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A ‘wicked’ way of looking at Climate Change

12 December 2009 Valerie Kwan 6 Comments

Having decided to take a break from the Bella Centre, a mini excursion was made to the Danish School of Education in Endrup, where the Aarhus University prepared a Climate Change Conference with a discussion focused on whether education can change the climate.

This was a very ‘wicked’ way of spending a day during the COP15 negotiations – a break from the political debates to a more academic perspective that probes deeper into underlying questions of how the climate change problem should be approached – and in this case, from an educators’ perspective.

Climate change is a ‘wicked problem’. What is this phenomenon really? Economists, based on some scientific researches define this as a technical problem. For example there is the now famously acknowledged 2 degree Celsius ceiling above pre-industrial temperatures that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested. (btw, interestingly overheard a conversation during the queue to the Bella Centre the other day that in the American temperature measurement system, 2 degrees in Fahrenheit would look relatively less, hence probably making the problem look less urgent – FYI, the temperature difference converted to Fahrenheit is actually 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, just to make sure we’re all on the same page)

Another example of a technical measurement is the 350 parts per million carbon in the atmosphere (made famous by www.350.org, N.B. 350 is a social movement) that we have already exceeded and should cut down in. The question, however, is whether the solution to this crisis (or problem, to climate sceptics)is about technological advancements or a restructure in social and ethical life?

Climate change is a wicked problem. Wicked problems are problems that stem from multiple causes, often with a contradictory or changing nature – a complexity that no one single solution could be offered, where interdisciplinary approaches leading to the formation of several solutions are required. Wicked problems, unlike tame problems such as the ozone depletion, could not be addressed with a single formula. In the case of climate change, causes for the problem that were named in the session include market failure, fossil fuel dependence, excessive consumption and the increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth and power.

The analysis does not give a fully organised view of the problem, but could at least attempt an explanation to the nature of the mess that has been going on. An interdisciplinary approach is now becoming increasingly and apparently essential in tackling with climate change. Its effects are penetrating into many aspects of life in the society and can no longer be viewed as an economic or technological problem. Hence there is a need for solutions from other approaches. Using solutions such as market restructuring, commodification of carbon as a tradable good, reliance on a single policy regime or protocol based on economic values is just an attempt to approach a new problem using the same old methods.

unfortunately my camera failed to focus in the opening of the conference hence the blurred vision - or maybe that's the best we can see about our future from where we currently are?

unfortunately my camera failed to focus in the opening of the conference hence the blurred vision - or maybe that's the best we can see about our future from where we currently are?

So, what more needs to be said? Again, as my previous article implies, there is a need for real communication across sectors in order for us to counter-act as a planet against the crisis – climate change. This is, actually, not just another story, but rather the required conclusion of the whole story.



If you care to look deeper into wicked problems, please search Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber’s formulation of wicked problems (1973) for more details.

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6 Comments »

  • Hung said:

    Bravo!! It is really an “One of a kind” comementary and insight on the core and nature of the problem. Thanks for broadening my understanding of the complexity of the climate change as a wicked problem. I wish I could read and learn more from you before your early than usual departure from the COP-15 Summit. Perhaps you should negotiate to stay for the whole summit.

  • Hung said:

    Bravo!! It is really an “One of a kind” comementary and insight on the core and nature of the problem. Thanks for broadening my understanding of the complexity of the climate change as a wicked problem. I wish I could read and learn more from you before your early than usual departure from the COP-15 Summit. Perhaps you should negotiate to stay for the whole summit.

  • Eva Fernandez said:

    Totally agree in the need of changing paradigm in order to give real solutions to wicked problems like climate change!

  • Eva said:

    TOTALLY AGREE, WE NEED TO CHANGE THE PARADIGM IN ORDER TO GIVE REAL SOLUTION TO WICKED PROBLEMS, LIKE CLIMATE CHANGE!

  • TWK said:

    I appreciate very much your observation of climate change being a ‘wicked’ problem because of its over-complexity. This reminds me of the best seller The Limits to Growth back in the early seventies. In this book, the MIT authors tried to list out all relevant and interrelated factors that govern the trajectory of economic growth humanity has been experiencing since the industrial revolution. They made the conclusion that if we keep this pace of development, the limits of our earth will be reached very soon and human life on earth will be left at a very miserable condition of societal collapse far beyond we can imagine. As an antidote for a better alternative, the MIT team suggested the option of zero-growth which precisely resulted in the challenge of international inequality due to unequal stages of growth of different nations. For me this exemplified the true complexity of the problem the world has been facing when we subsequently talked about issues such as Kyoto protocol or climate change crisis. However, it seems to me that precisely because of the inevitable complexity of the problem, we should not expect any one-off solution and should not be over-pessimistic if no such utopian solution is in view. Popper’s notion of piecemeal social engineering seems to be a good and pragmatic way of thinking, as it incessantly arouses our awareness of the issue and requires us to take whatever action that might bring about improvement of the issues we can facing. We need to remind ourselves: Human history is always in the making. Again, thank you for the fine articles you have written so far.

  • Kyeong Wha said:

    Thank you for your posting. My friend who could not attend this conference will like to read your wrting. I’ll tell her about this webpage.
    I checked a lecture file from my sustainability science course to see the definition of the “wicked prbolem.” It says, “Wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirementes; and solutions to them are often difficult to recognize as such because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspect may reveal or creat another, even more comlex problem.”
    Have a nice experiences in COP15!!

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