“Human flight” on the 21st-century Real World? 1. The cockpit dialog.

Seven billion of us are co-piloting a 1.317 × 1025-lb, unpressurized, open-air planet through the hostile environment of space.

You might not be impressed with this reality. You might even be tempted to dismiss it as no more than a flawed and unhelpful metaphor.

But it’s a perspective that we need to embrace. Easier said than done! For most of us, glued to the LED-laptop screen embedded in the virtual reality that is today’s artificially-lit, temperature-controlled, urban office, several degrees-of-separation removed from the planet we live on let alone the larger universe, it’s hard to get in touch with such an idea. A chaotic jumble of urgent demands and seductive distractions make it tough to focus.

To pursue the flight analogy a bit further: the National Transportation Safety Board tells us that regardless of the flight equipment, the safer flight cockpits are those that tend toward the egalitarian, where communications are good, flightcrew members are on the same page, and everyone maintains focus and situational awareness. The more dangerous cockpits are those with top-down hierarchies, and where flightcrews are distracted and fail to work together:

Crew resource management (CRM) training is designed to improve crew coordination, resource allocation, and error management in the cockpit.  CRM training augments technical training, enhances pilots’ performance, and encourages all flightcrew members to identify and assertively announce potential problems by focusing on situational awareness, communications skills, teamwork, task allocation, and decision-making within a comprehensive framework of standard operating procedures.  Two aviation tragedies provide noteworthy examples of what can go wrong when flightcrews fail to work together.  The deadliest aviation accident in history, the 1977 collision of 2 B-747s on Tenerife, Canary Islands, in part occurred because the co-pilot and engineer failed to challenge the captain’s decision to initiate takeoff before confirming that the runway was clear.  In the 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 accident, which killed 78 people, the NTSB cited the captain’s failure to reject the takeoff during the early stage when his attention was called to anomalous engine instrument readings…

 Of course, co-piloting planet Earth is more like co-piloting a hot-air balloon, with minimal control over where the balloon is going (except up-and-down, and the incidental impact of that on direction and speed of travel). It’s not the same as co-piloting in what engineers refer to as aerodynamic flight. It’s primarily control only of conditions onboard[1].

But now let’s ask ourselves: what kind of flightcrew are we? First off, to repeat, no one of us is a mere passenger. We’re each crew members, in the sense that our individual actions influence conditions onboard: resource consumption; resilience vs. vulnerability to hazards; the rate at which entropy and pollution increase. We have agency. What’s more, we can’t opt out. We own a bit of responsibility.

Second, we’re distracted – essentially oblivious – with respect to “flight operations.” And few are thinking long-term. One billion-plus people eke out a hard-scrabble existence and struggle day in and day out to meet basic needs of water, food, shelter and clothing for themselves and their children over the next twenty-four hours. Several billions more are better off, but only slightly – living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep jobs, maintain a problematic web of family and social relationships, living in an urban world offering little direct evidence of trends in planetary conditions.

Third, we’re hierarchial, operating under a high degree of top-down command-and-control. A small minority of the seven billion – the world’s leaders – are in this analogy, true pilots – not mere co-pilots. Their number includes monarchs, political and business leaders, the rich and super-rich. Their perspectives, though nominally different from yours and mine, are similarly short-term and often self-interested. Pilot-status is inherently fleeting and under incessant threat; in our king-of-the-hill world these favored few find the free-for-all to maintain their favored positions breathtakingly relentless and time-consuming, leaving little margin for addressing longer-term issues or the larger good.

Lastly, we’re not just distracted and hierarchial, we’re squabbling, struggling to like each other or even politely get along. This is true at every level – globally and internationally, within-country, down to states and localities, and across private industry. It’s not that we don’t all see eye to eye. That’s a strength – we don’t share the same blind spots. But we find it increasingly difficult to work through these differences to find needed consensus and wisdom.

Hmm. The NTSB would say our cockpit is dangerous one – likely to prove unsafe when under threat.

Nevertheless, in this problematic cockpit environment, a handful of the co-pilots have mounted a structured look at Earth’s situation, sustained over several decades. They have identified a set of proximate threats under the label of climate change. Along the way, they’ve been attempting to get the attention of the rest of the flight crew, with some success.

