Everybody Complains About the Weather; Let's Do Something About It

by Michael C. Dorf

For the eleventh consecutive year, on Saturday September 7 I shall participate in the annual AIDS Ride for Life, a 102-mile bike ride around Cayuga Lake to raise money for a wonderful local organization -- the Southern Tier AIDS Program, Inc. (STAP) -- that provides resources and services to people in my community dealing with or concerned about HIV/AIDS and related matters. (That's not intended as an ask for donations, but if you want to donate via my sponsorship page, of course I'd be grateful. Below, I shall make some asks for different causes.)

The ride proceeds rain or shine. In some years, the weather is ideal. In other years, it can be chilly in the morning, hot in the afternoon, intermittently wet, and/or windy. An entirely sensible person would check the weather forecast on the morning of the ride to see whether to bring rain gear, arm warmers, etc. I do that, but I am not entirely a sensible person, so I start checking the weather forecast for the day of the ride as soon as it shows up in the fourteen-day forecast. I do the same sort of thing for other events that can be affected by weather, such as upcoming trips, outdoor games, etc. This is not sensible behavior, because knowing the forecast fourteen, ten, or even five days in advance does not in any way affect what I'm going to do on the day of the event. The weather forecast more than two or three days in advance is, at least in my experience, so subject to change as to be virtually useless.

Uncertain weather forecasts are for me, as for most people most of the time, a source of mild anxiety and inconvenience. By contrast, and as everyone reading this essay is undoubtedly aware, the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas and the storm's imminent arrival somewhere in the southeastern United States underscore the deadly seriousness of the business of weather forecasting. Knowing that a hurricane is approaching days in advance can provide people with the opportunity to take appropriate precautions.

But what are appropriate precautions? It is not possible to evacuate an entire island nation like the Bahamas. Even in places in which evacuation is possible--such as Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas--it is hardly a risk-free proposition. People who receive warnings of a hurricane's possible landfall face considerable angst in deciding whether the risks of evacuating when unnecessary outweigh the risks of failing to evacuate when necessary.

As I discussed in 2005 in the wake of a poorly managed evacuation of Houston, there is a psychological tendency in such circumstances to give excessive weight to recent high-salience events. There, I explained that the disaster Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans led Houstonians to fear the worst from Hurricane Rita, but the phenomenon can and does occur in the opposite direction: If you  successfully rode out the last hurricane by staying put, you will tend to overestimate the odds that you can successfully ride out the next one too.

I live over 200 miles from the coast and 1300 feet above sea level, so I do not have much occasion to worry on my own behalf about hurricanes, but I have many close friends and family who live in low-lying coastal areas. To and for them, I'd like to do more than send thoughts and prayers. Maybe you feel the same way. If so, please consider making a donation to the American Red Cross's special fund for Dorian relief. Another worthy cause is the Humane Society of the United States's Emergency Animal Rescue Fund for aiding companion animals in Dorian's path.

Last month, I reported on Prof Colb's lecture discussing the implications of the late Tom Regan's view that while humans ought generally not to exploit non-human animals, in triage circumstances, it is appropriate to favor members of our own species. Regan gave the provocative example of the decision whether to cast a dog or a human off of an over-burdened lifeboat. Some readers might think that my suggestion of donations to either the American Red Cross for humans or to HSUS for dogs and cats poses a tragic real-life version of Regan's hypothetical.

But it doesn't. Although life does sometimes present us with zero-sum choices, during a hurricane, rescuing companion animals facilitates the rescue of humans, because it allows the many people who would otherwise stay put to care for their animals to evacuate. The recognition that many people consider their companion animals family members whom they will not leave behind has led, in recent years, to rule changes allowing such animals at evacuation shelter sites. Third-party rescues by HSUS follow the same logic.

And that brings me to my final ask. Climate scientists tell us that while one cannot attribute the existence or severity of any single weather event to global warming, on average the phenomenon contributes to increases in both the frequency and the severity of extreme weather. As I discussed last week in the context of Amazon clear-cutting for animal agriculture, one way to make a difference is to reduce (or ideally, to eliminate) your demand for animal products. Like the HSUS companion animal rescue effort, doing so will benefit many animals, humans not least.