“We are not predicting, now — we are measuring.” Those words rang through the meeting hall during Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s keynote address at the National Council for Science and the Environment conference in Washington D.C. Whitehouse was discussing the shift that has occurred since questions of disruptive climate risks first made their way onto the radar of national and international policymakers well over 40 years ago (including U.S. government hearings as long ago as the early 1980s). He was underlining how the focus of climate change research has shifted since that time: from making educated guesses as to the possible effects of increased atmospheric warming, to now studying the early ongoing effects, visible all over the country and around the world.
In early January, I applied for (and got!) last-minute funding from the Nic School’s career development office to attend the two-day conference; four days later, I found myself on an overnight Greyhound headed up to the Capitol. We pulled into Union Station the next morning with just enough time for me to clean up a bit and jump on the subway, amid the rush of early-morning commuters headed to dozens of nearby office mid-rises south of the Pentagon.
The focus of this year’s meeting was sustainability in infrastructure: how to design, build and fund efficient, lasting structures in light of the risks posed by a variety of ongoing global changes. Climate change drove many of the conversations, though the discussions were far more wide-reaching and nuanced than just concern for stemming the rise of CO2 levels. Speakers and panelists framed these problems in terms of resilience to unfolding risks, whether from floods, droughts, fires, pollution, food supply challenges, community health, economic stability or beyond.
The physical structures we build, from rural houses to downtown subway systems, to power plants, pipelines, malls and roadways, represent an incredible investment of financial and natural resources. This is the material fabric of the human world: the built environment, often invisible until something goes wrong. How do we keep these sunk investments useful in the face of — no pun intended — rising sea levels? How do we design new projects with a range of possible futures in mind? And, critically: how do we get from “A” — a good idea — to “B”: navigating the legal and economic challenges to actually implement that good idea in our structures, old and new?
Just as much weight, then, was placed on the role of the intellectual and social “infrastructure” that helps guide decision-making and implementation in these arenas. A major theme of the meeting was science communication, collaboration and education, from the local community to the UN and every level in between. One group I found particularly interesting was NOAA’s Regionally Integrated Science and Assessment network. The RISA groups (collaborative research groups which cover territories, mostly small clusters of 3 to 5 adjacent states) each develop locally-geared risk management strategies, conduct locally relevant research, and build working relationships and information tools to meet the needs of their region’s geography, public, and local institutions. The real power of this network, however, seems to be its potential for then sharing lessons and best practices learned from each region to the other network nodes, across areas as different from one another as fire-prone California and the flood-prone Carolinas. This sharing improves everyone’s understanding of environmental risks, and everyone’s ability to respond.
The conference, for all of its focus on communication and connections between the public and government regulators, took place in the ripples of the recent government shutdown, which had ended the day before. A nontrivial number of federal employees had been legally unable to get on airplanes that Monday, causing them to miss Tuesday speaking arrangements or panel discussions. And representatives from important and creative programs like RISA gave their talks under the unspoken shadow of the fact that their already-limited funding could be gutted at any moment, given the burn-it-all-down mentality on display in some aspects of ongoing federal budget negotiations (especially those regarding anything remotely related to “the double C word“). I was impressed by the stoic professionalism of these federal workers who have dedicated their lives to environmental risk management and policy — people who quietly continue doing the best work they can do, even as newly-appointed agency heads move to undermine the effectiveness (or even the fundamental goals) of their own organizations.
But even as attendees noted that federal power to address some urgent environmental challenges is currently waning, the emerging power of citizen science was an equally hot topic. Consider that we now live in an era in which well over 2 billion people are walking around with a complex research tool in their pocket (i.e., their smartphone). The potential is there to recruit fractions of those phone users into simple reporting forces that could give (and receive) almost-real-time global updates on everything from pollution levels to species sightings to economic policy impacts. The degree to which those kinds of initiatives could reshape the world that scientists and policymakers operate in is staggering. It was clear that major paradigm shifts are underway.
Two days packed with talks, discussions, and informal conversations was a lot to take in; I’ll be going through my notes over the coming weeks to try to better digest what I learned and collect my thoughts on the new topics, ideas, and organizations I was exposed to. The spring semester at Duke started out with a handful of snow-day cancellations, so I was hesitant to miss any more classes than necessary last week . . . which means this is about as close as I got to sight-seeing, while waiting for the bus home from Union Station late Wednesday night:
I did walk a little bit closer to the Capitol, but didn’t really have a chance to check out any of the monuments this time. I’m hoping to return for a weekend this spring, once cherry blossom season hits.
Out front of Union Station, where the Columbus monument sits in front of a Liberty Bell model:
Inside the station: