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The Optimist’s Time

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:28 AM GMT on January 06, 2013

The Optimist’s Time

At the end of my last entry, I said that I anchor optimism in the students I see coming from high schools and colleges. They have environmental science and sustainability as core interests and core values. In this blog I write about time and change.

First, those students: When I was at NASA there was a time I felt that my job was marking the degradation of the Earth. I was in the ozone business at the time, and I remember, distinctly, being in the room where the proverbial smoking gun of chlorine-caused ozone loss was revealed. When I moved to the University of Michigan in 2005, I was not credentialed in climate change, but I was climate interested. Through a clanky chain of events, three students recruited me to start a climate change course that looked at the intersection of climate change and, at that beginning, business and policy. I started that course with a set of preconceptions that students needed to be educated about climate change, and with that, they would set about solving the problems of climate change.

In the first two weeks of that class, I learned that most of the students were quite climate knowledgeable. What they wanted from me was the construction of the science-based foundation on which to place their knowledge and a framework for how to use that knowledge in problem solving. Each year the students who make it to my class are different, but there is no doubt that the ones who make it to me are interested in changing the world in different ways. They see the world of many connected issues; they want to cross disciplines, but they live in a world that still rewards specialization. They know that problem solving requires connecting and rationalizing different interests. With regard to climate and the environment, more and more the sustainability of the planet is a core value.

I am impressed at how quickly this sustainability-focused group of people is emerging. Still though, this has been five years, and it is the result of, perhaps, twenty years of development and teaching of curriculum – plus advocacy. On one hand this is fast, on the other hand, many I know find this intolerably slow. But if we are going to integrate the value of our climate into our policy and behavior, then the length of time to grow the generations that internalize that value into their decisions is one of the most important measures of time.

Time: In my class I have developed a framework for problem solving. One of the essential pieces of setting up problem solving is to know the role of time. It is an easy statement to say that one of challenges of addressing climate change is that consequential change is far in the future (but see). This leads to a set of possible arguments. First, it is difficult to see how a decision we make today has any impact. If there is cost to that decision, then the benefit is far in the future. A second notion is that consequential climate change is so far in the future that we have time to develop the technological fixes. Third, there are so many unknown factors in science and population and economy that surely something will come along and disrupt any rational plans that we make today. I can list more, and the common feature of all of these notions is that they allow us easy rationalizations to do nothing about climate change. Therefore, we need those who have internalized the value of climate into their behavior to be making the decisions of policy and investment.

As a scientist, when I started the course the measures of time that seemed important to me were the ones scientists think about. For example, how long does carbon dioxide stay in the atmosphere? Or more science-policy questions: How much do we have to reduce emissions to make a difference? How long does it take before we know we have made a difference? After teaching for a while, it became clear that though these measures of time were important, they were not especially usable in the communication of the importance of climate change or in motivation in problem solving.

Above, I suggested that an important length of time would be “generational.” When I was in grade school, I was taught that the span of a generation was 35 years. In fact, I found that as a definition at The Free Dictionary. When I was at NASA, with something of a charge to change organizations, it became apparent that an important amount of time was associated with retirement. This leads to a statement most often attributed to Neils Bohr, "science progresses one death at a time." The point, an important amount of time is the human life.

I use the following figure to start to think about time.

Figure 1: Starting to think about time and climate change. Amounts of time that matter to people.

In the figure I divide time into long and short, and I choose 50 years as that division. It is generational, but it is also the amount of time that a person works and saves for retirement. It is about the longest amount of time that we seem to be able to think about. If you start to work with people planning cities and roads and levees, then a number that often comes up is fifty years. It is number to think about for infrastructure development. With respect to climate change, it is long enough that when that infrastructure is planned, we need to think about how the weather will be different.

On the left side of the figure I label energy security and economy. Both of these are issues that we have ample evidence of change over very short amounts of time. I remember feeling pretty good about my retirement savings at the end of 2007 and not so good at the end of 2008. With the onset of recession, any talk of the cost to change to renewable energy was ended – it was too much of a threat to the economy. In fact, one of the first things we wanted to do was to extract fossil fuels. It would provide energy, jobs, and with cheap energy more jobs. We see fracking explode, natural gas booms, and, now, people saying we have achieved energy security, and since we no longer are talking about climate change, there is no need to invest in renewable energy. The short-term has undermined the long-term.

Understanding the role of time in complex problems is an essential step in getting started on solutions. It is important to consider not only the times important to science, but to energy, to the economy, and, perhaps most of all, to people.


From the Washington Post. It says something about how we treat time. By Tom Toles.

Climate Change Politics Climate Change

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