Category Archives: Politics

"Thank you for your service"

On this Veterans Day, I once again have to confront the gulf between combat zone military veterans and those who have never served in a combat zone. Being in the military means that you've accepted the status of being willing to sacrifice anything and everything, including your physical and mental health, right up to and including losing your life. You've given your nation a signed blank check and they can write in the amount.  For those veterans serving in combat zones, and especially those who actually participated in combat, it's difficult to try to communicate their experiences to those who haven't so served. I've described my experiences here.

On one day per year, we see lots of messages of gratitude to our veterans, and that's nice, but what about the other 364 days? What are we doing to provide help to veterans who have returned from combat and been struggling to cope with their endless nightmares? No one who participated in combat ever returns to become the same person they were before. I was extremely fortunate - it only took me a year or so to return to something close to my former self after leaving the military, but even then, I was forever changed by my military experiences.  Some of those changes in my life were positive, and some were negative.  I was blessed with good fortune, for no obvious reason.  It could have turned out very differently.

I really do value the sentiments expressed by those who offer gratitude for my time in service, but I'm concerned for those veterans who need so much more than words from their nation. Our nation should show their gratitude in their actions as well as mere words, when it comes to our combat veterans. Some of our veterans reach a time when they just can't deal with their devils created by the horrible things they've experienced - too many suicides, broken families, homeless vets, drug addictions, etc. I feel unworthy of gratitude for my time in the military, when I think about those who have suffered so much and been unable to find any peace in their minds.  And this says nothing about those who have had life-changing physical injuries to try to overcome.

We ask young people to serve and protect our freedoms, but we sometimes send them to fight in unwinnable wars on foreign soil for no good reason. Vietnam was such a war, and our so-called "war on terrorism" is another example.  How do you win a war against a tactic?  How do you define what is a "win" in such a war?  We had a similar problem in Vietnam - it was a war against an economic and political ideology in a far away land.  We never found a meaningful exit strategy in Vietnam, so we just left and all that followed showed that our involvement in Vietnam was pointless.  Millions died for nothing.  The young men and women serving in combat have to make hard choices about what to do in hostile circumstance and, if they choose incorrectly, we punish them harshly. We're getting better about trying to help veterans with PTSD and such, but we still have a long way to go.

Don't ever thank veterans for their service but then turn around and ask someone else to risk everything without a damned good reason!  Don't be so eager to support military actions to back up political positions.  Don't send our young men and women into combat and then oppose aid for those who manage to survive.  I saw somewhere that about 9,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since they returned - they actually died in Vietnam.  I think their names should be added to the wall at the National Vietnam Memorial as combat fatalities.  They're not on that wall only because their injuries required more time to take their lives.  That raises the Vietnam toll of American combat deaths from 58,000 to 67,000.

Trump is just a symptom of a greater malaise in America

There's an insidious illness that has infected the USA, causing our culture to evolve in ways that will eventually end badly for us.  It has become widespread and malignant - like a cancer, it comes from within rather than a foreign invasion.  The election of the incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, corrupt clown that only a minority of Americans voted for in last year's November election is but a symptom of the problem.

The founders of this nation, as imperfect as they were, began what is often called "The Great American Experiment in Democracy".  The experimental aspect of how our nation was created by those founders, was expressed eloquently by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The Civil War was a rigorous test of those principles, and the nation managed to stay together, sort of.  Given that the Confederate battle flag known as the "Stars and Bars" has become symbolic of, not just the Confederacy, but more so of the racism that caused the Civil War in the first place.  That racism (not limited to the Southern states), like the HIV virus, clearly lives on to this day within our nation.  It has gained widespread support and its persistence is a poison to the principle of equality for all humans in our nation.

Many of these issues surfaced again during the turbulent era of US involvement in Vietnam.  Similar divisions were present in the 1960s that had been around during the Civil War.  And those same divisions in our society plague us today, without the benefit of the spirit of compromise upon which our nation was founded.  Political parties have become a corrupting influence on us, where party loyalty is more valued than service to the American people.

The founders of our nation fell quite a ways short of living up to their own principles, of course.  That shortfall is still obvious today in many Americans.  Equality for all people actually never has been achieved in America, and we have made at best only slow and erratic progress at making equality a reality for everyone.  Women have been given the vote, but they're still being discriminated against in the workplace (and elsewhere) and subjected to sexual harassment and assault (including rape).  Justice for the perpetrators of harassment and assault against women remains elusive - power and money buy such criminals a free pass, despite our ideals.  Women actually are blamed for these crimes, rather than those committing them.  In the face of such inequality, most of the discrimination and the crimes against women are never reported, and in the rare instances where they are reported, that often backfires on the women, not the perps.

