A Question of Principle: Meteorology, Money, and Morality

An essay

Posted: 03 November 2002 Updated: 11 June 2011: minor revisions and updates, fixed some links

As always, this is my personal opinion ... no more, no less. Other viewpoints can be sent to me at cdoswell@earthlink.net.

The Norman "Weather Center"

The meteorology "community" of Norman, OK is perhaps the third largest in the nation, behind only the Washington, D.C. and Boulder, CO areas. The main claim to fame for this community is the general topic of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, but there are other meteorology-related activities, of course. Norman is the home to:

These collectively can be referred to as the Oklahoma Weather Center. The growth of the weather-related disciplines in Norman is mostly due to the national and international stature of the NSSL and OU SoM science programs. Norman is the de facto world center for severe weather meteorology, a result of a lot of hard work and a determination to put Norman "on the map" - in order to attract the best scientists to come to a location that otherwise is not the most appealing place to live (especially when compared to, say, Boulder, CO) and is far removed from the traditional power center for meteorology (in the Washington, D.C. area).

This community was substantially enhanced by the move of the SPC from Kansas City, MO, to rejoin with its research arm (NSSL), but the arrival of the SPC staff and the creation of their forecasting facility put great stress on the space situation at NSSL. Space for this expansion had to be created by leasing additional buildings and creating what amount to "mobile home" temporary builldings. Growth in the OU SoM has created a similar need for more room on campus.

There is a clear need for additional space. And it is quite desirable to co-locate the OU SoM (and other OU weather-related groups) with NSSL (and other NOAA components). Hence, the dream for a new building. In spite of this, it's important to recognize that the enormous growth in the meteorology programs residing in Norman began modestly and without grand facilities. The synergies that might take place as a result of co-location have yet to be demonstrated ... keep in mind, the demonstrated growth of meteorology in Norman took place without it. At what price are we acquiring a new building?

A "National" Weather Center?

Recently, there has been a movement to house a substantial fraction of this "community" (including most of the meteorologists in both NOAA and those associated with the University of Oklahoma [OU]) in one location, rather pompously named the National Weather Center (NWC). There are reasons to dispute the accuracy of this title, and other locations in the nation might justifiably be upset at such a name. I like to refer to the NWC as the Intergalactic Weather Center -- if you're going to be arrogant, why stop at the national boundaries? But that's a diversion ...

This effort to create a building with the capacity to co-locate the NOAA and OU weather-related programs has involved the collaboration of both Federal and University bureaucrats. With the support of the Oklahoma delegation to Congress, considerable progress has been made to bring most of the meteorologists in Norman under one roof, for a cost approaching $70 million. As interesting and curious as this interaction between the Federal bureaucracy and the OU bureaucracy has been over the past several years, however, this is not the main topic of this essay.

Each side of the alliance (the Federal side and the state/OU side) was to provide part of the funding for a new building on the OU campus (at a designated site near OK Hwy 9 and Jenkins Ave.). The majority of the Federal funding was approved relatively quickly so the State of Oklahoma was called upon to ante up its share of the funding to match what NOAA had allocated. The state of Oklahoma was requested (by, among others, OU President David Boren, a former OK governor and U.S. Senator from OK) to provide resources to "match" the Federal funding. This created the situation where something had to be done to respond to this pressure from the Federal government. Most of aforementioned meteorologists and their agencies would be relocated within the new building.

The groundbreaking ceremony was conducted with the usual fanfare, newspaper publicity, speeches, and even "free lunch" for the masses "celebrating" this event (Who paid for the "free" lunch?). Obviously, the goal was to have a large turnout of meteorologists for this ceremony, a show of meteorological solidarity, if you will. All the local leaders in the Norman weather community were active in getting their staffs to attend, with the free lunch being a "carrot" and the message implying that attendance was "encouraged" (a "stick"?). The OU police were briefed about possible protests and vigorously defended the site against the possibility of such protests.

