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National Climate Service

NOAA is establishing a National Climate Service, analogous to the National Weather Service. This is a good step for the very practical reason that it will facilitate planning and adapting to changes in climate. But it also carries with it the legendary pitfalls of prognostication.

You can listen to the NPR story about it at this link.

Weather predictions have become a lot more reliable in the last ten years. You can make reasonable plans based on hours of the day. For example, I was able to make drive across my state ahead of a blizzard because the weather service was able to accurately predict sun in the morning before the blizzard hit in the afternoon. Climate prediction is still not up to the scientific level of weather prediction, but it is getting better. We should soon be able to make reasonable predictions on the regional and sub-regional level.

This brings the obvious blessing that we can take advantage of changes and/or minimize losses. For example, as I have said on many occasions, it is positively insane to rebuild the below-sea-level parts of New Orleans. We should not extend subsidized flood or storm insurance to any new construction on low-lying coastal plains and we should encourage people to move to higher ground, even if that means building higher premiums into insurance policies and mortgages of those who won't.

BTW - we DO NOT have to mandate this, if we just refrain from getting governments to subsidize or require insurance or mortgages be available at "reasonable" rates. The market will sort out which places are too risky. If someone is willing to insure your house on a mud-slope, it is his business and yours. People can build if they want, but we should not become accomplices to stupidity. We might also plan to retire some crops or cropland and get read to move into others. Advanced plant breeding and biotechnology will be a great help here.

Climate change will create winners and losers. Having a reasonable idea of the shape of the changes will make it possible to reap more of the benefits and suffer fewer of the penalties. But think of the troubles along the way.

Somebody today owns valuable land near major ports or in the middle of today’s most productive agricultural land. On the other hand, somebody today owns near worthless land. These might change places. Think of the ports around Hudson Bay. How many of us can even name one? If you look at a globe instead of a flat map, you can see that Hudson Bay is more convenient to many parts of Europe or Asia than is Los Angeles or New Orleans. The problem until now has been ice. The place was locked up most of the year. If this changes, so does the shipping calculation.

Are the current owners of prime real estate and infrastructure going to welcome all the newcomers? Are they going to welcome a study that shows investors and government decision makers a future that makes their wealth creation machines redundant?

Woe to the GS-13 bureaucrat who issues the report proving that no more government aid should go to New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Imagine how much more this will be true of more crucial and expensive infrastructure owned by politically powerful people and interests.

I think the National Climate Service is an excellent and useful idea. It will help us adapt and prosper in the future. But I fear the daunting politics.

I remember talking to a guy from North Carolina during disastrous floods a few years ago. He told me that they had detailed maps that could accurately predict almost the exact shape of a flood, but they couldn’t use them because people objected when the places they wanted to build were shown to be in the middle of seasonal swamps. We have seen this kind of stupidity in New Orleans and continue to see it.

There is a whole genre of literature involved with someone getting a prediction of future events and being unable to do anything about it. Predictors are dismissed (e.g. Cassandra) or often the twist is that the very attempt to stop the predicted event is what brings on the tragedy (e.g. Oedipus Rex). Let’s hope that our prognostication works out better.   


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