Climate change is frequently termed a “wicked problem.” Why is that important? Because it has a lot of implications for our ability to actually tackle and solve climate change. On this page we’ll introduce you to the idea of wicked problems, and the implications of climate change being a wicked problem. You can explore the wicked problem literature (and much more) in the Climate Web.
Scientists started talking about the role of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that over time burning fossil fuels might warm the atmosphere, more than 100 years ago. But they weren't talking about climate change as a more immediate societal risk.
The first scientific paper characterizing potential climate change as a nearer-term societal risk was published in 1957. So we've been talking about climate change from a risk perspective for a long time too. The first Presidential briefing on climate risk was in 1965, and the conversation has only expanded since then. But the key takeaway is that the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere has been inexorable, rising from a pre-industrial 278 ppm to 420+ ppm most recently, the highest level in millions of years. That has a lot to do with the fact that climate change is a wicked problem.
Wicked problems are problems with no obvious answer, and with no silver bullet solutions. Often, tackling one part of a wicked problem will worsen another part of the wicked problem. And there’s usually massive cognitive dissonance when it comes to tackling a wicked problem. Discussing an end to fossil fuel use, for example, will create cognitive dissonance for even the most ardent climate change campaigner given the benefits of today’s industrial economy, and our reliance on fossil fuel to access those benefits.
The fact that climate change is a wicked problem makes it a lot more difficult to forecast climate futures, in large part because it’s so difficult to know when and whether sufficiently aggressive efforts to limit climate change will be undertaken. To date, many of the policy initiatives being pursued for tackling climate change can be analogized to the mythical Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war. In the case of climate change, it is the repeated charges of climate advocates against the entrenched positions of
Climate Team "No Urgency". Like the original charge, they have not gone well.
The fact that climate change is a wicked problem also makes it a lot easier to under-estimate the true risks associated with climate change. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, is commonly considered the best source of information for business decision-making related to climate risk. But the IPCC delivers an outdated consensus scientific view on climate futures that tends to emphasize the “most likely” or “expected” climate change outcomes. The IPCC focuses less attention on the “long tail” of the climate change probability distribution as shown in the image below. The IPCC largely ignores, for example, key risk variables like “climate tipping points” because there is insufficient scientific consensus on their timing or likelihood.
The human brain also has an enormous potential for self-deception. This quote from Margaret Heffernan has to be one of the best climate change quotes out there.
It doesn't help that we're operating in an economic system that discounts the future to such an extent that climate change can disappear as a perceived problem. If you discount the future at 5, 10, or 15%, which is what we generally do, anything happening more than a few decades into the future doesn’t really matter. That’s the point Lester Lave is making in his quote.
All of this has led people who think a lot about wicked problems to be quite pessimistic when it comes to climate change. Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman for one.
It’s worth noting that some observers do not think that focusing on climate change as a wicked problem is helpful to tackling climate change. Scientist Michael Mann in his 2021 book “The New Climate War,” for example, suggests that characterizing climate change as a wicked problem is similar in impact to climate denial, since it suggests that climate change is harder to solve than simply getting people to get out and vote for decision-makers who will tackle climate change. The Climatographers disagree, and think it is critical to understand problems for what they are, as suggested by Albert Einstein many years ago.