The price of a new building for the meteorologists in Norman

Here's the crux of this issue: on 18 March 2002, the OK state legislature approved a bill (HB2536), that was signed into law by the governor, to provide the state's share of the funding by taking funds from the Underground Storage Tanks (UST) Program for the State of Oklahoma. This program is associated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the Federal government, and includes many states besides Oklahoma -- their mandate to is clean up underground petroleum product storage tanks so they don't continue to contaminate soil and groundwater. Funding for this program comes mostly from a 1 cent per gallon tax on gasoline. The "plan" in HB2536 extracts 50% of the funds generated from this tax for two years, and then 25% until a total of $38 million has been taken -- about half of this total goes to Oklahoma State University for another program. Within this plan is the promise to restore these cuts in the future ...

From where I sit, I don't find this alternative for obtaining the state funds to be one that I can support. In fact, I'm opposed to having the State of Oklahoma withdraw funding from the UST Program to help pay for its part of the bargain between the Federal and OU bureaucrats. I certainly can't claim to know all the details at this point of the debate, but it seems that there were politicians within the state government who were seeking to undermine the UST program for reasons of their own. These politicians falsely claimed that if the state didn't find the money to support the new building quickly, the Federal funds would be withdrawn. This tactic was based on lie -- there was no need to act hastily and to gut the UST Program in order to preserve the Federal support for the new building. The Federal funding was not about to vanish!

There are reasons to believe that in the past the Oklahoma UST Program suffered from some mismanagement, and there might even have been some corruption involved. [Hardly the most astounding news here in OK!] In most cases, however, when corruption is discovered, the remedial action should be to remove and prosecute those responsible that corruption -- not to devastate the agency's budget! Who knows what hidden reasons have been driving this Oklahoma politics-as-usual process? By what rationalization is the agency being punished for the malfeasance of a few within the agency?

My opposition to this actually doesn't depend on the details of UST management, however. Whatever flaws might have marred the UST Program's past (or even present), the state of Oklahoma entered into an agreement with the EPA to try to clean up an important and serious environmental problem. It seems to me that a group of meteorologists should be environmentally responsible and very much opposed to serving their own interests at the expense of a program aimed a remediating environmental degradation.* This creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest ... those of the meteorologists versus those of the environment. In fact, I believe this is not just the appearance of such a conflict, but is rather clearly a factual conflict of interest. Regrettably, the meteorologists of Norman have primarily been silent about this stain on their new building's finances. Apparently, most of them are too focused on their own interests to pay attention to the funding source. Some of them are afraid to speak out, however. I'll have more to say about that below.

Among the rationalizations I've heard from the Norman meteorologists:

  1. We didn't do the pollution! We're not the villains! Why make us suffer?
  2. It's a done deal, so why should we fight it? It's too late to change anything.
  3. The UST Program will eventually be repaid what was taken. What's the big deal?
  4. Everybody knows that the UST Program was just "welfare for environmentalists!"
  5. This issue should be played out in the courts. Let the EPA and the Sierra Club sue.
  6. We had to be sure we got our building, even if this isn't a path we like. The end justifies the means. (!!)
  7. The big oil companies and the polluters should be paying for this cleanup, not the taxpayers.

The spectacle of all this selfish rationalization is pretty sickening to me -- clearly, self-interest has kicked in and most of the meteorologists in Norman either haven't paid any attention to what is going on, have chosen to put their material well-being ahead of that of the environment, or are afraid to challenge this for fear of antagonizing the local Federal and OU high-level bureaucrats who have pushed this slimy deal through. I'm ashamed by these arguments -- to say the "The end justifies the means." is so patently a bankrupt statement, I hardly know how to respond without exploding! How much evil in history has been justified in just this way? My short responses to these frequently-raised points:

