UCAR > Communications > UCAR Quarterly > Spring 2002 Search

Spring 2002

How far should the atmospheric sciences community go in addressing issues of critical global importance?

In the Winter 2001 issue of the UCAR Quarterly I made some suggestions about how the atmospheric sciences community should respond to the global threats of terrorism. These included

• providing the best possible weather information to our military, police, and emergency managers;

• developing very general bio-chemo-meteorological models to address the release of hazardous materials;

• mitigating long-term environmental stress on health, agriculture, industry, and societal well-being as a result of climate variability, climate change, and air pollution.

I also suggested that the United States must become a better world citizen, that we cannot remain isolated and indifferent to the needs of others, and that we need to invest broadly in science and education, including the humanities and social sciences.

I continued this theme on 16 January as a panelist at the Second Presidential Policy Forum at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida. The topic of the forum was "Society and The Society: How can the [AMS] better serve society’s needs?" Each panelist was asked to address the evolution of AMS support for meteorological services and science, the special challenges and opportunities that face AMS members since September 11, and how the AMS can more effectively meet societal needs. Bill Hooke, the organizer of the forum, encouraged me and the other panelists to be thought-provoking and, if desired, controversial.

I had a fairly routine presentation prepared when I arrived at the meeting on Sunday to participate in the first AMS student conference, a highly successful event attended by more than 170 students (see related article, page 7). At the end of the student conference, Bill gave an inspirational speech entitled "Don’t just sit there, do something!" on the challenges faced by global human society and how young atmospheric scientists have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to address these challenges. He discussed how the rapid growth in population and per capita consumption has made the world increasingly vulnerable to adverse climate variability and change, including extreme events and a variety of potential environmental and social catastrophes.

Two days later John Perry addressed the Richard Reed Symposium and reviewed the contributions that Dick Reed and other leaders of the atmospheric sciences have made to international science since the 1960s. John pointed out that because of the global nature of the atmosphere, colleagues from all countries have worked cooperatively for more than a century, no matter how difficult the international politics. Dick personified this attitude, when, after visiting the USSR during the darkest and most hostile days of the cold war, he remarked to John, "Russians are nice guys." In 1974, members of our community were among the first to establish links with China, not long after the historic visit by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

These thoughtful presentations caused me to revise my talk at the policy forum, using some of their evocative points and examples to strengthen my arguments for how the AMS and other organizations could evolve to meet societal needs. A key question is how far our community should venture to contribute to solving the truly great societal problems beyond the ones more narrowly related to our field. The former include overpopulation and a host of associated issues, including crowding, competition for resources, poverty, disease, aggression, religious extremism, and intolerance. Should we as a community, as well as individuals, speak up on the need to address inequities in standards of living, health care, access to natural resources, and other areas?

We could include societal aspects much more prominently in our discussions of weather and climate disasters—past, present, and future—than we do now. For example, the 10,000 deaths in Central America in 1998 during Hurricane Mitch were as much or more a result of population pressures, poverty, deforestation, and resulting erosion as of the hurricane itself. We could include broader societal aspects in our policy statements, our education and outreach forums, and our university courses. We could work with other professional societies and nongovernmental organizations to draw attention to these difficult societal problems. And as individuals, we can always contact the administration and Congress.

If the global problems above are not addressed, even a perfect understanding of the atmosphere and perfect forecasts of weather and climate will not make much of a difference. As long as population growth continues unchecked, the concept of any kind of "sustainability" is seriously flawed. In his recent book The Future of Life, E.O. Wilson estimates that it would take four additional Earths for the billions of people in developing nations to reach the level of consumption of Americans.

Those of us in the United States can’t just circle the wagons in response to terrorism and a variety of economic and environmental threats. We cannot be healthy in an unhealthy world. In Orlando, Bill Hooke provided the example of the fall of ancient Athens. Major earthquakes occurred in Sparta in 464 B.C. and Lamia in 426 B.C. A plague in 43 B.C. killed from one- to two-thirds of the population. These stresses helped lead to Athens’ defeat by Sparta in 404 B.C. But were these "natural disasters" the only reason for Athens’ demise? Consider the words of Edith Hamilton in her 1964 book The Ever-Present Past:

In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.

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UCAR > Communications > UCAR Quarterly > Spring 2002 Search

Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Mon Mar 11 16:42:17 MST 2002