A Wicked Problem

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.


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.

11 Responses to “A Wicked Problem”

  1. Hank Roberts says:

    Relevant interview (one from a good series of AAAS interviews done by grad students in science communication)
    “…  You often characterize climate change policy as being a discussion among Western males. How would discussion be different if there were more international participants?
    It’s the difference between imagining what other people would think and actually asking them what they think. When you look at pushback from the developing world on processes like the IPCC, their agendas are really quite different from the northern Western agendas. In the case of the climate modeling that [Rutgers University atmospheric scientist] Alan Robock did on damaging the Indian monsoon, it would look quite different to people living in India than it would to people living in California who say, “Well if there’s damage somewhere else, we’ll try to make amends.”
    What do you think are some of the major flaws in mainstream discussions of climate change?
    Giving too much attention to technical versus social issues. Social scientists don’t have the same level of funding. We don’t understand how to do team research that well, or group grant writing.
    Also, climate anxiety isn’t new and it’s not only in the West. What’s missing is an international and intergenerational and interdisciplinary approach….”

  2. Hank Roberts says:

    See also this reminder that “warming” is in part a convenient red herring, a distraction — beloved of the political tribe, “both sides” of it –it’s still something they can argue about, which allows continued delay.  You never hear people saying the big problem with burning fossil fuel is it will destroy the productivity of the oceans by 2050, do you?  Except the scientists, who do say that.
    The far more immediate and urgent problem:
    “… we’re heading towards a catastrophe if we don’t change the way we manage the planet. And that’s not just coral reefs, its ocean resources in general. That said, we haven’t completely ruined the planet yet.  And there are places on the planet that show us that it is possible to have healthy ecosystems with the right kind of management. So you can be optimistic in the sense that it is possible, but I mean, it is depressing to have watched. My husband* is a little older than I am, and in the course of our professional careers, all the places that we have studied have essentially vanished as healthy reefs. It’s hard not to be Drs Doom and Gloom. On the other hand there is no point in that approach because everyone will say, “Oh well, what the hell, we’ve lost coral reefs.” And give up hope. So I think you have to make people realize just how incredibly serious the situation is, but also that there’s something that they can do about it.

    …. One wish is that people would change their patterns of fossil fuel usage so we can get Co2 emissions capped and declining. If we don’t do that, in the long run, everything is hopeless. We have to do that. Reefs can’t grow in the level of acidity that is projected for business-as-usual Co2 emissions….”
    * http://scicom.ucsc.edu/Q&A/2009/jackson.php

  3. Fred says:

    Hmmmmm  let’s see.
    Global Climate Crisis, or “Crisis” if you will.
    Global Economic Crisis.
    Hmmmmm  which one is really important to ordinary citizens?
    Ya right.

  4. […] the Hartwell Paper, which I first discussed earlier this week, the authors suggest prioritizing action on “non-CO2 forcing agents,” such as […]

  5. a. n. ditchfield says:

