There’s been an interesting discussion on Twitter about how to frame anthropogenically-driven climate change. In particular, should it be framed as a wicked problem? A number of people involved in the discussion had a problem with this framing. One very simple reason was that if you consider the standard definition of a wicked problem it is
a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.
Many, therefore, object to framing climate change as a wicked problem because it implies that it’s impossible and we don’t really know what’s required. Dealing with anthropogenically-driven climate change may not be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible, and the requirement is pretty straightforward; get net anthropogenic emissions to zero, or pretty close to zero. In fact, some would argue that we do know how to address it; impose a carbon tax based on an estimate of future costs, discounted to today. This should allow the market to develop the optimal future energy pathway.
Those defending the wicked framing suggested that it applied only to the socio-political aspects of the problem, not to our scientific understanding (which is pretty clear). Okay, but again this potentially implies that it’s a problem we can’t solve. Others, however, suggested that there are many examples of wicked problems for which there are solutions. Okay, but this suggests that the definition isn’t very clear, or consistent. Others suggested an even more extreme definition; a problem for which you don’t know the solution in advance and for which you can’t learn from your mistakes. If a solution doesn’t work, you can’t modify things and then fix it.
In many cases, it can be very useful to describe a complex issue with a few simple terms. However, it’s important that the terminology is well-defined. It’s no good if different people use the same terminology to describe different scenarios; that doesn’t simplify, it confuses. Also, if some terminology is already perceived in some way, it is very difficult to use it in a different way, even if you try to be very clear as to your intended meaning.
So, I can’t really see why we would want to describe climate change as a wicked problem. I think the science is pretty clear as to what we need to do if we wish to address anthropogenically-driven climate change; get net anthropogenic emissions to zero. Doing so may well not be easy, but we already have numerous technological solutions, many of which could be implemented now (in fact, some are being implemented). We also have policy options, such as a carbon tax, that would incentivise a change in energy infrastructure. None of this makes it easy, and there are clearly many complications, but framing it in a way that could be perceived as it being impossible, would seem rather counter-productive.
Less science, nore social science! (A post about Reiner Grundmanns’s Nature Geoscience Comment about Climate change as a wicked social problem.)