Saturday, August 29, 2015

Honest Conversations: Climate Change and Uncertainty

The following  was published Dec. 12, 2013, on the WWF ClimatePrep blog ( -- which now appears to have gone defunct. Just in case it's gone for good, I'm going to re-post my ClimatePrep articles here. You can still see the original on

Uncertainty is hard. Planning for uncertain events, particularly highly uncertain and dangerous events, is even more difficult. Even certain events with uncertain timing, like an earthquake on a fault line, can stop people in their tracks. People don’t want to plan for terrible things. I once attended a doctoral seminar at UC Berkeley (on the Hayward Fault) on climate change adaptation and asked the room, in the middle of complaining about the stubbornness of climate change denialists, how many had earthquake preparedness kits at home. The answer: less than a third. We all live in some degree of denial about highly uncertain, dangerous events. They are just too scary to think through.

Those of us who are trying to move governments to plan for climate change need to understand the roots of denial. One of those roots is fear. There is fear surrounding the uncertainty of climate change. What if the sky isn’t falling? What if the sky is falling, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it? As an astute climate change planner, you might say: you don’t need to have certainty of a future fire before buying a fire insurance policy. Why would you wait for perfect certainty to plan for climate change? However, governments around the world still point to the uncertainty of the timing and severity of climate change as a reason to avoid committing scarce resources to climate change preparedness.

I recently attended a conference held by the Institute at the Golden Gate [Nov. 6-9, 2013] on using parklands as a venue for climate change communication. We were told to find people where they are, create opportunities for two-way conversations, and hear their concerns and observations. I would add to that the importance of acknowledging the uncertainty of climate change, not to overstate (or understate) the science. So how do you engage with people, acknowledging their fears, in a way that helps us start planning for climate change?

Back in June [2013], WWF’s Shaun Martin wrote on how uncertainty can be a barrier to climate change planning, and how the scenario-development exercise he led helped people get past uncertainty paralysis. Scenario planning, pioneered by the U.S. military and developed for wider use in the 1970’s by the Global Business Network, is being used more and more to create a space to talk about climate change. Scenario planning provides a framework for a group to develop multiple plausible futures based on discussion of relative certainties, including many kinds of information, from quantitative scientific projections to personal observations about the changing land. This way, communities can talk through responses to worst case scenarios that feel plausible and imminent, grounded in scientific knowns and unknowns, defining our nightmares to move forward into envisioning solutions.

People plan around uncertainty all the time, but we don’t stop to consider the kinds of uncertainties we negotiate. In typical planning, one focuses on the certainties and goes from there. With climate change, nothing is 100% certain regarding severity or timing (or both). However, some situations are more certain than others, and therefore easier to plan for. In scenario planning, participants are asked to focus on the factors with the highest uncertainty (also called “deep uncertainty”), where the direction of change or the point at which a critical threshold will be exceeded is unknown. Then, of these, participants are asked to focus on the highest-consequence factors. This allows people to enter the imaginary space of a range of futures which would be ignored in a common planning process focusing on certainties. Playing this out, participants can envision the interactions of multiple factors (such as a future with decreasing rainfall, increasing severe wind storms, and chronic budget shortfalls). The scenarios are built correctly, engaging with the right amount of deep uncertainty, if the participants come up with solutions that surprise them, or give them ‘aha’ moments.

In January 2011, I organized a scenario planning workshop for 35 resource managers in Marin, California. The participants came from the public and private non-profit sectors, representing local, county, and national landscape management institutions. There were water district managers, fire district managers, invasive plant detection experts, researchers, and more. At the end of the day, we had our ‘aha’ moment: fire and water managers need to work more closely across a larger region to plan for long-term change. Two years later, I’m working with the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative and North Bay Watershed Association  to make these cross-sector, multi-county planning discussions happen. The managers we engage in planning these discussions continue to affirm that we can no longer plan for one natural system separate from another.

The dream is certainty; the reality is that we can’t always reduce climate change uncertainty, and the fear that stems from this can paralyze us. However, we can define our worst-case scenarios, thinking through the consequences of the most critical uncertainties (and how the consequences interact). Scenario planning is not a panacea for all the barriers to climate change preparedness, but it can help us address our biggest nightmares, and hopefully navigate past uncertainty.

Feature Photo © Fred Hasselman

Friday, August 14, 2015

A "Blob" Blog!

Check it out -- the Alaska "Blob" Tracker -- for all the Blob news that's fit to print!

It was established at the end of July by the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS), the Alaska branch of a non-profit, the Integrated Ocean Observing System Association, which supports coastal marine data gathering around the U.S.

This Aug. 11, 2015, article from the Alaska Dispatch News explains how the AOOS came to realize the need for a Blob blog.

