Entries tagged with “Climate Change”.


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.

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.

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.

Back in September, HURDL released its final report on our work assessing Mali’s Agrometeorological Advisory program – an effort, conceived and run by the Government of Mali, to deliver weather and climate information to farmers to improve agricultural outcomes in the country. You’d think this would be a straightforwardly good idea – you know, more information (or indeed any information) being better than none. So our findings were a bit stunning:

  • As we found in our preliminary report, less than 20% of those with access to the advisories are actually using them
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is a man
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is already relatively well-off
  • The advisories were most used in the parts of the country where precipitation is most secure (see map below).

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This was, to say the least, a set of surprising findings. And, on their surface, they suggest that the program is another example of development failure: a project that only reaches those who least need the help it is providing.

But that conclusion only holds if this program was oriented toward development and adaptation in the first place…and it was not. The program was established in 1981 as an effort to address conditions of acute food insecurity closely linked to severe drought. The goal was simple: use short-term and seasonal advisories to help farmers make better decisions under stress and boost food availability in Mali. This program, in other words, was an effort to address a particular, acute problem (food insecurity linked to extreme drought) through a very specific means (boosting food availability). This was not a development project, it was a humanitarian response to a crisis. And as such, it was brilliant – and each of the findings above demonstrate why.

  • The goal was to rapidly boost yields of grains (and cotton), for which men have most decision-making authority.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost overall yields of grains to improve availability within Mali, and therefore targeting the wealthy farmers who had the access to equipment and animal traction necessary to use the advisories made sense.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost grain production…and much more grain is grown in the wetter parts of Mali than in the dryer areas in the north.

In short, the project was never intended to address development goals – it was supposed to address a particular aspect of a humanitarian crisis through particular means, and its design targeted exactly the right decision-makers/actors to achieve that goal. Indeed, one could argue that the rather narrow use of advisories speaks to how well designed this humanitarian intervention was. In short, the gendered/wealth-dependent character of advisory use, and the fact they are most used in areas that are already very agriculturally productive, are not bugs in this project: they are features!

The problem, then, is not with the design of the project, but the fact it continued for more than 30 years, and some 25 years after the end of the droughts. As a narrowly-focused effort to address a particular, short-term humanitarian crisis, the gendered/wealth-based outcomes of the project were acceptable trade-offs to achieve higher grain yields. But over 30 years, and without the justification of an acute crisis, it is likely this project has served to unnecessarily exacerbate agricultural inequality in rural southern Mali.

HURDL is now engaged in a project to redesign this program, to shift it from a (now unnecessary) humanitarian assistance effort to a development/adaptation project. With this shift in priorities comes a shift in how we view the outcomes of the program – the very things that made it an effective humanitarian assistance program (gendered and income-based inequality) are now aspects of the project that we must change to ensure that the widest number of farmers possible have access to information they can use in their livelihoods decisions as we move into conditions of greater economic and environmental uncertainty. In short, we now have to bridge the DRR and Humanitarian Response/Development and Adaptation divide that has so plagued those of us concerned with the situation of those in the Global South. This will be tremendously challenging, but through this process we hope to not only work with Malian colleagues to design and deliver a development and adaptation version of this program to Malian farmers, but also to learn more about how to bridge the particular time/scope emphases of these two assistance arenas.

If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:

  1. Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
  2. Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
  3. Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.

2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.

All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?

Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.

How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.

Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?

Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.

3. Engage the implementation community:

It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.

Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.

Save the SDGs!

There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.

From my recent post over on HURDLblog, my lab’s group blog, on the challenges of thinking productively about gender and adaptation:

My closing point caused a bit of consternation (I can’t help it – it’s what I do). Basically, I asked the room if the point of paying attention to gender in climate services was to identify the particular needs of men and women, or to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable. I argued that approaches to gender that treat the categories “man” and “women” as homogenous and essentially linked to particular vulnerabilities might achieve the former, but would do very little to achieve the latter. Mary Thompson and I have produced a study for USAID that illustrates this point empirically. But there were a number of people in the room that got a bit worked up by this point. They felt that I was arguing that gender no longer mattered, and that my presentation marked a retreat from years of work that they and others had put in to get gender to the table in discussions of adaptation and climate services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Read the full post here.

Those of you who’ve read this blog before know that I have a lot of issues with “technology-will-fix-it” approaches to development program and project design (what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”). My main issue is that such approaches generally don’t work. Despite a very, very long history of such interventions and their outcomes demonstrating this point, the solutionist camp in development seems to grow stronger all the time. If I hear one more person tell me that mobile phones are going to fix [insert development challenge here], I am going to scream. And don’t even get me started about “apps for development,” which is really just a modified incarnation of “mobile phones will fix it” predicated on the proliferation of smartphones around the world. Both arguments, by the way, were on full display at the Conference on the Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services I attended at the WMO last month. Then again, so were really outdated framings of gender. Perhaps this convergence of solutionism and reductionist framings of social difference means something about both sets of ideas, no?

