Niall Ferguson is talking about climate change, which means somebody needs to explain why you shouldn’t be listening to him. This is pretty easy, because if you subject his argument to even the most gentle scrutiny, it becomes clear that Ferguson has no idea what he is talking about, or even that he knows how to productively think about climate change and its potential impacts. The giveaway is Ferguson’s enthusiasm for Bjorn Lomborg, whose economic arguments about climate change are persistently and willfully misleading. To quote Ferguson:

Subsidies to renewable energy have a cost. Cutting CO2 emissions has a cost. Those costs in terms of forgone growth could exceed the costs of climate damage if we over-reach in the way that, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would. The key point, as Lomborg says, is that vastly more people die as a consequence of poverty each year than die as a consequence of global warming. A CO2 emissions target is not the optimal target if meeting it would trap millions in poverty, not to mention ignorance and ill health.

The argument here is attractive at first glance because it seems simple and logical enough – the costs of reducing CO2 might reduce economic growth, trapping people in poverty, which kills more people than climate change, so we’d actually be making things worse by reducing emissions. But whenever someone gives you simple logic for a complicated problem engaging multiple complex systems (the global climate, the global economy, etc.), beware.

First, there is Ferguson’s willful efforts to mislead the reader. Of course subsidies have costs. Ferguson’s framing, however, willfully ignores the spectacular costs of the subsidies to fossil fuels that long reduced their direct consumer costs and thus made them more attractive than renewables. Further, this shabby line of argument elides the fact that even in the face of subsidies to fossil fuels, many forms of renewable energy are becoming economically efficient choices. And of course cutting emissions will have costs. What Ferguson ignores in this statement is that emissions also have costs. The amount of these costs, while debated, never come in cheap – its just a question of how expensive these costs are (for example, here, here, and here). So Ferguson’s implicit suggestion that we have a choice to make between incurring costs and not incurring costs is false. Our choice is between which costs we want to pay – those to mitigate and adapt to climate change and its impacts, or those to respond to those escalating impacts into the future. Whether talking about the cost of subsidies to clean energy, or the cost of cutting emissions in general, Ferguson offers a terribly disingenuous argument, and one I cannot believe he does not fully understand.

Second, it appears the Ferguson understands little about poverty, climate change impacts, or most crltically the relationship between the two. Ferguson’s argument about poverty and mortality (borrowed from Lomborg) is a bit odd, if you think about it a little. Poverty is a descriptive term for a human condition of lack – whether of needed assets, resources, or opportunities. Those lacks result in conditions in which people can and do die – for example, those who lack adequate housing are at risk for death from exposure, while those who lack access to adequate nutritious food are at risk for death from malnutrition. As these examples illustrate, poverty is not the agent of death. Poverty is the condition under which agents, such as weather conditions, can lead to death.

This is more than a pedantic point about poverty – it has everything to do with why Ferguson’s/Lomborg’s zero-sum argument about poverty versus climate change mitigation is garbage. This argument assumes that poverty and climate change are unrelated causes of death that can be measured against one another. However, it is extraordinarily well-established that the outcomes of climate change, from acute stresses produced by climate extremes to chronic impacts produced by long-term changes in temperature and precipitation, tend to exacerbate existing inequalities in whatever society they are found. Thus, climate change impacts will exacerbate poverty, the conditions under which people encounter higher rates of mortality. Put another way, it is not a choice between investment in anti-poverty efforts and investment in climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. Investments in anti-poverty work that pay no attention to climate change are likely to be less effective than those that do not. These are NOT INDEPENDENT VARIABLES.

Lomborg knows this, and has had this screamed at him, for something like a decade. The fact he continues to argue otherwise is just bad faith. Ferguson, on the other hand, likely has no idea what he is talking about and is just grabbing on to a narrative he likes. It’s pathetic when Harvard and Stanford give positions to someone willing to make misleading arguments about concepts he does not really understand to put forth an opinion that is not only demonstrably wrong, but just a rehashed, boring version of previous demonstrably wrong framings of climate change, its impacts, and the need for action. And it is tragic that the Boston Globe, a paper I otherwise respect, gave him the column inches to offer that opinion.

Sheila Navalia Onzere

June 19, 1977 – August 31, 2019

It is with a sense of incredible loss that I report the death of Sheila Onzere, HURDL’s research scientist. Sheila died yesterday in Nairobi, Kenya, after a sudden illness. She had been home, taking care of her mother and working some short-term contracts while HURDL waited for longer-term work to come through. The shock is overwhelming. I was messaging with her last week. Multiple members of the HURDL family were messaging with her yesterday morning. We were all talking about projects and plans in a future that now will not happen. None of us know how to process that.

Sheila came to HURDL in September of 2014. The lab had only existed for a little over 18 months when she joined. To that point, I had been the only non-student member of the team, but the amount of work we were doing had ramped up and it was clear we needed another professional to keep things moving. I put out an ad for a research associate, and narrowed the pool to a few candidates. I still remember the Skype interview with her – all the members of HURDL at the time, Kwame Owusu-Daaku, Tshibangu Kalala, and Daniel Abrahams, piled into my office and subjected this poor Kenyan woman, operating on a weak internet connection, to the full HURDL experience – questions followed by digressions followed by jokes followed by nobody listening to me at all. In retrospect, it was an ideal interview, as it presented the most honest picture of HURDL possible – and Sheila took the job. The lab and all its members were much better for it.

Sheila made us a better organization. She brought a Ph.D. in Sociology (Iowa State) to the lab (though this lab full of geographers will always claim her BA in Human Geography from Moi University was the one that counted), and with it substantial experience working with farmers both in the US and in Africa. But as much as her technical and academic skill, Sheila brought a sense of responsibility and enthusiasm to the work of the lab. Her willingness to always step in and cover something not only kept HURDL glued together, it helped establish the ethic that made the lab such a fun and interesting place to work. She was kind, generous, and very funny. Her laugh was infectious, a reward for anyone who could make it emerge. Even her sigh of exasperation (which I elicited plenty of times) was surprisingly kind and gentle. She was unique, perfect for HURDL and all the people that had the fortune to work in it while she was a part of the team.

A while back, commenting on the structure and organization of HURDL, someone told me that it ran more like a family than a formal organization. This was not meant as a complement, but a statement identifying an institutional weakness. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. That observation helped me understand what I loved about the lab and the people in it. We were, and are, a family. When the lab came to my house to eat and hang out, it felt like a family dinner. That feeling is what makes the day-to-day of the lab worth it. We’ve lost a family member, and we are mourning like a family. It hurts intensely, but that is because Sheila meant so much to all of us. I would not have it any other way.

In the New England I knew as a child, people commonly paraphrased Mark Twain’s famous line “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” This was true year-round, but when it comes to rapidly changing temperatures, winter really had its moments. Most years, there seemed to be a day in the middle of January when the usual freezing days would give way to one that reached 50 or 60 degrees F. This prompted everyone to go outside in shorts before returning to the layers of winter for another three months. Why everyone had shorts at hand in the middle of January in New England is a regional mystery that remains unexplained.

When it comes to temperature, New England has always been a pretty variable place. When I moved back, I assumed it still would be. But after returning and living in the region for a year, that variability started to feel odd. For example, I became acutely aware of the surprising number of December days that reached the high 40s or low 50s, mostly because there is no indoor track in Worcester so I train outdoors all year (a note to the city of Worcester: Seriously? Nine colleges and lord-knows-how-many high schools, all looking for somewhere to train and race, and nobody thought to build an indoor track? 1). While the temperature is still marked by significant and relatively rapid changes, these temperature swings seem more drawn out than I remember. Where my understanding of variable temperatures was formed around a world marked by a day or two of outlying conditions followed by a return to expected temperatures, in 2017 October averaged 57 degrees Fahrenheit for the month, wildly out of line with even the 2010-present average of 52.

NOAA defines extreme temperatures as falling in the upper 10th percentile (for warm temps) or lowest 10th percentile (cold temps) across the time for which records were kept. In terms of heat, the figure below shows the percentage of days where the daytime high meets this definition of extreme. It is important to note that in the chart these extremes are relative to the month in question. In December, an extreme high is a temperature above 51.1 F, while in July it is above 87.1 F. Both are significant deviations from the norm, but the human experience of each is quite different.

