Travelling Thoughts

For the past couple of weeks, my biggest worry was where I would eat my next bowl of ramen. Though more stressful than you would think, the vacation was still relaxing. Walking back into the office after a 2-week vacation feels very weird—maybe it’s a sense of guilt since all I brought back to the office was snacks. It’s kind of a lame gift. Sorry.

Before I left, I started hypothesizing some research questions. My interest in integrated assessment models intensified over the course of the internship, thanks to Rory’s time, patience, and ability to explain really complicated things. I decided to take a stab and look at the role of negative emissions in the new model runs based on a set of structured narratives called shared socioeconomic pathways (SSP). It’s exciting because the SSP’s are going to be used in the IPCC AR6 report, so getting to know these initial runs will be fun. The SSP’s were collectively developed by the IAM community to span five different future narratives: (1) sustainable development (2) continuation of current trends (3) regional rivalry (4) inequality and (5) fossil-fueled development. Along with that, they use shared policy assumptions constrained by radiative forcing levels to simulate stringency of climate policy under each of the five “baseline” narrative scenario. This has an inherent probabilistic undertone to it, as each could be different “states of the world.”

To perform these analysis, modelers used six different IAMs: WITCH-GLOBIOM, GCAM4, MESSAGE-GLOBIOM, REMIND-MAGPIE, AIM/CGE, and IMAGE. These different IAMs then use the SSP narratives to simulate emissions, temperature change, energy supply, and many more. As I read up on manuals of integrated assessment models, I realize that they are exceedingly complicated. Per my last blog post, it’s supposed to be a good thing; I argued vaguely for embracing complexity in systems and tried to make the case for pluralistic methods to solve these problems.  However, “complexity” is a loaded word for me. It’s the first word that drew me into my discipline, but it also means that something is, well, complex.

Between my thirteen-hour flights and sixteen-hour layovers, I found some time on my hands to re-read Jane Jacobs’ classic: The Life and Death of Great American Cities. This book inspired me to embrace the challenge of complexity because not only is Jane Jacobs a superb urban theorist, but she handled complexity in such a vast city ecosystem so eloquently and successfully. I especially love her description and arguments for the city street as opposed to a suburban street. She convincingly argued for the preservation and appreciation of city life for what it is: complex. She laments at the “garden city” ideal and at its unfortunate implementation within cities. Though there is an interesting dynamic between the suburban and the urban, it is not related to carbon removal. Benton MacKaye once called the suburban “superurban,” and the imposition of “super-urban” planning onto an urban landscape is fascinating.

On my second read, I appreciated her compelling unravelling the complex weave of a city so much more. This book is far different from Henry James’ The American Scene. It’s so much more than an extrapolation of societal health from descriptions of the city’s assault on your five senses. The Life and Death of Great American Cities systematically unravels the city’s chaos and complexity and Jacobs somehow makes a compelling argument that revels in the complexity of the city proper. For those that love The American Scene, I do too—Henry James was a great writer but just falls a bit short on fully figuring out the complexities in our American scene.

I’m going to courageously draw on Jane Jacobs’ seemingly infinite intellectual horsepower and attempt to revel in the complexity of integrated assessment models. It is unlikely that an obvious answer, or one answer, will present itself. Yet, taking all observations together and making an argument seems to be in the spirit of The Life and Death of Great American Cities.