Princeton University Professor Simon Levin—IIASA council chair 2003-2008–has won numerous awards for his interdisciplinary research in environmental sciences, economics, and evolutionary biology. On 10 November, Levin gave a public lecture at IIASA, at which he was named an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow.
Simon Levin speaks at the fifth IIASA/OeAW Public Lecture in Laxenburg on 10 November. Credit: IIASA/Matthias Silveri
IIASA: Your research explores issues such as environmental degradation, human inequality, and climate change. Why are global problems such as these so difficult to address?
Simon Levin: To a large extent, many of these are problems not well addressed in market-based systems. The problem is that for public goods and common-pool resources, the incentives for individual actions are misaligned with the interests of society. Equity gaps and discounting of the future add to these problems, and make it difficult to achieve consensus, especially at global levels for which the feedback loops associated with individual and local actions are weak.
What kinds of approaches are needed to understand such complex, global environmental and social problems?
Certainly we need systems approaches to deal with the linkages and scaling problems within these complex adaptive systems. We need interdisciplinarity, and we need more study of how to achieve cooperation at national and international levels. These are all problems central to the agenda of IIASA.
What new insights has your research brought to these problems?
I have long been impressed with the power of using what we learn in one set of systems to address analogous problems in others, and have benefited greatly from what I have learned from colleagues in other disciplines. I feel that I have been able to get a great deal of mileage out of translating and adapting those lessons to environmental problems, and feel that my ecological and evolutionary perspective in particular, and what I have learned from how evolution has dealt with challenges, has allowed me to bring useful perspectives to the management of coupled biological and socioeconomic systems.
How can models of complex environmental systems inform our understanding of human systems such as the economy?
We learn from such systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse; the importance of diversity, redundancy, and modularity to the ability of systems to adapt in variable environments; the importance of flexible and adaptive governance.
“We learn from [environmental] systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse” Credit: PhotonQ via Flickr
What can studies of cooperation in nature tell us about cooperation in human societies?
Cooperation in nature is strongest in small groups; and as those groups become larger, agreements, social norms and institutions become increasingly important. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom led in adapting those principles to the management of small societies, and I agree with her on the importance of polycentricity—building up from smaller agreements—in addressing global environmental problems.
How can we apply such findings to find practical solutions for the problems we face?
We need research, but we also need partners outside of science. Increasingly, business leaders have looked to biological systems for models as to how they can deal with challenges; we now similarly need to partner with government leaders if we are to address the grand challenges in achieving a sustainable future.
Watch the full lecture
Scientists who have worked for many years in the field of climate change sometimes grow cynical about the possibility that the world will address the problem. After over 40 years of research on the subject, there is still no global agreement on climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. This despite growing evidence of the severity of the problem.
But John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) since its founding in 1992, remains hopeful.
“The odds are against us, but they are not zero,” he told an audience of IIASA researchers on 13 May. In a wide-ranging lecture for IIASA staff, Schellnhuber highlighted some of the most recent findings on climate change from PIK researchers, but also shared his thoughts on the potential for the world to take action to mitigate the emissions that are leading to climate warming.
The human race has blossomed on this planet only in the last 11,000 years, a period of very stable climate known as the Holocene. Without this stability, Schellnhuber pointed out, humans would not have been able to develop agriculture, let alone the technological advances of the industrial revolution or the population explosions that followed from these developments. Destabilizing this climate that has led to such success could be dangerous—and evidence suggests that it will be most dangerous to people in developing countries, who did the least to cause the problem.
Some of the more worrisome research to come out of PIK and other climate research centers in recent years focuses on possible tipping points or “non-linearity” in the climate system. For example, changes in the jet stream, related to declining Arctic sea ice cover and warming in the Arctic, are already proving to have major effects on weather, possibly contributing to recent heat waves like the 2010 heat wave in Russia, as well as floods in more southern regions—such extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent, said Schellnhuber, in a world with greater warming.
A new study from PIK researchers shows that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may also be in danger of melt that would raise sea levels. (Image courtesy NASA Goddard)
At the same time, a new study from PIK scientists suggests that the glaciers which serve as the outlet for the massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet might melt, effectively unplugging the passages that hold the ice sheet in place. Schellnhuber said, “If global warming removes that plug, there could be an unstoppable flow of ice into the ocean.”
New research from NASA announced this week suggests that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may already have been so destabilized. Schellnhuber points out that the countries that will experience the greatest impacts of sea level rise—primarily in the tropics—contributed the least to the problem.
A moral issue
Many researchers at both IIASA and PIK work closely with policymakers to help define the costs and benefits of climate action. But Schellnhuber argued that only a social movement will provide the push that policymakers need in order to support strong action. When he talks to heads of government, he said, they listen to what he has to say. But without broad support, they cannot or will not act.
