April 27, 2010
Analysis by: GLG Expert Contributor
While projections and predictions on CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are required to begin the dialog necessary to avert climate change, they are most likely false.
It has been estimated by scientists that CO2 levels in the atmosphere must be limited to a maximum of 450ppm, which is widely considered to be the maximum CO2 concentration level required to avoid the worst effects of global warming. This entails limiting planetary temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade.
For reference purposes, the concentration of greenhouse gases before the Industrial Revolution was 280 parts per million by volume, currently we are at 380 ppm and the maximum as mentioned is generally agreed to be no more than 450 ppm. Based on these thresholds, scientists and researchers have set several future-looking scenario projections on what CO2 levels will be in 2020, 2030, and even 2050. While these projections and predictions are required to begin the dialog necessary to avert climate change, they are most likely false.
It is impossible to know what innovations will be developed over the next 5-10 years, much less what will be happening in 30 years. The past no longer provides reliable insight into our future given the exponential volatility that technology has injected. As John Seely Brown has mentioned, the 20th century was primarily driven by moments of disruption (such as electrification, flight, automobile, and telephony), followed by years of stability from the build-up of infrastructure to realize the efficiency of scale benefits from an innovation (through manufacturing, transportation and distribution efficiencies).
The stability of the 20th century afforded this approach as business had reasonable means to extrapolate from the past and predict and determine what to build, where and how much. Our last 100 years were built on a factory business model that relied on organizational efficiency, hierarchy and control in order to minimize variance.
“I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.”Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board, IBM (around 1948)
The factory model of the past is no longer relevant in the 21st century. The embedded and obscure modeling assumptions (based on past industrialization patterns), introduce significant quantitative flaws in the predicted outcomes of the simulated predictions. This includes what CO2 levels in the atmosphere will be in 2030 or 2050. As Vinod Khosla has so articulately expressed, given the current rate of change in technology, trying to predict what 2030 will be like is akin to predicting what 2010 would be like back in 1910!
The fact is that never in the history of man-kind have we had so much constant flux and unpredictability due to exponential technological innovation. Imagine how technology in the past few years has effected:
how we commute (i.e. GPS in cars and phones),
how we create, share and consume knowledge (i.e. Google or collaborative web technologies),
business transaction costs (i.e. how iTunes has collapsed transaction costs for delivery of content to users), and
impact of time and geography (i.e. email, Skype, FTP – connect anywhere, anytime)
Who could have predicted Google back in 1990? Or that General Motors or Lehman Brothers would have been bankrupt in 2009? The future is being invented each day and influenced by a confluence of forces we could not have even imagined just 10 years ago! So how can we predict what will be happening 20 years from now?
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”- Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society, 1895
What we have learned is that technology greatly expands the art of the possible and that today’s impossible will be tomorrows common sense. In Phillip Tetlock’s words “We are not natural falsificationists: we would rather find more reasons for believing what we already believe than look for reasons that we might be wrong. In the terms of Karl Popper’s famous example, to verify our intuition that all swans are white we look for lots more white swans, when what we should really be looking for is one black swan.”
As we have no idea what amazing technology inventions will occur over the next 20 years - inventions that may fundamentally change how we produce, manage, distribute and consume energy; I predict that we have no idea what CO2 levels in our atmosphere will be in 2030 and beyond.
Analyses are solely the work of the authors and have not been edited or endorsed by GLG.
This author consults with leading institutions through GLG