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Climate Change — Super Wicked Problem

Or ‘why it never feels like we’re making progress’

· Climate Change,Super Wicked Problem,Systems Thinking

On Monday night, a talk by environmental writer and campaigner Jonathon Porritt introduced me to the phrase ‘a super wicked problem’ to describe the climate challenge.

Following the post-Paris celebrations, a lot of us were left saying:
* But what do we do now?
* If the world just agreed on a low-carbon future, why is the fracking, pipeline construction, and exploration for new fossil fuel reserves 
continuing as before?

A ‘super wicked problem’ (originally from Levin, Cashore, Auld & Bernstein), is a problem where:

  1. Time is running out 
  2. Problem causers are the chief beneficiaries of the status quo, yet their engagement is essential in delivering the solution 
  3. Central authority is weak / non-existent 
  4. Current policy responses discount the future irrationally

I’ve attended several ‘Post-Paris’/’What’s Next’ events over the last month. And to feed the audience’s need for optimism (I assume), none of these framed the challenge in this way. The potential social impacts of continued climate change are super depressing (low-lying island states facing an existential threat, potentially resulting in more migration crises and likely more anti-migrant xenophobia).

And so — to avoid this — the conversation veers into descriptions of our ‘deliverance’ through some form of ‘techno-salvation’ provided by low-carbon technologies. A noble dream, but not when we let it blind us to the sobering implications of climate change risks.

The concept of a ‘super wicked problem’ is a crucial reminder of why we — environmental advocates — can feel such extreme frustration or despair:

The path towards a low-carbon future is not incremental. We are pushing against great resistance with every step closer to the tipping point.

Our efforts are not worthless, but we are fighting to change an extremely entrenched socio-techno system that:
(1) underpins our energy, transport, and industrial sectors
(2) is self-reinforcing.

Accordingly — we must soldier on with our demanding, drawn-out quest because it is absolutely essential to tip the momentum towards a low-carbon world.

In this spirit, my next series of blog posts are focused on finding ways we can re-engage with the climate impact of our daily activities. For the latest posts, join my mailing list for alerts.


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