In case you missed it when I posted about it earlier, check out: El Niño vs. the Blob: which will win out this winter? a 1:24 animation by KPCC's science desk that helped me understand how the Blob is not El Niño. And how it may thwart the efforts of El Niño to bring rain to parched California.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Batten Down the Hatches: Double El Niño is Trouble for Public Health

Since January I've been seeing articles about a second El Niño forming in the Pacific, expected to bring buckets of rain to the U.S. west coast this winter. The historic drought we're having here in California makes this sound like a godsend. I only hear the coming deluge discussed in positive terms. Or a marketing opportunity: a friend moving out of the area just posted her rain boots for sale with the tag "El Niño is coming!"

Obviously natural disasters like immense storms and floods pose a direct physical threat to people and their homes. For a risk-minded person, an image like this might come to mind at the mention of the upcoming intense El Niño:

Source: U.S. Navy. Hurricane Katrina rescue.
But there are less obvious dangers from the oncoming Double El Niño that should be included in risk calculations. First, let's remind ourselves the defining characteristics of this phenomenon.

El Niño is just a rainy winter, right?

El Niño is when the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean water gets warmer and air pressure gets lower, part of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which alternates with La Niña (when the eastern equatorial Pacific waters cool and air pressure gets higher). Usually, as the water warms more moisture goes into the atmosphere and creates more storms. So, the primary impact associated with El Niño in the U.S. is more storms on the west coast.

An El Niño was declared in 2014, but the warm water/more storms connection turned out to be weak. The energy from the warm water is just "sitting there," according to Kevin Trenberth of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a March 2015 "Living on Earth" piece from PRI.

The NOAA Climate Prediction Center declared in July:
There is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, and around an 80% chance it will last into early spring 2016.
Trenberth said in the PRI piece of the pending Double El Niño: "this could mean more than a few months of odd weather, but instead usher in a new phase of climate change."

Perhaps as a result of the congestion from not releasing the energy from the 2014 warming cycle, current sea surface temperatures indicate an El Niño as strong as the record-breaking one in 1997-1998. However, NOAA meteorologist, Michelle L’Heureux, points out that the two El Niño's early indicators don't line up exactly ("Keep calm and stop obsessing over weekly changes in ENSO" - July 7, 2015), and in a July 23 Scientific American article she is quoted as saying "we cannot find a single El Niño event that tracked like another El Niño event."

But even if this El Niño doesn't live up to the hype, meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote last October "a longer-term climate signal is beginning to point in the direction of more frequent bursts of warming over the next several years."

On top of that, a parallel system, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), is warming the northeastern Pacific. (Look at the bottom of this University of Washington chart of sea surface temperature anomalies in the North Pacific and it looks like the PDO is in full swing.)

Will California be Singing in the Rain?

Who knows? No two El Niños are the same, as pointed out by meteorologist Michelle L’Heureux above. 

We might have yet another dry winter because of "the Blob": a warm water/high pressure ridge combination lingering off the coast of California blocking incoming storms. (For more info read El Niño vs. the Blob: which will win out this winter? - from the KPCC science desk, Aug. 10, 2015, including a 1:22 animation explaining their different effects.)

Then there is the salient point that "El Niño rains can come like a wrecking ball," brought up in a July 30, 2015, opinion piece by one climate change adaptation planner, AECOM's Josh Sawislak. He questions the readiness of the state's infrastructure if the predicted floods do come.

While California hopes for and dreads a winter of floods, other places will have to brace for drought and fire. In the southwest Pacific, they await dry conditions. East Australia is expecting dangerous bushfire conditions (check out this Sydney Morning Herald article from May 2015 describing expected El Niño impacts in Australia this winter, with a bonus 2-minute cartoon explaining the phenomenon).

Beyond the direct public safety risks from wildfire and flood, why should people worry about El Niño's impact on public health?

El Niño and Disease

Drought and Meningitis

Historically, a strong El Niño has brought drought and famine to the Sahel region of Africa, and researchers are now drawing connections between the weather pattern and specific diseases. In July 2015, a Nigerian doctor O. Oluwole published findings correlating the increase of meningococcal meningitis epidemics in the Sahel with strong El Niños. This supports previous findings that high dust and wind (which accompany drought) correlate with meningitis outbreaks in the so-called "meningitis belt" (stretching across the Sahel from Senegal to Ethiopia) where "major epidemics of lethal meningitis are routine" (The Guardian, March 25, 2014). With these findings, vaccination campaigns can be stepped up in preparation.

Floods and Stunted Growth

In November 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins published findings showing that children born during and shortly after the 1997-1998 El Niño event in Northern Peru, which brought heavy coastal flooding, were "on average shorter and had less lean mass for their age and sex than expected had El Niño not occurred."

The study's lead researcher, William Checkley told Mother Jones magazine that the findings align with previous findings about El Niño's public health consequences: increased risk of infection, social and emotional stress, and increased risk of contracting infectious diarrheal and respiratory diseases from flooding and heat. All of this combined could easily harm a child's development.

El Niño and War

Solomon Hsiang, an economist who studies the impact of climate change on conflict, together with  K. Meng and M. Cane, found "the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years" according to data from 1950 to 2004 (Nature, 2011). Another researcher who looks at the connection of weather and conflict, Marshall Burke, suggested that the findings could lead to governments of countries with high risk of extreme heat or drought during El Niño "putt[ing] in place measures and safety nets to try to reduce the risk of conflict in that year." Or, the approach of El Niño could at least put international rescue and refugee organizations on notice to step up their fundraising efforts in advance.

All I can say is batten down the hatches.

More information:
This October 2012 Daily Mail UK piece shows historical global distribution of flood damage from El Niño, using maps from the Global Change Institute in Amsterdam.

El Niño and "the Blob" are both visible in the Pacific if you look at the anomalies map-- the second map down. 

With a link to the ENSO Blog.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

California: The Rebeavering!

Check out my latest post on the WWF ClimatePrep blog:

California: The Rebeavering

Consisting mostly of the results of an extensive interview Brock Dolman, Director of the WATER Institute at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a leading beaver believer in the California movement for rebeavering. I actually interviewed more people for this article than for any of my previous articles, but he was very generous with his time and energy. By the end of the interview I felt like I'd been recruited to join the movement!

I come from a place where beavers are a-plenty (the swamps between Lake Ontario and the Tug Hill Plateau, west of the New York's Adirondack Park) and quite frankly considered pests, so this article gave me a chance to think about the beaver's important role in water system management, and appreciate the possibilities they present to our parched state here in California.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Wisconsin joins the follies

Wisconsin, really?

Yes, Wisconsin, reports Tim McDonnel in Another State Agency Just Banned the Words "Climate Change," on Apr. 8, 2015, for Mother Jones.

And this time it isn't just one political leader unilaterally deciding to deny those tasked with preparing for changes to the land use of the words "climate change," it's a collective decision, specifically two political leaders on a committee of three. The decision to decree that public employees refrain from "engaging in global warming or climate change work while on [Board of Commissioners of Public Lands] time" was proposed by Wisconsin's new State Treasurer Adamczyk, who ran on a platform of promising to eliminate the State Treasurer's office, and supported by the new State Attorney Schimel, who, as a candidate, said he would have defended the state's ban of interracial marriage in the 1950's, and would have defended the state's ban on same-sex marriage more recently. The third committee member, Secretary of State La Follette, voted against it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Government Follies, Florida Edition

Hey, I have a new piece up on the WWF Climateprep blog!

Wherein I get to talk about my favorite historian the brilliant Barbara Tuchman and her definition of government folly:

Government Folly in the Face of Climate Change (March 19, 2015)

As the piece was being prepared for publication I was wondering if the topic wasn't a little dated, since the momentum is only growing for governments to come to the climate change adaptation table, but then this happened:

Former Florida DEP employees say they were told not to use terms "climate change" or "global warming" (March 9, 2015)

In Florida, of all places. When people want to know in a 3 second sound-bite what I've learned from all my research and work in the adaptation field, I often joke: "don't buy land in Florida."

And now Governor Scott has gone one more step further down the folly-tastic path:

Crazy on you: Scott administration orders employee to get medical evaluation for considering "climate change." Wow. (March 19, 2015)

Wow, indeed.

Read his official reprimand if you want to look at the inner workings of an employee being silenced on the topic of climate change. Now, true, this isn't about burying an inconvenient scientific report about climate change hazards; it's about an administrator feeling like she is being put in a precarious position by an employee's efforts to advocate against the Keystone XL pipeline, citing climate change as a reason to oppose it. However, the employee being asked to get a mental health screening before returning to work strikes me as beyond the pale.

As of this past week, the Florida chapter of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is taking up Florida Department of Environmental Protection employee Bart Bibler's case. The Florida PEER director Jerry Phillips says "Bart Bibler has no idea whether he will ever be allowed to return to work."

This kerfuffle in Florida doesn't meet Tuchman's definition of government folly (it's not collective folly: it's folly  resulting from the actions of an individual, the governor), but let's see how the Florida legislature respondsor doesn't.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

In the Heat of the Moment

Check out my newest post at the WWF Climate Prep blog: In the Heat of the Moment, discussing recently released evidence on the connection between heat and violence, and implications for society and security under climate change.

Shout out to UC Berkeley professors Sol Hsiang - now teaching at my alma mater the Goldman School of Public Policy - and CEGA's Ted Miguel for their great research on these topics!

CEGA is the Center for Effective Global Action, which focuses on using quantitative impact evaluation methods to improve results of poverty alleviation programs in the international development field. When I was at GSPP I took a student-led course on impact evaluation, taught by students working at CEGA, and the problems we addressed were along the lines of how to ethically roll out an experimental vaccination or disease testing program. It's great to see those big brains being bent to the task of assessing possible disparate climate change impacts on CEGA's constituency-- the world's poorest communities.