Problem Solving: Breaking it down

June 7th, 2008 <-- by Richard Rood -->

On my (more dynamic) blog I have been writing a series about how we make the attribution of climate change to humans. Recently, the comments on that blog have moved to the discussion of the Copenhagen Consensus and how the climate change problem stacks up against other great problems we face. Here is the TimesOnline on the Copenhagen Consensus. Here is the primary link to the Copenhagen Consensus. There is an interesting list of priorities 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 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)

2 Responses to “Problem Solving: Breaking it down”

  1. guido Says:

    Hi, one of my RSS feeds directed me to your website, and i followed it thru to OpenClimate…Very rich.

    I am an older student at UNC Asheville, I am studying Ethics and the Environment…I am curious to know why the following:

    “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”

    Is there somewhere on your blog that discusses this further.


  2. Richard Rood Says:


    I have not written about ethics as a determinant in a blog … but as of now, in a blog comment.

    In my Michigan class, I deliberately introduce a discussion of ethics early in the course. That was to stand in contrast to what seemed to be the normal run of events, that after it was over there was a statement “and, of course, there are ethical issues.” My primary introduction to the subject has been Maria Carmen Lemos. So why did I make the original statement?

    One path of ethical arguments focuses on winners and losers, and winners and losers usually comes down to money, rich part of the world versus poor part of the world. There are issues such as adaptive capacity, which is the ability to build resilience to climate change – a matter of money. There are issues of liability, something that again often collapses to a discussion of money. There are questions of social justice, and these questions often become one of populations that are poorer are made more vulnerable, by policy, to environmental hazards, including potentially climate change. So at one level, in many issues of justice, those who are right and those who are wronged, money becomes the common language, an interface across issues, a medium of exchange, that is, currency.

    Another path of ethical discussions follows on how do near-term actions impact the long term, the future, those far away from us in time?

    And yet nother path of ethical discussions focuses on what is right and wrong, but that is based on belief systems. Belief systems are anchored in all sorts of things, facts, emotions, religion, “what my parents taught me.” Thinking of this path of ethics as an organizing axis in the spirit of the original entry, simply falls apart.

    In the end wealth, rich and poor, organizes the way we think about climate change and what we want to protect (wealth and climate), what we are able to do to prepare for climate change, and when we have to act. I don’t know if solutions for climate change will come from wealth, but many of the ways that we initially approach the solutions will come from those with wealth.

    Ethical arguments are entwined with wealth, rich and poor, and with near-term and long-term. Ethics represent a large, amorphous aspect of human thought, which might be thought of as a connective tissue that we each apply, individually, across a range of subjects. Plus, there are factors other than climate change contributing to ethical foundations. While each of us might think it rational that ethics could form an organizing axis for the climate change problem, the implementation of such a organizing principle falls apart – individually and collectively. (You might decide what you are going to do, but what about everybody else?)

    In class students have started a number of projects with either an implicit or explicit ethical stance. I think it safe to say that none of these projects ended up at the place where the students thought it would at the beginning. And in some places, the ethical issues all but disappeared as the project evolved.

    I’m not an expert on ethics or rhetoric – so vulnerably yours,


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