March 16, 2010

A thought experiment on the future

Let us imagine for a moment that the 3 largest sovereign CO2 emitters on Earth are not really all that serious about mitigating their impacts on the planetary climate system.  Leave aside the reasons; simply consider the possibility.

Now, taking that as a starting point, what are the things we would want to know in the world that will result?  And how should we determine the priority of finding these things out?

Remember we know many of the first order effects of increase atmospheric CO2 already:

  • We know that sea level will rise.
  • We know that the surface ocean will become more acidic.
  • We know that the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere will rise (and with it over a very long time the heat structure of the oceans will change).
  • We know that climate variability will increase.
It is tempting to say that what we need to know is more detail on the above; it is tempting because it is what we know how to do.  We have a very sophisticated climate science infrastructure that can run models and dig deeper and deeper into the natural science minutia.  It is safe and it is a little bit like looking for our keys under the streetlight because the light is better.

But will doing more of the climate science we have been doing for a couple of decades really help us evolve more robust and resilient societal structures?  Will it help us design storm water systems or point to entrepreneurial opportunities?  Will it help natural resource planners design forests and fisheries for the middle of the coming century?  Will it help us design healthly cities for the 3 billion residents we will add to our planet in the coming decades?  Remember we already know the things in the list above, but we have very little sense of what societies will do in the face of those changes.  And we have done very little thinking about how we would adapt to those changes on any scale.

I think that it is time to focus more on the human side of the equation.  Off the top of my head, some of my own answers to the questions I posed in the opening are the following:
  • What is the variance in human decision making processes?; and the corollary, What do human decision making processes have in common?
  • How do societal adaptive strategies vary with culture and geography?
  • How can economies evolve to be more robust in the face of increasingly rapid change in both the natural and human landscape?
  • How do human perceptions and sensitivity to risk vary over Earth?  What is the relationship between that geography and our expectations regarding global weirding?
Apologies to those who already work on these questions; my naiveté merely exposes the distance these questions currently stand from our discussions about how to cope with a changing climate.  I don't think that we should completely abandon climate modeling, but I do think we should be investing many more resources into thinking how humans will react to the coming changes.  And I think we should *carefully* think about how we spend our climate modeling resources.  And finally note that, beyond implying they should have higher priority than they do now, I have not prioritized my list of questions...