Bridging Gaps Among Scientific Disciplines. Paper Presented on IIASA's 20th Anniversary

Koptyug, V., Ahearne, J., Weidlich, W., & Weaver, P. (1994). Bridging Gaps Among Scientific Disciplines. Paper Presented on IIASA's 20th Anniversary. IIASA Collaborative Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: CP-94-008

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IIASA celebrated its twentieth anniversary on May 12-13 with its fourth general conference, IIASA '92: An International Conference on the Challenges to Systems Analysis in the Nineties and Beyond. The conference focused on the relations between environment and development and on studies that integrate the methods and findings of several disciplines. The role of systems analysis, a method especially suited to taking account of the linkages between phenomena and of the hierarchical organization of the natural and social world, was also assessed, taking account of the implications this has for IIASA's research approach and activities.

This paper is one of six IIASA Collaborative Papers published as part of the report on the conference, an earlier instalment of which was Science and Sustainability, published in 1992.

Professor Koptyug's paper is written from the viewpoint of a chemist, but of one who has an unusual consciousness of error in estimates of some of the vital parameters affecting the environment. He finds a variation of 100 percent between the low and high estimates of absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans, and adding that to the similar variation in estimate of emissions and related quantities he ends up with a four-fold variation between the lowest and the highest rate of accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Yet the paper does not argue from this that we should do nothing until we know more. We know in what directions we have to move as we try for stability, and are learning something about directions we should not try. A lesson was learned in this latter sense from the building of a dam across a bay in the Caspian Sea in order to reduce evaporation. The story is that with the agricultural and industrial development along the Volga River the level of the Caspian Sea fell by three meters between 1933 and 1977. It was hoped that the darn separating off the Black Jaws Gulf would counteract the withdrawal of water from higher up. But there seems at the same time to have been a flow of water of unknown origin into the Caspian Sea. The Gulf dried out by evaporation, while the Caspian Sea rose a wholly unanticipated 13 centimeters per year. Such a rise was disastrous for people living along the coast, and the dam is now to be destroyed.

For me the lesson is not that we should never do anything about the environment, hut rather that we should look very closely and be very sure of our knowledge base before we try smart tricks with the planet in the hope of neutralizing the effects of irresponsible industrialization. One such smart trick that was fortunately checked before it started to be built was the diversion southward of four major rivers that flow into the Arctic Ocean. No one has any way of estimating what unanticipated results might come from that, what uncontrollable positive feedback loops it might initiate. These are among the things I have learned from Professor Koptyug's paper.

Item Type: Monograph (IIASA Collaborative Paper)
Research Programs: Directorate (DIR)
Depositing User: IIASA Import
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2016 02:04
Last Modified: 27 Aug 2021 17:14

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