  1. No, we didn't do it, but if we say nothing, we implictly accept responsibility for slowing down the clean-up, and so become partners in this crime against the public in the state of Oklahoma. Whatever our reasons, we can justifiably be blamed for the problems that will arise as a result of this diversion of funds for our benefit.
  2. Unless I'm seriously mistaken, this law was not imposed by the will of God. Laws made by humans can be changed. Natural laws cannot be revoked, but it's never too late to alter legislation.
  3. In the meantime, the loss of funding means that UST staffers will lose their jobs, and have to take their expertise elsewhere. The program will lose momentum that will be difficult to regain. And if the health of Oklahomans is threatened by this pollution, we will become responsible for whatever negative impacts on public health ensue owing to the delays in remediation.
  4. This argument is beneath contempt. It is worthy only of demagogues and those who choose not to be concerned about the consequences for their actions.
  5. When lawsuits are the only language that gets anyone's attention (as seems to be universally true with regard to the environment), only lawyers benefit. Who will pay for defending this action against lawsuits? Who will pay if punitive fines are imposed? The public in Oklahoma will have to absorb the cost of such lawsuits, which probably will drag on for years, The public in Oklahoma will be the losers, no matter how the lawsuits play out. Do Norman meteorologists want that on their consciences? Or do they have consciences?
  6. I've already dismissed this dreadful argument. To hear it passed though the lips of local meteorologists I respected for many years has been a personal shock.
  7. This is a specious argument. A complete answer to this one is complicated, but in the end, the public inevitably will pay for this, through costs passed on to them by the big oil companies and the polluters, and that price almost certainly would exceed what the UST remediation would have cost. Many of the original polluters are dead, have gone out of business, or moved elsewhere. There's no way to track them down and make them pay. Should their pollution go unremediated because we can't hound the original polluters? Isn't public health worth paying for clean-up?

A climate of fear

I know for a fact that some of the Norman meteorologists who stand to benefit from building the NWC are opposed to this raid on the UST funds, but are unwilling to speak out against it, for fear of damaging their careers. They've said so to me directly. It's a distressing statement of reality that people have reason to fear reprisals if they oppose programs that have the blessing of the bureaucrats and the politicians. This fear is so pervasive that no one usually needs to make any overt threats -- it's like a Pavlovian response to a stimulus -- everyone simply knows that speaking out would be tantamount to damaging one's career. What a sad commentary on public service: only retired meteorologists are willing (or able) to speak out, it seems!

Whatever might have been wrong with the UST Program, it seems to me a matter of principle that we meteorologists should oppose any decision that hinders environmental protection! It's a matter of morality -- a polluted environment is everyone's concern! Does the promise of a bigger, nicer office take precedence over the best interests of the citizens of the state of Oklahoma? Do the interests of NOAA trump the earlier agreements struck between the EPA and the state of Oklahoma? Is the convenience and comfort of a nice office in a new building worth the cost? Will the putative synergies associated with co-location of the scattered segments of the Norman weather community be enough to justify the terrible price we meteorologists will pay for our lack of courage to speak up now? Real jobs are going to be lost in the UST program. If the new building is delayed, or if it isn't built, are any meteorologists going to lose their jobs? Talk about "an edifice complex"!!

Environmental cleanup will be delayed substantially as a result of this pillaging of the UST funds. What damage to human health will be incurred by the public as a result? What further degradation of the environment will happen during the delay? Is having a nice office in a new building worth this cost? Is this what we want the so-called NWC to stand for in the eyes of the public? Is NOAA willing to let this happen in spite of its mandated responsibility for environmental stewardship?

There is reason to believe, in fact, that using state funds that were earmarked for environmental clean-up for building a NOAA facility is a violation of Federal law! If someone pursues this vigorously in the courts, the Norman NOAA programs could be in serious legal difficulty.

If a deal was struck that we don't think is right, it can and should be repudiated! Methods for changing this situation surely exist. The fact that a law has been passed and signed doesn't mean we must go along with it if we feel it isn't right. The courts are an ugly, expensive place where only lawyers gain much by litigation ... I'd prefer it not have to come to that, although that might end up being the only way to change this. If we go along with this decision without saying a word, we implicitly give it our stamp of approval. Then we meteorologists are in league with the villains, whether we realize it or not. Whether we accept that responsibility or not.

What would happen if a substantial number of meteorologists in Norman were to become vocal opponents against this method for funding our building? If we took a stand that this funding process puts a moral stain on everything associated with the new building, what impact would that have? Who knows what could be accomplished?

Sadly, this sort of groundswell of protest from Norman meteorologists never took place. Guess they were too busy in their nice new offices, showing off their edifice to tour groups. Why rock the boat -- we got what we wanted!

A role for the American Meteorological Society?

Sadly, the leaders of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) apparently believed that this was only an issue of Oklahoma state politics, and undeserving of their attention. I regret that the AMS "leadership" doesn't recognize the implications of having meteorologists used to undermine environmental remediation. If the AMS took a stand, perhaps some local Norman meteorologists would be motivated to speak, whereas they might otherwise feel isolated.

