A Bridge of Time
In the previous two articles I have written about time: short time
and long time
. In this entry I want to build a bridge between short and long. By breaking the climate-change problem down by time, and then putting it back together, it helps to analyze the problem and promotes more effective strategies for addressing climate change. Long ago, I wrote a couple of blogs on climate-change problem solving
and the role of time
. These blogs discuss the need to break the problem down not only by time, but also by local and global and by rich and poor. (see also Lemos and Rood, 2010
Rather than defining a long time by a characteristic of climate science, for example a measure of how long carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, I defined a long time by human measures. The three measures were generational, work and retirement, and built infrastructure (see figure at the bottom). If I use a length of time that is familiar to people, climate-change is placed into a frame that makes it easier to address. Analyzing these measures of time more thoroughly brings a number of issues into focus. First, built infrastructure
– as planners and builders think about the storm drains, bridges, and roads that will serve us for the next fifty years, they have to take into account how the weather will behave. In the past engineers have simply assumed that the weather will not change. However, going forward this assumption is no longer valid. For example, we already know that in the U.S. Midwest a greater percentage of precipitation is coming in extreme events
. In 2012 there was a stunning flood in Duluth, Minnesota
. This flood blew out the storm drains for the city and there was immense damage. The city needs to rebuild infrastructure. The changes that have already occurred and that will occur need to taken into account.
This consideration of climate change in the building of infrastructure exposes the cost of climate and weather. This cost exposure serves as concrete and specific motivation to reduce the magnitude of climate change – that is, adaptation promotes mitigation.
There is a second issue that consideration of infrastructure brings into focus. Fifty years out is not a stable climate. In fact, it is a time of accelerating climate change. Hence, what is built for fifty years will require redesign. Therefore, we need to avoid the trap of perceived climate stability in fifty years. This brings focus on the “long-term” consequences at 100, 150, 200 years – spans of time beyond which we can think. Spans of time that are long to humans, but quite short to climate and the change that we can expect.Second, generational time
– In the comments to my previous entry
, some said that we do not have time to wait a generation. I do not advocate that we wait. I only state that the generational time span is one of the natural time spans at work here. It is an important one. We are not going to “stop” climate change today; therefore, on a generational time span, people need to prepare. It is unrealistic to imagine that there is something that we can do in the short term, 10 years, which will allow us to dismiss the impact on the next generations.
Consideration of the generational time span provides us strategies for dealing with climate change that are substantive. It is the amount on time when climate savvy people will assume their roles as council members, mayors, representatives, governors, senators, and presidents. It is an amount of time when people working through community associations and nongovernmental organizations can take the behaviors of individuals and turn them into the behaviors of community. There is no magic that will bring a solution to the climate change problem; therefore, we have to build change into the fabric of our policy and behavior. This generational time is, perhaps, the most important, and we cannot squander it.The short time
- My ultimate goal is to speed up how quickly we respond to climate change. If we break down the problem into pieces then reconstruct those pieces into action, then we can speed up our response. We have to build the opportunity for snowballing successes to permeate society. We have to start rolling those snowballs in the short term. We have to focus on the policies that advance carbon-dioxide free production of energy. We have to focus on how to manage the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – we can’t merely cool the Earth and let carbon dioxide grow unabated. We have to investigate how we will sustainably manage our climate our economies and our people. These are all activities that we must start in the short term. We need to give those who will be acting on the generational time span the tools to do something. We will have failed if in fifty years people are still arguing that we should do something. We will have been irresponsible if in fifty years the portfolio of choices on what to do is as small and ambiguous as it is today. Short-term actions are critical to generational success.
I want to close this time discussion with reference to those who write comments about their ages. They state that at some level that they are short timers. I know some who as short timers say that climate change is not their problem. In my class we often discuss what are the most important factors that will promote responses to climate change. By the end of class time, the top answer is usually national security. The second answer is business opportunity. Third is legacy, and that the people most worried about legacy are grandparents. Parents have to worry about near-term survival and success; grandparents worry about legacy and the long term. Grandparents have huge intellectual capabilities and know how to get things done. Those looking at what seems like a short time personally, have more power than most to impact the long time.
Figure 1: Thinking about time and climate change: Short and Long Term