After slavery was abolished, racial inequality remains a fact of life experienced on a daily basis for most non-white Americans.  The police are charged with enforcing the laws of the land, but some of the police are simply brutal thugs, free to attack and even kill without being held accountable.  And the police commit such crimes disproportionately on non-white Americans.  Every black family must have "that conversation" with their children to make them aware that justice isn't equal in America.  The default assumption among many whites is that non-whites match the stereotypes projected on them by white Americans (who live in an invisible "bubble" of white privilege), and so many whites are completely unaware of the reality of discrimination against non-whites.

Non-christians in America are widely despised by the "religious right", especially Muslims and atheists, these days.  Christian notions of morality are being forced on all Americans on a daily basis.  I'm not going to go off on a rant against all religion, but here in America, creeping theocracy is generally associated with conservatives, who yearn to impose a mythical vision of America as they imagine it "used to be" when religious discrimination was not being opposed by those who believe in real freedom, not only of, but also from religion.  The "Establishment Clause" of the 1st Constitutional Amendment is constantly under attack by the religious right.  When people believe their god is on their side, they think that means they can fight for a theocratic USA by any means necessary.

Science and the tools of science - education, logic, evidence - are now widely mistrusted by many Americans.  There is a deep thread of anti-science and anti-intellectual thought that has always existed in America, but it seems to be growing more popular.  Public education is being threatened by siphoning even the diminishing taxpayer support for education into religious schools via the so-called "vouchers".  Too many Americans are monumentally ignorant about science, history, geography, mathematics, civics, and more.  Democracy depends on being supported by educated voters, so the attacks on public education are actually attacks on our democratic principles.  To make voting decisions in the modern world dominated by technology requires people who understand how things in our society work.  Otherwise, they are too easily led astray by would-be dictators.

Many politicians are being corrupted by large corporations pouring vast amounts of money to buy special favors for such companies, at taxpayer expense.  The "Trust Busting" era when Teddy Roosevelt broke the power of the corporations, is little more than a distant memory.  The Republican party has been taken over by the far right wing of their party and now supports tax breaks for big corporations while taking resources away that have been providing support for indigent people who need external help just to survive.  The indigent suffer even as the rich get richer.  Income inequality is a capitalist form of slavery and could eventually result in a violent revolution, with the indigent protests likely to be slaughtered by the very police who have pledged to serve and protect them.  Look at recent events for small-scale examples, such as the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux.

The trainwreck that is the crypto-fascist regime under Trump and his GOP supporters is simply a reflection of the decay from within that is infecting our nation.  Most Americans don't exercise their right to vote, and that tendency is at least part of the reason we have been saddled with this regime.  By not voting, Americans are giving up on the American Experiment and our democracy is being threatened by the drift toward fascism.  The right-wing extremists seem more interested in voting than the moderate center.  What is considered "left-wing extremism" is what used to be considered "liberal" while the true extreme left-wing is left out of the political picture altogether and so is reduced to protests and occasional violence.  No one in America wants it to become Communist, and the Communist threat pretty much disintegrated in 1989.  Disenfranchising Americans (limited predominantly to those who would cast a "liberal" vote) is also a terrible stain on the democratic experiment here, and the GOP has mastered the tactic.

Our current regime has dedicated itself to erasing any remnant of their sworn enemy - Barack Obama - as if all of the vitriol poured on him during his time as our President were actually true.  This is causing the US to lose its role as the world leader.  We are alienating our allies and encouraging our enemies.  And we have a childish psychopath with his finger on the thermonuclear trigger!

We seem to be tending toward going down a road to total collapse of liberal democracy, unlikely to be identical to, but also not unlike, the experiences of the moderate provisional government in Russia before the revolt by the Bolsheviks that put them in power, and that of the moderate Weimar Republic in Germany before the triumphs of the Nazis.  The different ideologies mask the many similarities between the Bolshevk and Nazi dictatorships.  History shows us that extremists can win, even when they only represent a small minority of the people in a nation - and we are not immune from having something like that happen!  The signs of our willingness to slide toward fascism have been apparent from the start of the 2016 election.  Extremists have a clear picture of what they want and are willing to do whatever it takes to "win", no matter how much suffering they create in achieving their cause.  Moderates often are paralyzed with indecision about what to do and how to do it - they talk, while extremists act.  Are we seeing the last days of the Great American Experiment?  American "exceptionalism" is a nationalist myth.  There is nothing inherent in American Democracy that will enable it to survive - the testing of its ability to endure has been ongoing since before the Civil War!!

