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« What does it profit...? | Main | A reminder: why question everything »

March 07, 2008


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George, your last paragraph sounds too much like "let's not do anything (at least on climate change) until we get some basic agreement just what all the fundamental problems of the world are and what kind of world we want." I'm sure that's not what you intend. Can you clarify?

George Mobus


Thanks for the concern. You are right, that isn't what I meant. The key word in the paragraph is 'aspirin', meaning that to date our approaches to climate change have been wholly inadequate compared with the scale of the problem. To wit: the current mechanisms being discussed for reducing our carbon emissions are weak (cap-and-trade, even a carbon tax) compared with the sheer volume of carbon dioxide being vented, and the rate. I suspect the latter will so overpower the rate at which these economic forces begin to respond that the so-called tipping point will have come and gone before anyone realizes it. I covered this relative rate phenomenon in an earlier posting.

In a similar vein, on a Dot Earth comment I indicated that we will need to proceed along many paths simultaneously. There the solution being discussed involved the equivalent to radical surgery being performed on the patient before knowing what the disease actually is. So at one extreme you have aspirin at the other you have surgery. Both are options, but may or may not cure the patient.

My point is that we have done a lot of science to indicate that a problem exists. Now we need to do a lot more science to guide our choices in actions. Instead we are running off with wild proposals as if we actually did understand what to do. If we choose one of these (say the massive solar farm in Arizona covered in Scientific American) and launch into it without reasonably understanding the consequences (some assurance that we will in fact reduce our carbon emissions adequately to address global warming) we will have expended considerable resources on something that could very well not achieve the ends we thought.

Note that solutions like the SciAm article are developed in relative isolation from the other related problems that exist. This means there are certainly factors that have not been taken into account in formulating the solution. For example the solar farm proposal did not take into account risk analysis regarding extreme weather damage or terrorist attacks. If you concentrate a significant portion of your generating capacity in one location, you are surely asking for trouble. And that is just one example of the non-thought that went into that proposal.

Always I advocate a systems approach to these global issues. The interactions between global warming, peak oil (energy), population, and human psychology (especially under stress) all need to be taken into consideration.

The issue of feasibility, vis-a-vis telling us what the nature of the problem really is, also should be considered. Putting all of our efforts into solving an intractable problem has moral dimensions that should be explored. That was my point re: are we saving us and the way we live, are we saving our species, or are we going to try to save our genus? If we focus on the first and fail we may miss the opportunity for one of the others. Perhaps we will choose the former and do so for what we believe are justifiable moral reasons. In fact I suspect that is precisely the default position of everyone right now.

It just seems prudent to me to ask the questions.


Thanks for the clarification. And, naturally, I agree "Putting all of our efforts into solving an intractable problem has moral dimensions that should be explored." That's important yet tough to do (to accumlate the funding and take the time and effort in a quality way) when we're told the tipping point is nearby (80% reduction of GHG by 2020 or 2050 depending on who you listen to). We're left with taking the shotgun/scattershot approach of doing all sorts of things without enough information to know about unforseen consequences while simultaneously pursuing more knowledge.

As an engineer/business-developer I am caught up in what I think is the realistic outlook that the size of the problem is beyond our capabilities in terms of timeframe, scale of investment, change of capital allocation, pace of political change, etc. We just can't meet the deadlines under any realistic scenario. At the same time, I am constantly reminded by many people with a different point of view (i.e. not bound by engineering and real-world business/political constraints) of the chaotic nature of the system. Those people advocate doing almost anything feasible (raising CAFE standards, carbon taxes, LEED certification-based zoning, etc.) at least does no harm and contributes to mitigation -- and may change the playing surface enough to allow for a more thoughtful, deterministic approach.

Damn, it's a hard problem, NP-hard.

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