In fact, the number of days marked by extreme/unusual high temperatures, just under 43 per year, has not changed since my childhood. However, as the chart shows, the distribution of these extremes throughout the year has changed. September has seen the greatest increase in these unusually hot days, which contributes to the sense of a longer summer season. On the other hand, the average number of days with extreme high temperatures in January and February has not changed much. We still have unusually warm periods in those months, but their frequency and duration is similar to that I knew as a child. March, June, and August are marked by fewer such days.

There has been a more dramatic change in the patterns related to extreme cold days – annually, there are now 26 fewer unusually cold days than seen in my childhood. This decline is visible in every month. August has more than three fewer unusually cold days, a change that means that today we see one such a day every five years. Along with overall increased average temperatures, and a longer duration and larger number of increased temperatures, this makes for a summer that feels more consistently summery.

There are four fewer extremely cold days in December, and these days now occur less than once a year. This is both a staggering change, but also a marker of a past that is now gone. Part of my identity is based on my ability to shrug off really cold temperatures, an ability borne of being sent outside to play regardless of the temperature throughout my childhood. Who from my generation did not make the mistake of coming inside, using the bathroom, and washing their hands under hot water too soon? If you have not done this, it really shocks the nerves and feels like someone is jamming dozens of needles into your hands. Generally, you make this mistake once. My kids are big Star Wars fans, but unless they concentrate on outdoor play during February, the warming temperatures mean they will probably not be reenacting versions of the Hoth scene from Empire Strikes Back as frequently as I did with my friends, and probably complain more when it is cold.

In my head, this image of my childhood home is still what winter should look like

The wild swings in temperature I recall from my childhood also appear to have become less frequent. There is a reason most New Englanders my age or older have an innate sense of layering in their wardrobes. That said, there’s also something very New Hampshire about a nostalgia for the days when you’d start sweating in your snowsuit because you needed it when you first went out, but it had since warmed up into the 50s while you were outside.

“Hey kid, if you’re big enough to sled, you’re big enough to help shovel the driveway!”

To better understand this change, I looked for days where the high temperature either increased or decreased by 20F or more from the day before. The charts below show what I found – overall, it appears that we see fewer of these swings now than in the past.

Where once there was an average of about 18 days per year where the temperature was 20 F warmer or cooler than the day before, today there are fewer than 13 days. As with most other temperature-related conditions, the deep winter period of January and February is much as it was in my childhood. Nearly every other part of the year has changed. For example, it appears the swings in temperature that I used to associate with March are being displaced into April and May. While July, August, and September rarely saw such swings in the past, they have now disappeared completely. Again, summer is becoming more consistently summery. Where November and December were once ground zero for this sort of day-to-day temperature change, today the temperature in these months has become more stable than in the period from January through April. Those warm days in December reflect high temperatures relative to my memory, but it doesn’t get as cold in December as it used to. Those temperatures feel unusually warm to me, but relative to current conditions they simply don’t qualify as extreme.

Once upon a time, you had to pack sweaters and jeans for a Salsbury beach vacation because even in early August you were going to get one of those days…

Even contemporary daily temperature changes are less pronounced than in my childhood. The chart below shows that the average day now operates in a somewhat smaller temperature window than in the past – across the year, the difference between the daily average high temperature and the average low temperature has shrunk by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since I was a child. This trend is true in every month, but very pronounced in October and December. Most of this change can be attributed to the fact that daily average low temperatures are rising faster than daily average high temperatures.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that, at least when it comes to temperature, the New England of “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute” is going away. Since my childhood the weather has become a bit more predictable and a lot warmer. For a guy who prided himself on his resilience in the face of very cold and rapidly changing weather conditions, a resilience borne from a childhood outdoors in New England, this feels sad. It also challenges an identity I’ve carried throughout my adult life, which I lived almost entirely outside New England. I lived mostly in more temperate (if not tropical) climates. In those places I enjoyed being the New Englander, relatively unbothered by swings in temperature that made those around me complain. I took some pride in the ways in which my childhood had inured me to such discomforts. But now New England is warmer and, let’s be honest, just a little more boring when it comes to temperatures. My children are unlikely to develop quite the same sense of identity. Then again, this might be for the best. Compared to their father, they’ll be less insufferable when confronting cold or highly variable weather alongside those from warmer climates.

