Climate Change: How To Stop The Titanic

Knowing the future is the easy part. The real challenge is changing course, writes Susan Krumdieck

November 2016

Words by Susan Krumdieck

Let’s explore a thought puzzle: Can you change the future?

You are transported onto the deck of the RMS Titanic, the largest ship ever built and designed to be unsinkable. It is midnight 13 April 1912. There are 2,224 people on the ship, which is under full steam on the fastest ever crossing of the Atlantic. You know what will happen, what will you do?

You know that at 11:39pm on 14 April the lookout will spot an iceberg, and by 2:20am the ship and 1,517 people will be gone. The ship was launched with lifeboats for less than half the number of people on board. You could take a self-sufficiency strategy and make sure you are near a lifeboat, but you know they will be allocated according to class and you might not get a spot.

Clearly, the best solution is to slow down, change course and not hit the iceberg. You know that the wireless operator will receive numerous warnings from other ships about large icebergs in the direct path. You could seek out the operator and help him communicate the danger to the captain. But the captain has hit icebergs with other ships, and the Titanic is unsinkable, so he may not think caution is warranted. Neither will the captain and senior officers want to contradict the owners. You could try to convince the first-class passengers to ask the captain to slow down. But they are not convinced of danger in such a comfortable and luxurious ship, and they don’t want to hear about problems when they have parties to attend. You could go below decks and organize the lower-class passengers to occupy the bridge and demand action to slow the ship and change the course. But the passengers don’t want to worry, they believe in the technology of the ship and that if there was a problem, the captain or the owners would do something.

“You know that at 11:39pm on 14 April the lookout will spot an iceberg, and by 2:20am the ship and 1,517 people will be gone. Can you change the future?”

You are running out of time. How can you slow down the ship, enabling the captain to avoid the iceberg? You could go to the engine room and explain to the men shovelling coal into the boilers that they need to reduce the use of coal by 80%, providing the chance to change course in time and safeguard the journey. They would probably be afraid for their jobs. Could you convince them to change the future?

Transition engineering is the work of innovating and delivering the redevelopment of energy-consuming systems, which we must do to accomplish the 80% step down in greenhouse gas production required to avoid runaway climate change. Ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity are the best resources for achieving change.  However, innovative thinking is stifled if we focus on catastrophic failure.

For example, modern buildings, cities, and the entire economy would fail if coal, oil and gas supplies suddenly dropped by 80%. A rapid reduction in energy supply would be a disaster — but rapid reduction in energy use is the only way to mitigate climate risk. The risks of unsustainable fossil energy use are exacerbated without immediate change, but imminent collapse due to energy shortage is unlikely. This dissonance between the problem and the possible actions can be referred to as a “wicked problem”.

Transition engineering is an approach to wicked problems. The approach starts with defining a specific system, learning the history and knowing the future. Energy use and emissions have grown beyond sustainable levels because the utility, energy return on energy invested, and net surplus to the economy from coal, oil and gas are colossal. Engineering and technology provided access to these benefits at bargain prices. We now refer to this unsustainable activity as business-as-usual (BAU), and it is difficult to imagine changing course or slowing down. Society and its leaders expect that technology will provide new sources of green energy, and keep the economy growing with minimal inconvenience. The transition approach includes honest assessment of green technologies and whether they actually can change or slow the BAU course.

The innovation phase of the approach is an interdisciplinary discovery of the future, 100 years from now, where the wicked problem has been resolved and the energy system is managed sustainably. For example, when we explored Christchurch 100 years from now, we discovered a city with redevelopment of much of the paved land into productive uses, several electric trams and all buildings incorporating passive design and very low energy use. There was some reorganization of the land use, and the dominant travel mode was bicycles and electrified cargo cycles.

The back-casting phase uses this 100-year discovery model to interrogate the present and identify the key players in changing course. In all instances, the technology used in the 100-year discovery is known today, but projects to bring about the necessary change are few. The problem is the economics of short-term perceived risk. For example, the design tools and materials for near-zero passive buildings are already known, but the business of low-energy redevelopment is not growing fast enough.

The next phase is to develop shift projects and new business opportunities that improve energy performance through holistic measures. These shift projects must be beneficial and profitable. For example, From the Ground Up is a new social enterprise in Christchurch that forms partnerships between electric tram manufacturer Alstom, the city council, retailers along a main avenue, student volunteers, the local community and property developers. The aim is to redevelop an area of old, substandard low-density suburb near the university into higher density, transit-oriented development along a tram corridor into the central business district. The enterprise has developed the base data and business case for the redevelopments.

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Another example is the redevelopment of old buildings in old areas of cities. Many are in locations that could become vibrant, walkable and transit-oriented urban eco-villages, but the projects must be done one at a time in each city. The shift project will develop a new renovation business that invests in old buildings in the right locations, becoming the owner of the improvements, taking over the energy, utility and waste contracts and charging clients rents. The return on the investments is in both capital gains and in improved rents and lower energy costs. The shift project includes an insurance product that de-risks investment in redevelopment by guaranteeing a minimum energy savings return for fully modelled and reviewed renovation designs.