Now we are engaged in a struggle about whether our nation, so conceived and dedicated to the principle of equality for all its people, can endure as a beacon of democracy and freedom.  It is altogether fitting and proper we should do this.  On this struggle hangs the outcome - whether or not this nation shall have a new birth of freedom so that our government of all its people, by all its people, and for all its people, shall not vanish from this Earth.

Thank You for Smoking, 2017

If you haven't seen Thank You for Smoking, watch it some day as it is a great satirical comedy.  The main character, Nick Naylor, is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco who does a hell of a job spreading disinformation about the linkages between smoking and lung cancer.  The sad thing of course is that this really did happen, delaying improvements in public and individual health for Americans.

Fast forward to 2017.  Nick Naylor is now Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Pruitt wants scientists to debate climate on TV, and "red team, blue team" exercises to evaluate climate science.

These proposed debates and exercises have nothing to do with science.  They have one objective, and that is to create doubt in the minds of Americans about the quality of climate science and the threat posed by global warming.  Doubt is his product, just as doubt was the product for the cigarette industry.

I have been around long enough to remember when there was legitimate, spirited scientific debate about the rate and causes of global warming.  As changes in temperature, sea level, snow, and ice became clear and evident over the past few decades, I've also seen all sorts of "alternative hypotheses" developed to explain global warming, from cosmic rays to solar changes.  None of these alternatives has ever survived rigorous testing.  Not only do they fail to explain the unusual intensity of recent warming, but they are also unable to explain patterns of warming, both geographically and from the lower troposphere to the stratosphere.  A preponderance of evidence from thousands of scientific publications supports the view that recent global warming is happening, that the rate of warming is unusual, and that it is caused by human activities, especially the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation.

There are of course important uncertainties about the rate of warming, the rate and magnitude of sea level rise, changes to runoff and water resources, and regional climate change.  These are issues being explored by scientists from many fields.  There are also misleading news articles and political framing of climate science from both the right and left extremes.  Finally, spirited discussion and debate about the actions that we might take for climate mitigation and adaptation is quite justifiable. However, every major scientific organization, including the National Academy of Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Physical Society, and American Chemical Society accepts that the Earth's climate is changing and that this warming is caused largely by human activity. As stated by the American Geophysical Union, "the Earth's climate is...changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by...human activity."

Nothing Nick Naylor says is going to change that.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Yesterday’s Paris Pullout

Yesterday was a dark day for me professionally.  The Paris Agreement isn't perfect, and I knew what was coming, yet I took the President's announcement like a blow to the stomach.  Adding insult to injury was the BS being thrown around about climate change.

The Paris Agreement is freely available here, so feel free to peruse it.  The summary of key agreements begins at the end of page 21 and continues onto page 22 and includes "holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC above preindustrial levels."

A variety of reasons were given by President Trump for the pullout, but I'll focus here on arguments that the Paris Agreement will have little impact on reducing global temperatures.  During his speech, President Trump claimed that "even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100."

There are two ways one could interpret that statement.

One is that it is patently false.  Based on current understanding, holding globally average temperature to 2ºC above preindustrial levels requires emissions reductions, carbon capture and sequestration, and/or other endeavors to limit peak greenhouse gas concentrations to about 450 ppm by about mid century.  Under that scenario, global average temperatures stabilize in the latter half of the century (dark blue below, note that the warming on the y-axis is relative to the 1985–2005 average, not preindustrial).
Source: Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth.  Adapted from Knutti and Sedláček (2012)
Other scenarios, with greater growth in greenhouse gas concentrations, feature much larger temperature increases.  If the goals of the Paris Agreement were met, global temperatures would be reduced considerably compared to those other scenarios, including "business as usual" (red line above).

The other way one might interpret that statement is that President Trump is using something else for the baseline, although I'm not sure what.  If that's the case, it was at minimum misleading.  

Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah did something a little different.  He did some cherry picking.  
As summarized in today's Salt Lake Tribune, he "cited predictions that 15 years of compliance by all participating nations would only slow the rise of global temperatures 'by a mere .07 degree Fahrenheit.'"

