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Breaking Down the Problem

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 10:44 PM GMT on June 07, 2008

Problem Solving: Breaking it down

I’m taking a break from the attribution series to write about complex problem solving. This is in response to the post from the TimesOnline on the Copenhagen Consensus. Here is the primary link to the Copenhagen Consensus. This is an interesting list developed by the Copenhagen Business School. The Consensus Project is headed by Bjorn Lomborg , who has become a controversial figure in the community. The project aims to look at the great problems of the world taken together and in the face of both monetary resources and capabilities. Then it is determined which are the most urgent to address. In general, full-on attack of the climate change problem does not come out on the top of the list. (It seems that some of the readers of my Wunderground blog use this to dismiss the importance or correctness of climate change science.)

In my class at Michigan on climate-change problem solving, we developed the following framework for breaking down the climate-change problem and setting it in relation to other problems. There are three axes on this graph: temporal, spatial, and wealth. Sometimes, we have drawn the “wealth” axis as “ethics,” but, bluntly, “wealth” is more of a determinant in addressing the climate-change problem than ethics. The ethical aspects to addressing climate change are complex and sit in a different type of relationship.

Figure 1: A framework for breaking down the panoply of elements that make up the “climate-change problem.” The idea is to consider the near-term and the long-term, the regional and global aspects, and the relationship to wealth. Other important aspects of the problem are ethics, urgency, etc., but these carry a relationship different than time, geography, and wealth.

We then set down the major driving issues that arise when considering climate change. These are population, energy, consumption, and societal success (i.e. the economy). It is immediately apparent that the time scales that come from the consumption of energy, which impact the economy and societal success, are short. Here in the early 21st century, we work on very narrow margins. Because the consumption of energy is so tightly correlated to wealth, the protection or growth of wealth places a near-term urgency on energy, energy security, and economic growth. This urgency trumps the notion of sustainability; hence, climate change.

Where does climate change sit? Scientists maintain from a knowledge-based perspective that there is an urgency to address the climate change problem. This urgency is based on the notion that we must act now in order to have any hope of holding carbon dioxide levels low enough to prevent “dangerous” climate change. This near-term urgency of climate change stands in contrast to the long time it takes to realize benefit from any actions that we take today. Climate change, therefore, sits in an ambiguous relationship to these other problems of energy, energy security, consumption and economic success. In fact, climate change is a little bit like ethics, it permeates all of the possible decisions that could be made about these big-ticket items. Most directly, however, if climate change is considered in the here and now, then our sources of cheap energy are challenged, and we exist so near the margins, that increasing energy prices immediately threaten the economy, cause turmoil in the world, and climate change falls down the list of urgent considerations. The fact, that action today does not yield benefit for decades or centuries, becomes motivation to defer attention to the climate-change problem. We rely on figuring it out as we go along.

We live in a world where wealth and consumption rules. This leads us to market-based approaches to the climate-change problem. Ultimately, it is the market (euros, dollars, yen, yuan, and rupee) that is the unifying network of our species. It is the idea that we can represent the real cost of energy extraction and use and management of our energy waste that sits at the foundation of the most likely strategies to address, rationally, the problem of global warming. What is the evidence that we can face such a problem rationally?

This blog started with the idea of setting the climate-change problem in relation to other problems faced by society. I introduced the idea of trying to consider the near-term and the long-term, wealth, and locality to bring structure to the problems. From here, we can seek rationality and convergence towards solutions.

I will close with what are the definitions of near-term and long-term that we can manage rationally? Near-term is less than 10 years. Long-term is, I pose, either the lifetime over which we accumulate the wealth for our retirement, or the lifetime of the infrastructure of civilization and industry – decades. Beyond these time scales our ability for collective rational thinking and action is weak. Addressing the climate change problem requires us to face this weakness. It requires us to make knowledge-based decisions that are ultimately for the benefit of others. We will see a lot more carbon dioxide.

Here are the links to the Attribution series. I will return to that next time.


WU blogs on Attribution of Climate Change to Human Activities:

WU Blog on Models and Attribution

Attribution (1)

Attribution (2)

Attribution (3)

Attribution (4)

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.