Notes:

  1. If you happen to have some capital laying around and are into track, I can help you spend it in Worcester – you are sure to make a mint, and I can stop freezing my ass off while trying to work out in January

As my previous post suggested, since returning to New England after 24 years away I have found the relationship between temperatures and seasons oddly dislocating. The previous post explored how summer temperatures have changed since my childhood, and why I am experiencing them the way I am. In this post, I look at changes to fall and winter in Worcester. This post not only explains what is happening to winter in this part of New England, but also fleshes out something remarkable: the annual structure of temperature in this part of the world has changed in profound ways since my childhood. Where I grew up in a world where wintery temperatures lasted much longer than those of summer, today winter and summer temperatures are nearing parity on an annual basis. Fall transitions into winter much later than when I was a child, but winter ends only a little earlier than it used to. At least when it comes to temperature, Worcester (and New England more broadly) is a very different place than the one in which I grew up.

Let’s talk about fall. Since returning to New England, I have found this season particularly disorienting. I expect it to become cold much sooner than it does, and find myself increasingly unsettled by the temperature across October, November, and December. I have clear memories of a much colder fall, and a much harsher transition to winter, than what I experience now. On November 12, 1990, my high school soccer team won the NH state championship on a frozen pitch in 27-degree Fahrenheit weather (it was 23 degrees Fahrenheit that night in Worcester) 1. I’m not crazy in coming back to that memory. During my childhood, the average high temperature on November 12th was 44.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with average lows of 30.9, so that game was a slight outlier. Today, that average is 51.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with average nighttime lows of 33.2…which would make that game a larger outlier, but also as that average nighttime low is above freezing, it also means that a frozen pitch would be a very unusual event. Further, the onset of winter temperatures, signaled by the first hard frost, has changed. The first hard frost now comes an average of 16 days later than when I was a child (previously October 24th, now November 9th). In other words, even if the game is played on a freakishly cold night, it is unlikely that soccer players in NH will have to play 2 a State Championship game on a frozen pitch again.

If I feel bit adrift in the fall and early winter, I tend to come into port in January, February, and March. This is despite the fact the data suggest that the change in winter is even more striking than that in fall. The period characterized by hard frost, between the date temperatures first drop to 28 Fahrenheit or lower and the last day temperatures reach this point, lasted an average of 173 days each year during my childhood. Today, the average for this period is 148 days, a mind-boggling 25 days shorter. The figure below compares the period of winter temperatures, as marked by the first and last hard frost, across the year as it was when I was growing up and today. As noted above, today the first hard frost is delayed by more than two weeks relative to my childhood. The last hard frost arrives nine days earlier in the year (previously April 16th, now April 7th).

The distribution of winter weather across the year in my childhood and today. The graphic shows how the winter ends earlier, and starts later, than it used to.

Why, then, would I feel most at home in the temperature in January, February, and March? The answer also lies in the data: once we get past December, the temperatures within winter start to converge with the temperatures I knew growing up. We used to average 113 days per year that reached 28 Fahrenheit or lower. Now the average is 93 days, an incredible decline of 20 days in just over 25 years. However, the relative proportion of total days below 28 Fahrenheit in winter has not changed much. When I was growing up, an average of 65% percent of winter days reached temperatures below 28F. Today, that average is 63%. Most of those days are concentrated in January and February. The average temperature in the month of January might be 2.53 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than what I grew up with, but it is still only 25.2 degrees! Similarly, while February is also warmer (by 1.41 degrees Fahrenheit), the average temperature is 27.5 degrees Fahrenheit, still below the hard frost temperature. Today, March is actually colder than in my childhood, though only by .14 degrees. All of this means that these months feel quite similar to those I experienced as a child.

It’s the transitional seasons in and out of winter (particularly fall), the margins of the winter itself, that have seen the greatest changes. The transition to spring, however, is gentler on me than Fall. April, while today an average of 1.21 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in my childhood, has not radically departed that past experience. The spring in New England is still long, still muddy, and still unpredictable. After April, May warms up considerably, and we are into my earlier discussion of changes in summer.

