The lesson in analogous thinking

In a recent newspaper interview David Gee expressed his concern about the underestimation or denial of potential danger. He is pleading for more awareness to this respect, but he finds that who ever comes forward with an uneasy truth can expect head wind, especially if economic consequences are involved in possible necessary action or at least further analysis of future developments.

David Gee worked until last year for the European Environmental Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was a senior advisor for science, policy and emerging issues, but is still active in this field although retired. Together with colleagues of the Agency he was co-publisher of ‘Late lessons from Early Warning: Science, Precaution, Innovation.’ The report was issued early this year.

The main issue David Gee describes as follows. How much prove of danger filtering through the curtains do people or decision makers in particular need to come into action? Scientists want to have proof beyond reasonable doubt, but such knowledge and the time involved to reach the highest level of certainty is useless if people are already in danger. In that case one has to act on a smaller basis of proof. So he reasons.

He points to the principle of precaution. This helps to take the right decision in complicated circumstances, in which the ultimate insight is not yet available, but the possible danger is dimly visible. It does not surprise that taken his professional sphere of activity into account David Gee sees in the climate discussion and the controversial points of view a sublime example of his arguments and the theme of the report ‘Late lessons for early warning.’

The report is as objective as possible. It does not choose in this matter or any other, but David Gee is indicating the implicated thesis: The world can not always uphold its action until the final truth is undeniable and total consensus has been reached, whether this regards circles of scientists, politicians or business managers.

What is the relation between this introduction and today’s main feature, in which Reiner Gatermann gives us a detailed overview of the youngest history of the Swedish company Vattenfall? Energy companies go through a period of multiple changes. We know them almost by heart. Global connections and competition more than ever influence their strategies and actions. Issues concerning such major complexities as the climate change, the environmental consequences of energy use, the transition to renewable energy transcend their limited field of decisions, but are nevertheless a daily part of their core business. Government policies hamper. They change when the political scene changes and are often working with different time tables than the industry. All these influences are reaching to a peak. The companies had or still have to alter their culture, their structure and management, their time frames and the composition of their core activities.

Of course making decisions when people’s lives are at stake differ – most of the time – fundamentally from industrial situations. But that’s not the point I want to make. What is interesting and can be informative is the analogy. If you follow David Gee’s reasoning, the strategic dilemma becomes clear: what course do we take in the short, medium and long term and when are we able and willing to decide for ourselves with an increasing urge to act on a basis of incomplete surety? And when a danger lurks, is that threatening the company’s position in the first place or is the responsibility as a societal oriented organisation prevailing or what can be expected from companies when both situations coincide? The Vattenfall story in itself is interesting. Related to David Gee’s thesis ‘Sometimes there is no time for waiting for the ultimate scientific truth and consensus’ the article gives us a broader insight with – choose for yourself – a general learning.