I don't know what predictions he is referring to specifically, but the key aspect of his statement is that he's focusing on 15 years of compliance, which presumably means the year 2035 since the Paris Agreement enters into force in 2020.  In that case, his statement is reasonably accurate, but misleading.  Nothing that happens as a result of the Paris agreement is going to have a significant impact on global warming over the next couple of decades.  The warming over the next couple of decades is due almost entirely to prior human activity because of the inertia in the climate system and our energy system.  No credible scientists dispute this.  

However, he's overlooked the fact that the primary impacts of the Paris Agreement occur in the latter half of the 21st century, as clearly indicated by the graph above.  The whole point of the Paris Agreement is to manage the risk posed by climate change, including sea level rise, by limiting the total increase in global average temperature.  Because of prior greenhouse gas emissions, and the fact that the Earth's climate system is still responding to those emissions, we can't have much of an impact on global warming over the next couple of decades.  We can, however, have a major impact in the latter half of the 21st century, and beyond.  This is what the Paris Agreement seeks to do.  

In general, I am not enamored with International agreements, but what strikes me as significant about Paris is that it is signed by nearly every country and there seems to be tremendous support for it, not only in other countries, but amongst many companies and business leaders.  It also is devoid of detail, leaving it to individual countries to set goals and policies (note: this could also be viewed as a weakness).  

By pulling out, we've stuck a hot poker in the eye of the International community.  On the other hand, progress is being made and participation in the Paris Agreement is not essential for the U.S. to further "bend the curve" on carbon emissions.  Just Wednesday, California's Senate passed a bill to receive all of its power from renewable energy by 2045 (it still needs to pass their assembly).  Many cities have ongoing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The migration to clean power in the U.S. continues.  Let's do this.  

Turning our back on the Paris Accord

The withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Accord has drawn both criticism and support - from different segments of our society.  Many of us felt it was an important first step for the world to join together to do something about anthropogenic global climate change (AGCC).  What we American do or don't do affects everyone around the world.  What goes on in the rest of the world inevitably has impacts in the USA.  We're no longer isolated bands of hunter-gatherers, and so our species has become deeply interconnected and interdependent.  Agriculture set us on the road to this interconnectedness, and industrialization moved us more rapidly in that direction.  Electronic technology is now accelerating the pace of interdependence.  Our withdrawal from the Paris accord is a profoundly disturbing step backward at a time when moving ahead to mitigate AGCC is critical for the future of our nation.

Apologists for this move are saying it was a "bad deal" for the USA.  If global climate change is worrisome to the military in this nation, is it plausible to suggest it's a myth?  If many business leaders supported our being part of the Paris Accord, is it plausible to suggest it was going to hurt the USA economy?  The US military is not exactly a bastion of left-leaning tree-hugger libtards.  Business leaders don't advocate things that will be bad for their business.  There are abundant examples now showing that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will not bankrupt our economies, but rather will energize them.  As new technology is developed to replace the old, new jobs will be created and the economy should prosper.  In various places around the world, including American states, this is already happening.  The hard part is the transition period as we wean ourselves from fossil fuels.  To step backward away from the leadership of a movement to mitigate AGCC, will cost our nation in many ways, and is not the path to American "greatness".  It delays the inevitable transition, making the pain of transition last longer.

I'm not a climate scientist, so I have no evidence of my own to support or refute the reality of AGCC.  I defer to the consensus of my scientific colleagues who are doing global climate research.  Would you entrust your health care to someone not a medical doctor?  Would you entrust your safety to a person who has no pilot training or experience?  Why do you lend credibility to non-specialists in issues of science?  Why do you think you know as much or more about the global climate as the consensus of climate scientists?  On what basis can there be such intense political opposition to the climate science consensus about AGCC?  Insofar as I can tell, only a tiny fraction of global climate scientists are arguing the consensus is wrong.  The rest of the chorus of voices opposing efforts to do something about AGCC are not global climate scientists, but are mostly basing their position on propaganda, lies, distortions of the facts, and political machinations.  Opposition to the Paris accord is just another rearguard action against a future technology shift toward renewable energy sources that is already well underway, even here in the USA.  Opposition to progress appeals to those who feel threatened by global unity in the face of global challenges.

The current political situation in the USA is going to result in damage that will take decades to repair.  The regime in power is anti-science, anti-intellectual, supportive of creeping theocracy, contributing to the massive expansion of the income inequality gap, alienating our international allies, devastating our public education systems, encouraging xenophobia and bigotry, and on ... and on ... and on.  Each day, more damage to America is happening, so withdrawing from the Paris Accord is another step down a very destructive path for America. 

