Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Jul 2019, 13:18 p.m.

Comparing Y2K and Climate Change

When you know there's a big upcoming threat, how do you get big institutions to commit and follow through? And in particular, how useful is it to frighten whole populaces?

I looked into a specific claim on this topic today because a MetaFilter member compared climate change to the Y2K bug, and said,

from my POV as a computer geek who saw what it took to get the... very fine people... in management moving was panic and doom saying....

...those calm and measured meetings only took place because of the general panic. If they were going to have calm rational meetings without the outside pressure of people convinced their toasters would explode (or whatever) they'd have done it earlier.

From my POV panicking the masses, while not good, was literally the only reason the billionaires paid the slightest attention to the problem. The billionaires and the rest of the management types didn't panic, or not much anyway, but their non-panic reaction was produced entirely by the panic.

So I wanted to double-check whether that is in fact the dynamic that actually happened back in the 1980s and 1990s. Was the causality fairly simple, or was the course of events was shaped by lots of conversations among regulators, shareholders, customers, boards of directors, etc. that weren't as visible to a working engineer's point of view?

So I started looking for a little more research and data about Y2K mitigation/prevention decisionmaking especially on the institutional level, beyond the US Senate special committee report. This question -- what caused institutions to take Y2K seriously? -- seemed like the kind of thing historians of technology and organizational sociologists and political scientists must have studied. I did some digging and here are some things I think are useful to consider:

  • Y2K was a technology problem at heart, and so IT investment, where IT sat in an organization, senior leaders' attitudes towards IT, etc. were factors that slowed down planning & compliance.[1]
  • Banks, for instance, found it hard to get their customers/users to understand the importance of Y2K compliance, because it was an abstruse technological issue.[2]
  • Getting companies to actually act involved some amount of influence/pressure from the outside, especially from the mass media and from regulators, state and federal agencies, and industry-wide consortia and working groups (including credible experts talking about the risk of legal liability), but also people inside companies needed to believe that the threat was not being overstated by doomsayers or IT departments seeking more turf.[3] [4] [5]
  • Auditors at private companies -- whose work was often required by insurers -- did lots of disclosure, separately from anything customers or the public at large demanded via grassroots action.[6]
  • Y2K was a software problem, and so countries that made a lot of stuff but made and used way less software didn't need to do nearly as much to address it. I see a bunch of stuff in the Y2K prep literature about the US and the UK, and way less about, for instance, China.
  • Companies in countries with stronger political rights and civil liberties disclosed more about their Y2K preparedness.[7] I'd assume that disclosure made market pressure more possible (from investors and customers) but I haven't researched it.

Apologies for how much of that research is behind paywalls.

I only looked at this for a few hours but (a) I think there are a lot of important differences between the structure of the Y2K problem (and its mitigations) and climate change, and (b) I believe the story's a lot more complicated than "mass panic -> billionaires finally paid up". I think widescale media attention to the concern played a big part in directly motivating regulators and institutional decisionmakers, and grassroots concern in the general public (as citizenry and as customer base) played a part in that, but it looks like insurers and auditors and industry groups were also really crucial. To sum up, yeah, we have lessons to learn from Y2K -- I'm drawn to Bob Bennett's phrasing, that we must be Paul Revere but not Chicken Little -- but I'm very hesitant about drawing the conclusion that literally panicking the world's populaces is the only way to drive climate change mitigation.

[1] Ho, A. T.-K., & Smith, J. F. (2001). Information Technology Planning and the Y2K Problem in Local Governments. The American Review of Public Administration, 31(2), 158–180.
[2] Huang, J. C., Newell, S., & S-L, P. (2001). The process of global knowledge integration: A case study of a multinational investment bank's Y2K program. European Journal of Information Systems, 10(3), 161-174. doi:
[3] Backus, George, et al. "Comparing Expectations to Actual Events: The Post Mortem of a Y2K Analysis." System Dynamics Review, vol. 17, no. 3, 2001, pp. 217. doi:
[4] Chang, Hsiu-Hua, Chun-Po Yin, and Huey-Wen Chou. "Diffusion of Enterprise Resource Planning Systems in Taiwan: Influence Sources and the Y2K Effect." International Journal of Enterprise Information Systems, vol. 4, no. 1, 2008, pp. 34-47. doi:
[5] Solomon, H. (2005, Sep 23). Y2K: The disaster that wasn't. Computing Canada, 31, 46-48.
[6] Clarkson, Peter M., Colin Ferguson, and Jason Hall. "Auditor Conservatism and Voluntary Disclosure: Evidence from the Year 2000 Systems Issue." Accounting and Finance, vol. 43, no. 1, 2003, pp. 21.
[7] S, M. W. (2004). An international investigation of associations between societal variables and the amount of disclosure on information technology and communications problems: The case of Y2K. The International Journal of Accounting, 39(1), 71-92.