Question: If the average temperature of the earth increases due to global climate change, what will be the primary cause of rising sea levels?
Did you say melting ice caps and glaciers? Wrong. While it is true the water from these sources will contribute to the problem, the primary cause of rising sea levels will be the thermal expansion of ocean water.
This problem of misidentifying the root cause of a problem can manifest itself in an equally problematic behavior which is worth unlearning: the idea that big problems always require big fixes.
It would be easy to begin with the famous story of how NASA engineers spent a million dollars to design a pen that worked in the zero-gravity conditions of outer space (when a humble pencil would have sufficed) or to re-tell the story of the young boy who, upon watching a group of firemen and engineers struggle with how to free a large truck that had lodged itself under a bridge, proposed deflating the tires of the truck.
Alas, both stories are urban legions. Nevertheless, they have gained a near mythical status in today’s contemporary society because of their strong appeal to our common sense.
What is not an urban myth is the fact that Ignaz Semmelweis helped save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women by getting doctors to engage in the simple act of washing their hands prior to assisting in the delivery of a new-born child. (Unfortunately, it required the medical community nearly two decades to unlearn their stubborn and unhealthy habits and, even today, health care professionals still aren’t doing it enough.)
In the field of agriculture, it was the addition of ammonium nitrate — a cheap but effective crop fertilizer — that allowed the world's farmers to feed billions more using the same amount of land. And it was the installation of the seat belt that saved the lives of thousands of motorists — even though the device was at first ridiculed as "inconvenient, costly, and just a bunch of damn nonsense" by auto executives.
As implausible as it may sound, the problem of hurricanes may also require only a simple fix. As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner outline in Super Freakonomics it may soon be possible to prevent hurricanes (which, since 2005, have inflicted an estimated $153 billion in damage on the U.S. economy) by deploying a few thousand "hydraulic heads" to help keep the ocean water cool in those areas where hurricanes begin. The estimated cost: $1 billion.
On the bigger problem of climate change, Levitt and Dubner outline "Budyko's Blanket" – a massive chimney-like structure which would pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere – and might theoretically cool the planet for a mere $250 million.
Now, to be fair, both the "hydraulic heads" and "Budyko Blanket" may not work. But, the broader point is that when faced with big problems there is absolutely no reason why we must first look to "big answers" – such moving the entire city of New Orleans or asking every citizen of the world to change their behavior and consume only products which use no fossil fuels or emit little carbon dioxide — as the solution.
Often, big problems can be solved with small, easy-to-implement solutions – and that’s no myth.
Homework Assignment #12: Identify your company or organization’s largest problem. Break into two groups and have one group brainstorm free solutions and the second consider only inexpensive solutions. Have the two groups come back together and share their ideas. Repeat the brainstorming session with the everyone in the room.
For extra credit, post your call for solutions to a broader community on the Internet. If necessary, offer a modest prize for the best practical solutions.