“I think it is a moral issue in the end. People have to decide whether they want to do something,” he said. “The older I get and the more I learn about the challenges, the more I think this is the only way.”
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Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network is an expert on economics, development, and sustainability, and a founding member of IIASA and European Forum Alpbach’s Global Think Tank, which is holding its first meeting in Laxenburg this week.
On Wednesday, 12 March Sachs will give a public lecture on the topic at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.
Jeff Sachs speaks at the Alpbach Forum in 2013. Photo Credit: European Forum Alpbach
IIASA: Your work spans a large area of research: from economics, to Earth science, to sustainable development. What is the common thread that ties all this together?
JS: The common thread is the challenge that we face on the planet. We can no longer separate economic, environment, and social challenges because we find that if we try to pursue any one of those alone, we end up jeopardizing the others.
For too long, economists have focused simply on economic growth, and clearly that strategy by now has put Earth and humanity at great peril. There’s no shortcut anymore. We have to be able to combine a vision that includes all the major dimensions of the complicated global reality that we face. Economics, divided societies, environmental crises, and rapidly changing geopolitics. It’s not simple to integrate all of these different areas. Our traditional intellectual disciplines do not accomplish that.
IIASA has been one of the world’s leading champions of this kind of integrated vision. Systems thinking applied to massive human problems, bringing together very diverse areas of natural science, social science, and I would say ethical considerations as well. This kind of holistic approach is central to IIASA’s whole strategy. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of my connection to the Institute.
What do you see as the biggest problems facing our planet?
We have become an enormously crowded and interconnected global society overnight, because of the technological reach of our economies and because of the remarkable growth of the world’s population during the last century. With 7.2 billion people on the planet now, we are putting vast parts of the biosphere and human well-being at dire risk. We are only slowly waking up to this reality.
All of history, humans have faced local challenges, but we have never faced such a confluence of massive global challenges at the same time. We don’t yet have the institutions, the insight, or the moral outlook to handle this set of challenges, and yet they are bearing down on us very fast.
In your lecture you’ll argue that it is realistic to think we could solve many of these challenges, for example, ending extreme poverty. What would need to be done to accomplish that goal, and why do you think it can be done?
When one thinks about the challenge of ending poverty you quickly realize that while the challenge is great, we also have unique positive opportunities. With the revolutions in communications technology, communities that until five years ago were isolated, impoverished, and with little prospect of escaping from poverty are now connected to global information, as well as to local markets and health clinics. Schoolchildren can get access to the world of information online. Finance has come to rural areas through mobile banking. All of these are examples of the kinds of breakthroughs that are now possible in addressing what have been extraordinarily tough problems of poverty.
We also see the poverty rate coming down now at an unprecedented speed, even in some of the poorest places on the planet. Major advances have been achieved in East Asia during the past quarter century, and increasingly, Africa too is now finally turning the corner on extreme poverty. I have argued that we could mobilize technologies and use directed investments in public health, education, infrastructure, and agriculture to make a decisive breakthrough within our generation.
In my book, “The End of Poverty,” I said that by 2025 we could end extreme poverty. I am afraid that the date is slipping a little because of the lack of concerted effort, but it’s notable for me and gratifying that the World Bank this past year adopted formally the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030. And I believe that the United Nations member states will also adopt such a goal next year when they create the new Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.
There are two huge risks that could absolutely defeat this possibility. One is the still greatly excessive population growth in some of the world’s poorest countries. The second is climate change, which left out of control will devastate large parts of the world including regions where many of the world’s poorest people live, for instance the arid regions of the world.
What about climate change? Do you think it’s really possible, at this point, to limit climate change to the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees?
I believe that we are at the very last chance to reach that goal. We have cliff ahead of us, with a sign that says, “Do not go beyond this point.” This point is the 2 degrees centigrade limit. We know from all the physical evidence and all the economic trends that we’re just within a hair’s width of exhausting the possibility of meeting that goal. And I worry that if we fail to achieve that goal we are going to slide very far and very fast down the mountainside, as it were. The world is negotiating a climate agreement in Paris in December 2015, and I believe that’s the very last chance to achieve the 2 degree centigrade goal.
I am not especially optimistic, but I don’t think that all is lost yet. Much depends on a much greater seriousness in the next year and ten months than we have shown in the last 22 years since the climate treaty was adopted.
Your lecture is entitled “The Age of Sustainable Development” what do you mean by that term? Why is now the time to be thinking about these topics?
I argue that we have entered an era when the concept of sustainable development has become the necessary concept for our time. When I say sustainable development, I mean on the analytical side the integrated vision of economic, social, and environmental dynamics; and on the normative side the shared goals of economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. I believe that we have a reasonable chance that this will be formally recognized by the UN member states in 2015, when they formally adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals.
