A Global Knowledge Network for Adaptation to Climate Change

Remarks made at a memorial symposium for Robert M. White at the National Academy of Sciences, 14 June 2016

Bob White played an outsized and daily role in my work life for almost 20 years.  He hired me on the basis of a 10-minute interview in 1984, promoted me within the Academy of Engineering, invited me to join in creating the Washington Advisory Group in 1996, and was actively involved in that company through the early years of the 21st century.

Like many people here I have numerous and distinctive warm memories of Bob but my focus today is on Bob as an inveterate and unrepentant institution builder.  In particular, I want to start with number of lessons – both good and bad -- about institution building that I learned from Bob. 

On the “good lessons” list, he always focused on the mission or purpose of an institution.  The problem to be addressed came in the first paragraph of his thinking about everything he did and it stayed there throughout his engagement.   Also on the “good lessons” list was his robust optimism that institutions for the public good will actually deliver good things to the public.   Neither overriding self-interest, nor cynicism about public institutions, were part of Bob’s personality.

On the “bad lessons” list, I would put his belief in cooperation and collaboration and his disregard for organizational structures, clear roles, responsibilities, and authorities.   These were bad lessons for me because I never had Bob’s energy or almost superhuman capacity for work. 

In my experience, cooperation and collaboration are often euphemisms for no accountability and a situation where all of the collaborating parties do as little as possible.   Bob, on the other hand, was fine with a non-binding agreement to cooperate or collaborate.   He knew, from personal experience, that he could do his job and, if necessary, the tasks assigned to, and dropped by, his collaborators.

Bob’s disregard for the importance of organizational structures sprang from the same well: his tremendous energy and capacity for work.   As the whirling center of every organization he touched he knew, again from experience, that he could and would pick up the slack when someone failed to deliver.  The organization would succeed no matter how it was structured.

Turning to organizations for the future, one of my most enjoyable and educational tasks at the Academy of Engineering was collaborating with Bob (we know what that means) on various policy talks he would give.   I remember one – which I cannot date exactly but I am sure it was mid-1980s and, therefore, about 30 years ago – where he articulated the following logic about climate change:  the science may be less than certain but we need to act now to reduce greenhouse gasses;  by the time we are certain it will be too late to change the climate and climate impacts trajectory for the next century. 

I have come to believe that the same logic applies today with regard to human adaptation to climate change.  We cannot be certain how climate change will affect the planet and the lives of humans.   We understand that sea levels will rise and that we’ll see changes in local, regional, and global weather patterns and norms.  However, even tremendously accurate forecasts of these changes are only somewhat helpful in helping humans adapt. 

If even the “low impact” scenarios are manifest, there will be adaptation challenges in fields as diverse as coastal zone management, infectious diseases and public health, civil and environmental engineering, urban planning and urban systems, agricultural technology and food security, transportation and logistics, and on and on.

While we need to continue to work on reducing greenhouse gases, there is a very important research, development, and demonstration agenda – globally dispersed and across a wide range of basic and applied fields – that should be started now.  Climate sciences, the earth sciences, and economics can give us headlights to see, at least dimly, what is coming.   But how 7.4 billion people – occupying virtually every ecosystem, watershed, coastal zone, and substantial patch of arable land – can and will adapt to what is coming is very poorly understood. 

Opinions and forecasts vary, as they did about greenhouse gases and climate change in the early 1980s, but it now seems likely that we’ll see significant population and economic dislocations, some of them abrupt and, therefore, potentially catastrophic for tens of thousands of people.

Therefore, I believe we need a new research, development and demonstration institution to address the challenges of human adaptation.  And it needs to be a new type of institution.

While climate change is a global phenomenon, most of the challenges of human adaptation to climate change are local, regional or industry-specific, sometimes aligned with political boundaries but often not.  Humankind’s resilience in the face of the impacts of global climate change depend on the discovery and implementation of local and regional solutions. 

Few of us in this room, and certainly not I, are capable of attacking this problem as Bob White might have.  But I do believe that the answer lies in the good and bad lessons I learned from Bob:

·      Stay focused on challenges of human adaptation….don’t be distracted by political debates about whether climate change is real or the successes and failures of international agreements on reducing greenhouse gases. Those are real problems but there are big communities already working those problems.

·      Be optimistic about the ability of humanity to adapt…Bob's optimism about adaptation to climate came from his personal experience with the value of weather forecasts and also with traditional climatology, which people use to determine when to take vacations, where and how to build, when to plant and harvest, etc.

·      Be willing to collaborate, across and among organizations – public and private and with widely varying capabilities… but recognize that collaboration may mean that you have to do more work to carry weaker institutions.

·      Don’t worry too much about organizational structure…the range and scope of challenges is such that most viable approaches will depend on a distributed network of institutions pursuing different paths and sharing solutions rather than any fixed or controlled hierarchy of research, development and demonstration.   Network diagrams will be important but, most likely not org charts.

The new institution or network needs to be able to deal with the diversity and geographic dispersion of challenges, the critical role of corporate research and company operations in adaptation, and the importance of localized adaptation strategies. 

Luckily, we have a new global model of research, development, and demonstration.  When I joined the NAE in the early 1980s a sufficient density of research talent, experience, knowledge, and creative approaches existed primarily within a few hundred institutions in a small number of countries.  That reality has been replaced over the last 30 years with dense network of working relationships among a much larger number of globally dispersed individuals and institutions. 

This long-term shift from a few centers of excellence to a dynamic global network of talent and resources also brought dramatic growth in the “project” or “start-up” approach to research and development.   Historically, this approach has been reserved for major government projects (e.g., the Manhattan Project) or occurred only in regional technology-industry clusters such as Silicon Valley.

Today, global technical talent, funding, and intellectual property can be quickly and temporarily organized around an applied research mission, market opportunity, or civic need.  In a dense network of knowledge workers and knowledge-generating institutions, important technical enterprises can be transient, with both management and workers expecting to move on to the next opportunity and a different organization.

In some sectors of the global economy these transient, project-style organizations have all but replaced traditional R&D organizations, engaging the best technical talent from universities and draining traditional corporate R&D operations.  In most sectors, and for most civic missions such as public health or economic development, innovation-motivated projects exist symbiotically with mature institutions of research and graduate education.

My proposal, therefore, is for a ten-year effort to establish a dense global network of civic institutions and private companies working – in series and in parallel – in human adaptation research, development, and demonstration.  Not easy but not impossible, and worth some real effort.  I am not sure about next steps but I am optimistic.  And if you are collaborator the way Bob was a collaborator, please see me after the symposium.

June 14, 2016