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The shared rule of climate change and commerce: you can’t manage what you can’t measure

June 20, 2013

Today’s story is about short-sightedness, the misdirection of funds when times are tight. In business, there’s a baffling tendency when under financial pressure to make a decision that seems quite mad really (made perhaps out of panic, for it hardly seems logical); too many times, a business looking to reduce operating costs will first reduce sales and marketing activities. I mean, really – how many people reading this can’t guess what the result is? I’ll spell it out, none the less: at a time when the most important thing is to make more sales, make more profits, build or rebuild market share, how can recovery be made when the activities on which market share and sales depend most are the first things to fall under the axe?

What’s this got to do with climate change? Well, this morning I read an article by John Abraham, the scientist I’ll always love for his brilliant demolition of every venal, pandering, self-serving, cod-scientific lie, distortion and deception promoted by arch-demagogue and denial propagandist Lord Christopher ‘Bedwetter’ Monckton – although Abraham was far more polite about Monckton’s ‘errors’ than I’m ever going to be. And if you want to know where the ‘bedwetter’ appellation came from, and why I’m quite so vitriolic about the man, read this – his keynote address to the Heartland Institute’s 2009 conference (they of the Chinese Academy of Science and Unabomber fiascos). While I’m at it, and for political context, a vote for UKIP is a vote to put men like Monckton in cabinet seats, and a staggering demonstration of the poor judgement of that gurning idiot Nigel ‘Pint of beer and a fag’ Farage.  If, after reading Monckton’s address, you still don’t get it, you probably never will.

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Sorry, went off on one there. As I was saying, John Abraham wrote a disturbing article describing the decline in investment and maintenance of instruments vital to the on-going investigation into climate change science (Climate change measuring instruments are on life support). He opened his article with an aphorism I was already familiar with, but in a different context:

“Scientists have adopted basic rules of management, such as: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  This is a truism in climate science.  In order to understand where our climate is headed, we need to know where it has been in the past, and where it is now”.

I came across this truism in business management training many years ago, where it is just as apt. During my years as a business analyst, I was surprised at how often business decisions were based not on figures derived from past performance or sales metrics, overheads or market conditions, but guesswork, rule of thumb and intuition. I regret that too many of my clients failed to understand that making informed decisions required…well…information (DUH!). Later, they paid the price for their intransigence and complacency; many are no longer with us (although this would be only one of the factors leading to their downfall).

I mention this because, although Abraham puts the scientific case – and very valid it is, of course – there is a curious paradox here. The people who are deciding to withdraw or limit funding are those concerned about profits, taxes, economic growth, employment…making money, in other words. Their short-sightedness is moulded out of the same sodden clay as my failed business clients; if we cannot accurately measure the damage we do through climate change, we cannot plan adaptive or protective measures appropriately.

Should we be more concerned with sea-level rise than agricultural failure? Will we be overtaken by extreme weather before markets collapse, as fossil fuels prove to be the junk investments economists and financial experts are now predicting? Can insurance industries survive in a world in which their actuarial tables are made worthless by the unpredictable results of us screwing the environment? What will happen to pension funds in a world whose global economy waxes and wanes daily with the ever-growing tides? How fast will the oceanic food-chain break down as the seas turn acidic through the absorption of increasing amounts of CO2 (which breaks down into Carbonic Acid in seawater), depriving a billion people of vital nutrition in a world in which there are already 2 billion people suffering malnutrition?

These, and many more questions, are fundamental to planning, to institutional business strategy, to investment and economic stability,, and of course to the much-vaunted, but increasingly unlikely, global economic growth. Without accurate information, it is not just science that will suffer, but the commercial enterprises whose profits currently make the world go round. The failure to invest in new instruments, to support and maintain existing ones, is akin to a reduction in funding and quality of education; both lead to a diminution of knowledge, and a reduction in our capability to manage every aspect of the world in which we live. It is a kind of short-sightedness that seems redolent of the short-termism that plagues politics, economics, finance and resource management.

And it’s also a good way to bury your head in the sand; if we don’t bother to measure risk, I guess we can just employ a friendly guide dog and tap our way through history with a succession of nice white sticks. As they say; ignorance is bliss. Only thing is, to maintain it is to remain deliberately ignorant, and that doesn’t seem a very worthy ambition.

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