  A major shift in outdoor lighting is the development and deployment of high intensity LED lights.  These lights are both brighter and on different wavelengths (colors) than the old sodium vapor lights.  This shot over Augusta, Georgia (taken Feb 9th, 2019 from 7000 feet) very clearly shows the older orange/yellow lights versus the newer, white LED lights.  While we tend not to think about it, this is one of the many ways human activities have rapidly altered the natural world.  This study published in PNAS discusses how these lights have adversely impacted bird migration patterns.  Other studies have shown impacts on insects, bats, and animals.  There are also impacts on the animals who made these things – Humans.  Human sleep patterns have also been altered by both nighttime city lighting as well as the proliferation of LED screens such as smartphones and iPads.  The bright blue light given off by these devices triggers a brain response that can distort sleep patterns.

But doesn’t night lighting improve traffic safety and prevent crime?  Maybe not – the studies are somewhat contradictory, and many studies suffer from abysmal statistical methodologies, as well as being somewhat tainted by their sponsorship by industries that profit from lighting.  Some well structured studies such as this one in England show that nighttime lighting doesn’t do anything to reduce crime or accident rates.  But this is an area ripe for serious research.

So what does this have to do with climate?  It shows how something that seems as simple as putting up a street light can have cascading impacts across the human and natural world.  The simple fact is that human activities do alter the environment.  Classifying these alterations as positive or negative, and then evaluating if those with negative aspects are worth doing from a benefit cost standpoint are value judgements that require solid, unbiased science to inform those decisions.  And this intersection between science and public policy is a place many scientists are reluctant to get involved with as it means dealing with politicians.  The political process speaks an entirely different language, and uses metrics that are utterly alien and irrational in many ways.  It’s probably the least fun thing I do, even though, in the end, it is the part of the work that can have the most impact.

Oh, and speaking of Big City Nights here are the Scorpions and the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Some thoughts on Climate Change

A lot of people have generated a lot of words about the topic of climate change. An awful lot of them really probably shouldn’t because they don’t really know what they are talking about, and all they are doing is spreading misinformation (even if well intentioned) and/or further inflaming an already politically charged debate. Unfortunately, even some people who do know what they are talking about sometimes go beyond their areas of competence and, more importantly, convolve science, policy, and politics.  This is a long post, sorry about that, but complex subjects require thoughtful discussions, and short posts can’t cover the topic. Even this is abbreviated to the point of oversimplification. It is a sad commentary on our society that nuanced discussions are virtually impossible in social media, yet that is increasingly how views are expressed.  Even 24 hour “news” outlets tend to focus on short, sound-byte driven coverage.  But enough whining.

So why am I writing this, and why should you care what I think? A bit of background first … I’ve been involved in climate change research and policy since the mid 1990’s.  I participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change RA4, and was invited by both Republican (Bush 43) and Democrat (Obama) administrations to be on the US committee.  I declined both of those invitations, because I was uncomfortable with the political nature and overtones of that process, and preferred to remain in the international realm and not be overly associated with a single government’s viewpoints or policies.  That is not to criticize those who are on the US committee, but I must say was not alone in being uncomfortable with how the US conducts its process, and some pretty prominent scientists have quietly declined to participate in it.  This leads me to my first point.  The IPCC and individual government processes to study climate change were in theory a good idea, but got off track as they have moved further away from science into policy.  There are essentially three aspects to the climate change issues (or any technical issue for that matter):

  1. What are the facts?  In this case, is the climate doing, why is it doing it, and what is it likely to do in the future?
  2. What are the implications and impacts?  In other words, what are the potential impacts of any climate changes?
  3. Given the impacts, what (if anything) do we need to do about it, based on the causes?

(1) and (2) are essentially only science.  What you believe, your politics, your religion, have nothing to do with it.  It’s not simple, but it’s just data and the laws of physics and probability.  The third, on the other hand, is mostly politics.  Sure, science, engineering, and economics will tell you if the policies you want to propose are rational, or will do anything about causes and effects, but ultimately it is a policy question, and that’s a political question that (hopefully) is informed by the science.

In my not so humble opinion, one key problem is the current system tries to do all three in a single process. And that’s a Bad Thing.  Because climate is such a complex and technical issue, and because some scientists have not kept these three things separate, politicians and those who think in political terms have attacked the science because they no longer see it as science, but just another political tactic associated with an agenda. Lets be clear here: I could design a response to the worst projections regarding climate change that would make the ghost of Adam Smith write a new chapter in Wealth of Nations singing its praises, or Zombie Lenin to burst out of the mausoleum and cry Отлично! in the heart of Red Square.  Another key problem is that because the “left” (in quotes, there are no real leftist or liberal movements in the US, but that’s another discussion) has fully taken up the cause because if fits with their worldview, and allows many of their agenda points to be pressed under the rubric of “doing something” even if those things wouldn’t really do much about the underlying problem.  Likewise, much of the opposition on the “right” (and again, in the US, there are no politically conservative movements in the US) is based more on a reaction to the policy proposals of the “left”, and the false concept that anthropogenic climate change is a fake issue to promote those policies.

But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s take the three aspects above in sequence.  First, what are the facts?  While the technical details are complex, it’s really fairly simple.  Humans have in an extremely short time (geologically speaking) radically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, as well as the surface of the Earth.  These changes must, by the very nature of the Earth’s climate system, result in changes from historical weather and climate patterns because the system is interactive.  That’s the theory, and the theory is backed up by observations at the local level, going back to studies at the turn of the *last* century (late 1800’s) that rain patterns east of Paris began to depend on the day of the week, due to the dust churned up by the city. This is backed up by modern studies (PDF).  At the planetary level, changes are harder to detect, but are also becoming increasingly evident.  So while the details are complex, don’t be drawn in debates over minutia.  While there are scientists that have legitimate, credible concerns about various technical issues like cloud depiction in models, or sensor changes over time (I’m among those who feel tropical cyclone intensity changes are not within the ability of the quality of our historical data to detect), these concerns do not compromise the overarching conclusion:  human activities are causing ahistorical, “unnatural” changes both weather and climate, and those changes are increasing.  It is wrong of activists on the “left” to trash scientists with concerns (I’ve actually been called a “Climate Denier” because I expressed concerns over the hurricane data – and I’m a long time advocate of “doing something that works” on this issue!), just as it is wrong for those on the “right” to attack scientists from the other perspective.  Have no doubt: the science is never perfect, but it is solid, and actionable.

So, what about those impacts (aspect number 2).  That is a bit fuzzier, but again the data says there is a problem, and it is getting worse.   We are already seeing significant changes in agriculture, animal migration patterns, disease outbreaks, and a myriad of other indicators.  Note these reinforce point one, and show that this isn’t just a small group of climate specialists – multiple fields are seeing impacts.  So the second aspect is also clear: while exact nature of these impacts is somewhat fuzzy, the best science indicates that there are and will be increasingly negative impacts for both humans and the natural world.

OK, what to we do (aspect 3).  As noted above here is where things have broken down, largely because the politics (which should have been confined to policy decisions) has infected the science.  Much of the climate debate is focused on the IPCC and their periodic reports.  The problem is that this is a fundamentally political process.  The IPCC does not do original research.  It simply periodically compiles and synthesizes the latest research into a comprehensive report.  The problem is that process ultimately goes through review by the political levels of the participant governments.  Then it ends up in what is called a COP, or more formally, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The 24th such meeting is in progress in Katowice, Poland as I write this.  The current meetings (Sunday, 9 December 2018) have broken down over whether the phrase “welcome” or “takes note” will be used to receive the latest IPCC report. Yeah, seriously, that’s the hang up, although of course that’s just the excuse being used by some parties to sabotage the process.  Rather that let the process work by receiving a technical report (albeit one already tinged by politics), some national governments are using the process to avoid discussing the implications of the report on bogus grounds.  It’s insanity, but it’s the way things work.  But, to be honest, the IPCC/COP process has never worked.  The various agreements as agreed never had any chance of actually doing anything about climate change anyway.  Too many secondary issues involving wealth transfer from first to third world, economics, and so forth became convolved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