People, like plants and other animals, have a degree of photosensitivity – an expectation of what things should feel like temperature-wise at a given length of day and angle of the sun. Nothing has changed with regard to the length of day or the angle of the sun, but for much of the year the temperature in New England no longer aligns with these other factors in a manner I understand. The chart below captures these changes across the year, illustrating how the character of daily temperatures in New England has changed enough to render this place nearly unrecognizable.

What it shows is that while nearly every month has seen some temperature increase, every month has seen an increase in the average minimum temperature, and that increase is larger than the increase in average high temperature. Put another way, the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is compressing, whether gently as in April, or dramatically, as in October and December. The connection between hours of sunlight, the angle of the sun, and temperature that I developed for myself playing in the woods behind my house in the 1970s and 1980s is an artifact of an environment that no longer exists. For someone to understand what I am talking about in a visceral way, they have to be around my age (or older), and to have spent enough time outdoors in daylight to have developed this sense.

The figure below visually represents the radical change in the structure of temperatures across the year since my childhood. It is a to-scale representation of the average duration of the “hard frost” and “summery” 3 temperature periods, both when I was growing up and now. The intervals between the seasons are also to scale. It shows that in the space of the past 25 years, where I live has gone from a winter-dominated temperature signature to one approaching parity between winter and summer temperatures. When I was growing up, wintery temperatures lasted an average of 52 days longer than summery temperatures each year. Today, wintery temperatures only last 13 days longer than summery temperatures. The shift is staggering, and explains my general dislocation when it comes to temperature, particularly in the fall.

Summer and winter temperatures laid out across an annual scale. The shift toward annual parity between summer and winter is clear.

One thing is clear: my children are growing up with a very different sense of the relationship between the amount of sunlight, its angle, and temperature than I did. They live in a different world than the one in which I grew up. Another thing is sure: given the inertia in our climate, my children will have some version of the experience I am describing at some point in their own lives. I worry, however, that they will not get to their mid-40s before this awareness sets in. Rates of change are not slowing, and there is little to suggest that we will stabilize global temperatures (a prerequisite to stabilizing local temperatures) in their lifetimes. I’ve lost a connection to the world that I loved, and I will not get it back. I was gone too long to make the subtle adjustments to my perceptions necessary to overlook this change, and after four years I still feel dislocated every fall. The terrible part of this is that we’ve already ensured that our children will have this same experience. The question is not if, but when.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I had to look the date up. I had no memory of that the game being on a Monday night
  2. The key term is play, which I use advisedly here, as I was a reserve striker on that team and never got into that game. It’s not fun to watch a championship game from the bench. It’s worse when you are freezing
  3. Recall from my previous post that I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees

This post, and those I will pull together for this series, are about my personal experience of climate change and its impacts on what feel to me to be extraordinarily compressed timescales. In each post, I’m going to talk through the differences I see, what the data say is happening, and what it means to me. For the first post, let’s start with something simple: temperature 1. More specifically, summer temperatures.

When I was a kid, neither of the houses I lived in had air conditioning. I’m not sure that any of my friends’ houses had air conditioning. Several family friends had pools, and we knew which ones got the most direct sunlight because those were the warmest ones…but swimming lessons at 9am could be really chilly, even in July. I have vivid memories of falling asleep to the enameled steel window fan in my room as it clattering away. I loved having that fan, because it meant that my window shade could not be fully drawn, and I would sit in front of the fan and look out through it at night, watching cars drive by and listening to neighbors outside (my parents put my brothers and I to bed early).  

This isn’t exactly the model of fan we had, but it is pretty close. I remember the metal blades of death. It was fun watching them shred paper, small pencils, any anything else handy. Who thought those were a good idea?

Moving back to New England, we bought a house with high ceilings and big windows, a perfect stack for creating cross-drafts and letting heat rise up and out of the house. We installed ceiling fans, and I figured if those weren’t enough we’d get some window fans and use the evening temperatures to keep things comfortable, just as my family had when I was a kid. My wife, who was raised in Louisville, went to college at the University of Kentucky (where we met), and lived with me in Ghana, Spain, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, thought this was insane and demanded we install some form of air conditioning. We settled on a few strategic window units, but after two summers it was clear that my plan would never work. Each year, in July, August, and even early September there were a lot of days where the daytime heated up enough that the cross-breezes in the house actually heated the place up, and evening temperatures were not low enough to really cool things off. I gave in, and we installed high-efficiency mini-splits (which can be used for heating and cooling – more on heating in another post).

