Climate Change: A Design Problem

I wrote the following article as a Citizen Reporter for Oh! My News International in 2006. I thought I share it here now.

South Australia Premier Mike Rann is committed to climate change. His stance diverges from the Australian Federal Government’s lukewarm response to the issue. Rann has proposed a 60 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2050 for South Australia. This goal is even beyond the Kyoto targets. It is a formidable challenge and a much-needed one. But it is not easy to implement for a number of reasons.

Climate Change Is like Diabetes

Type-II Diabetes is characterized by the inability of the body to produce or respond properly to insulin, a hormone required by the body to convert glucose to energy.

Humans’ attitude towards risk and danger is peculiar. People respond to problems that are “clear and present.” If you are hurt on your hand or leg and if bleeding follows, it is easy to understand the problem and solve it.

In the case of diabetes, the problem accumulates over a period of time. It requires changes in people’s behavior to bring about a benefit in the future. And the benefit is not what happens to you, but what does not happen to you in terms of “having a functioning kidney” or “not being blind.” But, by the time you see the impact of diabetes, it is too late to change. This is tough for many people to understand and respond to.

People respond differently when there is a “time and space” lag between cause and effect. The bigger the lag, the bigger the problem.

In order to manage diabetes, we need to measure the “blood glucose” levels. However, weight gain/loss, food intake, and exercise levels are different ways to correct the underlying problem and can be supplemented by medicine and insulin injections if necessary. There is no single measure to combine all of these effects. The simplest is the “blood glucose” levels.

Climate change due to global warming and its implications are somewhat similar.

In this context, emission reduction has become the main measurement idea that governments and citizens alike seem to understand. For example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed an 80 percent reduction.

According to many experts and scientists around the world, emissions are responsible for global warming. Common people seem to understand this intuitively for a variety of reasons.

One of the reasons is that it is highly visible. Any person would be able to see the emissions from cars and pollution from various industries and understand how coal-powered power plants increase pollution. In this case, cause and effect are tightly linked in time and space.

And a reduction in emissions is easy to measure and highly visible. (Check the sidebar for a comparative measure, Ecological Footprint)

Understanding Climate Change
Ecological Footprint:

The global footprint network defines the Ecological Footprint as “a resource management tool that measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes under prevailing technology.”

There are various DVDs, books, and presentations available to understand this better.

Note: In the long run, this could be a good tool to use as it encompasses resources, waste, emissions etc. However, for practical purposes it is hard to measure, and may move you away from the goal of making change happen.

Cradle to Cradle

“[William McDonough’s work] is grounded in a unified philosophy that — in demonstrable and practical ways — is changing the design of the world.” — Time magazine.

McDonough says, “It is time for designs that are creative, abundant, prosperous, and intelligent from the start.”

Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough’s new book, written with his colleague, German chemist Michael Braungart, is a manifesto calling for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design. Through historical sketches on the roots of the industrial revolution; commentary on science, nature and society; descriptions of key design principles; and compelling examples of innovative products and business strategies already reshaping the marketplace, McDonough and Braungart make the case that an industrial system that “takes, makes, and wastes” can become a creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social, and economic value.

Note: Even though the solutions suggested are highly possible and needed, they require coordination among many entities of the system. This means that incentives need to be matched or demanded from many groups and implemented at the same time.

Natural Capitalism

A book called Natural Capitalism by Amory B. Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken provides alternative ways of thinking and design solutions that are already working in the real world. Some of them fall in the Equation I category and some in the Equation II category.

They believe that, “Business strategies built around the radically more productive use of natural resources can solve many environmental problems at a profit.”

According to them, the journey to Natural Capitalism involves four major shifts in business practices:

1. Dramatically increase the productivity of natural resources
2. Shift to biologically inspired production models
3. Move to a solutions-based business model
4. Reinvest in natural capital

Thinking processes required:

Whole-system design: The old idea is one of “diminishing returns” — the greater the resource saving, the higher the cost. But the old idea is giving way to a new idea that bigger savings can cost less — that saving a large fraction of resources can actually cost less than saving a small fraction of resources. This is the concept of expanding returns, and it governs much of the revolutionary thinking behind whole-system design.

Closed-loop manufacturing: The central principle of closed-loop manufacturing is “waste equals food.” Every output of manufacturing should either be composted into natural nutrients and returned to the ecosystem or be remanufactured into new products.

Note: NatCap and theRocky Mountain Institute provide practical thinking tools which can be readily implemented by individuals and organizations and thus can make change happen now.

For politicians, who can be major drivers of change, this could be a highly effective political agenda.

The significant benefit of emission reduction and measurement is that it has consequences both positive and negative, mostly beyond the obvious.

Emissions are an effect, not the cause. Emission reduction as a measurement tool is “positive” if we go beyond the simple solutions and look for deeper causes, and is “negative” if we believe a cursory reduction in emissions is good and will lead to progress.

Emission reduction is a non-trivial task. The immediate changes that are needed and much easier to digest by the general populace — or what can be called low-pain ideas — are changes in transport habits, like using public transport or increasing demand for small cars which are energy efficient or hybrids that run on a combination of fossil fuels and batteries. The other major initiative is energy-efficient buildings. Using solar energy or wind power and tree planting are other common initiatives.

Having worked in this area for sometime now and tried to implement these seemingly simple programs, I have come to understand how difficult it is. However, it is clear that even though these simple programs are difficult to implement, they are not enough.

Professor Stephen Schneider, Adelaide’s latest “Thinker in Residence,” is an expert in climate change and atmospheric research.

In a recent article in The Advertiser, Mario Moscaritolo writes, “Professor Schneider expects early moves on energy-efficient buildings should help cut emissions by 10-20 percent and says the rest can be made up with changes to energy production and consumption.”

How can we make this happen? To take this idea forward, lets translate this to an equation. I have modified Professor Schneider’s statement and added the thinking process required for actual change to happen, effect on people and level of coordination required.

Type I Solutions: Optimization/Reduction Solutions — 10-20 percent emission reduction.

Thinking Process: Past & current ways of thinking (old)
Cause and Effect: Immediate in time and space
Effect on People: Low pain
System Co-ordination: Low

Type II Solutions: Change in (energy production + energy consumption) — 40-60 percent emission reduction

Thinking Process: Future and untested ways of thinking (new)
Cause and Effect: Time and space lag
Effect on People: High pain
System coordination: High

This seemingly simple set can have profound implications.

Type I Solutions suggest the low-pain solutions require us to tackle causes using present or current ways of solving the problem.

Simple programs that help us reduce emissions like energy-efficient buildings are low-pain programs, but are what can be called “optimization solutions.” You are taking an already existing building and making its energy usage optimal. Since it has already been built, there is a limit to what can be achieved. Decreasing emissions in this way is good, as it has the benefit of cause and effect in the immediate time and space. It increases understanding of the issue at hand and does help in the overall goal. However, it moves us away from the main problem.

As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

The main issue or cause is design. This brings us to Type II Solutions, which require new ways of thinking. These are design changes in the way energy is produced and energy is consumed. This requires far bigger changes and may cause high pain for people involved. In these changes, cause and effect have a “time and space” lag effect. Coupled with high levels of coordination, this makes them exponentially more difficult to implement than Type I Solutions.

If the present energy production has to change from fossil fuels and coal to wind power, solar energy, tidal energy, hydrogen or any of the other renewable energy ideas suggested as possible solutions, think about the changes required in investments, technological solutions, and system changes in distribution.

Or consider a semi-green solution like nuclear power. It has its own implications, negative and positive. These are design issues that cannot be solved in a short period of time nor with less pain.

Now, let us look at energy consumption and its main side effect of waste from the angle of “product creation.” In their influential article, “Natural capitalism” in the Harvard Business Review, Amory B. Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken provide some startling facts.

They say only 1 percent of all materials mobilized to serve America are actually made into products and still in use six months after sale. The U.S. economy is not even 10 percent as energy efficient as the laws of physics allow, and the energy thrown off as waste heat by U.S. power stations equals the total energy use of Japan, according to the authors.

As startling as these facts are, they also represent an opportunity in the reduction of waste. For example, the central principle of closed-loop manufacturing, as architect Paul Bierman-Lytle of engineering firm CH2M Hill puts it, is “Waste Equals Food.” This change in thinking and design requires a tremendous change in the way products are designed, produced, distributed, and consumed. It requires higher levels of coordination among many entities, and some of the solutions could have a high-pain effect on people.

We have looked at the possibilities of reduction in energy consumption by reduction in waste in “product creation.” What about consumers? Consumers in the developed world — and increasingly in the developing world — are accustomed to the habit of creating waste of monumental proportions. A simple example: According to one estimate, Australia, a country of 20 million, dumps in its landfills 6 billion plastic bags, or 300 bags per Australian, per year. The important point here is the scale of the problem, not the accuracy of the number.

This permeates into other areas such as throwing away computers, mobile phones, furniture, and cars. This consumerism is compounded by the fact that in most developed countries, due to the quirk of globalization, fixing a product is costlier and/or is less desired after a cost-benefit analysis than buying something new for consumers. Thus, perverse incentives induce wasteful behavior.

What kind of design changes are required here? No clear ideas there. One thing is clear though; this problem requires changes in behavior which are high-pain and require high levels of coordination among many people and entities to make any change meaningful and sustainable.

Even though the idea of emission reduction is a simple and useful measurement scale, the underlying changes required are far from clear or easy.

So, the next time you hear about an emission reduction goal, think about the consequences and the implications of change. It is far deeper than you would imagine, far tougher to implement than suggested, but more important than anybody would tell you.

I am optimistic that solutions will be found and implemented. But I am realistic enough to say that it will not be simple nor easy. Solutions need not be bad for everybody. Change could be high pain, but the result could be highly beneficial. This is important to understand. Efficient production reduces costs for consumers. Reusable materials decrease input costs for producers. Cleaner air is good for everybody. Even though the journey is hard, the destination is highly favorable.

What Can Be Done
The following could be a good way to tackle the issue in your homes, organizations, municipalities, cities or towns.

The thrust of the change should be on Type II Solutions. Changes in energy production and energy consumption (the causes) require new ideas and solutions (the process), which may provide a possible reduction of emissions (the effect) of 60 percent or more.

However, it may be prudent to start with Type I Solutions, which require low-pain solutions, bring about understanding and immediate reduction in emissions, and require low coordination levels.

It would then be useful to move to Type II Solutions when people are ready for high-pain, more coordinated solutions.

This is not the ideal solution, but we do not live in an ideal world. As one of my friends suggested to me, in a second-best world we require second-best solutions.


6 thoughts on “Climate Change: A Design Problem

  1. Although the words or phrases “facts” and “areas” and “one thing is clear” tend to weaken your argument, the ideas of past thinking versus new thinking and the idea that emissions are an “effect” are obvious but refreshing to hear. So, if we need a new design at some point, then let’s go ahead and deal with the pain now and change our consumption, and create a new design. Today. I dont see anybody imposing a required design for consumption.

  2. For everyone that is a Paul Hawken fan, I recommend checking out his latest book, Blessed Unrest. Which is both a description of the unprecedented number of organizations and people working towards social justice and environmental restoration and a history of the intellectuals that inform their work.

    I think one of the most important analogies Paul makes is between this new type of social movement and the immune system. The success of the immune system depends on the quality of its connections and the social movement’s success depends on the same. Connections, rather than the strength of any individual organization or person, will set the stage for our success. And as a result of Paul’s research, his staff created WiserEarth, an online tool to improve the quality of the connections between the millions of organizations and people that work in social justice, the environment and indigenous rights.

  3. Hi John:

    Thanks for stopping by on the blog.

    The issue with going ahead now with the pain is that it will not work. As I have suggested at the end of the article, we need to find low pain ideas and make them a success before we can bring in the high pain ones.

    I know this is not perfect, but we cannot expect to be perfect.


  4. Hi Michael:

    I will check out Paul’s new book. His last two books are really ground breaking especially Natural Capitalism.

    Interesting theory of connections. This them of connections has been working out in many other areas.

    One early book in this area was Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. Another very interesting book is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

    I am sure this will be true in social and environmentally focussed organization.


  5. Pingback: World is Green : Business Strategy and Sustainability | Focus on carbon ‘missing the point’ «

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