The problem with really long-term planning

The leaders of the G7 met ten days ago in Bavaria and, among other things, issued a statement about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and of course the coming Paris meeting in December that will, they publicly hope, produce the global agreement that global-agreement seekers have been seeking for a decade and more. I’ll let the ABC summarise it:

The leaders stressed that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions” were required with “a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”. The aim was to send a clear signal to push other nations taking part in December’s United Nations meeting in Paris to commit to reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten to melt ice caps and glaciers, raise sea levels and bring more violent storms and floods. The G7 also reaffirmed the goal of limiting global warming in the 21st century to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, first agreed at a 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

“Urgent and concrete action is needed to address climate change,” the G7 leaders said in a final statement after a two-day summit in Germany. 

It was the phrase ‘over the course of the century’ that struck me, rather than the scary stuff about ice melting. The end of this century is 85 years away. If you go back to 1930, 85 years ago, what could the then world leaders have said about 2015, and what they ought to do to make it a better time for those living there at the time — the whole 200 or so countries of them, an unthinkable number for the leaders in 1930? I wrote a piece about the Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894, which is worth reading again in this context, because the world’s leaders then simply did not how to cope with the rising amount of urban horse-poo, and an international conference on the issue broke up early as a result. It was a supposed crisis that did not eventuate. Isn’t it just a little preposterous to be talking about 2100 as though we know what will be needed then?

Preparing in a concrete way for an imagined future can have its problems. Take the Maginot Line, built by the French to prevent a surprise attack by Germany across the common border. It ran from Switzerland to Luxembourg, but not to the English Channel. The Germans bypassed it in the initial stages of their European war — the French had not wanted to make things difficult for the Belgians by putting such a fortification against their border. What were they thinking of? The whole thing was static, a repeat of the trench warfare that had been the mode in the Great War. The Germans changed the mode to ‘dynamic’, with fast moving tanks and armoured cars, planes, and mobile forces. Swiftness, not impregnable redoubts, was the key. What should the French have done?

I’ve just read, in Quadrant, a  long review of a book about an American strategist, Andrew Marshall, whose name didn’t register with me at all. According to the reviewer, Michael Evans, a senior defence analyst in Australia, Marshall believed in ‘the need for liberal democracies to invest in patient, long-range strategic thinking as an intellectual counterweight to the vagaries of day-to-day politics driven by personalities and electoral cycles’. Without wishing to seem a smart-bottomed person, I’ve thought and said that for a long time.

But how long is ‘long-range’, and how sensible is an 85-year span for one’s strategic thinking? That encompasses more than three generations of human beings, and even in past times, points to a span of technological change — from sail to steam, from railways to airways, from typewriters to the Internet — that had not been predicted by anyone, to the best of my knowledge, changes that altered the world. Why then should some of the world’s leaders be saying now that the task for the next three generations is to ‘decarbonise’ the world’s economy? It is all too easy to assume that the knowledge we have is all the knowledge we need, yet the predictions of peak oil go on and on, each prediction being finally unfounded. We seem to be awash with oil at the moment. ‘Ah, but this prediction is really right!’ you’ll hear a would-be savant say. And all the time there are subtle shifts in the way we do things, as well as unexpected technological changes that displace old ways.

I have been used to ten-year spans for strategic thinking. That’s about the time we need for a large new dam, a nuclear power station, or the building of ‘new age’ planes or ships, and it’s about as far as I have ever gone as a consultant. It was about as far ahead as made good sense to anyone in higher education, in or out of government. What Marshall seems to have been looking for was not a ‘plan’ so much as an attitude of mind. How should a country like Australia, a small player in the global scheme, adapt to the changes that we can see and those we can’t yet see properly? How should we try and keep operative our over-riding sense of national good?

Judith Curry has an interesting essay on this subject, focusing on another American strategist, Richard Danzig, of whom I have heard (he was Secretary for the Navy in the Clinton Administration). Danzig says Prediction lies at the root of all strategic thinking. However, whereas routine, short-term predictions are generally right, strategic judgments about future environments are often, one might say predictably, wrong. The common response to this shortcoming is to try to improve predictive capabilities. I propose a different tack, namely that long-term strategies should be built not on “visions” of the future but instead on the premise that longer term predictions (that is, forecasts of situations years and decades out), however presently credible, will probably prove wrong. 

Danzig’s interest, like that of Marshall, is in defence matters. Mine is more general. I don’t see much harm, for example, in an expanding Australian population, and in peacetime I can’t see any real way of preventing it, either. But shouldn’t we be thinking long term about what an Australia of 40 million, or 50 million might mean, a couple of generations ahead? Does anyone much do it? I accept that the Inter-Generational Report went some way down this path. What would it mean for religion and religious practices? For education? For the continued emancipation of women? For communications and transport? For the way we build accommodation? We need policies that will work in a variety of settings.

