Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Buying Protection

After reading Yergin's comment in his new book (see previous blog) regarding the absolute likelihood of the global community not being able to address the root causes of climate change - - I happened to read Simon Kuper's Opening Shot column in last weekend's Financial Times (Climate change: Who cares any more?).  Kuper is in the camp that subscribes to the "Pielke's Iron Law" (Peilke is Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado) - - which states the following:

"When policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time."

Climate change debate and global warming are going to take a backseat to our trying economic times - - best illustrated in the following graphic showing the decline in median family income in the US.  If the trend in the graphic continues, it will be the source of many, many problems - - including our inability to address climate change and ability to make long term investments in our national infrastructure.

Things like sustainability and climate change are much easier to think about when one felt rich.  Poor countries and poor families think about next day and next week.  The realities of adapting to a changing world become a distance memory to the importance of the next pay check.  Being rich also produces some naivety - - transforming our global energy systems seems a very doable endeavor. 

Kuper addresses the fundamental alternative in this era of "Pielke's Iron Law" - - which will place enormous demands on engineers:

"Rich countries now have a semi-conscious plan: whatever happens we'll have the money to cope.  We'll build dikes, or pipe in more water from somewhere else, or turn up the air-con if it gets more hot.  In short, rich countries will buy protection.  If they need to abandon vulnerable cities like New Orleans or Venice, they will."

Rich is never defined by Kuper - - it is difficult to comprehend just how much "protection" the "rich" can afford given the prospects of lengthy deleveraging and the tensions of wanting to investment in the future while managing our obligations to pay for the past.  A much bigger problem will be the poor - - like a Bangladesh.  Countries may come to engineers to "buy protection" - - but engineers will also be increasingly placed in a position of having to do "much, much more with much, much less."  As the following illustrates - - demand for protection may outstrip the fiscal resources to pay for it all.

Systemic resilience in the context of our global infrastructure may just be the single most important transformative engineering and operational idea as we move further into the 21st century.  Yes it floods, but how fast can we get the system back to a functional and operational level?

The opening graphic?  What the Netherlands would look like without the purchase of protection.

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