Risk and triage in reality

Drawdown – A case study in prioritization

The Drawdown[1] project spearheaded by Paul Hawken, identified a range of potential methods to reverse climate change, and then prioritized them according to certain criteria. Specifically, they were ranked according to emissions reductions and cost. Emissions reductions is the key component of reversing climate change, and so this was considered the critical indicator of a given solution’s potential impact.

The inclusion of costs is intended to act as a proxy for feasibility in general, suggesting that projects with economic gains are arguably more feasible – although ascertaining costs in some areas was too difficult for this first version of the project. Project leader Paul Hawken also stressed that various co-benefits existed with these solutions that went far beyond economic considerations. Empowering women, delivering rooftop solar, and regenerating our natural environments are all examples of ways to achieve emissions reductions that come with other profound benefits. The image below illustrates this idea beautifully:

ComicCoBenefits
‘The cartoon seen around the world’.

This famous cartoon by artist Joel Pett went viral before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, helping promote the simple yet powerful idea of “co-benefits”.[2]

Drawdown demonstrates prioritization, but not triage: The focus is on prioritizing solutions by their effectiveness, rather than ranking threats by level of severity. This isn’t to say Drawdown is bad, however. This is not lazy thinking, simply different. Different approaches should be encouraged because each framework lends different strengths. A drawdown-type approach can be good for identifying lesser-known issues, for example, refrigeration management (a surprising #1 on the list, as shown below) and aligning our capacity for solutions with problems we can solve in a way that maximizes our potential positive impacts. That part is commendable.

More so than the results of Drawdown, their prioritization methodology might end up ultimately as their greatest achievement. One key point here is to examine what the Drawdown project does at this higher level, because it is an instructive example in highlighting a process resembling triage.

  1. Identify candidate issues for consideration.
  2. Develop criteria to rank them.
  3. Apply criteria and develop a ranked list.

Drawdown2017Ranks
Drawdown’s “Top 20” list of most effective ways to reverse climate change. Updated in 2020. [3]

As Turner’s previous lamentations would highlight, however, the focus with Drawdown is still problematically on just one domain – the environmental, and even more specifically, on reversing climate change (just one environmental challenge of many).

What if, instead, there was a work comparable to Drawdown that identified existential risks, developed a criteria for prioritization, and produced a ranked list like the one above? Something like the list below?

RankThreat
1Unintended consequences of AI development
2Economic inequality
3Climate change
4Global nuclear war
etc…

What if we had something like this to help guide us?

Perhaps more humbly, I should ask: What if we already do, but it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves?


Footnotes

[1] I attended a talk on this report delivered by the editor Paul Hawken, which is where some of the information here is drawn from.

[2] Pett, J. (2012, March 18). Joel Pett: The cartoon seen ’round the world’. Lexington Herald Leader.

[3] Drawdown.org. (2017). Summary of Solutions by Overall Rank. Retrieved from Drawdown.org: https://www.drawdown.org/solutions-summary-by-rank Taken from their website in 2017. Notably, much has changed in the years since writing this. The 2020 review of Drawdown appears to have changed things considerably. The extent this undermines arguments here won’t be clear until I get a chance to take a closer look.