"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Taking Action Under Complexity and Uncertainty

Jamais Cascio meanders a bit, but here is another interesting person and interesting group thinking about the big picture clearly.

This is where I come back to this notion of unintended consequences—uncertainty. Everything that we need to do when looking at global catastrophic risks has to come back to developing a capacity to respond effectively to global complex uncertainty. That’s not an easy thing. I’m not standing up here and saying all we need is to get a grant request going and we’ll be fine.

This may end up being, contrary to what George was saying about the catastrophes being the focus—it’s the uncertainty that may end up being the defining focus of politics in the 21st century. I wrote recently on the difference between long-run and long-lag. We are kind of used to thinking about long-run problems: we know this thing is going to hit us in fifty years, and we’ll wait a bit because we will have developed better systems by the time it hits. We are not so good at thinking about long-lag systems: it’s going to hit us in fifty years, but the cause and proximate sources are actually right now, and if we don’t make a change right now, that fifty years out is going to hit us regardless.

Climate is kind of the big example of that. Things like ocean thermal inertia, carbon commitment, all of these kinds of fiddly forces that make it so that the big impacts of climate change may not hit us for another thirty years, but we’d damn well better do something now because we can’t wait thirty years. There is actually with ocean thermal inertia two decades of warming guaranteed, no matter what we do. We could stop putting out any carbon right this very second and we would still have two more decades of warming, probably another good degree to degree and a half centigrade.

That’s scary, because we are already close to a tipping point. We’re not really good at thinking about long-lag problems. We are not really good at thinking about some of these complex systems, so we need to develop better institutions for doing that. That institution may be narrow—the transnational coordinating institutions focusing on asteroids or geoengineering. This may end up being a good initial step, the training wheels, for the bigger picture transnational cooperation.

Transcript here. Video there. How do you get invited to meetings like this?

1 comment:

Dano said...

This is what I did under my grad advisor and in all my coursework in ecology - action under complexity and uncertainty.

Scenario analysis and adaptive management is what we did: various fisheries, Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Grand Banks, Ukraine ag., Okhotsk logging.

Not to sound too morose, but if we want society to go along with this scheme (and I do), we needed to start, oh, when all the environmental regs came on-line in the 70s.