In short, coming back to New England was not a return to the summers of my childhood, but a return to a different place, at least as defined by temperature. Climate data makes this perception concrete.

Since I was growing up, the duration of summer-like temperatures 2 has gone from an average of 121 days per year to 135 days. An increase of two weeks in just over 25 years is astonishing. Some of this increased duration is reflected in an earlier average onset of summer-like weather (when I was a child, this weather began, on average, on May 17th. Now the average onset date is May 12th). However, a greater portion comes from an extension of summer-like weather into September (the average end of summery weather has been pushed back from September 15th to September 25th).

This visual compares the average length and annual position of summer-like temperatures in Worcester between my childhood (1973-1991) and now (2010-present)

With regard to daytime high temperatures, the duration of the season is the main change to the structure of temperature. The average number of days above 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) has increased by 7 days per year. This means that Worcester today sees nearly a week more of summer temperatures each year than when I was growing up. While this is a remarkably rapid increase, this does not mean that the character of summer itself is changing. In fact, the distribution of temperatures within the season have remained relatively consistent. As the charts below show, in both my childhood and now roughly 56% of the days within the “summer-like” season reach 77 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. The average number of days in this season above 85 degrees Fahrenheit has crept up from 13.3 to 15, which means that whether as a child or today, 11% of my summer days get this hot. The average number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit has declined from 3.5 to 3, but in the scheme of things this is pretty steady, at around 2.5% of all days. In short, as the figure below shows, summer is longer than I remember it, so the distribution of heat and cold in the year has clearly changed. However, within summer the temperatures are well within the range of my prior experience.

The structure of daytime high temperatures has not changed much, if at all, between my childhood and the present

So why does it feel hot enough to require air conditioning? Well, part of it is the duration of the summer and the number of summery days. Another part is that minimum temperatures are also changing. A tropical night is defined as one where the temperature is at or above 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). During my childhood, a typical year had around five of these days. Today, we experience an average of more than eight and a half such nights. Further, the frequency of tropical nights appears to be increasing – rapidly. During my childhood, there were three years (1973, 1979, 1988) with 10 or more tropical nights. Since 2010, there have been four (2010, 2012, 2013, 2018). Across my eighteen years growing up in New England, there were 89 total tropical nights in Worcester. Since 2010, a period half as long, there have been 77. Part of why it feels so hot is that there are a lot more warm evenings.

The gently increasing number and share of tropical nights per year.

My return to Worcester is not a return to the summers of my childhood as much as a move to a new place that I’ve never lived in before. Whatever my nostalgia for summers and window fans, my kids are already living in a different world – in July and August they usually sleep with their windows closed, unable to hear different nocturnal animals, people walking and talking on the street, the sounds of nighttime in summer. I’m not comfortable saying that what I had as a child is better than what they have. I’m a person who expects and accepts change in the world. But it is just that much harder to relate to your kids when they are natives of a different world than the one you grew up in, and if nothing else that fact nags at me.

Notes:

  1. A note on data for those who care: All the data in this post is taken from the weather station at the Worcester Airport, which has daily records since 1948 (I accessed all the data you see here through the KNMI Climate Explorer). To create a comparison periods, I took an average for all measures across my childhood in New England (1973-1991), and compared that to the average from 2010-2018 (though I moved back in 2015, only using 2015-2018 created a very small series for an average that might be heavily skewed by an outlying year).
  2. Here I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees. I am sure I could systematize this definition a bit more, but any changes to the calculations represented in this post would be at the margins, and not affect the larger narrative

I returned to New England in 2015, after 24 years living in other parts of the country and the world. Aside from the occasional summer at my parents’ place (those ended in 1995) and visits for holidays and vacation, I was pretty removed from the weather back home. I’d hear about blizzards, though generally only when it got really rough (New Hampshire folks don’t complain much, except when talking about people who are not from New Hampshire. Then we complain a lot). I did not expect that within a year of the move I would be overwhelmed by pervasive signs of changes that had taken place since my childhood. While having the sun set at 4:30 in the afternoon in December felt strangely right and soothing (my family has yet to adopt this sense), temperatures seemed all wrong, the timing and amount of precipitation was confusing, and the plants, especially the trees, around me were behaving in odd ways, such as dropping green leaves very late in the year.

