A Wicked Problem

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 19, 2010 9:01 PM


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Several weeks ago, a varied group of distinguished scholars released a provocative treatise, called The Hartwell Paper: A new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009. It got a decent splash of media coverage. The Economist wrote an excellent overview and analysis. The BBC's Richard Black posted a respectful and mildly critical review. This week, I've been conducting email exchanges with several of the Hartwell authors, and I'd like to start posting these Q & A's today. But first, I thought this passage from The Economist overview would serve as a helpful introduction:

The degree to which debates about climate change have become debates about climate-change science reflects the fact that this way of looking at the issue presents "the science" as a reason to act; those who want action thus have an interest in exaggerrating the conclusions or certainty of the science, and those who do not wish to act are incentivised in the opposite direction. The Hartwellites do not disagree with the science in general and certainly don't think there is no reason to act. They simply doubt that action along this one axis (carbon-dioxide reduction) can ever be made politically compelling. Instead, their oblique strategies (not derived from the useful tool of that name created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, though they would probably approve) are to concentrate on easy opportunities and efficiency, energy and dignity.

The Hartwell paper argues that only a "radical reframing" of the approach to climate policy will achieve true "decarbonisation of the global economy." In future posts this week, I'll delve into how the authors propose to achieve this decarbonisation. Today, I want to focus on the argument they make for a conceptual reframing of the public debate. To this end, there is a fascinating section in the Hartwell paper that talks about how it was an early mistake to frame climate change in the emerging public discourse as a conventional environmental problem. Instead, the paper asserts that climate change should be understood as a 'wicked' problem. The authors write:

Originally described by Rittel and Webber in the context of urban planning, 'wicked' problems are issues that are often formulated as if they are susceptible to solutions when in fact they are not. Technical knowledge was taken as a sufficient basis from which to derive Kyoto's policy, whereas 'wicked' problems demand profound understanding of their integration in social systems, their irreducibly complexity and intractable nature.

I take this to mean that, until we stop viewing climate change as simply an environmental problem, we can't have a smart debate on climate change, much less a smart policy to address it. If so, this implies that there can't be a real policy shift until there is a paradigm shift in the way climate change is publicly discussed. So I put this to Hartwell co-author, Steve Rayner, Director of Oxford University's Institute for Science Innovation and Society. Q: Shouldn't we be talking a lot more about climate change as one of those 'wicked' problems, and how can we do that? SR: With regard to climate change as a wicked problem, the Hartwell paper is largely reiterating the case outlined in The Wrong Trousers and Time to Ditch Kyoto. The first application of the Rittel and Webber formulation to climate that I am aware of was my Jack Beale Memorial Lecture in Sydney in 2006. Mike Hulme picks up the term in his book: Why we disagree about climate change, for which I wrote the Foreword. So, "Yes" we do need to get people to appreciate the fact that climate is not a "problem" to be "solved" in any conventional sense. How would we know when it was "solved"? And in any case since "climate kills" already, what is so special about the status quo? We could save countless lives and improve living conditions of at least 2 billion people by better climate adaptation in the present. So why the obsession with the incremental damage that is projected to occur in the future while we ignore present losses? Answer: because prophesies of doom are seen by some as effective ways to coerce desired behavior about all sorts of things in the present - although I disagree that this is sustainable. ***Postscript*** As I mentioned at the outset, I will be posting Q & A's on various aspects of the Hartwell Paper the rest of this week. I do encourage people to have a look at the paper--it is reader-friendly. Additionally, some of the points Rayner made above are put into larger context by this passage in the conclusion:

The aim of this paper has been to reframe the climate issue around matters of human dignity. Not just because that is noble or nice or necessary--although all of those reasons--but because it is likely to be more effective than the approach of framing around human sinfulness--which has just failed. Securing access to low-cost energy for all, including the very poor, is truly and literally liberating. Building resilience to surprise and to extremes of weather is a practical expression of true global solidarity. Improving the quality of air that people breathe is an undeniable public good. Such a reorientation requires a radical rethinking and then reordering of the climate policy agenda.

I welcome discussion of this effort to recast climate change as a "wicked problem" and hope that some of the Hartwell authors can join in.

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