Jonathan Koomey: Climate change as an adaptive challenge

InsightaaS: It is our practice to feature posts on environmental or social policy issues in our Sunday editions of Across the Net. This week, we have the privilege of highlighting an exceptional post by Jonathan Koomey, Consulting Professor at Stanford University. Regular readers of this section will recognize Koomey as a source that InsightaaS and its principals have relied on here and in other contexts (notably, our work on sustainable IT with Bloomberg BNA). 

The last time we featured a Koomey post, he was discussing the importance of Exxon’s agreement to evaluate the “stranded asset” risk associated with fossil fuels: essentially, to recognize that a proportion of oil reserves (which might, according to Koomey, be as high as 75%) must remain in the ground if we are to avoid calamitous climate change. In this post, he expands on this core notion. Most literature on climate change recognizes that there are two basic strategies for addressing the issue – mitigation and adaptation – and that we have likely reached a point where adaptation is an essential aspect of our response. Koomey takes this as his point of departure, taking a third party observation that adaptive challenges are “messy, open-ended, and ill defined.” He then notes that climate change is one such challenge – “The case for concern about rising greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations is ironclad…We’re on track for more than two doublings of greenhouse gas concentrations by 2100.” His conclusion notes that there is opportunity as well as threat in this change: “Innovations in our values can be as powerful as those for new technologies in opening up new possibilities for the future, and these we also need to explore.” The path connecting the challenge and conclusion is intriguing in the context of the post, and essential in our calculation of social and business options for the future.

Knovel just published my latest white paper, titled Climate Change as an Adaptive Challenge (it’s a free download, but you’ll need to type in some info about yourself before downloading).  The blog post below summarizes the argument.  The white paper itself contains the latest data demonstrating the case for urgent action, and it ties in nicely to the recently released National Climate Assessment.


In their new book Moments of Impact, Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon, citing Ronald Heifetz, describe two types of challenges:

–           Technical challenges are those we can solve using well-known techniques and tools.  Such problems are well defined and well understood

–           Adaptive Challenges, on the other hand, are “messy, open-ended, and ill defined”.   The tools needed to address them may not yet exist.  Such problems require different kinds of leadership and problem solving skills, and cry out for interactive engagement among all the people needed to solve them.

Ertel and Solomon write

“It’s nearly impossible for any one senior executive—or small leadership team—to solve adaptive challenges alone.  They require observations and insights from a wide range of people who see the world and your organization’s problems differently.  And they require combining those divergent perspectives in a way that creates new ideas and possibilities that no individual would think up on his or her own.”

Climate change is the ultimate adaptive challenge, because the rate and scope of the changes needed to solve the problem will stretch us to the limit.  In addition, the solutions must involve changes in behavior and institutional structure, not just technology, because the problem is so pressing. As I argued in Cold Cash, Cool Climate,

“Climate change is probably the biggest challenge modern humanity has ever faced.  It’s bigger than World War II, because it will take decades to vanquish this foe.  It’s harder than ozone depletion, whose causes were far less intertwined with industrial civilization than fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gases.  And it’s more intractable than the Great Depression…”

Read the entire post:


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