Published On: November 26, 2023Categories: articleTags:

The blind men and the elephant of global warming

Global warming is like the proverbial elephant in the Indian parable of the blind men; the blind men being the climate professionals like sustainability officers, policy makers and consultants. They vastly differ in their approach to tackling climate change and how to achieve systemic change.

First, there are those who want to change everything bottom-up. They shop around in theories on regenerative anything, doughnut economy and the commons as if the economic system can be changed overnight.  They see solutions being bottom-up if only “communities come together”. And surely, on a small scale, interesting experiments are happening, but it is difficult to make it work for the planet.

They have vision but no plan.

Secondly, there are those working in large organizations who are mostly concerned with reporting. They treat sustainability as an accounting task in which the main goal is to make sure the numbers add up and publish a sound sustainability report. No wonder, most of these sustainability officers previously held roles in the financial department. And while reporting provides insight, it does not change the system.

They have a plan but lack vision.

And thirdly there are climate professionals who do see the whole elephant and focus on systemic change with a vision and with ideas how to get there. But they lack the tools to make their ideas actionable. They get the podium and an ear with C-level executives, policy makers and politicians. And these executives, policy makers and politicians listen to them and say “they are right, we should do something” but only to stare at each other and wait for action from the other group. Private companies act only if there is regulation (but fight it at the same time), politicians want to get re-elected and will not do anything to upset companies and citizens, policy makers say they don’t want to disturb the market economy.

And that’s how we keep each other in a deadlock.

Global warming is a complex systems problem

So what is the solution? To start, we should acknowledge that systemic change is indeed needed. It is the unintended consequence of the dominant economic system in place. But changing a complex system is hard. You cannot just pick one area and try to change that and hope the system will change. To give an example, there were plenty of speakers at the conference talking about the need for true pricing, meaning that we need to internalise the externalities. And of course that sounds like a logical thing to do. But have we really thought deeply about the possible consequences of such pricing? Will the product still be affordable for low income households? What is the price of an externality? How do we come to a global agreement on true pricing?

Finding the right places to intervene in the system

Taking just one element is not sufficient. We need to look at the system as a whole and find the right places to intervene.

Luckily, there are people who have thought hard about this problem and who have identified these places to intervene. Donella Meadows is one of them. She co-authored ‘Limits to Growth’, the report that was published 50 years ago and which made use of computer modeling to create scenarios for the world if we kept on doing what we were doing. She identified 12 leverage points to intervene in a complex system. I encourage you to have a look at them here.

Meadows ranked the leverage points in order of impact on the system. Influencing pricing, for example through taxes and subsidies, is the least impactful lever as it turns out. So true pricing, however good the idea sounds, might not be what changes the system.

Allowing for emergent behavior in the system

A much more effective leverage point is “the ability to self-organize”. This is essential to complex systems. It makes systems robust and allows for adaptive behavior. So when looking at an economic system with the aim to stop and reverse global warming, we first need to enable the system to self-organize. Because self-organization will lead to optimal emergent behavior given the goal of the system (stop and reverse global warming).

Self-organizing systems are highly decentralized. There is not one ‘leader’ making decisions. There are no central command and control structures. Self-organizing systems operate on a shared information structure that allows for coordination without a central authority. Just think of markets where price-mechanisms form the shared information structure. Or traffic where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers coordinate using the shared information structure of signaling, traffic lights, road markings etc.

Using a common decentralized information structure, in short, allows for self-organization and therefore robust and adaptive  complex systems. It gives those who see the whole elephant of climate change, a tool to create the much-needed systemic change.

EXAMPLE: Decentralised Digital Product Passports

Products come to life through a complex supply chain of producers, transporters, wholesalers, distributors and retailers. Each product is represented by data in the silos of the organizations that produce and handle the product. So whenever we want to know something about a product, let’s say its ecological footprint, we either need to go to all the organizations to collect the data from their silos. Or we make best estimates based on the information that our supplier gives us about a product and you hope that they received the right information from their supplier. This chain of custody is hard to establish and it requires a lot of trust between the organizations that they provide the right data.

But there is another way. We could connect data directly to the product as it moves through the supply chain. By scanning a product at each step of its journey and by adding relevant data and metadata we create a complete product passport. By shifting the access to data from the individual organizations to the product we change the information structure which allows for self organization and systemic change. Because on top of that information structure, new incentives can be built which minimize the ecological footprint. Or we can introduce fair compensation schemes for farmers who are often the anonymous starting point of a complex agrifood supply chain. We can trust the data the product carries as it is secured by technology that guarantees its integrity. We minimize the risk of corruption and collusion.

Towards a decentralized information structure to fight global warming

Such a new information structure is made possible by advances in decentralized digital technologies such as blockchain, decentralized identities, tokenization and peer-to-peer data sharing. We, at Warren Brandeis, help industries to create such new structures which allow systems to be robust and adaptive.

So If you see the whole elephant and want to know how you can use the tool of a common decentralized information structure to fight climate change, we should talk.