Extreme Weather Is Outpacing Even The Worst-Case Scenarios Of Our Forecasting Models
by Ravindra Jayaratne
In the wake of the destructive Hurricane Otis, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the history of weather forecasting. The hurricane roared ashore with 165 mph winds and torrential rainfall, slamming into the coastal city of Acapulco, Mexico and claiming the lives of at least 48 people.
The speed at which Otis intensified was unprecedented. Within 12 hours it went from a regular tropical storm to a “category 5” hurricane, the most powerful category and one which might occur only a few times worldwide each year.
This rare and alarming event, described by the U.S. National Hurricane Center as a “nightmare scenario,” broke records for the fastest intensification rate over a 12-hour period in the eastern Pacific. Otis not only caught residents and authorities off guard but also exposed the limitations of our current predictive tools.
I specialise in the study of natural disasters with the goal of improving our ability to predict them and ultimately to save lives. It is critical that we address the pressing concerns related to the tools we use for forecasting these catastrophic events, all while recognising the significant influence of rapid climate change on our forecasting capabilities.
The predictive tools we rely on
At the core of weather forecasting are computer programs, or “models,” that blend atmospheric variables such as temperature, humidity, wind and pressure, with fundamental physics.
Since the atmospheric processes are nonlinear, a small degree of uncertainty in initial atmospheric conditions can lead to a large discrepancy in final forecasts. That’s why the general practice now is to forecast a set of possible scenarios rather than predict the single scenario most likely to occur.
But while these models are instrumental in issuing early warnings and evacuation orders, they have fundamental limitations and carry a significant degree of uncertainty, especially when dealing with rare or extreme weather. This uncertainty arises from various factors including the fundamentally chaotic nature of the system.
First, the historical data is incomplete, since a hurricane such as Otis might occur only once in several millennia. We don’t know when an east Pacific storm last turned into a category 5 hurricane overnight—if ever—but it was certainly before modern satellites and weather buoys. Our models struggle to account for these “one in 1,000-year events” because we simply haven’t observed them before.
The complex physics governing the weather also has to be simplified in these predictive models. While this approach is effective for common scenarios, it falls short when dealing with the intricacies of extreme events that involve rare combinations of variables and factors.
And then there are the unknown unknowns: factors our models cannot account for because we are unaware of them, or they have not been integrated into our predictive frameworks. Unanticipated interactions among various climatic drivers can lead to unprecedented intensification, as was the case with Hurricane Otis.
The role of climate change
To all this we can add the problem of climate change and its impact on extreme weather. Hurricanes, in particular, are influenced by rising sea surface temperatures, which provides more energy for storms to form and intensify.
The connection between climate change and the intensification of hurricanes, coupled with other factors such as high precipitation or high tides, is becoming clearer.
With established weather patterns being altered, it is becoming even more challenging to predict the behaviour of storms and their intensification. Historical data may no longer serve as a reliable guide.
The way forward
The challenges are formidable but not insurmountable. There are a few steps we can take to enhance our forecasting and better prepare for the uncertainties that lie ahead.
The first would be to develop more advanced predictive models that integrate a broader range of factors and variables, as well as consider worst-case scenarios. Artificial intelligence and machine learning tools can help us process vast and complex datasets more efficiently.
But to get this additional data we’ll have to invest in more weather monitoring stations, satellite technology, AI tools and atmospheric and oceanographic research.
Since even world experts and their models can be caught out by sudden weather extremes, we also need to educate the public about the limitations and uncertainties in weather forecasting.
We must encourage preparedness and a proactive response to warnings, even when predictions seem uncertain. And of course we still have to mitigate climate change itself: the root cause of intensifying weather events.
Hurricane Otis provided a stark and immediate reminder of the inadequacies of our current predictive tools in the face of rapid climate change and increasingly extreme weather events. The urgency to adapt and innovate in the realm of weather forecasting has never been greater.
It is incumbent upon us to rise to the occasion and usher in a new era of prediction that can keep pace with the ever-shifting dynamics of our planet’s climate. Our future depends on it.