Some have said that politics is intruding into science and that isn't good for the science.  AGCC didn't become politicized by some sort of conspiracy among climate scientists.  It became politicized when it became clear that something needed to be done about the threats posed by AGCC.  There would be a price tag attached to any efforts at mitigation of AGCC, and where money is involved, there go some politicians and their corporate sponsors.  And many political conservatives wax eloquent talking of the doom associated with progress.  It's what they do - oppose progress.

We’ll Always Have Paris

The media is abuzz with reports that Trump is going to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.  This isn't really a surprise since he's consistently said he would do so and every action he's taken as President is consistent with doubling down on fossil fuels.

In contrast, the Paris Agreement seeks to "[hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change."

Let's ponder those numbers, although there are a few challenges to doing so.  Incredibly, preindustrial isn't defined in the Paris Agreement (a major oversight), so we need to think about it for a bit.  Scientifically, we wouldn't want to pick a single year because in any one year, natural climate variability, volcanic eruptions, and other factors might make that year anomalous.  For example, 1884, the year after the eruption of Krakatoa, would be a terrible year to chose as it was anomalously cold.  Thus, we need to pick a period, preferably at least 30 years if not longer, not characterized by anomalous warmth or cold.

However, there is another challenges.  As one goes back farther in time, instrumented records are less numerous, decreasing the reliability of global temperature estimates.

A forthcoming article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Hawkins et al. (available here as an early online release but paywalled without subscription) concludes that 1720–1800 is perhaps the best period in terms of it predating measurable human influences on global temperatures.  They then use a variety of approaches to estimate the warming since the pre-industrial period and show that 2015 was likely the first year in which the globally averaged temperature was more than 1ºC warmer than preindustrial temperatures.  Their analysis did not include 2016, but it also exceeded the 1ºC threshold.

There are considerable ups and downs, however, in global temperatures from year-to-year.  These ups and downs are generally in the range of 0.1–0.2ºC.
Source: Hawkins et al. (2017)
Therefore, the fact that 2015 and 2016 were so warm doesn't mean we've necessarily eclipsed the 1ºC mark for good.  We might lose a little ground for a couple of years.  Nevertheless, we are probably in a period in which we are approaching a long-term globally averaged temperature that is close to 1ºC above preindustrial.

That puts us close to half way to 2ºC, with some warming still in the pipeline since the Earth is still responding to the rapid increase in greenhouse gases over the past few decades.  But why 2ºC?

The 2.0ºC limit stems from the recommendations of a 1980s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) group that considered 2ºC to be "an upper limit beyond which the risks of grave damage to ecosystems, and of non-linear responses, are expected to increase rapidly." Others have argued for a lower limit.  I don't know any scientists arguing for higher, but you can probably find a few.

The reality is that there is no magic tipping point at which global temperatures become "dangerous." Different regions, economic sectors, and ecosystems have differing sensitivities to the rate and magnitude of the temperature increase and we aren't able to understand and identify these precisely.   1.99ºC isn't good and 2.01ºC isn't bad.  Some responses to climate change are appearing already (heat waves) and will worsen further.  Others have yet to emerge.  Some are beneficial.  However, our society is built around the climate of the 20th century, not the 21st, and as the planet warms, most impacts of climate change will be problematic and not increase linearly, but nonlinearly with temperature.  Given that we are currently near a 1ºC increase, I view 1.5ºC as a "stretch goal" and 2.0ºC a realistic scenario for what we could achieve in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing the risk posed by climate change.

Ultimately, my views on the Paris Agreement are informed by science, but also influenced by my personal values.  I'd like to see the US be a leader in efforts to tackle global warming, and I think the Paris Agreement contributes to such leadership efforts.  However, tangible and substantial steps to decarbonize energy production are also essential.  The good news is that US energy-related carbon emissions have declined in recent years due to many factors, including a migration from coal and oil to natural gas and renewables for energy production.  States like California will likely continue to pursue policies and actions that reduce carbon emissions, as will many cities.  However, the policies of the Trump Administration run counter to these efforts and managing the risk posed by climate change.  Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would be another step in the wrong direction.

President’s Budget a Disaster for Science and Education

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, money is for spending and budgets are for fighting over.

Most Americans would probably agree that federal spending needs to be reduced.  However, the President's Budget released yesterday takes a draconian axe to many science and education programs that are critical investments for the Nation.  The Scientific American summarizes the some of the cuts affecting science and education here.  I will discuss specifically cuts proposed to science agencies and programs that I believe will greatly slow progress in weather and climate prediction.