Danzig offers five suggestions for people who agree with his position. I summarise them quickly: avoid slow and laboured decision-making; try and find agile ways of doing things; make adaptability the priority; build short-term; and nurture diversity and competition. These are all intended for the defence environment, but they seem to me to be appropriate in other domains as well.

And plainly, the G7 leaders aren’t really serious about ‘climate change’, and can’t be. There is no way that the world is going to plan to decarbonise over 85 years (and of course many critics want it done much more quickly). Coal will be the major source of grid electricity generation for a long time to come. When better and cheaper sources of energy are available, we will use them. People will  do what seems sensible to them, unless they are coerced by governments or communities to do something else.

And, in the context of ‘decarbonisation’, it should be noted that new coal-fired power stations seem to be the go in Asia, North America and Europe.



Join the discussion 35 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Wot, you read that evil publication starting with “Q”. This stamps you as immoral, unintelligent and anti-social. Despicable! And what is far worse, as “right-wing”.

  • Walter Starck says:

    Predictions of the distant future are almost always wrong, so much so that one could be tempted to suspect that the very act of prediction sets in motion events leading to a different outcome. The only predictions which eventuate seem to be those which are ignored or widely deemed to be impossible.

  • David says:

    “I have been used to ten-year spans for strategic thinking.”

    Really? 🙂 A 10 year time horizon might be age-appropriate for a 75 year old, but not for the rest of us. For example dams built for flood mitigation are typically designed to protect against the 1 in 100 year flood not the 1 in 10 year flood.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Oh dear. Let me start again. As a consultant I would be asked to prepare forecasts about some possibility or other, but rarely for a longer span than ten years — the likely course of federal elections, the likely future production of certain grains, the likelihood of a change in policy about something.

      It takes ten years to build a flood-mitigation dam like Wyangala, or a nuclear power station. Yes, flood mitigation dams are designed to protect the environment against very large floods. Separate point.

      • David says:

        Define “rarely”. Define “very large”

        Any consultant who arbitrarily limited their time horizon to 10 years with our considering the circumstances of their brief would be negligent. What are you going to tell your client?

        “I chose 10 years because that’s what I always do” 🙂

        • JMO says:

          David please keep your comments and questions relevant to Don’s post.

          • David says:

            JMO & kvd,

            The nub of Don’s argument is that a 100 year plan for AGW is inappropriate because of some rule-of-thumb, which informs him that a 10-year time horizon is sufficient. This assertion is supported with a potted history which includes the Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894 and the placement of the Maginot Line during WW1. Look I enjoyed this post as much next guy and I do apologize if I am annoying.

            If I knew that this site was only going to be read by mostly harmless Aitkin acolytes I would not post. However, I worry that someone impressionable might confuse the post above with reasonable argument. So I comment.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            As so often, you do seem to miss the point of the post, in this case that planning 85 years ahead is unreasonable, because there are far too many unknowns. And those who agreed to the statement must known this.

          • David says:

            Anyone can develop a plan to deal with known knowns. But the challenge for the good consultant is to develop a plan which can address the known unknowns and remain flexible enough to deal with the unknown unkowns. Plans don’t need to be rigid and inflexible. They should incorporate assessment and re-evaluation. As circumstances change plans should evolve.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            You seem to be paraphrasing Marshall and Danzig. And I agree with you.

          • John DonovanName says:


            You forgot the unknown unknowns!

          • David says:

            re read

            “…and remain flexible enough to deal with the unknown unkowns.”

          • dlb says:

            “Plans don’t need to be rigid and inflexible”
            So true, but tell that to the “we must act now crowd” who have been saying the same thing for the last 10 years, while the gap between forecast temperatures and reality gets ever wider.

          • David says:

            Each year as new data comes to hand and new better models are developed new forecasts are developed. And CO2 is statistically significant in all the best models of predicted temperature.

          • dlb says:

            Well of course CO2 is significant in all of the best models, it is what they are tuned to. Whether their temperature predictions match the real world is another thing.

          • David says:

            Today’s iron ore price is about 1/2 of prices predicted 2
            years ago. But BHP and Rio don’t wring
            their hands and complain that “our predictions were nowhere near real world market prices”
            and exit from the industry. Instead they continue to take a long-term view
            (more than 10 years, take note Don).

            re-calibrate their models, make new projections of demand, supply, price etc and
            predicate their strategic plans and investment decisions on these new
            estimates. One thing they do not do is complain about their models and propose to their shareholders that they adopt
            a do nothing approach for the next 10 years.