The Factor That Won’t Fit in the Model
Without wishing to suggest that we know better than Dr. Jayaratne—who has been studying tsunamis, storm surges, extreme waves and glacier lake outburst floods for 20 years—we do believe there is one important factor that his model does not seem to incorporate. As long as our national and global political systems are controlled by the corporations profiting from fossil fuels, his work will be for naught. – The Ed.
The Flag Code is not ambiguous. Section 7 (i) states quite clearly, “When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the union should be uppermost and to the flag’s own right, that is, to the observer’s left. When displayed in a window, the flag should be displayed in the same way, with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street.” The Flag Police, fittingly, are never uncertain. Frequently, though, they are perplexed. Certainly that was the case for the indefatigable Officer Krupke when, while making his rounds, he discovered the Flag Code violation depicted above. That mild discomfort is all too familiar for those who uphold the Flag Police motto: “Eternal vigilance is the price of upholding the fetishization of material objects which symbolize the values of a purported republic in the absence of any perceptible functionality.”
Fighting Billionaires’ Control of the Media: Individual News Vouchers
by Dean Baker
Mark Twain famously quipped that everyone always talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. (This was before global warming.) In the same vein, it is common for people to rant about billionaires, like Rupert Murdoch and Elon Musk, controlling major media outlets and using them to advance their political whims. But, no one seems to do anything about it.
There is a reason for inaction. For the foreseeable future, it is hard to envision a political scenario in which the ability of the rich and very rich to own and control major news outlets will be restricted. That means that if the goal is to prevent Elon Musk from owning Twitter (or “X,” as he now calls it), then we will likely be able to do little more than rant. (That is not entirely true.)
However, we can go the other way. We may not be able to stop the rich from owning major media outlets, but we can give a voice to everyone else. This can be done through a system of individual vouchers, where the government gives each person a sum, say $50, to support the news outlet of their choice.
One $50 voucher will not go far but thousands and millions of vouchers can support a lot of people doing journalism. The billionaires and the news outlets they control may still have more money, but there will be outlets they don’t control that will have the resources they need to do serious reporting that has a major impact.
If anyone doubts this point, just look at the work done by ProPublica or the Intercept in recent years. These two non-profit news outlets have broken story after story that were largely ignored by the major newspapers and television chains. (There are also many other great non-profit news organizations.)
ProPublica’s reporting is the reason that we know about Justice Clarence Thomas’ right-wing billionaire friends who buy him lavish vacations. But this important story is just the tip of the iceberg for the in-depth reporting they have done for more than a decade. The Intercept has also broken a wide range of stories that were neglected by corporate-owned news outlets, notably on political corruption and dubious foreign policy ventures.
The high-budget news outlets may spend tens or hundreds of millions pushing fluff stories and acting as public relations vehicles for their favored politicians, but serious news outlets can do important reporting on a fraction of their budgets. They don’t need to pay buffoonish news anchors millions of dollars a year. This is why a voucher system makes so much sense.
An individual voucher system also gets around the problem of having the government decide what news should be reported. It will be up to individuals to decide which outlets get their support.
The government would only set broad parameters, comparable to what it does now with the I.R.S. determining which organizations qualify for 501(c)3 status, so that contributors can get a deduction on their income taxes. The I.R.S. only makes a determination as to whether the organization is in fact a church, a shelter for the homeless, or a think tank, or whatever else they claim to do that qualifies for tax-exempt status. It doesn’t try to determine if they are a good church or think tank, that is done by their contributors.
It would be the same with the news voucher system. The agency administering the system would just determine whether the organization is in fact engaged in collecting and distributing news. It would be up to individuals to determine which organization gets their support.
At this point, there is little prospect of getting this sort of voucher system through at the national level, however, it can be done at the state or local level. Just last week, Washington, D.C. city council members Janeese Lewis George and Brianne Nadeau introduced a bill that would set aside $11 million (0.1 percent of the city budget) for individual vouchers to support local news reporting.