My science career now spans nearly 30 years and for that entire time I have received support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  I consider NSF to be the gold standard of science funding agencies.  They support research projects initiated by scientists and are probably the most "organic" funding agency for science and engineering research.

The Trump Budget reduces NSF funding from $7.5 billion to $6.7 billion, which would fund 800 fewer research proposals.  The largest cuts would be in Social and Behavioral Sciences (10.4%), Computer Sciences (10.3%), and Geosciences (10.1%).  The research in those areas is very broad in scope and impact, but amongst the benefits are advances that ultimately improve the protection of life and property from natural hazards from winter storms to tsunamis.

In the NASA budget, five Earth-observing missions are eliminated, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), DSCOVR (space weather monitoring), CLARREO Pathfinder (critical for evaluating climate models and feedbacks), PACE, (ocean, cloud, and aerosol monitoring), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (measures reflected sunlight).  These missions will help improve understanding and modeling of the Earth's radiation budget.  The NASA Office of Education is also eliminated.

Perhaps the most nonsensical cut is a reduction of $5 million to delay the development of the Next Generation Global Prediction System (NGGPS) and other related weather prediction projects.

These weather prediction projects have bipartisan support in Congress because they are a good investment for national security and resiliency to high-impact weather.  The NGGPS involves the development of a new global weather prediction system designed to accelerate forecasts of critical weather in the United States.  Such a system would also greatly benefit the private sector, which relies heavily on computer models for all sorts of applications in the transportation, energy, agricultural, and other economic sectors.

In summary, the President's budget is a disaster for science and education, the Nation's intellectual capital, and technological innovation.  It is a pathway back to the dark ages, not the future.

Disclosure: The author currently receives research funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Office of Naval Research.

Earth Day and the March for Science

We didn't participate in the OKC March for Science - mostly because we're still recovering from our recent respiratory problems.  I'm pleased to know it was reasonably well-attended and our absence only subtracted a negligible portion. 

The widespread disrespect for science within the Trump regime and inside the halls of Congress is a component of a national malaise that didn't begin with Trump.  This trend could bring our secular democracy down.  If we lose interest in the facts, preferring lies, myths, slogans, and propaganda to a fact-based, logical understanding of the world in which we live, then our destiny is to become a second-rate nation, perhaps sliding farther toward third-rate, or worse.  A societal ambience that devalues education, science, and civil discourse is likely to fall prey to authoritarianism.  Facts will be ignored or distorted, as myths and superstitions will hold sway.

Contrary to what many people say, science is not a belief system, in the sense that science does not depend on a particular set of beliefs that are untestable and beyond question.  Scientific facts don't depend on anyone's beliefs;  whether you "believe in them" or not doesn't change the truth of their being facts!  Science uses logic and evidence to propose explanations for why the natural world is observed to be the way it is.  Experience has demonstrated repeatedly that logic and evidence work to achieve increased understanding.  Scientific explanations are always provisional, never final or "settled" in some way.  You don't have to accept them as a belief system, because they work!

Explanations based on evidence always are subject to re-evaluation and possible revision in the face of new evidence or when another explanation is proposed that does an improved job of explaining the facts as we know them at any given moment.  You certainly can choose to believe or not believe the explanations that science offers, but you can't choose to believe or not believe in the facts that were used to support an explanation.  If you disbelieve in a scientific explanation, what's your alternative explanation?  The more rigorously an explanation has been tested (often by collecting new evidence), the more likely it is to be an acceptable hypothesis.  Some ideas have been tested so many times and so thoroughly, the consensus among subject matter experts is that they go beyond a mere hypothesis to the level of a scientific "law" or "theory".  Note that the use of the word "theory" is not like some barroom conversation where someone says "I've got a theory about that!"  A scientific theory (e.g., Einstein's Theory of General Relativity or Darwin's Theory of Evolution) is a thoroughly vetted explanation.

Given those explanations of how things work, science permits the exploration of further ideas based on those explanations; if we accept an explanation, what other things can be implied using that explanation?  Validated explanations are the foundation upon which technology is built.  The fact that our technology works the way we have come to expect it to work is mute testimony to the solidity of that scientific foundation.  Our society has come, for better or for worse, to be based heavily on technology.  Those who deny the validity of science are, at their core, either (a) uncaring about the negative impacts of undermining support for science and more concerned about power or profit, or (b) they're so profoundly ignorant, they fail to grasp the significant parts of what science has given to us.  Possibly both may apply.