In a statement associated with the Atmospheric Policy Program (see the AMS Website) recently established by the AMS, it is said

... In spite of these advances and increased public awareness of atmospheric issues, no comprehensive approach to atmospheric policy studies exists today. A systematic body of scholarly work has yet to be developed. There are no institutions where students and professionals can be exposed to, and educated in, the complexities of atmospheric policy. The need to strengthen the Nation's research and education in the field of atmospheric policy is evident.

In response to that need, the American Meteorological Society is developing an Atmospheric Policy Program (APP). The Program will conduct research and provide education on policies that shape atmospheric research and services in both the public and private sectors. It will also undertake research and education on policies that are affected by advances in atmospheric understanding and the provision of meteorological services.

It is the goal of the Program to conduct activities that will contribute to informed policy decisions by examining options and potential consequences of courses of action. A scholarly approach to atmospheric policy issues, combined with a practical view of the real world, and conducted with the participation of active and former policy officials, will characterize the research and educational work of the Program. Familiarity with the complexity of atmospheric policy issues will lead to a new generation of leaders who are better prepared to make informed decisions relating to the atmosphere. Those leaders will better serve human society, as a whole.

The issue of using environmental remediation funds to build the Norman Weather Center building clearly impinges on atmospheric policy, but it might be said that it addresses an issue that many meteorologists would prefer not to have scrutinized: The policies of atmospheric programs themselves! This is also in need of a "scholarly approach" and is complex enough that decision makers will need guidance to sort it out. Unfortunately, in this case, the self-interest of the meteorologists in Norman is at stake in this discussion. Some policy guidance from the AMS would be helpful here, but by their silence, they imply consent. Thus, they too can be held responsible for what will follow if this funding strategy is allowed to continue.

The penalty for not speaking out

Everyone has heard the following argument ...

They came for the gypsies, but I wasn't a gypsy, so I did nothing. Then, they came for the Jews, but I'm not a Jew, so I said nothing. Then they came for the liberals, but I don't like the liberals, so I let it go. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak up on my behalf.

It seems to me that the meteorologists of Norman are being used by politicians to attack the UST Program. Many among them are willing participants in this outrage, sadly. Norman meteorologists should think about this: they are currently in the favor of the politicians (at least in a relative sense). What will they say when the politicians come after them? I hope they don't believe that it won't ever happen! Will Norman's meteorologists be pleading for others in the university or around Norman to speak up on their behalf? Will some non-victim be snorting "Meteorologists? Everyone knows this meteorology stuff is just a way to keep them off the welfare rolls! Let 'em find a real job!" What rationalizations will be used to make the meteorologists suffer? What goes around, comes around!

It's trite but true ... politics does make strange bedfellows. In this case, meteorologists are in league, voluntarily or otherwise, with those who seek to eviscerate environmental protection programs. The day may come when they regret such an "alliance" for their personal gain. The folks who put this deal together within the State of Oklahoma and for the University of Oklahoma are all about money, and growth for its own sake.

Let me close by saying that I am not out to "destroy" the NWC. I have been in favor of the merger of the Norman weather community for some time, and there are many good reasons to have this building built. I stand to benefit if the new building is to be built ... I presently have quite cramped quarters.** However, I believe that if the building is financed in this way by the State (and University) of Oklahoma, the NWC will come to symbolize a failure of moral responsibility that will sully the whole Norman weather community's reputation.

For myself, I'm no longer proud to be a part of the Norman "community" of meteorologists. I have no wish to be part of something that sacrifices environmental cleanup programs simply for my personal convenience. I'm ashamed of what has been done in the name of the Norman weather community. But I would be even more ashamed if I chose to let my self-interest prevent me from speaking openly in opposition to this outrage.


* As another note, I'm very disappointed that the so-called "green" groups in Oklahoma have taken this so quietly, and meekly. No protests at the groundbreaking ceremony? No statements to the press about this issue? Is it too close to home to care about? Are these environmental groups afraid to speak when it's in their own backyard? I could write another rant about environmental organizations, too ... maybe someday.

** However, this has been true for most of my career. Anyone who feels that having a spacious, comfortable offic is a prerequisite for scientific productivity is not truly a scientist. Limited office space has never been responsible for limiting my scientific production, and never will be. I'd be embarrassed to use that as an excuse!

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