Part of my work is on climate change, albeit usually in places like sub-Saharan Africa, so I was not at all surprised to find that things might have changed in my absence. Indeed, my first reaction to this experience was to assume that being gone for more than half of my life created a significant experiential gap. I hadn’t lived through year upon year of subtle changes for more than two decades, perhaps preventing me from being the proverbial frog in the simmering pot. At the same time, if there is one thing that more than two decades of work on livelihoods and the environment has taught me, it is that I should not fully trust human perceptions of the environment. So I started playing with data. The results startled me, and provoked me to do something I rarely do: write about where I live, and what is happening to it.

As subsequent posts will show, my overwhelming sense that something had changed significantly was right. What I did not expect was how the data would support the pervasive and substantial character of those changes. One of the most important stories about climate change is the rate of change: while the climate has changed in the past, these changes tended to operate on geologic timescales far outside the experience of most organisms. Much has been made of current rates of change, and how they have shifted from geologic to human timescales, a rate of change that far exceeds the ability of many species of plant and animal to adapt to the new conditions. What most strikes me about the data, and the ways in which it weaves through my experience of the world, is that the changes I see are now operating not at a human timescale, but at a generational timescale – that is, so fast that they are clearly perceptible over less than 25 years, as opposed to a 75- or 100-year timescale. Put another way, while I was largely born into the same environment as my mother and father, my children were born into a different environment than me. I was oddly unprepared for that fact, and I am still not sure what it means to me as a parent or the work I do professionally.

In upcoming posts, I will walk you through these changes and their manifestations, drawing on data but writing about it from my perspective. I’m not sure where this will take me, but that’s fine: I generally write to process things, and now you, dear reader, get to come along for the ride.

Resilience is a term that permeates development and adaptation conversations alike. However, it is often used without clear definition, and the definitions assumed or elaborated generally misrepresent the dynamics of human-dominated systems.

TL;DR: We’re doing resilience wrong, and it is screwing up the lives of people who are supposed to benefit from resilience programming.

To address this problem, I recently wrote an article seeking to address these conceptual issues and make resilience a useful, constructive concept for development and adaption. The key points:

  • Socio-ecological resilience is an outcome of projects steering diverse actors and ecological processes toward human safety and stability in a manner that preserves the privileges of those in positions of authority.
  • At even moderate levels, disturbance in socio-ecologies is not a source of transformation, but instead produces rigidity that limits innovation and transformation in the name of safety and stability. When a resilient system provides safety in the context of a disturbance, the system and its attendant social orders and privileges are legitimized. This is why many development projects fail: they gently disturb a project, which rejects the intervention in the name of safety and certainty, and returns people and activities to their initial state.
  • Disrupting resilient socio-ecological projects, whether through extreme disturbance or interventions associated with development and adaptation, opens space for transformation, but creates risk by removing existing sources of safety and certainty. This is another source of project failure, one where the intervention blows up the existing project, but what comes together in its wake leaves some or all of the people involved more vulnerable to existing stresses, or vulnerable to new stresses that leave them worse off than they were before the intervention.
  • Reinforcing existing socio-ecological projects, such as through interventions aimed at stabilizing existing activities, reduces opportunities for transformation by legitimizing their practices and social orders.
  • Interventions seeking to build resilience while achieving transformative goals can catalyze change by easing stress on livelihoods. In the context of reduced stress, the side of these projects aimed at maintaining existing structures of authority relaxes, allowing space for innovations by actors who are otherwise marginal to decision-making.

There is a lot going on in this article, and I intended it as much as a provocation as a path forward. If any of this is interesting or challenges the way you saw resilience in the world, feel free to read more deeply – the article is here.

I’m not making huge promises, but maybe it’s time to fire this machine back up…

Unsolicited publishing advice/reviewing rant to follow. Brace yourselves.