Of course this refers to the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Most recently, they’ve put out an IPCC special reporton the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.” The wide media coverage notes that the latest IPCC conclusions are both new and yet similar to previous findings. Here’s a sample of the reporting, this from Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis in The Washington Post:

The world stands on the brink of failure when it comes to holding global warming to moderate levels, and nations will need to take “unprecedented” actions to cut their carbon emissions over the next decade, according to a landmark report by the top scientific body studying climate change.

With global emissions showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before, the group found.

“There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy, transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement[2]

…Meanwhile, the report clearly documents that a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would be very damaging and that 2 degrees — which used to be considered a reasonable goal — could approach intolerable in parts of the world.

 …Specifically, the document finds that instabilities in Antarctica and Greenland, which could usher in sea-level rise measured in feet rather than inches, “could be triggered around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming.” Moreover, the total loss of tropical coral reefs is at stake because 70 to 90 percent are expected to vanish at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report finds. At 2 degrees, that number grows to more than 99 percent.

The report found that holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could save an Alaska-size area of the Arctic from permafrost thaw, muting a feedback loop that could lead to still more global emissions. The occurrence of entirely ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean goes from one per century to one per decade between 1.5 and 2 degrees, it found — one of many ways in which the mere half a degree has large real-world consequences.

Risks of extreme heat and weather events just rise and rise as temperatures do, meaning these would be worse worldwide the more it warms.

To avoid that, in barely more than 10 years, the world’s percentage of electricity from renewables such as solar and wind power would have to jump from the current 24 percent to something more like 50 or 60 percent. Coal and gas plants that remain in operation would need to be equipped with technologies, collectively called carbon capture and storage (CCS), that prevent them from emitting carbon dioxide into the air and instead funnel it to be buried underground. By 2050, most coal plants would shut down.

Cars and other forms of transportation, meanwhile, would need to be shifting strongly toward being electrified, powered by these same renewable energy sources. At present, transportation is far behind the power sector in the shift to low-carbon fuel sources. Right now, according to the International Energy Agency, only 4 percent of road transportation is powered by renewable fuels, and the agency has projected only a 1 percent increase by 2022.


IPCC scientists have won over the thinking of a larger group – but that still leaves a large fraction of the co-pilots too preoccupied with the short-term to take effective action – or maybe even to notice or care.

Moreover, the response from world leaders – the pilots – has been varied. For a leader to acknowledge that (1) climate change is real, (2) largely of human origin, and (3) poses great risks implies he/she publicly shoulders responsibility to formulate a response and act. Unsurprisingly, some pilot/leaders find it convenient to deny one or more of these features of climate change in favor of maintaining some short-term status quo. They say, for example, that climate change might reverse itself. Alternatively or additionally, some of these same leaders raise a hypothetical specter of losses of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. As the NTSB reminds us, in a hierarchial world, leadership failure to come to grips with reality contributes disproportionately to the danger facing the crew as a whole.

(At the opposite end of the spectrum, other leaders, bringing their countries in train, are moving to embrace renewable energy[3], or invest in afforestation[4]. Coincidentally, these two countries happen to be experiencing above –average economic growth.)

Okay! Deep breath! In this existential Earth-piloting moment, what can and should you and I do? In short, continue to be, and/or improve our performance as flightcrew members, as judged by the NTSB metric. Focus on doing our bit, in place, to slow global temperature rise. Respect existing hierarchy, but don’t exacerbate it; respectfully push back in the up-direction as external events dictate, while not demanding special deference from others. We need to be sinks for squabbling, not sources. To build consensus, not win debates, should be our aim.

Want to see a good example of this approach in action? Check out the American Meteorological Society take.


[1] Those conditions do matter to the safety of the balloons and their occupants..

[2] This lack of successful precedent combined with the sheer technical challenges involved prompts some to say that the battle is indeed lost.

[3]According to the Global Wind Energy Council, China has one-third of the world’s wind energy power, and is rapidly adding more; the United States has about half of the Chinese figure.

[4] In Pakistan, an ambitious effort to plant 10 billion trees takes root.

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