The way the program is structured is that the value of the voucher, or coupon, that each individual gets would depend on how many people use it. If only a thousand people used the vouchers, each person would have $11,000 to give to the news outlet of their choice. If 100,000 of DC’s residents (its population is just under 700,000) used the vouchers, each one would have $110 to support the local news they value.
A condition of getting the money would be that all the material produced would be posted on the web and available at no cost. The idea is that the public pays for news once, we don’t give people a subsidy through the voucher and then allow them to collect a second time by charging to get around a paywall.
A voucher program to support local news in D.C. may seem a long way from challenging the Murdochs and the Disneys for control of the media, but it is an important first step. And, what can be done in D.C. can be done in other cities. Mark Histed, with the group Democracy Policy Network, has been working with groups in other cities who have similar plans.
The point is that this has to start somewhere, and if this sort of voucher system can work in one city, it can work in others. And, if it is successful and the public values it, then we can envision a similar program could be introduced nationally at some point.
If this still sounds small bore, it is worth paying a bit of attention to what the right has managed to do over the years. The privatization of Medicare began under Reagan in the 1980s, as private insurers were allowed to get a slice of Medicare dollars. The privatization was expanded gradually over the years so that the current incarnation, Medicare Advantage, now covers 44 percent of all beneficiaries. More than half of new enrollees sign up for Medicare Advantage.
If we need another example of the success of the right in starting small and building up, we can just look at the current Congress. We have states like Wisconsin, that are relatively evenly balanced in votes in national elections. (Obama won twice, Trump won in 2016, and Biden won in 2020. It has one senator from each party.) Nonetheless, its congressional delegation has six Republicans and two Democrats.
This wasn’t the result of a magic trick. The Republicans worked to get people elected to the state’s legislature over the years. These legislators then gerrymandered districts (both their own and the congressional districts) to ensure that Republicans would have a share of seats that vastly exceeded their share of the votes. This resulted from years and decades of getting people to run for relatively boring positions in the state house or state senate. It has now paid big dividends for them in national politics.
It would be great if we could do something tomorrow that would drastically reduce the income and power imbalances that have exploded in the last half century. But the list of items that would do this and have a remote chance of getting anywhere politically is pretty close to zero.
Our choice is whether to do things that have an incremental impact and can grow through time, or empty ranting into the wind. The D.C. local news voucher program fits in the first category. People who really want to do something to reduce the power of billionaires should get behind it.
Dean Baker is Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Its website, cepr.net, where this article appears, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
What could be better than spending a pleasant afternoon with a few friends, down by the river overlooking the tugboats? This past Saturday, for example. October 28th. Wait…what month was this…? Three days later, during the Halloween Parade, the temperature was a brisk 40°.
Biden DOJ ‘Bending Over Backwards’ to Protect Corporate Criminals: Report
by Jake Johnson
An analysis released Monday shows that the Biden Justice Department prosecuted just 99 corporate offenders last year, despite pledging to crack down on white-collar crime following years of lax enforcement during former President Donald Trump’s White House term.
Corporate prosecutions have declined sharply since 2000, a trend that President Joe Biden has failed to reverse, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen observed in a new report.
During Biden’s first year in office, corporate prosecutions fell to 90, just below the 94 that the Trump administration recorded in 2020 and far below the 304 prosecutions in 2000.
“The Biden Justice Department’s light-touch approach to enforcement encourages corporate scofflaws to push the limits of what’s legally allowed to maximize their profits—risking our health and safety, our environment, our finances, and our communities,” Rick Claypool, a research director for Public Citizen and author of the new report, said in a statement.
“The Justice Department is still bending over backwards to protect corporate offenders from the consequences of their lawbreaking, and it’s creating ideal conditions for the next corporate catastrophe,” Claypool warned. “The worst corporate-caused crises of the 21st Century—the 2008 financial crisis and the opioid epidemic—are stories about enforcement agencies failing to fight systemic criminal misconduct before it was too late.”
