A scientific approach to problem solving

Byline: | Category: Environment | Posted at: Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Einstein once said that if he had an hour to save the world, he would spend the first 55 minutes trying to define the problem and only five minutes on the solution.  So let’s look at global warming within that framework.

Is manmade global warming a problem?  Not necessarily.  If the climate is warming due to completely natural causes there might still be cause for concern.  An analogy might help to explain.  If the International Space Station were to fall out of the sky and head straight for Manhattan, should we be more or less alarmed about that than we would be if it were a similar sized meteor on the same trajectory?  If my friends and family are incinerated beneath a fiery comet, I don’t think my reaction is going to be any different if they died of “natural” causes.  After all, we take enormous precautions against hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other naturally-occurring catastrophes.  We should, therefore, be just as concerned about the possibility of global warming due to natural causes as we are to its anthropomorphic cousin.

So if man-made global warming isn’t the problem, what is?  Is it simply that the globe might be warming?  Again, not necessarily.  One could certainly imagine that Canadian farmers might welcome a warmer environment.  International trade might also benefit from the opening of more warm water ports in currently cold waters.  Simply saying that the temperature of the earth might rise by x degrees tells us nothing about the problem.  That’s just a condition.  The problems, if there are any, are in the effects of that warming, and they must be compared against the benefits of any warming before we can really say whether or not there is a problem in the aggregate, or if there are only isolated problems that might require isolated mitigation strategies.

Further complicating the problem of global warming is the question of whether or not it is even occurring at all?  Through the end of the last decade most evidence indicated a warming trend.  Since 1998, however, there is evidence that the trend is in retreat.  So could the whole issue be one of much ado about nothing?

Unfortunately, not all scientists heed Einstein’s advice to focus first and foremost on problem definition:

The president’s new science adviser said Wednesday that global warming is so dire, the Obama administration is discussing radical technologies to cool Earth’s air.

Those radical technologies under discussion include launching pollution into the upper atmosphere and creating artificial volcanoes.  Those seem to be rather drastic measures to take against a problem that (a) might not be occurring, (b) might not be a problem, (c) might not be focused on the right problem, or (d) might create more problems of their own.  All rhetoric aside, when it comes to global warming, we really don’t even understand the problem, much less whether or not it is “dire”.

I submit that the entire question of global warming needs to be considered in the context of these three simple questions:

1.  Is global warming occurring?
2.  Are global warming’s negative consequences worse than its positive ones?
3.  Do proposed solutions remedy or mitigate the negative consequences without affecting the positive ones or creating more problems of their own?

Jumping straight into number 3 before we have sufficient evidence of the answer to the first question and a better understanding of the second, is akin to a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later.  

The quesitons outlined above offer a rational and scientific approach to the “problem” of global warming, and what actions (if any) to take.  Science would be well advised to take such a scientific approach to problem solving.

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One Response to “A scientific approach to problem solving”

  1. PeteK Says:

    My question would be: Do we want the government, the one entity that seems completely unaware of the “Law of Unintended Consquences”, doing something as dramatic as altering the world’s climate?