A fire tug fights flames on the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland, where oil and other industrial wastes caught fire June 25, 1952. (AP)

William H. Hooke is a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, where he also serves as associate executive director.


In November 1948, a thick smog settled over Donora, Pa., asphyxiating the town of around 15,000. Twenty people died and thousands were made ill by the “killer fog” when it mixed with the poisonous sulfur trioxide emitted from the local steel industry. The local hospitals were totally overwhelmed.

“It’s very hard to breathe,” Rudy Schwerha, a member of Donora’s board of health, told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s impossible to determine just how many residents are sick, but the doctors and nurses can’t keep up with the situation.”

“It’s murder,” one doctor told the New York Times.

To the west on the Rust Belt, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was burning. Though Time Magazine’s 1969 cover sparked national outrage and ridicule, Clevelanders were unfazed — the river had burned a dozen times before that. In fact, that 1969 cover photo was actually from the river’s largest fire in 1952, which caused over $1 million in damage to boats and riverside buildings.

America’s economic success in the first half of the 20th century triggered significant environmental concerns. Smog was a daily health problem; rivers and water supplies were increasingly polluted.

In response, President Richard M. Nixon established both the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA in 1970, and no one can argue the environment we live and breathe in hasn’t improved since that moment.

But despite the obvious success of these organizations, the Trump administration has signaled its intent to reduce funding for the EPA by 25 percent and for NOAA by 17 percent.

A better idea would be to double down.

Together, these agencies, in partnership with the private sector, cleaned up our air and water. They identified acid rain in 1972 and minimized its causes. They spotted a growing, dangerous ozone hole, identified its origin and then reversed its damage. They reduced loss of life from weather hazards by extending the ability to forecast dangerous weather out from a day or less to as much as a week; they initiated seasonal to inter-annual weather forecasts sorely needed by agribusiness, the energy and transportation sectors.

And they did it while growing the economy. During the same period, the U.S. GDP more than quadrupled.

Today, despite a weather-sensitive economy and arguably the world’s most hazardous weather, we enjoy unquestioned economic supremacy. As India, China, Indonesia, Brazil and Russia struggle, we have emerged as the world’s only highly populous country to see steadily improving environmental quality.

So much for the past. What about the future? Public safety in the face of weather hazards? Protecting natural habitat, water and air quality? These challenges will never go away; they will grow more complex in response to population, technological and economic growth.

We can’t fight new challenges with yesterday’s tools. We must continue to innovate. To be great again (or stay great — your call), we must be second-to-none in all these respects. That includes, in particular, continuing investment and innovation in Earth observations, seasonal-to-inter-annual forecasting, water resource management, and risk communication and other social science, as well as working with local publics on the ground through the National Sea Grant Program, Weather-Ready Nation, and other initiatives.

The most significant future opportunity, dwarfing all others, is infrastructure investment. The new president, time and again, has emphasized a commitment to address America’s $4 trillion shortfall in renovating and advancing critical infrastructure — agriculture, energy, ports and harbors, roads, water resources, waste treatment — and putting Americans back to work in the process.

The idea has received universal, bipartisan political and public support. The cost has not.

The key to understanding the value of the investment is to look beyond the United States and address the global market. Our world needs investment in critical infrastructure.

The World Economic Forum estimates a need for investment in water infrastructure alone totaling $26 trillion by 2030. The Energy Information Administration estimates a $50 trillion global need for energy infrastructure investment. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates a $5 trillion need in the developing world alone. In total, the world needs to invest $100 trillion in infrastructure over the next 20 years.

The United States can pay off its investment easily if our private enterprise can win its share of this far-larger global market.

It’s a free-market competition. China is aggressively working across Central and Southeast Asia and the entire continent of Africa to build dams, roads, railways and power grids. They are developing mines for natural resource extraction and bringing new farmlands into production. Nations of Europe and even the Saudis are following suit.

To be a player, the U.S. will need an edge. Fortunately, we have one.

The United States stands alone in accomplishing economic growth while at the same time building resilience to hazards and minimizing environmental impact. When we market our ability to plan and build critical infrastructure, we can promise what no one else can: simultaneous solutions to all three challenges.

That’s because we have EPA, NOAA and the rest of government collaborating with the private sector here at home, using the whole of America as a test bed for innovation, learning what works even as we partner with the rest of the world to address common needs. Our ability to forecast weather and climate years in advance can assure customer nations that their infrastructure will continue to provide good return on investment even in the face of extremes of flood and drought, heat and cold over coming decades.

It may have been providence that Nixon did not delegate NOAA under the Department of Interior. Instead, the world-class environmental research and operations organization falls under the Department of Commerce. As a result, Commerce can offer an unmatched business continuity portfolio: NOAA’s expertise in hazards, Census with data on demographics and vulnerability, the National Institute of Standards and Technology which helps engineer the economy after disasters.

Commerce also holds the convening power to bring business to the table: the aerospace industry and their observing technologies; the weather industry, which works with NOAA to put out weather warnings and advisories of every description to the public; the IT sector, which can help harness big data, data analytics, and cognitive computing to this task, and the financial sector, including but not limited to reinsurance and insurance, but also offering clever ways of financing. Commerce’s International Trade Administration stands ready to help with the global marketing. In this way, we can inject innovation of every type — technological, social, and financial — into the task of developing the world’s infrastructure.

To maintain our economic prosperity in a global market, we need to strengthen — not minimize — the EPA and NOAA. In partnership with the private sector, they can produce a better, safer world for ourselves and our neighbors.