The Biden administration’s rhetoric on corporate crime and the policies it has implemented in a purported attempt to deter wrongdoing and hold bad actors to account have not translated into much, if any, measurable progress.
Public Citizen found that corporate leniency agreements—deals that companies reach with the Justice Department to avoid or defer prosecution—fell to just 11 last year, the lowest level since 2004.
“But whether the shift can be seen as a sign of strengthened corporate enforcement is a separate question,” the group said. “If the DOJ’s interest in prosecuting corporate crime was truly waxing, one would expect to see increasing prosecutions accompany the decreasing leniency agreements.”
“Instead,” Public Citizen added, “the near-record low number of corporate prosecutions combined with plunging corporate leniency agreements means the federal government concluded 110 criminal cases against corporations in fiscal year 2022—fewer than any previous year since 1994, when it concluded 106.”
The new report points to several examples of companies that escaped prosecution through leniency agreements last year and in 2021, including Credit Suisse, Uber, and Stericycle.
“A society that punishes the crimes of the poor while permitting the crimes of the powerful is not a just society,” Public Citizen’s report says. “The principle that no one should be above the law includes corporations.”
The report was published weeks after the Biden Justice Department faced backlash for announcing that it would not pursue charges against companies that voluntarily disclose wrongdoing committed by businesses they are acquiring.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco earlier this month that the policy “would incentivize corporations to engage in illegal activity of all kinds—knowing that they could simply wipe the slate clean during a merger.”
Jake Johnson is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).
Big Banks Funneled $1.8 Trillion to Carbon Bombs Since 2016
by Olivia Rosane
Major banks funneled more than $150 billion in 2022 toward “carbon bomb” fossil fuel projects that would blow through the world’s chances of limiting global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The data, published by The Guardian Tuesday, shows that major banks in the U.S., Europe, and China funded the companies behind these projects with a total of $1.8 trillion between 2016 and 2022, with U.S. banks contributing more than half a trillion of that total.
“Criminal,” Nuclear Consulting Group chair Paul Dorfman tweeted in response to the news.
“We need to rapidly decline our production of fossil fuels and support for fossil fuels, whether that’s regulatory or financial.”
The “carbon bombs” are 425 fossil fuel extraction projects identified by The Guardian and other nonprofit and media organizations and compiled in an online database in 2022. Each bomb has the potential to release more than a gigaton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. At first, it was calculated that igniting all 425 bombs would release emissions more than double the remaining carbon budget that scientists say humans can spend and still have a 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. However, research published Monday calculated that the remaining carbon budget is actually around 250 gigatons of carbon dioxide, not the 500 previously believed. The carbon bombs would release a combined total of more than 1,000 gigatons, or four times the revised number.
“The budget is so small, and the urgency of meaningful action for limiting warming is so high, [that] the message from [the carbon budget] is dire,” study co-author Joeri Rogelj of Imperial College London told The Guardian Monday.
JPMorgan Chase led the pack with more than $141 billion invested between 2016 and 2022, followed by Citi with $119 billion, Bank of America with $92 billion, the Chinese ICBC with $92.2 billion, and BNP Paribas with $71.9 billion. Last year alone, the banks directly or indirectly funded the projects with around $161 billion. This comes despite greenwashing rhetoric from financial institutions pledging to act on climate.
For example, JPMorgan has promised to set goals to reduce the emission intensity of its portfolios for key sectors, including oil and gas, electricity, and auto making. …
In a worse-case scenario, nothing will be done to limit emissions, these carbon bombs will be exploited and burned, and weather will turn ever more extreme. However, if world leaders do succeed in rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, these projects could become stranded assets for the companies and banks that invested in them, and if this happens all at once, it could trigger a financial crash, University of Witten-Herdecke sustainable finance research fellow Jan Fichtner told The Guardian.
To avoid this, the world must work to make fossil fuels less profitable, Fichtner said.
“In a capitalist system, profitability is the most important current,” Fichtner told The Guardian. “You can try to swim against the current, it’s possible, but it’s very, very difficult.”
Olivia Rosane is a staff writer for Common Dreams. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).