When writing an article based on the quantitative analysis of a phenomena, whatever it may be and however novel your analysis, you are not absolved from reading/understanding the conceptual literature (however qualitative) addressing that phenomena. Sure, you might be using a larger dataset than ever used before. Certainly, the previous literature might have been case-study based, and therefore difficult to generalize. But that doesn’t give you a pass to just ignore that existing literature.

  • That literature establishes the meanings of the concepts you are measuring/testing
  • That literature captures the current state of knowledge on those concepts
  • Often, that literature (if qualitative, especially if ethnographic) can get at explanations for the phenomena that cannot be had through qualitative methods alone

If you ignore this literature:

  • You’ll just ask questions that have already been answered. Everybody hates that, especially time-constrained reviewers who already know the answers to your questions because they actually have read/contributed to the literature you ignored.
  • You’ll likely end up with results that don’t make sense, and with no means of explaining or even addressing them. Editors and reviewers hate that, too.
  • Your results, even if they appear to be statistically significant, will be crap. I don’t care how sophisticated your quantitative analysis is, or how innovative your tools might be, you are shoving crap into a very innovative, sophisticated tool, which means that all you’ll get out the other end is crap. Reviewers hate crap. Editors hate crap. And your crap is probably not actionable (and really shouldn’t be), so nobody outside academia will like your crap.

Please don’t generate more crap. There is plenty around.

Finally, a note on professionalism and your career: Citing around people who have worked on the phenomena you are investigating because you are trying to capture a particular field of knowledge is awful intellectual practice that, beyond needlessly slowing the pace of innovation in the field in question, will never work…because editors will send the people you are not citing the article for review. And they will wreck you.

As many of you know, I tend to post when provoked to rage by something in the press/literature/world. These days, I am massively overtasked, which means I need special levels of rage to post. So hooray to Tom Friedman, who in his utterly frustrating column yesterday actually managed to get me there.

I’m going to set aside my issues with the Friedman-standard reductionist crap in the column. Ken Opalo killed it anyway, so just read his post. Instead, I want to spend a few words excoriating Friedman for his lazy, stereotypical portrayal of my friend and colleague Ousmane Ndiaye in that column. First, as has been noted a few times, Ousmane is a climatologist with a Ph.D. This is NOT THE SAME THING AS A WEATHERMAN. Just Google the two, for heaven’s sake. What Ousmane is trained in is high-end physical science, and he is good at it. Really good at it.

But what is really remarkable about Ousmane, and totally elided in Friedman’s lazy, lazy writing, is that he is no office-bound monotonic weatherman. First, Ousmane is really, really funny. I’ve never seen him not funny, ever – even in serious meetings. Which makes me wonder how hard Friedman, who writes “”His voice is a monotone,” is working to fit Ousmane into the box of “scientist” as Friedman understands it.

Second, Ousmane does remarkable work engaging farmers across Senegal. I have seen him in farmer meetings, talking about seasonal forecasts. He cares deeply about these farmers, and how well he is able to communicate forecasts to them. I’ve also seen him at Columbia University, in scientific meetings, moving between professors and development donors, talking about new ideas and new challenges that need to be addressed. He moves between these worlds easily, a skill far too lacking in the climate change community.

What I am saying here is simple: Friedman missed the fact that he had the star right in front of him, clicking away at the computer. He needed a counterpoint for his rapper, and a sad caricature of Ousmane became that counterpoint. And because of the need to present Ousmane as the boring scientist, Friedman totally missed how unbelievably apocalyptic the figures he was hearing really are, especially for rain-fed agriculturalists in Senegal. A 2C rise in temperature over the last 60 or so years means that, almost certainly, some varieties of important cereals are no longer germinating, or having trouble germinating. The fact Senegal is currently 5C over normal temperature is unholy – and were this to hold up, would totally crush this year’s harvest (planting starts in about a month, so keep an eye on this) because very little would germinate properly at that level.

Ousmane was describing the apocalypse, and Friedman was fixated on a clicking mouse. Friedman owes Ousmane an apology for this pathetic caricature, and he owes the rest of us an apology for the ways in which his lazy plot and the characters he needed to occupy it resulted in a complete burial of the lede: climate change is already reaching crisis levels in some parts of the world.

 

P.S., if you want to see some of the work that has started to emerge from working alongside Ousmane, check out this and this.

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