Climate Change Talk at ICSE

May 21, 2009

Some key takeaway’s from Steve’s talk at ICSE.

  • Climate change the biggest global crisis ever. The causes and consequences are beyond comprehension for most people. To keep things simple: It is likely that over 90% of the world’s population will die in wars and disasters caused by climate change.
  • Plastic vs. paper, light bulb choices, recycling and other such “green activities” are necessary and good, but far from sufficient. Given that each of these takes psychic energy, they are at best a feel-good distraction and at worst a dangerous and insidious form of problem avoidance.
  • Every moral person must address the problem using his or her skills.
  • Software engineers analyze and build systems. We must apply our skills to climate change.

A man from the UK proposed that ICSE accept only papers that directly address the intersection of software engineering and climate change. This is ridiculous, but the political changes that are necessary to avoid disaster sound even more ridiculous.


8 Responses to “Climate Change Talk at ICSE”

  1. zak Says:

    “It is likely that over 90% of the world’s population will die in wars and disasters caused by climate change.”

    … where does that come from? That seems like wild speculation. If you want to say “many people will die”, I find that much less contentious. But attaching an exact figure – 90%, no less – seems irresponsible.

    I can speculate, too.

    I posit that global climate change (and the ensuing population loss) is vital to the survival of our species. Some people argue that that carrying capacity of the Earth (in terms of human population) was already reached in 2008. Over the next, say, 30 years, we expect the population of the world to jump by 3 billion – roughly 50% of the current population. This will result in the collapse of society and – just for fun – global thermonuclear war, killing 99% of the worlds population and leaving the rest sterile. Allowing global climate change to continue on its course unfettered is our only reasonable option.

    … just sayin’.

  2. It’s irresponsible to be vague about a problem that we actually know a lot about. The 90% is an estimate, sure, but it comes from a careful analysis of the ability of the planet to support a human population if the temperature is 4 degrees warmer. See the article in new scientist:

    Whether or not some of the population needs to die off because we’ve exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth is something ethicists can argue over. However, it is quite clearly not ethical to continue on a path that will dramatically reduce the carrying capacity of the earth by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

  3. zak Says:

    I agree that global warming is a serious issue, and I’m not seriously advocating just letting it run its course because we can’t support a large population anyway. I agree that climate scientists probably do know a lot about what will happen to the Earth. But I don’t believe that anyone has seriously studied what will happen to the human population as a whole as a result of global warming, nor do I believe that it’s something that *can* be predicted accurately.

    I read the article, and the 90% claim doesn’t seem to be well-reasoned: it only appears in the tagline, and the only support in the article is Lovelock’s quote “The number remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less.” Lovelock was also quoted in The Guardian last year, saying that we will lose 80% of our population ( It’s hard for me to imagine that these estimates were based on anything more than hand waving. That’s fine for the press, but it shouldn’t be presented as a certainty or even as a scientific theory if there isn’t anything backing it up.

  4. Zak,
    There’s a huge body of scientific work on the carrying capacity of the earth, and how it might change in the future. Just google “carrying capacity”. The work of Hopfenberg (e.g. see here: demonstrates that population is limited by food supply. The climate models give detailed forecasts of the total availability of agricultural land of the earth under various climate change scenarios. It’s then relatively simple to convert these to an upper limit on human population. Sure, it’s a back of the envelope calculation, but it’s based on sound scientific reasoning. Once again, saying that we just don’t know is irresponsible when we *can* work out the numbers for specific scenarios.

  5. zak Says:

    I don’t believe that it is simple to convert agricultural land mass to an upper limit on human population because it ignores technological advances that may be made in the next 100 years. Additionally, we can assume that our diet will change if the amount of available land for agriculture decreases – meat, for instance, is not a particularly efficient food source and we can do without it (although I’ll miss the occasional steak…). The New Scientist article you posted suggests that there will be more than enough land to sustain the human population because we’ll be able to use land that’s currently too cold or under glacial ice.

    Presenting back-of-the-envelope calculations as fact is irresponsible, in my opinion. I don’t think any astronomers take the numbers produced by Drake’s equation too seriously. Yeah – it’s nice to get a number, but it’s really “just for fun”. There’s a big difference (to me, at least) between saying “it’s likely that 90% of the human population will die” and “plugging in some reasonable-sounding estimates to this reasonable-sounding equation tells us that 90% of the human population will die”.

  6. Zak: Loosen up. It’s a scenario. Nobody is presenting it as a fact. Under one set of assumptions about the values for a whole bunch of variables such as emissions, population, economic growth, etc. etc., you get a planet that can only sustain 10% of the current population. If we can’t face up to that as a specific risk, we’ll never get on and generate appropriate risk management responses.

    Your belief (or non-belief) is irrelevant. And hoping for technological advances to get us out of this mess is just an abdication of responsibility. We might as well just hope that an alien race will come and rescue us from our stupidity.

  7. zak Says:

    I don’t think that climate change is something to be taken lightly, nor am I counting on an amazing technological advance that will save the planet right in the nick of time. I’m arguing with the numbers, and whether it’s fair to call the process used to compute those numbers scientific. I’m also arguing in good humor, so I apologize if I’m coming off as a little antagonistic.

    I’m not convinced that there has been a well-reasoned attempt at calculating the number of humans the earth can sustain as a result of, say, a 4 degree rise in global temperature. It was clear from the article that Lovelock didn’t make such an attempt, and I have no reason to suspect that anyone else has either. Maybe someone has. But I doubt it, because I’m guessing that it would be difficult to get that kind of research published – it’s controversial, and someone can always find a flaw. If there are no flaws, then there’s too many assumptions for it to be taken seriously. Predicting events on a global scale, especially when human intelligence is involved, is *hard*. We can guess, but that’s about it. And we shouldn’t present our numbers as anything more than a guess. A “back of the envelope” calculation is a guess plus a calculator.

    Technology and diet changes are just some features that would obviously need to be a factor in any model that could predict how large a population can be supported by the earth after the effects of climate change have been realized. We can’t expect food production efficiency and diet to remain constant when 1) they have never remained constant in the past, and 2) the climate would be introducing pressures that would certainly spur research and better habits.

  8. Ian Says:

    ABC ran an interesting 2 hour prime time show last evening: Earth 2100, in which they portray a series of events and responses. I only watched the first 1/2 hour, but it paints a very bleak picture for the very near future. I think the most disappointing was a simulated UN summit, in which world policy makers where brought together for their response to a global weather disaster placed in 2015 … our governments could not reach an agreement, and so the status quo continued.

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