    The Lebensraum doctrine of Green activists rests on three tenets they accept with an act of faith:
    ·          We are running out of space. World population is already excessive on a limited planet and grows exponentially.
    ·          We are running out of means. The planet’s non-renewable resources are being depleted by consumption at a rate that renders economic expansion unsustainable.
    ·          We shall fry. Carbon dioxide emitted by human economic activity causes global warming that shall make the planet uninhabitable.
    When such tenets are quantified, the contrast between true and false stands out sharply.
    Is overpopulation a grave problem? The sum of urban areas of the United States is equivalent to 2% of the area of the country, and to 6% in densely inhabited countries such as England and Holland. And there is plenty of green in urban areas. If comparison is limited to land covered by buildings and pavements the occupied land in the whole world amounts to 0,04% of the terrestrial area of the planet. With 99.96% unoccupied the idea of an overcrowded planet is an exaggeration. Population forecasts are uncertain but the most accepted ones foresee stability of world population to be reached in the 21st century. According to some, world population may begin to decline at the end of this century. With so much elbowroom it is untenable that world population is excessive or shall ever become so.
    Strictly speaking, no natural resource is non-renewable in a universe ruled by the Law of Conservation of Mass. In popular form it holds that “Nothing is created, nothing is lost, all is transformed.” Human usage is not subtracted from the mass of the planet, and in theory all material used may be recycled. The possibility of doing so depends on availability and low cost of energy. When fusion energy becomes operative it will be available in practically unlimited quantities. The source is deuterium, a hydrogen isotope found in water, in a proportion of 0.03%. One cubic kilometer of seawater contains more energy than can be obtained from combustion of all known petroleum reserves of the world. Since oceans hold 3 billion cubic kilometers of water, energy will last longer than the human species.
    There is no growing shortfall of resources signaled by rising prices. Since the middle of the 19th century The Economist publishes consistent indices of values of commodities and they have all declined, over the period, due to technological advances. The decline has been benign. The cost of feeding a human being was 8 times greater in 1850 than it is today. In 1950, less than half of a world population of 2 billion had an adequate diet, above 2000 calories per day. Today, 80% have the diet, and world population is three times greater.
    There is a problem with the alleged global warming. It stopped in 1995, after having risen in the 20 previous years, and unleashing a scare over its effects. Since 1998 it has been followed by 12 years of declining temperatures, in a portent of a cold 21st century. This shows that there are natural forces shaping climate, more powerful than manmade carbon dioxide and anything mankind can do for or against world climate. The natural forces include cyclical oscillation of ocean temperatures, sunspot activity and the effect of magnetic activity of the sun on cosmic rays. All such cycles are foreseeable, but there is no general theory of climate with predictive capacity. What knowledge exists comes from one hundred fields, such as meteorology, oceanography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology, etc. with partial contributions to the understanding of climate.
    Devoid of support of solid theory and empirical data, the mathematical models that underpin alarmist forecasts amount to speculative thought that reflects the assumptions fed into the models. Such computer simulations offer no rational basis for public policy that inhibits economic activity “to save the planet”. And carbon dioxide is not a pollutant; it is the nutrient needed for photosynthesis that supports the food chain of all living beings of the planet.
    Stories of doom circulate daily. Anything that happens on earth has been blamed on global warming: an Australian dust storm, a Himalayan earthquake, a volcanic eruption, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, tribal wars in Africa, heat wave in Paris, recent severe winters in North America, the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, known for five centuries, the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota. Evo Morales blames Americans for the summer floods in Bolivia. Hugo Chavez received a standing ovation in Copenhagen when he blamed global warming on capitalism. He has the support of the Castro brothers,, Mungabe and all such dictators, With friends like these does the cause need enemies?
    Global warming is not a physical phenomenon; it is a political and journalistic phenomenon that finds parallel in the totalitarian doctrines that inebriated masses deceived by demagogues. As Chris Patten put it: “Green politics at its worst amounts to a sort of Zen fascism; less extreme, it denounces growth and seeks to stop the world so that we can all get off”. In the view of Professor Aaron Wildavsky global warming is the mother of all environmental scares. “Warming (and warming alone), through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist’s dream of an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population’s eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally.” Their dream is the hippies’ lifestyle of idleness, penury, long hair, unshaven face, blue jeans, sandals and vegetarian diet, imposed on the world by decree of Big Brother, and justified by the Lebensraum fallacy.

  6. Hank Roberts says:

    Any hope of implementing killfile here, Keith?  It’d be a kindness to your serious readers who use Firefox.  The author is reachable:
    —– On policy
    The work James Annan recently pointed out
    should help the policymakers, assuming it gets recognized by the next IPCC report.  It seems it’s reasonable to rule out those claims that we can’t possibly know the climate sensitivity.  This dismisses those arguments that “… imply irreducible uncertainty in climate change predictions and thus have notable implications for climate science and climate-related policy making. We show that equilibrium climate sensitivity in all generality does not support such an intrinsic indeterminacy; …. there is no room for physical interpretations or policy conclusions based on this mathematical error. Sensitive dependence nonetheless does exist in the climate system ….”
    James’s comment includes:  “I’m not yet sure how much this really matters. We can still get a high sensitivity so long as the nonlinearity is small. …. the existence of complex climate models with sensitivities above 6C implies that such high values are at least not a mathematical impossibility. It may, however, make it harder to justify the sort of pathological “long tail” arguments beloved by some. Of course I’ve argued against them on a number of grounds already – not least of which is that, from a policy perspective, we are on really shaky ground if all the calls to action have to be based on highly improbable events that we are pretty confident won’t happen ….”

  7. Hank Roberts says:

    PS, this also might help people accept policy responses to the problems of rapid CO2 increase — at least people who aren’t committed to rejecting facts that conflict with ideology.  The others, well, heads do explode when facts hit them too hard.
    “… The basic point I was trying to make is that the US economy did very well with tax rates and levels of regulation (and strong unions) that, according to modern mythology, should have been crippling. That’s why conservatives have invented an alternative history in which it never happened.”

  8. Hank Roberts says:

    Like this:
    “The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing on May 20 to examine the intersection between climate science and the political process…. The Republican members made opening statements that attacked some more, then walked out on the hearing without even listening to the testimony, or asking a single question.  See Details for our report from the hearing.”

  9. Steve Bloom says:

    The Policy Lass, like me someone who has some experience with how paper policies tend to get translated to the real world, examines the Hartwell Paper and finds nothing of value.


  10. Hank Roberts says:

    > Policy Lass
    Second that.  Good job raking through the pile.
    Keith, if you’re still in email exchanges with the authors, worth an invite to the conversation I’d say.

  11. […] week, I explored with Hartwell co-author Steve Rayner the notion of climate change as a “˜wicked problem,’ in […]

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