The transition engineering approach is about creating projects that shift energy use to 80% less fossil fuel while realizing social benefits and making profits. The Global Association for Transition Engineering can provide consultation and training for companies, councils and organizations to take on their wicked problems and change course.

Susan Krumdieck is professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and founder of the Global Association for Transition Engineering

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4 comments on “Climate Change: How To Stop The Titanic

  1. Norris Thomlinson on

    I really like the opening section; great analogy for our current crisis. But the author then stops short of the obvious conclusion: if nearly no one on the ship will act with foresight and sanity, choose actions you can carry out yourself or with a small group. On the Titanic, you would figure out how to sabotage the engines, or the conveyor belt making coal available to the furnaces, or some other piece of critical infrastructure. Force the ship to slow down.

    Today we have a plethora of critical infrastructure on which the global system depends; it’s just a matter of carefully thinking through strategy, tactics, and target selection. I’m part of the group Stop Fossil Fuels ( ), working to provide a (hopefully) useful framework for stopping our modern Titanic. All hands on deck!

  2. Susan Krumdieck on

    Hi Norris
    I have definitely wondered if someone would consider a destructive solution as the way to avoid catastrophe. Here is my answer to that. In the Titanic analogy, as in real energy systems, destruction of the plant would be like stirring up the ant hill. You would generate a large and rapid response to repair the damage and get everything running on track again. And the destruction you caused would #1 get you in trouble, and #2 possibly harm people and property.

    The proposal in the story is about changing the way engineering professionals work and changing the way engineering students are educated – basically subverting the purpose of engineering from economic growth and profit to the more inclusive definition of engineering – making things work. This is a massive disruption in the business-as-usual. If the engineers wind down the fuel supply, then they will also get to work changing gate systems that use the fuel so that they don’t need the fuel, and then people can choose what works. And you and your small group of friends don’t have to go to jail. In the course of history this change in engineering could happen and is the only way I can see to avoid the catastrophic climate crash.

    So – please join us in this subversive effort at

  3. Cheryl Horrell on

    Susan, You don’t mention abandoning consumerism/capitalism in your future scenario. Few people do. It’s as if we can carry on as we are, making, selling and throwing away ship loads of rubbish so long as we wrap it in something other than plastic. I don’t see a future for retailers in Christchurch 100 years on. Society has to find a completely different means of sharing resources if we are going to survive global warming.

  4. Susan Krumdieck on

    Thanks for the thoughts. Maybe the Titanic story can cover off dealing with assumptions we are all making as well. Let’s see.
    The purpose of a parable is to frame up a complex situation, the human actors, the roles they play, and to illuminate some truth that might help. The assumption about the journey is so fundamental to the story that we don’t even recognise it or question it. Is that like our assumptions that our current lifestyles are somehow going to be sustained for us by the engineered systems we take for granted?

    Here are the unspoken assumptions about the Titanic journey. The White Star Line is trying to increase market share, the captain is doing his job, as are all the other crew. The first class passengers are enjoying the lifestyle they are entitled to because they paid for it. The third class passengers are emigrating, hoping for a better life. Everybody assumes the journey will go on as planned. But the Atlantic is the same temperature for all of them as of 2:20 am.

    The assumption that the ship is unsinkable leads to apathy amongst people. The crew are too busy to do anything but their jobs. The first class passengers don’t question their entitlement to comforts and service. The third class passengers just want to go to bed in their little space. If we tried to warn them all that their assumption is flawed and that they are all going to have to swim in cold water, would that be the way to “save the Titanic”? We know with perfect foresight that they are going to have to stop dancing, leave their belongings behind and get wet and cold. But does telling them that make any of the actors willing to take the action to slow down the ship and change course?

    Maybe we can enhance the story. Let’s try this. The voyage was sold as being the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. In order to save the Titanic that will have to be sacrificed. It seems like a REALLY TRIVIAL sacrifice relative to the disaster ahead. But for a lot of people on the ship, that assumption about how money is going to be made, how they can brag about being on the fastest crossing, how they can get out of their cramped quarters earlier… just makes the idea of change hard to think about. If we look at it that way, then maybe there is a new angle we can add to the story. Could we help the different actors see that the things they think are important are actually superficial compared to survival for a lot of people they don’t know? If so, then who becomes the hero in our story? Who would be willing to disappoint everyone by giving the order to slow down and change course? It looks like it would have to be Mr. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line. He is really the only one. He could tell Captain Smith to slow down. He wouldn’t even have to explain himself. He would do it to actually save the company and their profits, even if he doesn’t care about saving the lives of people he doesn’t know. While the passengers might be disappointed, they would survive and deal with it.

    So – should we put more effort to save the Titanic into finding that one guy who has the fate of so many in his hands and doesn’t even know it? Should we do things we don’t know how to do – figure out how to get into the first class lounge and get an audience with a really rich and powerful industrialist? Should we carefully prepare our evidence and arguments about why it is actually in his and the company’s shareholder’s interests to slow down and change course? We should also have a forward plan for how to manage the disappointment and help everybody get some perspective about their fundamental assumptions, as this could help sway him.

    The Titanic Story just keeps giving.


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