Stay Focused on the Big picture
This is the fifth article in a five part series.
In this series, we have been outlining a evidence-based, constructive method to address the issue of climate change. While using this method doesn’t eliminate any disputes, it does change them from one of attacking philosophies, which are not easily changed, to disputes about data analysis. And disputes about data analysis although sometimes nearly as heated can eventually be objectively resolved. The earlier articles focued on defining the real problem, determining causes, developing solutions and evaluating policy. While those articles briefly covered all of the major aspects of the method I am advocating, there are other important ideas that must be agreed upon to some degree by those participating in the process.
First, the participants must agree to implement the decisions chosen through the risk assessment and mitigation process. I have seen many cases where organizations spent piles of money to develop analyses that were rejected by the responsible parties, because they did not confirm their preconceived notion on the question at hand. The reason we perform these analyses is precisely because the data often disagree with our intuition. If our instinct was always correct, there would be no need for risk assessment methodologies. This does not mean that if we discover later in the process that we have missed some important variables, or failed to take into account certain aspects of the problem that we should ignore it and plow on. All parties also need to commit to obtaining the best answer possible given the time and money available.
Second, there needs to be a common end objective among the participants. This end objective should be as limited and precise as possbile given the situation at hand. As an example, if our team is convened to address deaths in automobile traffic accidents, is our mandate limited to the immediate problem? Possibly, our true objective could be to ensure the safest convenient mode of transportation possible for the highest number of people. That would open our solution space to include alternative forms of transportation rather than just tinkering with the road-automobile system. Or, our objective could be to ensure the safest, most convenient manner of face to face communication between the greatest number of people, which would allow the team to consider telepresence technologies in the set of solutions.
When looking at climate change (whether the temperature is going up or down) it would be beneficial to state our end objective, as that affects the types of solutions we value. In many cases today, this difference of objectives encourages much of the political argument on this question. Let’s look again at a outline of the problem in the graph below.
Whether we prefer higher or lower global temperatures or are the cause of higher or lower temperatures, we will experience changing climates if we continue to do nothing. Whether doing nothing is cost effective or not will be determined through our risk assessment and mitigation analysis we perform. We have already established that increases or decreases of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius could present a major problem to human civilization. So, again, what should our objective be?
I can’t answer that question here; it should be a collective decision. But, as food for thought, here are some possibilities: (1.) maintain global temperatures within the +/- 1.5 degree indefinitely to preserve the most favorable climate for agriculture in most parts of the world; (2.) ensure Earth can support continued population growth through 2100, put resources to adapting our agriculture to any natural or man-made climate change; (3.) promote technological advancement at all costs, since some disaster at some point in future may require leaving Earth anyways; (4.) maximize Earth’s agricultural output through climate control or agriculture development; (5.) preserve as much non-human-affected environment as possible.
I would argue that our primary objective should be #1 above. That is a bigger objective than what is typically discussed today regarding climate change. Partly because democracies are so good at responding to crises and less apt at long range planning, we face the situation we have today. Whatever can be made a crisis will receive attention, and claiming the solution is its own crisis generates opposing attention. But, we have most of the technology required to control global average temperatures if we chose to, we only lack the scale and organization needed. While it would be a very long term project (think thousands of years overall), it may be what is required to advance civilization rather than just maintain it.
In conclusion, the methods in science and engineering exist to identify and solve the problems we choose even with our inefficient governments. If we desire to actually arrive at a solution, we can utilize these methods outlined in this series, which will allow us to act, whatever the problem is, whatever uncertainty exists, and whatever the consequences are, in an appropriately proportional manner. All the while, we need to stay focused on the big picture and not pass up a chance to do more than mitigate an immediate crisis when we could be advancing the capability of humanity.