The evidence has shown that investment in support of scientific research is repaid many times over by the value created as a result of that research.  Yes, there are some scientific projects that seem awfully far removed from any practical application.  And no, not all scientific projects are destined to become important.  But overall, our position as a prosperous world superpower has been made possible in part by the large investments we've made over time in support of science.  Skeptics should review the book "Science - the Endless Frontier" written by Vannevar Bush after the end of WWII.  Sometimes, the most seemingly useless and impractical hypotheses can turn out to have some purely unexpected value that no one anticipated when the original research was done.  In some cases, it might be many years before some piece of research comes to practical fruition.  To limit science only to those topics that can be of immediate value is to cripple the science in the long run.  We as a nation have become obsessed with the short-term "profit and loss" analysis, and many topics that might prove valuable in the future are not being pursued for lack of funding.

Unfortunately, science is becoming a casualty in the political wars being fought over whose ideology is going to run this nation.  Topics like global climate change have become tainted with the miasma of politics, to the point where scientific facts are being denied or grotesquely misused to serve this or that political view.  This has put our nation's leading position in science at great risk.  If we fall victim to that apparent tendency, then we're doomed to fall from our world leadership position and slide down the slope toward scientific mediocrity and dependence on others to do our science for us.

This year's Earth Day March on Science around the nation is a reflection of the concerns within the scientific community for what we see happening to devalue science in our society.  Sure, it has some roots in concern for our jobs.  But of all the careers someone might pursue, I know of no scientist who chose to become a scientist purely for the profit motive, and most of use are not counted among the rich.  What we possess in abundance is a concern for the importance of truth and evidence-based critical thinking in the USA.  That's worth marching for and not based solely on our self-interest!

NOAA Budget Cuts Are Bad For National Defense and Homeland Security

"Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

"The US military is doing just fine...but let's cut NOAA's budget by 15%. Maybe we'll be like the Japanese navy in the 12th century...won't see the hurricane that hits us."
- University of Utah Atmospheric Sciences Alumnus
Budget proposals being considered by the Trump Administration and reported by The Washington Post last week include substantial increases in military spending ($54 Billion) and a 17% cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  As summarized by the Capital Weather Gang, plans for the NOAA budget include cuts of $513 million to the National Environmental Satelite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), $126 million to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), and $53 million to the National Weather Service.

Let's be frank about this.  Increasing military spending while hampering NOAA is penny wise and pound foolish.  Ultimately, these proposed cuts represent a serious threat to National Defense and Homeland Security. 

Weather observations and forecasting are absolutely vital to the success of the U.S. military, but don't take my word for it.  Here's Fred Lewis, University of Utah alumnus (Ph.D. '79), retired brigadier general (US Air Force), former Director of Air Force Weather, and Senior Vice President for Sutron Corporation.

The U.S. military supports their own computer modeling systems and battlefield observations, but weather forecasting today "takes a village."  Satellite data is the background of modern weather forecasting, representing over 99% of the observations ingested by numerical weather prediction systems.  Polar orbiting satellites, which fly in low-Earth orbits that pass over or nearly over the north and south poles, are especially important. The cuts being proposed by the Trump Administration would delay the launch of two polar-orbiting satellites, increasing the likelihood of gaps in coverage as older satellites are retired or fail.  Such delays or gaps would reduce military forecasting capabilities, as well as civilian.

Speaking of civilian forecasting.  We are on the cusp of revolutionary advances in weather prediction as we move to newer "cloud-permitting" high-resolution ensemble modeling systems.  These modeling systems will have grid spacings smaller than 4 km, enabling much better simulation of cloud processes, hurricane eyewall dynamics, severe convective storms, and other phenomenon. By producing a suite of forecasts, rather than a single solution, these models will provide improved guidance on the range of possibilities and their likelihood prior to high-impact storms.  Nevertheless, these models are under development, and cuts to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) will delay that development.  Cuts to satellite and other observation programs will also limit the capabilities of these modeling systems.

Of course the irony of these cuts is that they are being proposed during a time of tremendous excitement in the meteorological community as the new, revolutionary, GOES-16 satellite is now in orbit and being tested prior to becoming operational.  You've never seen anything like it.  High resolution, frequently updated satellite imagery.  Lightning mapping.  Space weather monitoring.  Three times more "channels" than the satellites it replaces, enabling improved identification of a wide-range of atmospheric phenomenon.  Here's a tease from the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

I don't wish to suggest that the NOAA (and National Weather Service) budget should not be scrutinized carefully.  I consider such efforts to be essential.  However, the proposed cuts are severe and will have an impact on the weather prediction capabilities for both National Defense and Homeland Security.

