By Langston Alexander
Dr. William H. Hooke, Associate Executive Director and Senior Policy Fellow at the American Meteorological Society, was the inaugural speaker for the spring 2022 Natural Hazards Resiliency Speaker Series. With a storied career in public service, including stints as Acting Chief Scientist at NOAA and Senior Scientist to the U.S. Commerce Secretary and spanning more than 50 years, I did not know quite what to expect from Dr. Hooke. From someone with his technical expertise, would he be drilling us on the pros and cons of various atmospheric models of climate change? Or perhaps a refresher on how greenhouse gases impact the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere? As someone with little background in science, I admit I was intimidated just thinking about it.
But right from the start, Dr. Hooke dispelled any anxiety I had of a physics pop quiz. He took advantage of his position as our first lecturer to usher the class into the world of climate change and hazard mitigation by taking a step back to frame the planet we live on and the problem we face.
He began by framing the planet as a series of systems that are ultimately beyond our control. These major systems, of which he highlights the geologic, atmospheric, and ecological, are paradoxes in many ways. They give humans life, but can also be extremely deadly. They are immensely powerful, but can also be fragile. And it is within these systems that humans must find resilient ways to live.
The problem of climate change, as Dr. Hooke defined it, is a four-fold one: 1) It causes changes in the frequency, intensity, duration, and patterns of extreme weather across the globe; 2) global cooperation is necessary for any effective solution; 3) preexisting patterns of inequity are compounded by climate change; and 4) conditions are worsening quickly, requiring a quick response.
These problems are solvable, but only if humans can move from a reactive mindset to a proactive mindset. Historically, when natural hazards impact humans we have built back in many the same ways as before. Dr. Hooke argues that for any chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change this needs to change. Evacuating and rebuilding to the status quo simply is not enough anymore.
As an example of this agile problem-solving mindset, he recalls the impact of instituting of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on airline travel. Up to that point, flight casualties had risen in tandem with the increased number of flights. The federal government and airline executives realized this wasn’t sustainable if people were going to feel safe flying on a regular basis. The NTSB instituted strict safety precautions for airplanes and carefully reviewed every crash to understand where it failed. Since NTSB’s creation in the early 1970’s, casualties have dropped precipitously even though the quantity of airplanes and daily flights have increased. The same spirit of close public-private collaboration, unflinching assessments of failure, and commitment to problem-solving needs to be adopted in order to successfully withstand climate change.
Dr. Hooke finished by moving away from the subject of climate change all together. He addressed the fear that most burgeoning professionals feel: the fear of failure. As a student it is easy to feel you are never doing enough, especially for those of us working in the realm of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Time is of the essence with climate change – we need to reduce emissions now and prepare for the worst effects before they become reality. This urgency is necessary for change to materialize but can also lead to exhaustion and burnout. Dr. Hooke’s final words were a quote from Mo Siegel, the founder and former CEO of tea company Celestial Seasonings. He said, “As long as you have something to offer the world, you will never go hungry.” In this I read a deep calm about the world and our place in it. As long as we are striving for a better world, fulfillment will follow.
A deep thank you do Dr. Hooke for his time and sage words of advice. We could not have asked for a better inaugural speaker for the class.