I first learned about global warming while still in college in the early 1990s. I had enrolled in “Our Home, the Solar System,” a class taught by the famous astronomer, Carl Sagan.
Enrollment was limited to just 15 students, and to get in I had to write an essay. My rationale was that as a chemical engineer, the class would give me a different perspective from my core engineering curriculum.
For example, chemical engineers learn how to size the height of a smokestack to spread pollutants and lower concentration levels before they reach the earth. Or, as some students put it, “dilution is the solution to pollution.”
I suspected that there might be more clever ways to think about mitigating the effects of industrial pollution. Professor Sagan let me into the class and it was indeed eye-opening.
Top-down vs bottom-up
I learned a lot about the problem of global warming in that class. Since then, my career has taken me in the direction of technology, manufacturing and supply chain management. While the class with Professor Sagan taught me about the problem, my career experience has taught me about ways to address it.
Some environmental topics can be successfully addressed by top-down government policies. The hole in the ozone layer serves as a good example. By banning chlorofluorocarbons, governments have been able to reduce the size of the hole.
The success of this top-down approach can be attributed to the fact that consumers were largely insulated from the ban. Science delivered alternative propellants and refrigerants minus the chlorofluorocarbons. These worked fine, and few people resisted the change.
Other top-down mandates do not fare as well – even though they may emanate from noble aspirations. Why? Because often enough they directly harm individual consumers and businesses by increasing costs or reducing convenience. The policies may serve the collective good – but because they conflict with many individual desires, compliance is low and, thus, the policies fail.
The simple fact is that Armageddon-like stories about climate change from scientists and government officials do not seem to be turning the tide. From their pulpits, officials proclaim that each and every one of us needs to make sacrifices to save the planet. They want us to forego the conveniences that we have attained through years of scientific and social progress.
While they blame, point fingers and spread guilt, they ignore the underlying cause — the rise in population over the past 50 years —which is a second order effect of the successful avoidance of global pandemics and major atrocities from world wars.
A better approach, I think, can be summed up in a simple phrase: “desire delivered.” Sustainable policies and solutions, in other words, need to capitalize on human nature and consumer desires to channel behavior in the right direction.