Solving the climate crisis

Tomorrow’s OR pioneers are needed now


Between 31 October and 12 November 2021, world leaders converged on Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). By the close of COP26, it appeared that real progress had been achieved in some directions, but far from enough to cap a global temperature rise at 1.5°C. Yet would the conference mark the start of a serious global response to the global crisis?

Public policy choice and the climate

There is now plentiful evidence, spanning almost six decades, that OR and a decision-focused perspective on public policy choice can play a pivotal role in confronting our climate challenge. The evidence includes everything from simple graphical aids in problem structuring to the strategic choice approach (SCA) and other smart designs for multi-party policy workshops that integrate both technical and political contributions.

These tools have already demonstrated their value across the world in the design of important environmental policies, though more needs to be done. It is now important for graduates in the present and future generations of OR to pick these up and to work alongside other experts in designing responses to our overarching climate challenge.

The meta-discipline of operational research

Back in the heady post-war years of the 1950s, a few far-sighted pundits here and in the USA started looking to the new meta-disciplines of operational research and systems modelling as offering promising pathways of response to global policy challenges. Some visionaries meanwhile recognised the importance of balancing mathematical skills with subtler insights from the social sciences.

We need this pioneering spirit in the emerging generations of operational researchers. It is important not to lose the ground we’ve gained.

Now we’re in the 2020s, I welcome indications of a continuing expansion of influence in the new decision-focused approach in global public policy, yet I remain aware of the danger of losing cohesion and opportunities for mutual learning across disciplines, industries and countries. Perhaps this may be countered through the formation of an influential academic centre, or network of such centres, to bring varied experiences of public policy choice together with capacities for structuring large and global problems.

The days of Zoom

Among the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was an acceleration in the introduction of remote conference technology, spearheaded by Zoom. The now-habitual use of video conferencing has opened up new routes for collaboration, and these must not be lost. The opportunity this technology brings for building global momentum in so many different policy contexts should be adapted to the now-overarching priorities of our global climate challenge.

It is clear to me that the initiative should pass to those generations with the most direct stake in the future of our planet. They may fit the following broad categories:

  • Recent graduates in policy-relevant disciplines and management sciences who are motivated to work across disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of socially responsible policy changes.
  • Academic innovators working across disciplinary boundaries to design new vehicles for mutual learning, research and facilitation of public policy processes.
  • Charitable, governmental and inter-governmental investors with a concern to sponsor wider innovation in public policy processes.

University Challenge

Yet how can the necessary momentum be mobilised? Universities that have capacities in both the management sciences and in public policy of short courses may bring together graduates in complementary fields in realistic exercises of public policy development. Partners can quickly be found to provide the supporting process management software that can spread this kind of experience into the wider global contexts.

There are a few obvious starting points in building an initial representation of the intricate policy space for the climate challenge. By drawing on debates at COP26, an initial view can be formed of some of the most significant spatial and temporal dimensions of the debate; for example, the choice of time horizons for the phasing out of the extraction of fossil fuels, ranging from the 2020s to the 2070s. In spatial terms, the focus became drawn to particular regions of the world on account of both their distinctive contributions to climate breakdown – such as the polar icecaps and the tropical rainforests – and the vulnerability of local island and deltaic communities.

People of drive and imagination

A key challenge for the 2020s is now for enough people of drive and imagination to come together to mobilise the resources and the talents to sustain a wider spread of the innovations in processes of collaborative development of public policies that will enable further progress to be made.

There are now clear precedents for developing practical new ways of tackling some of the most daunting problems facing mankind. Back in the 1960s, the vision of a few individuals within The OR Society and the Tavistock Institute in designing a brief for a small interdisciplinary research unit would not have led to the global innovations in public policy design without the subsequent investments of governmental bodies and charitable foundations; or without forming productive partnerships with academic groups in many countries; or without the flexibility shown by key individuals to work creatively with others of different disciplinary roots.

Now in the early 21st century, there exists a more confident basis of global practice and supporting theory on which to build than was available in the early years. There is also a new sense of urgency to tackle our global policy challenges, recognising the many cumulative impacts of human activity on our natural environments and on the climate of our planet. Some limited progress has now been made in recent generations; it now remains for our immediate successors in the 2020s to develop ways of tackling the daunting scientific, technical, political and diplomatic challenges that still remain.

This article is an edited excerpt from a longer series by John Friend, which will be published on The OR Society's website.

A portrait of John Friend