How do we fix this broken process?  As “long” as this post is, that would take a lot longer to even begin to discuss.  The first thing is to get the national governments out of the review process for the IPCC technical reports, and disconnect the policy creation process from the technical assessment process at both the national and intergovernmental levels.  People on the “right” need to realize that while the “left” may have been the first to jump on the bandwagon, and push their “solutions” (that, naturally, also address their worldview), there are a lot of options to address the problem, some of which would actually work, and give the average “progressive leftist” a serious case of hives.  Things like nuclear power, or free market approaches to energy production/distribution (the current system isn’t anything approaching a free market).  Another significant problem, especially here in the US, is the fact that some have confused religion into this.  I don’t separate in this discussion politics and religion, mostly because here in the US the two are somewhat inseparable since everything in this benighted land becomes about the two party political system.  But an unfortunate (and incorrect) view has developed particularly in the US that science in general and environmental and biological science in particular are “anti-Christian” in some way.  Again, long discussion involving theology as much as science.  But this also highlights another complex aspect of the problem.  People on the “left” or “right”, or “Christian” vs “Atheist” really don’t understand each other, and don’t communicate.  And it seems like they are more eager to score points and demonize the other than acknowledge the complexity of the discussion, take the time to understand why people hold the views they do, and reach some conclusion based on neutral facts that can be mutually agreed on.

The bottom line is that the climate issue highlights many of the flaws that are inherent in the present system of human governance and decision making at the national and nation-state level.  In the US, it highlights the dysfunctional nature of the media, educational system, and political party systems in particular.   I’m a scientist, not a politician, and I don’t have any good ideas on how to fix the process so that we can address issues like Climate Change in a way that has any hope of working.  But I know for sure we are headed for some really bad times ahead if we don’t.  It’s a pretty planet, with amazing places and wonderful people.  Let’s figure out a way to not screw it up …

Florida declares “state of emergency” over Alberto

There was a time when a “state of emergency” (SOE) meant something.  Nuclear war.  Major natural disaster.  Riots.  Devastation on a grand scale.  Dogs and cats sleeping together, that sort of thing.  But not any more, at least in modern America.  Election years seem especially prone to SOE’s and sober pronouncements by Those In Power that while the situation is dire,  under their beneficent leadership, It Will All Be Ok 😛 .  Politicians running for higher office love them – they get to “show leadership”.  But snark aside, what are some of the factors here?

Declaring SOE in advance of a potential disaster has become a normal way of doing business. It supposedly allows preparations for the disaster.  If the event actually happens, then a “disaster declaration” is made triggering further actions.  In one sense I get it, because the normal workings of bureaucracy have become so slow, convoluted, and constrained, that getting things done in a timely manner (or even at all, given the hyper-partisanship rampant in America these days) is difficult, and a streamlined process for preparing and ordering preparations is perhaps needed.  But there are also down sides.  For one thing, “emergencies” become the normal way of doing business.  In most states, an SOE allows the Governor to suspend the normal budgeting and contracting process, and this encourages abuses. It allows order preventing Price Gouging (which is a good thing, but I guess is OK the rest of the year, given Disney prices!).  It also often has civil rights implications with respect to Police powers and private property, something the US already has problems with.

Another issue is that over time it causes disaster fatigue – most of these “disasters” are  ultimately localized events, or events where there are widely scattered impacts but, in the great scheme of things, while they do hurt those immediately impacted, the events are really not that bad from a wider perspective. I worry that people don’t react with the urgency they should in cases where there really is a threat, when every inconvenience is treated as an “emergency”.

The economic impacts of SOE, watches, warnings, and disaster declarations go far beyond government operations. We are likely at a point where we spend more on preparing and anticipating disaster than if we did nothing except protect lives or when something truly catastrophic was imminent, and cleaned up later.   Many private firms are forced (either for the avoidance of liability, or other reasons) to follow the status of Government, which can be highly disruptive.  A major factor here is the insurance industry.  Now that Alberto is a “named storm,” many onerous insurance restrictions kick in such as restrictions in writing new policies, much higher deductibles, and so forth.  While linking insurance provisions to disaster response may seem to make sense at first cut, in fact it has had a significantly negative impact on consumers.

On the surface, it may seem that declaring an SOE for an incoming storm makes sense, but as with so much in the area of disaster planning, response, and mitigation, it’s a lot more complicated than it seems.