Disclosures: The author receives funding from the NOAA/National Weather Service and the Office of Naval Research.  

Democracy being legislated out of existence?

Recently, GOP lawmakers around the nation are introducing legislation to make many sorts of protest illegal. I have news for these lawmakers: making some action illegal changes nothing. If someone's concerns about the loss of our rights as American citizens leave them willing to be arrested for defying an unjust or unconstitutional law, this legislation has no impact. If someone is willing to let our rights be eliminated one at a time via legislation, then they'll have to bear a large share of the responsibility for the destruction of American democracy.

Protest is a time-honored tradition of the USA.  The Constitution's Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, due process, restrictions on search and seizure, etc.) became the law of our land because the framers of the Constitution were concerned about the tyranny of the majority.   If a sheep and two wolves vote, the majority will be eating mutton for dinner!  The real key to democracy is not majority rule - it's protection of the rights of minorities!  Peaceful protesters in our history have been attacked by police and police dogs, shot by soldiers, shot with water cannons, tear gassed, arrested, and sent to jail for their efforts.  As MLK has shown us, an unjust or evil law can and should be broken, to draw attention to the injustice being perpetrated.  This also reveals the evil that results in the injustice. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s eventually created enough national revulsion over the states with Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the people of our nation seemingly repudiated that injustice.  Now, it seems, the Trump regime has "normalized" bigotry of all sorts:  misogyny, racism, LGBTQ persecution, discrimination against religions other than xtianity, discrimination against atheists, and so on.  The bigotry never went away - it was simply not accepted in public discourse for a while.  The very notion of a progressive, a liberal, has been demonized and vilified.  It seems that our painful progress in seeking equal justice for all of us in our nation is vulnerable to it being cancelled by hostile lawmakers.  Legislation embodying such discrimination is being proposed at federal and state levels.

There's no need to do anything more in terms of the law than enforce trespassing laws in many cases of protest if you just want to silence dissent.  There's this false notion that a peaceful protest should never include breaking any law.  That's actually contrary to the long tradition of non-violent protest in our democracy.  Yes, trespassing is a crime, but the bigger issue is the injustice against which protests are organized.  Remember that in our nation's history, slavery was perfectly legal at one time.  Aiding slaves in their attempts to escape was, in fact, illegal.  Antisemitism was the law in Germany during the Hitler regime.  Dissent in autocratic regimes like Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South African apartheid, etc. is often declared to be illegal.  Does this mean that protest about unjust laws is somehow tainted when laws are broken in a non-violent way?

A disturbing issue is the implication that some protests are being infiltrated by agents provocateur - people who either commit violent acts or try to induce others to do so.  This then is used to justify violent suppression of the protesters.  I don't know the extent to which this may be occurring, but it's an indication of profound evil whenever and wherever it occurs.  I also know that some people who join protests are not willing to play by the non-violent rules.  They may not be police agents but they are people whose agenda is not what the protests are all about.  Their actions also induce a violent response in some cases.

The Trump regime (including federal and state GOP legislators) has shown us strong evidence in its first month in office just what he and his cronies represent.  They're quite willing to trample on the principles and traditions of our democratic republic, inflicting harm on disadvantaged peoples, enabling the destruction of the environment we all must share, creating more and more income equality favoring the tiny, but wealthy minority.  This is an administration and Congress that may eclipse anything in our nation's history in terms of both incompetence and corruption.  They see the judiciary as their enemy, in blatant disregard for the checks and balances incorporated in the Constitution.  They see a free press as their enemy, ignoring its traditional important role in bringing attention to misdeeds by the government.  Dissent is deemed to be unpatriotic when in reality, dissent is one of the most patriotic things one can do in a democratic republic.

That so many Americans feel the need to protest this turn of events seems both natural and a positive good, even as the crypto-fascist oligarchy clearly pushes their personal greed out as their top priority and to hell with the needs of the rest of us.  How many protesters already have been arrested and detained in prisons?  What will happen if the chorus of dissent becomes louder and more vigorous?  Are internment camps and gulags and, yes, gas chambers in our future?  The current regime offers me no indication that they could not easily follow down a path that history has shown leads to cult-of-personality dictatorships, autocracy, oligarchy, and massive loss of rights by ordinary people.