Great news – I’ve had my paper accepted for the 2010 FSE/SDP Workshop on the Future of Software Engineering Research, in Santa Fe, in November! The workshop sounds very interesting – 2 days intensive discussion on where we as a research community should be going. Here’s my contribution:

Climate Change: A Grand Software Challenge


Software is a critical enabling technology in nearly all aspects of climate change, from the computational models used by climate scientists to improve our understanding of the impact of human activities on earth systems, through to the information and control systems needed to build an effective carbon-neutral society. Accordingly, we, as software researchers and software practitioners, have a major role to play in responding to the climate crisis. In this paper we map out the space in which our contributions are likely to be needed, and suggest a possible research agenda.


Climate change is likely to be the defining issue of the 21st century. The science is unequivocal – concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising faster than at any previous era in the earth’s history, and the impacts are already evident [1]. Future impacts are likely to include a reduction of global food and water supplies, more frequent extreme weather events, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and mass extinctions [10]. In the next few decades, serious impacts are expected on human health from heat stress and vector-borne diseases [2].

Unfortunately, the scale of the systems involved makes the problem hard to understand, and hard to solve. For example, the additional carbon in greenhouse gases tends to remain in atmosphere-ocean circulation for centuries, which means past emissions commit us to further warming throughout this century, even if new emissions are dramatically reduced [12]. The human response is also very slow – it will take decades to complete a worldwide switch to carbon-neutral energy sources, during which time atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to rise. These lags in the system mean that further warming is inevitable, and catastrophic climate disruption is likely on the business-as-usual scenario.

Hence, we face a triple challenge: mitigation to avoid the worst climate change effects by rapidly transitioning the world to a low-carbon economy; adaptation to re-engineer the infrastructure of modern society so that we can survive and flourish on a hotter planet; and education to improve public understanding of the inter-relationships of the planetary climate system and human activity systems, and of the scale and urgency of the problem.

These challenges are global in nature, and pervade all aspects of society. To address them, researchers, engineers, policymakers, and educators from many different disciplines need to come to the table and ask what they can contribute. In the short term, we need to deploy, as rapidly as possible, existing technology to produce renewable energy[8] and design government policies and international treaties to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control. In the longer term, we need to complete the transition to a global carbon-neutral society by the latter half of this century [1]. Meeting these challenges will demand the mobilization of entire communities of expertise.

Software plays a ma jor role, both as part of the problem and as part of the solution. A large part of the massive growth of energy consumption in the past few decades is due to the manufacture and use of computing and communication technologies, and the technological advances they make possible. Energy efficiency has never been a key requirement in the development of software-intensive technologies, and so there is a very large potential for efficiency improvements [16].

But software also provides the critical infrastructure that supports the scientific study of climate change, and the use of that science by society. Software allows us to process vast amounts of geoscientific data, to simulate earth system processes, to assess the implications, and to explore possible policy responses. Software models allow scientists, activists and policymakers to share data, explore scenarios, and validate assumptions. The extent of this infrastructure is often invisible, both to those who rely on it, and to the general public [6]. Yet weaknesses in this software (whether real or imaginary) will impede our ability to make progress in tackling climate change. We need to solve hard problems to improve the way that society finds, assesses, and uses knowledge to support collective decision-making.

In this paper, we explore the role of the software community in addressing these challenges, and the potential for software infrastructure to bridge the gaps between scientific disciplines, policymakers, the media, and public opinion. We also identify critical weaknesses in our ability to develop and validate this software infrastructure, particularly as traditional software engineering methods are poorly adapted to the construction of such a vast, evolving knowledge-intensive software infrastructure.

Now read the full paper here (don’t worry, it’s only four pages, and you’ve now already read the first one!)

Oh, and many thanks to everyone who read drafts of this and sent me comments!


  1. This is excellent. I’m very much looking forward to meeting you in Exeter, and brainstorming along exactly these lines (which match our Clear Climate Code / Open Climate Code projects, and our new Climate Code Foundation, which we should be ready to talk about by then).

  2. I’m a software engineer, is there any way I could sign up to help out along those lines?

  3. Steve, I hope you don’t mind me quoting a lot of your posts at the Guardian, as the usual nonsense had already started.

    [Sure. quote as much as you like! – Steve]

  4. Thanks 😉

  5. You’re a star man! Thanks 🙂 That thread was bound for a descent into HARRY_Read_Me_Hell!

  6. Pingback: I never said that! | Serendipity

  7. Pingback: Climate Blog and News Recap: 2010 09 03 « The Whiteboard

  8. Pingback: Big Project « Test Information Space

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