My talk in Vienna is about why the concept of sustainable development is so important, and what it means. It’s not a household phrase, and I think there is a tremendous amount of public education that will be needed to understand what the opportunities are and what the threats that we face in this generation are. My basic point is that every generation faces its distinct challenges and sustainable development is our distinct challenge.
What do you see as the role for researchers and for institutions like IIASA in solving these global challenges?
I believe that these problems are inherently complex because they are about managing interconnected complex systems. There’s nothing simple about the world economy, nothing simple about global social dynamics, and nothing simple about interconnected Earth systems. And yet we have to master the risks that attend to each of those and the interconnections among them. It’s quite obvious in that regard that IIASA has a unique role to play. IIASA has been in the forefront of climate modeling, demographic modeling, and agricultural modeling for many years. I’ve been a huge admirer of the Institute’s work, and I look forward to working more closely with IIASA in the future.
I’ve been tasked by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with helping to organize a global network of problem solving on sustainable development. This initiative is called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). IIASA will be a very important member and I would say leader of that effort, and IIASA’s Director General, Pavel Kabat, is a member of the leadership council of the SDSN. We have already begun to strategize on this with Pavel Kabat, IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and many of IIASA’s world class researchers. There’s a tremendous timely opportunity to work with governments around the world and work with the United Nations to help identify safe pathways ahead.
On October 15, 2012, a young man from Bangladesh named Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis parked next to New York Federal Reserve Bank in a van with what he believed was a 1000-pound bomb, walked a few blocks away, and then attempted to detonate the bomb by mobile phone.
In fact, the bomb was a fake, supplied by undercover agents for the United States FBI. The agents, posing as radical jihadists, had led Nafis along for months, allowing him to believe they were fellow terrorists and gathering information about his plot. The cover was maintained until the moment when his bomb failed to detonate, and Nafis was arrested. Disaster averted.
Researchers at IIASA study many risks to society, from floods, hurricanes, and natural disasters, to the impacts of climate change on future generations. They use models that can help disentangle the costs and benefits of different policies that could help prevent damage or deaths, or mitigate the impacts of global problems like climate change and air pollution. Could the same techniques apply to the dangers of terrorism and jihadists attacks? Could systems analysis help inform intelligence agencies in order to stop more terrorist attacks?
Could systems analysis techniques help guide policies to prevent terrorist attacks? Image Credit: Vjeran Pavic
Yale University Professor Ed Kaplan has done just that in work that he presented at IIASA in late December 2013. His research, which has intersected with IIASA in the past through collaborations with former IIASA Directors Howard Raiffa and Detlof von Winterfeldt, uses operations research to find ways to improve intelligence operations so as to catch more terrorists, before an attack can take place.
Kaplan, an expert on counterterrorism research, refined a simple economic model of customer service, known as a “queuing model” to instead represent the evolution of terror plots by terrorists, and interaction between the terrorists and the undercover agents who are working to uncover those plots.
“The best way to stop an attack is to know it’s about to happen beforehand,” says Kaplan. That means, in large part, having enough agents in the right places to detect attacks. But how many agents is the right number?
At IIASA, Kaplan described his terrorist “queuing model,” which can be applied to show how much a given number of agents would be likely to decrease attacks. Queuing models are an operations research method used to understand waiting times in lines, such as what happens at restaurants, offices, telephone queues or even internet servers.
But in the standard model, customers want to be served, and the servers know who the customers are. In Kaplan’s terrorist model, the terrorists – customers –don’t want to be served, and the servers—the agents—don’t know where their customers are. By modifying the model to account for those differences, Kaplan can answer some tricky questions about the best way for intelligence agencies to fight terrorism.
“Even if you don’t know how many terrorists there are or where they are, you can make it more likely that they will show themselves, you can make it more difficult for them to carry out an attack,” says Kaplan.
Kaplan’s method provides estimates of the numbers of undetected terrorist plots, as well as what it would take to increase detection rates.
Using data from court records of terrorism cases, Kaplan refined his models to include the average time that a terror plot is active – that is, the time from when a terrorist group first starts a plot, to the time that they are either caught, or the attack takes place. Based on the data, he could then calculate how many terror plots were likely to be in progress at any one time. He could also estimate the probability of detecting those plots, and how much that probability could be increased by employing more agents. For example, the model calculates that by increasing FBI agents by a factor of two would increase the detection rate from 80% to 89%.
But the data also point to one disturbing conclusion: A 100% detection rate is impossible. As the number of agents increases, the detection rate increases in ever smaller increments. Kaplan says, “We have to decide how safe is safe enough. When should we stop putting money into Homeland Security, and start putting more back into education and health?”
Download Kaplan’s IIASA presentation (PDF, 2.8 KB)
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.