These days, it’s gotten so one can’t talk about global issues like climate change, water, education and — definitely — health care without getting a ton of opinion, confusion and emotion.
But while there’s more than enough rhetoric, controversy and politics to go around, how much of it goes toward actually defining the problem and searching for a solution?
If you ask Michael Ditmore, executive director of the newly created organization, Novim, he’ll tell you it’s a relatively small amount.
“Part of it is because of the nature of the problem, part of it is because of the nature of the politics, part of it is because of the media, which is dumbing down the populace to the point where almost everything is some kind of a scare or another,” he said.
Take climate change, for instance. Nations are wrangling with each other about who ought to do what, policymakers are trying to decide what best satisfies their constituents and their political allies, and industry and environmental groups are wrestling with each other to get their needs met. And much of it, according to Ditmore, utilizes faulty or biased information.
This perceived information gap is what Ditmore and partner Jim Knight, Novim’s executive vice president, hoped to fill when they decided almost two years ago to create Novim, an organization spun off from some of the minds behind the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at UCSB. Since both are members of the KITP Director’s Council and local entrepreneurs, Ditmore and Knight thought KITP’s collaborative problem-solving approach didn’t have to be limited to theoretical physics.
“The KITP does a wonderful job of bringing great minds from all over the world to collaborate on key topics in the field of physics,” Knight noted. “We thought that it might work to take the KITP model and apply it to other key issues important to society.”
“We ought to be able to use these tools to look at global problems that aren’t being properly looked at now,” Ditmore added. By removing politics and emotion from the issues, and using scientific methods of inquiry and analysis from some of the finest minds on the topic, potential workable solutions can be found to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
“We’re only interested in the science,” Ditmore said. “We’re not interested in the policy — we’re not interested in which political group has it correct — we just want to look at the science.
“Our feeling is, if we do that and then we translate the results into something the average person can understand and distribute it widely enough, that it has some impact.”
Novim’s first topic was a no-brainer: climate change, specifically global warming. According to Ditmore, the topic fit into Novim’s three criteria: highly complex, controversial and global.
“It’s very difficult to talk about in normal terms because people get almost instantaneously polarized,” he said. On the one hand there are those who are calling out a doomsday scenario, on the other, those who say the apparent rise in global temperatures is part of a cycle. Caught in between are industries, developing countries and people who must decide what their place is in the situation and what to do.
As it turns out, said Knight, it wasn’t difficult to assemble the brainpower to tackle the problem.
“Once David Gross and Steve Koonin were involved and the topic was climate change, the team signed up quickly to be able to participate,” he said. As soon as Gross, a Nobel laureate, and Koonin, now the Energy Department undersecretary for science, got in on the process, it was only a matter of putting everyone in a room and hashing things out till a workable solution could be proposed.
And the result, when some of the world’s top climate-change experts utilized free-form discussion on the problem? A 65-page paper proposing a potential solution to combat global warming by increasing atmospheric reflectivity.
The solution, like the problem, is complex and controversial, Ditmore acknowledged. Some of the most passionate criticism has been coming from environmentalists, many of whom believe that solutions like this only put a Band-Aid on the problem without addressing the more important issue of the global human action needed to decrease carbon dioxide emissions.
It’s not a matter of giving humanity a pass, say Knight and Ditmore, but of buying time for everyone to get on board. It’s difficult enough for countries to decide what policies to adopt, they say, but there’s also the herculean task of getting all people worldwide to think and act green. Add to that the long life of carbon dioxide gas, and it could be 50 years before any significant measurable effects can be recorded to determine if buying a Prius, using biofuel and hypermilling were sufficient steps.
“Rather than wait until some major breakdown, there are short-term actions to be taken to adequately model and understand the effects of proposed solutions and then, keep them on the side until such action is required and agreed to by the world community,” said Knight, adding that the report also provides a 10-year template of actions for evaluating a given approach and preparing it for deployment.
The work’s not finished, however. Upcoming tasks include further evaluation and preparing the text so it can be understood by politicians, government administrators, schoolteachers and lay people. That’s an important step, said Ditmore, because any solution such as this would require a high level of commitment.
There is also the more immediate matter of the fundraising required to support the work. To date, Novim has been funded entirely with private dollars, and in this climate, grants are hard to secure. Should Novim get large enough, however, it may attract the attention of foundations. Government funds could be acquired, said Ditmore, as long as there are no agenda strings attached.
“We are not an advocacy group,” Ditmore said. “It’s not that we don’t care — it’s that we do not feel that dealing with policy will lead us to the kinds of answers we want. Once you start down that path of advocating then you begin to lose some of your scientific credibility.”
Meanwhile, the Novim partners are already looking to the future — and to a more immediate problem: water. They are already looking to hook up with people like Stanford professor Buzz Thompson, who, Ditmore said, believes we have plenty of water — it’s just that we have a terrible way of allocating and distributing it.