        • kvd says:

          David define “arbitrarily” and “time horizon”; and so the game goes on and on, until the point of the essay is lost in pointless pointscoring. Really, you sometimes make reasonable points – but point-scoring per se quickly becomes very boring; pointless, even 🙂

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I told you the time horizons I was asked to deal with. How much consultancy have you done?

          • David says:

            With all due respect, the time lines you were asked to work to for whatever consultancy work you may have done, is of NO relevance to determining the appropriate time-line for a plan to de-carbonize the world economy.

          • David says:

            “I have been used to ten-year spans for strategic thinking. That’s about the time we need for a large new dam, a nuclear power station, or the building of ‘new age’ planes or ships, and it’s about as far as I have ever gone as a consultant. ”

            So how could you possibly provide some advice on the feasibility of developing a nuclear power station, which limited itself to a 10 year time horizon, when nuclear waste has a half life of thousands of years.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            You haven’t done any consulting, have you. I haven’t been involved in a feasibility study of a nuclear power station. But the fact that the half-life of Plutonium-235 is 24,000 years doesn’t mean that we have to wait 24,000 years to decided whether or not to build such power station. Data like these are part of the knowledge-base that goes into the decision to build. Building will take ten years, or whatever the figure is (depends on the type and the size). Ten years is about as long as most government investment decisions can encompass, at least in Australia. In Korea and Japan the planning horizon is quite a lot longer. But they are much more into command economics than we are.

          • cuzLorne says:

            When I was in secondary school ~1960, Ontario Hydro decided to build CANDU Nuclear-heated, steam-fired electricity plants. Our science teachers taught us why CANDU was the safest Nuclear power system in the world (careful, conservative Canucks, eh!).

            Nuclear now supplies 55-70% of our power needs, depending upon the hour of demand, since Nuclear plants only run On without an accelerator or brake.

            Our teachers did note One problem (which the engineers would solve in the next decade…) :
            what to do with the radioactive waste fuel & decommissioned concrete & steel plants which had a life-expectancy of 40-50 years. These items need to be safely stored away from people & nature for 10,000 to 100,000 years depending upon the stored item.

            Canada sold these CANDU plants around the world to any country which Promised not to use the resulting plutonium ‘byproduct’ to make Nuclear weapons, including Pakistan & India.

            Our engineers still haven’t found either method or location to store the Long term waste (must be able to outlive ice ages). But they have decided to store the Short term waste 4,500 feet under the limestone rock bottom of Lake Huron in state of the art containers that won’t leak…. Lake Huron is 50-75′ above Laje Erie and is the source of all the ground/well water in Southern Ontario. And of course an elevator shaft will Never allow ground water to either descend into or ascend from the deep storage cave….

            Too bad the generation before the Boomers listened to expert consultants who couldn’t predict the lack of technology development even a short decade later.

            “Whom the gods will destroy, they first make proud.”

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Interesting story, and I do know of the CANDU plants. In Australia the late Ted Ringwood, whom I know quite well, invented a synthetic rock process which would be stable over millennia. His idea was to mix the nuclear waste material with the synthetic rock, and store the solid ‘rocks’ deep underground in abandoned mines or in holes dug for the purpose in geologically stable areas.

            Australia didn’t get into nuclear power generation, mostly because we had and still have abundant coal for that purpose.

          • cuzLorne says:

            Have heard of this concept. Wonder why it hasn’t yet been used?

            I know a chap who is consulting to the Long term storage committee; will ask him about Ringwood’s Rock.

          • cuzLorne says:

            I talked to a consultant friend who advises the CANDU waste storage team and he hadn’t heard of Ringwood’s Rock.

            He did say that similar ideas were being discussed, but methinks ‘we’ have hubris to have even considered the possibility of storage for 60 years, let alone 10,000 and 300,000. There are USA military State Of The Art 1950? containers that are leaking in Washington State into ground water in the direction of a major river, and … no one seems to be able to find funds for cleanup.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Cuz — go to:




  • Gary in Erko says:

    In Sydney we were saved by the block-boys, nicknamed as sparrow-starvers.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Good, sensible, well-pitched thinking, Don, as always. Here are some lines from Les Murray’s poem ‘The Future’ that address the issue.

    There is nothing about it. Much science fiction is set there
    but is not about it. Prophecy is not about it….
    …We see, by convention, a small living distance into it
    but even that’s a projection. And all our projections
    fail to curve where it curves.
    It is the black hole
    out of which no radiation escapes to us.

    (‘The Future’ p.153 CP)

  • […] issued a statement about climate change. It was widely reported, and I wrote about it myself, here ( What no one much commented on was that the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, had plainly […]

  • […] issued a statement about climate change. It was widely reported, and I wrote about it myself, here ( What no one much commented on was that the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, had plainly […]

  • […] issued a statement about climate change. It was widely reported, and I wrote about it myself, here. What no one much commented on was that the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, had plainly […]

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