At the moment I’m particularly concerned about the solutionist tendency in weather and climate services for development. At this point, I don’t think there is anything controversial in arguing that the bulk of services in play today were designed by climate scientists/information providers who operated with the assumption that information – any information – is at least somewhat useful to whoever gets it, and must be better than leaving people without any information. With this sort of an assumption guiding service development, it is understandable that nobody would have thought to engage the presumptive users of the service. First, it’s easy to see how some might have argued that the science of the climate is the science of the climate – so citizen engagement cannot contribute much to that. Second, while few people might want to admit this openly, the fact is that climate-related work in the Global South, like much development work, carries with it an implicit bias against the capabilities and intelligence of the (often rural and poor) populations they are meant to serve. The good news is that I have seen a major turn in this field over the past four years, as more and more people working in this area have come to realize that the simple creation and provision of information is not enough to ensure any sort of impact on the lives of presumptive end-users of the information – the report I edited on the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program is Exhibit A at the moment.

So, for the first time, I see climate service providers trying to pay serious attention to the needs of the populations they are targeting with their programs. One of the potentially important ideas I see emerging in this vein is that of “co-production”: the design and implementation of climate services that involves the engagement of both providers and a wide range of users, including the presumptive end users of the services. The idea is simple: if a meteorological service wants to provide information that might meet the needs of some/all of the citizens it serves, that service should engage those citizens – both as individuals and via the various civil society organizations to which they might belong – in the process of identifying what information is needed, and how it might best be delivered.

So what’s the problem? Simple: While I think that most people calling for the co-production of climate services recognize that this will be a complex, fraught process, there is a serious risk that co-production could be picked up by less-informed actors and used as a means of pushing aside the need for serious social scientific work on the presumptive users of these services. It’s pretty easy to argue that if we are incorporating their views and ideas into the design of climate services, there is really no need for serious social scientific engagement with these populations, as co-production cuts out the social-science middleman and gets us the unmitigated, unfiltered voice of the user.

If this sounds insanely naïve to you, it is*. But it is also going to be very, very attractive to at least some in the climate services world. Good social science takes time and money (though nowhere near as much time or money as most people think). And cutting time and cost out of project design, including M&E design, speeds implementation. The pressure to cut out serious field research is, and will remain, strong. Further, the bulk of the climate services community is on the provider side. They’ve not spent much, if any, time engaging with end users, and generally have no training at all in social science. All of those lessons that the social sciences have learned about participatory development and its pitfalls (for a fantastic overview, read this) have not yet become common conversation in climate services. Instead, co-production sounds like a wonderful tweak to the solutionist mentality that dominates climate services, a change that does not challenge the current framings of the use and utility of information, or the ways in which most providers do business. Instead, you keep doing what you do, but you talk to the end users while you do it, which will result in better project outcomes.

But for co-production to replace the need for deep social scientific engagement with the users of climate services, certain conditions must be met. First of all, you have to figure out how, exactly you are going to actually incorporate user information, knowledge, and needs into the design and delivery of a climate service. This isn’t just a matter of a few workshops – how, exactly, are those operating in a nomothetic scientific paradigm supposed to engage and meaningfully incorporate knowledge from very different epistemological framings of the world? This issue, by itself, is generating significant literature…which mostly suggests this sort of engagement is really hard. So, until we’ve worked out that issue, co-production looks a bit like this:

Climate science + end user input => Then a miracle happens => successful project

That, folks, is no way to design a project. Oh, but it gets better. You see, the equation above presumes there is a “generic user” out there that can be engaged in a straightforward manner, and for whom information works in the same manner. Of course, there is no such thing – even within a household, there are often many potential users of climate information in their decision-making. They may undertake different livelihoods activities that are differently vulnerable to particular impacts of climate variability and change. They may have very different capacities to act on information – after all, when you don’t own a plow or have the right to use the family plow, it is very difficult to act on a seasonal agricultural advisory that tells you to plant right away. Climate services need serious social science, and social scientists, to figure out who the end users are – to move past presumption to empirical analysis – and what their different needs might be. Without such work, the above equation really looks more like:

Climate science => Then a miracle happens => you identify appropriate end users => end user input => Then another miracle happens => successful project

Yep, two miracles have to happen if you want to use co-production to replace serious social scientific engagement with the intended users of climate services. So, who wants to take a flyer with some funding and see how that goes? Feel free to read the Mali report referenced above if you’d like to find out**.

Co-production is a great idea – and one I strongly support. But it will be very hard, and it will not speed up the process of climate service design or implementation, nor will it allow for the cutting of corners in other parts of the design process. Co-production will only work in the context of deep understandings of the targeted users of a given service, to understand who we should be co-producing with, and for what purpose. HURDL continues to work on this issue in Mali, Senegal, and Zambia – watch this space in the months ahead.

 

 

*Actually, it doesn’t matter how it sounds: this is a very naïve assumption regardless.

** Spoiler: not so well. To be fair to the folks in Mali, their program was designed as an emergency measure, not a research or development program, and so they rushed things out to the field making a lot of assumptions under pressure.