I’m addicted to weather reporting. Give me 30 minutes of Jim Cantore standing in the middle of a hurricane over even the best cable drama any day. The recent build up and TV coverage of “BLIZZARD ’15!!!!” had me mesmerized.
For my money, the best weather coverage and reporting in any media lives at the “Capital Weather Gang” blog at Washingtonpost.com. The Gang has it all – technical expertise, up-to-the minute maps and graphics, and a great sense of humor. Above all, this blog has predictions – and lots of them.
But it is how the Gang addresses the art of weather forecasting that brings me to the lessons for anyone interested in true NEPA reform. (You know I’d get there eventually, right?)
While weather forecasts remain the butt of many a comedian’s ire, they are, on the whole, pretty darn accurate, and getting better by the year. How do they do it? Meteorologists use a combination of sophisticated models and experience from past events to help us understand whether we should be making alternative plans for that weekend BBQ. They will be the first to say that the forecast for tomorrow is always going to be more reliable than the forecast for a week from now, but they can help spot trends and certainly spot potential severe weather long before it turns into the next hurricane or blizzard.
Here’s where the Capital Weather Gang shines. For a predicted snowstorm, they don’t just give readers a range of inches (1-3 in the City, 2-5 in the northern and western suburbs). They also provide degrees of confidence in those predictions (high/medium/low) AND lower and upper ranges of potential snow, based on either a “bust” or “boom” scenario.
Thus, you might see the Gang say: “Tomorrow’s storm should bring between 1-3 inches of snow inside the Beltway (medium confidence), with a ‘bust’ of a dusting (25 percent chance) and a ‘boom’ of 4-6 inches (15 percent chance).”
Brilliant. That tells me everything I need to know. Do the forecasters believe this to be real or are there still a number of variables at play that lead to uncertainty? And if they might be off, what are the outer limits, low and high, of how wrong they might be and the likelihood of those extremes?
Every NEPA consultant should adopt this approach, but sadly, they do not. Instead, predictions of some of the most technically complicated or theoretical impacts are categorized merely as “significant” or “insignificant” under the parlance of the CEQ regulations. There is no willingness to admit that certain impacts may or may not happen or, heaven forbid, that “our long-range forecast is somewhat unreliable.” No, the consultants instead dive deeper and deeper (at great expense), trying to find a clear answer, when any expert in that particular field would tell you that campaign for certainty would be quixotic, at best. That’s why we get 7-10 year environmental impact studies or 400-page environmental assessments. Our paid experts are afraid to say “we’re not sure.”
The Gang has among the best weather experts on the Internet, and yet, their willingness to say when they aren’t sure in no way diminishes the overall reliability of their analysis or interpretation of sometimes wildly divergent weather models. By contrast, it enhances their credibility.
Imagine if NEPA practitioners used this reasoned and rational approach.
A “probabilistic” analytical model could help agency decision-makers and citizens better understand if a particular impact is likely to happen or whether they shouldn’t lose any sleep. It could help focus mitigation measures on those things that present the most pressing concerns. NEPA documents could spend much less time on resources where predictions of minor adverse impacts are highly certain, and dig a bit deeper into those resources where such uncertainty exists. Why not simply explain the cause of your uncertainty (e.g., a low pressure system off the coast may or may not develop that could keep the storm from moving east) and give the possible outcomes.
Would this approach satisfy the judicially imposed “hard look” standard? You bet, every day of the week, plus Sunday. Now excuse me, I’ve got to read how the Gang explains why New York City got spared the worst of “BLIZZARD ‘15”!!!!”, but Cape Cod is under water.