Y2K and The Climate Emergency

One thing I think about, when I’m getting concerned about the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, is another apocalypse that’s happened during my lifetime, namely, the Year 2000 Problem.

If you’re not familiar, this was a crisis that happened at the end of the 1900s. Because computers often stored dates with 2-digit years, like 10-14-68, they would have problems in the future understanding dates after 2000. Especially when comparing dates, they’d think that 04-18-98 was after 04-18-01, since the year part was greater.

And, because everything used computers by then, like nuclear power plants and the New York Stock Exchange, there was a lot of popular concern that on 1 Jan 2000 airplanes would fall out of the sky, and banks would zero out everyone’s checking accounts, and other simultaneous computer bugs would wreck civilisation.

People concerned about Y2K often pointed out what a wicked problem it was. Because all these systems were interconnected, failures in one would cascade to others. A failed railroad system would require repair, but if electronic communications systems were down, it would be harder to coordinate that repair, and if financial systems were down, the employees who would do the repair might rightfully doubt if they’d be paid for their work.

Most troubling was the potential of a crisis in confidence. Many of the systems in question — banks, insurance, government — require faith in order to keep operating. If we stop believing in the electronic systems where money exists, that money becomes useless. If we stop believing in government’s records and operations, government mostly disappears.

This apocalypse didn’t happen, though. Why not? The general consensus seems to be a combination of that the concerns were overblown, and that all the most important players managed to remediate the computer bug in time for the year change.

For people concerned about the climate emergency, like me, this Apocalypse That Didn’t Happen seems like a counterexample. Everyone got all freaked out about Y2K, and then it turned out fine. Maybe this climate thing will be the same way?

One thing that struck me in re-reading that Wikipedia article, and the fact that precipitated this blog post, is this: an estimated six hundred billion US dollars were spent by governments and private industry in remediating the bug worldwide. That would be around US$1T in 2021.

I don’t know about you, but where I live, US$1T is still a lot of money. And that was to fix an obscure coding practice from the 1950s and 60s.

The Apocalypse That Didn’t Happen didn’t happen because many, many skilled people applied decades of effort and major resource to prevent it. The first remediation started in the 1970s, and people were fixing bugs until late in December 1999. It cost a lot of money and time, and it required national and international cooperation across governments at different levels and private companies in many different industries.

Rather than an example of overblown mass hysteria, I think Y2K is actually a good example of a global, complex problem that was solved by hard work and cooperation. Even though a lot of people got unnecessarily freaked out, a lot of other people got very necessarily freaked out. They all worked on different pieces of the problem, either cooperating or just working in parallel, and when it was put to the test, the problem was mostly solved.

I hope my grandkids think about the climate emergency the way my kids now think about Y2K or the hole in the ozone layer: there was a problem, and it required doing something, so people got together and did it, and now it’s not a problem.

It’s boring and obvious in retrospect. Let’s hope we can get there.

One thought on “Y2K and The Climate Emergency

  1. Ya, the big difference is that the Y2K bug solving benefited everyone, but solving the climate “bug” implies a direct attack on the status quo of a very (the most?) powerful section of the global economy, which won’t step down voluntarily.

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