March 19, 2010

Brilliant is Brilliant

Dr. Larry Brilliant, a trained epidemiologist, former director of Google’s philanthropic arm,, and now head of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, published a great article this morning on Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Tech blog – “Global threats: 5 challenges for 2010.”

What is fascinating about Brilliant’s analysis is that he moves beyond just describing the threats – threats such as the financial system meltdown, global governance failures, and disruptions of global trade – and explores the challenges undergirding our inability to adequately respond to them – challenges he dubs “common denominators.”

“There are some common denominators these threats share, which are for the most part also common to other grave global problems,” Brilliant writes. These challenges include:

  1. Communication: “Society in general does a lousy job of communicating that the kinds of global threats I mentioned are true risks that could affect us all, and when we do get that point across, it’s usually too late.”
  2. Uncertainty: “We talk in terms of probability and inferences that can be drawn from a sample of a certain size. We make projections over time that might be x or 2x. But policy makers — and voters — want exact answers, not estimates.”
  3. Low Probability: “The low probability of any individual threat happening makes it harder to command the attention of the public or the policy makers, but knowing the aggregate or overall risk makes it imperative to plan sane prevention and mitigation strategies.”
  4. Leadership: “Solving these risks requires real leadership of two kinds: effective, charismatic individual leaders and trusted institutions. We lack both, sadly. Where are today’s Churchills, Roosevelts, Mandelas, Gandhis? We need leaders who are willing to make the difficult decisions, even if unpopular.”
  5. Public will and Governance: “I separate governance from leadership because they are different, albeit connected. A leader inspires people to make difficult choices. But getting those choices enacted into legislation, regulation and changes on the ground requires governance. And in a democracy, governance around these kinds of threats is really hard.”

I want to focus more on this challenge of “uncertainty.” While all of these challenges are issues that Dr. Jay Gulledge and I have been studying for our forthcoming Lost in Translation report, the challenge of uncertainty is rather prominent in our findings. In our report, we discuss in particular how uncertainty around projected climate change poses a challenge in bridging the gap between today’s climate scientists and national security professionals who need clearer, more certain scientific projections to effectively plan for climate change impacts.

As we note in our forthcoming report, this problem of uncertainty lies, in part, with the way the scientific community is organized. Indeed, some scientists have defined scientific progress as increasing uncertainty. The process of asking new questions generally turns up yet more questions, essentially expanding uncertainty. Unfortunately, this poses a problem for the national security community which is, by and large, action-oriented and requires “actionable” climate-science data that planners can use to generate requirements, plans, strategies, training and materiel.

Brilliant captures this disconnect between climate science and policy quite well, writing:

It seems true, if inconvenient, that X millions of acres of seashore, Y hundreds of millions of climate refugees, and Z billions of malaria mosquitoes will result if we don’t act. But scientists won’t tell you the actual numbers for X, Y or Z. They will tell you they are “90% confident that there will be between 100 million and 1 billion climate refugees.” Those wide ranges, coupled with the long delay time, the intangible nature of the risks, and the complexity, make this global threat a hard sell.

Asking the national security community to prepare for long-term challenges in a changing security environment can be difficult if it is unclear where these challenges will be most acute and will deserve the most attention and resources. Indeed, there is a huge difference between 100 million and 1 billion refugees. In some countries, governance structures may be able to accommodate 100 million refugees but not 1 billion. The difference between 100 million and 1 billion refugees could mean (and this is an extreme case) the difference between some state instability and state failure. The national security community has a vested interest in knowing where it needs to engage to help prevent such disruptions to the global system, especially in countries of strategic importance to the United States.
Given the nature of the scientific discipline, it may be impossible and impractical to ask scientists to eliminate uncertainty from scientific conclusions. Perhaps then to bridge this gap, scientists should help national security professionals accommodate for uncertainty in their planning processes by working more closely with this community. Indeed, there are scientists who do work well with the national security community and help decision makers hedge against and plan for future changes in the security environment, despite uncertain projections. Nevertheless, the climate science and national security communities writ large generally do not communicate well with each other, and closing this gap between the national security professionals and climate scientists will be essential if the nation is to deal with climate change effectively.

“As a planet, we face huge challenges. 2010 will be a decisive year. Let’s get to work figuring out the answers,” Brilliant concludes. “These aren’t someone else’s problems. They’re all of ours.”