The Implications of Accepting the Wickedness of the Climate Change Problem: How the Climate Web Can Help

September 29, 2015 | 0 comments

This guest post comes from Mark Trexler. Trexler earned his Ph.D. from the U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Public Policy in 1990. He has spent the last 28 years working on climate change, in capacities ranging from a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to a management consultant working with companies around the world.  Three years ago he left his role as Director of Climate Risk for Det Norske Veritas, a global risk management firm, to focus on building better tools for communicating climate risk.  Through the Climatographers (www.climatographer.com), Trexler is constructing a first-of-its-kind knowledge solution for climate change, the Climate Web (found in our Resources section under “Advocacy, Media and Tools”). In this post, he covers climate change as a wicked problem and how the Climate Web can assist us in approaching climate change in education. In our next post, Trexler addresses the problem of education for climate neutrality.

We pay lip service to climate change as a “wicked problem,” and you can find it referred to that way almost every day. Nevertheless, we tend to approach climate change via individual disciplines, and to focus on “solutions.”  Books, papers, blogs, and news stories focus much more on discipline-specific views of what we’re doing or should be doing to address climate change. For economists it’s an externality problem, for engineers it’s a technology problem, for psychologists it’s a cognitive perception problem. The reality is that climate change is all of those things, and none of them. We would do well to heed Albert Einstein’s conclusion that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

Horst Rittel, a professor of the science of design, and Melvin Webber, who taught city planning, first coined the term “wicked problems” in their 1973 paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” They characterized wicked problems as:

  • There are no true or false answers
  • Solutions can’t be truly tested
  • There are no clear solution sets
  • Each problem is unique
  • Each problem is a symptom of another problem

Students of wicked problems express pessimism about our ability to address climate change. In her book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011) Margaret Heffernan suggests that “[I]n failing to confront the greatest challenge of our age – climate change – all the forces of willful blindness come together, like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet.” Professor Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate and the father of behavioral economics, has commented that “I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

Perhaps with wicked problems in mind, Einstein suggested that “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” We have not heeded that advice in our constant search for solutions to the climate change problem. There are good reasons for that failure. Most of us are tied to individual disciplines; we are neither prepared nor incentivized to tackle the wickedness of the problem. And even if we wanted to, where would we turn for help?

The problem is not a general lack of relevant information. New climate books appear every month. Numerous reports and journal publications appear every week, and dozens of climate stories circulate through our listserve, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn networks every day. Collectively we know a great deal about climate change, but as individuals we’re much more limited. As John Naisbitt puts it, “we are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.”

The Climate Web uses innovative TheBrain™ software to tackle the “If only we knew what we know” maxim of Carla Odell, a parent of knowledge management. It helps individual users access “actionable knowledge” from disciplines as wide-ranging as climate science, risk perception and risk management, climate modeling and forecasting, business decision-making, technology innovation, and communications theory. It does not advocate particular solutions, or provide “the” answer to questions. Rather, it pulls together the best arguments and best thinking from hundreds of experts and thought-leaders across the spectrum of issues that make climate change such a wicked problem. The Climate Web can be thought of as a time-saver, a training tool, or as a doorway for exploring the wickedness of the climate problem.

The entry point into the Climate Web is found under the Advocacy, Media and Tools section of Resources on The Field Guide and can be accessed at www.theclimateweb.org. It is easy to explore, as you can jump from idea to idea with clicks of the mouse, and expand thousands of informative thumbnails by hovering over them with your mouse. But just as climate change is the ultimate wicked problem, the Climate Web does not pretend to offer instant gratification. What it does do is point you to information you are looking for, as well as information you might not have thought to look for. Not only does it encompass tens of thousands of published sources and links to news stories, blogs, websites, and other resources, but the curators of the Climate Web have extracted and organized the key messages, the best tables and figures, and more, for easy access. No longer are you limited to the insights of the first blog or article you happen to come across.

To demonstrate the depth of the knowledgebase, we provide links to specific spots in the Climate Web below. From any of these initial landing points you can branch out into the rest of the Climate Web by utilizing simple navigation instructions.

We can also work with users to tailor the Climate Web to specific needs, e.g. a particular academic course or curriculum. Teachers can deliver presentations and short courses on topics like scenario planning directly from the Climate Web. The possibilities are endless, as is the potential to contribute to the Climate Web’s further development. Student deliverables, for example, can be designed to be fed into the Climate Web to expand key topic literatures and analysis.

The Climate Web already reflects a very large knowledgebase, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what it can ultimately deliver to support understanding of and action on the wicked problem of climate change. We encourage you to explore it, and to help us continue to expand it.

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