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Time for New Community: What to Do ? (4)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 9:22 PM GMT on October 03, 2010

Time for New Community: What to Do ? (4)

This is the final in a series of blogs that explores the political nature of climate change, strategies for communication of information about climate change, and how to move forward our collective response to climate, climate variability, and climate change. One of the ideas that I have advocated is to make much larger and more diverse the people who are contributing to the discussion and knowledge base of climate change. In this final piece, I want to move away from the original points of the first three articles to broader issues of developing and providing information about climate change. (Previous articles in this series: one, two, three)

Though a few scientists and politicians identified human-caused climate change as an important environmental issue before World War II, until the last 20 years or so, climate change remained primarily in the realm of scientific investigation and scientists. With the emergence of global warming as an environmental issue that will disrupt societies, climate change became an issue of public policy. In contrast to, for example, the issue of tobacco and lung cancer or even coal burning and acid rain, we have not moved to situation where the definitive proof of global warming and its consequences lie behind us. There is not, therefore, a definitive boundary between the time of scientific research and the time of public policy. The two are required to coexist. (Here is new paper that I wrote with Maria Carmen Lemos on the use of climate projections in public policy.)

In the initial research-dominated phase of an issue that emerges as a public policy priority, it is natural to imagine scientists and science communicators working to inform the public as well as those who are perceived as having a need to know. This is a push of information, and in earlier articles I have argued that there has been quite an effective push of knowledge about climate change (Who is the Audience?). As a result of this successful push of information, there are many individuals who are motivated to take action on climate change – or at least to figure out what to do about it. Aside from high profile efforts like the Climate Action Partnership, I have worked with people considering how to migrate forests northward, anticipate new public health risks, manage fisheries, price carbon, maintain urban water supplies – the list goes on. My first point is that there are already many more people on this solution side than there or on the physical climate research side. We need to recognize more vigorously the resources represented by this community and to develop the capability for this community to both pull on the climate-science knowledge base and to contribute to development of that knowledge base.

There is a second point that follows from the recognition of this community outside of the mainstream of climate researchers. As an example, consider the issues facing a water resource manager in coastal Florida versus North Dakota. In Florida there are concerns of sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, and the sinking of land as ground water is removed. Wetland ecosystems are central to Florida’s water management challenges. In North Dakota concerns are more likely dominated by better management of rivers and lakes in the presence of more volatile drought and flood cycles, as well as competition with agricultural needs. Both managers have to deal with their current facilities, projections of population, tax bases, and local, state, regional, and national water policies. The take away message is that to incorporate climate variability and climate change into plans for management and development is strongly influenced by the specifics of the problem. It is so strongly influenced by the specifics, that it is unreasonable to expect that a guidebook to climate solutions will be generated by a relatively modest number of climate experts and then prescribed to a waiting audience. With the enormous complexity that will be faced in seeking climate solutions, it is, again, necessary to consider how community-based approaches can be used to allow the organization of the complexity and the emergence of new solution paths.

I advocate, here, a re-framing of the climate and climate-change problem. Rather than this being, primarily, a scientific problem with scientists or an institutional service pushing information to waiting and perhaps under-informed audiences, we must develop community-based resources that allow for the participation of an informed community in the evolution of climate solutions. This supports the pull of information, self-organization, self-correction, and the ability of the community to inform the research needs of the community. Simple to say – more difficult to accomplish.

Climate and weather scientists have been at the forefront of data sharing and community activities (again a reference to Paul Edwards’s book, A Vast Machine). A major reason for sharing of weather data is the need to have routine observations of the entire globe in order to provide weather forecasts. Within the climate community the development of the Community Climate Model serves as a premiere example of community resources. Now the Community Earth System Model (CESM)l this activity has provided a series of models available for general use by both scientific and non-scientific communities. The CESM activities have engaged through its working groups a large number of scientists. This activity was begun at a time when climate science was, primarily, the concern of research scientists and when computational and intellectual resources required the centralization of efforts to develop super systems that were beyond the ability of individual researchers.

The community re-framing that I am advocating recognizes the evolution and successes of open source communities and the use of open innovation techniques in management of complexity, complex problem solving, and the emergence of knowledge (Wikipedia, for instance). Compared with the original concept that led to the Community Earth System Model (CESM)l, these open communities have broader, more active, less managed participation by the community. A re-framing might be that a model would be built by the community not for the community, even if there is substantial community participation.

The concepts of open communities raise many concerns, especially when there is a need to assure accuracy and truthfulness of information and results. Going back to the basic definition of the scientific method there is the notion of controlled experimentation, where the environment is controlled to isolate cause and effect. There is the fundamental practice of anonymous peer review to assure accuracy. Often in the building of complex systems like rockets, there is need for control over process to assure mission success. Opening up processes and knowledge generation raises the risk of inaccurate knowledge – it potentially opens up a body of knowledge to political manipulation or advocacy or advertisement. The question then arises on how to reduce these negative risks to a level that they are overwhelmed by the positive attributes of problems being solved and the emergence of solutions out of the complexity.

The questions of a successful community become, therefore, how is governance instituted to assure the accuracy of information, how is credibility established, how are inaccuracies identified and corrected? The success of an open community relies on its relationships with existing and evolving entities, institutions, and communities. The existence of successful open communities suggests plausibility. The goal of an open climate community would an accessible knowledge base that serves as trusted resource of objective information for those who have an interest in climate and climate change.

Time. At the start of this series of articles I mentioned that one thing that is necessary to evolve climate and climate change, productively, as an issue is time. When I wrote that, I was thinking of the half-generational time span that is needed for controversial environmental issues to rise above the opposition to the changes in behavior that are necessary to address the issue. I was thinking that we need to shorten that time span. Part of what is needed to accelerate our response to knowledge of climate change and actual climate change is to shorten the amount of time that is needed to produce accurate and usable information about climate change. This requires us to generate new methods of review and evaluation of knowledge and to accept new ways of the inclusion of uncertainty in complex problem solving. This requires education and alteration of climate scientists and the scientific process just as much as it requires education by scientists about climate and climate change. The large number of people already making decisions about how to invest their time and money in response to the body of knowledge about climate change will move much faster than is consistent with the traditional generation of scientific knowledge. We need the best climate information at any given time. Despite the challenges of governance to assure accuracy, if we don’t develop open community based approaches to climate change problem solving we will not accelerate our collective response; we will miss opportunity, and we will isolate the generation and use of scientifically generated knowledge from problem solving when it is most critical.


Pakistan: I am certain to maintain an interest in Pakistan far longer than the average disaster attention span. My youngest sister Elizabeth is Counsel General in Peshawar so I keep an eye on the news. Attention to the Pakistan flood is moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster, Yours truly on Chicago-based Radio Islam, Rood interview)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

Figure 1. U.S. State Department blog on Pakistani floods Flooding Extent

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.