Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Whats the problem? Wickedness in Climate Science

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Professor Carolyn Roberts at Gresham College. This lecture was part of a series reflecting on challenges to the application of science and particularly the nature of communications between people from different perspectives. Entitled ‘Greeness and UK environmental challenges’ it introduces the idea of ‘Wicked Problems’ (Rittel & Webber 1973) and applies them to case studies in Uganda and the 2007 Gloucestershire flooding.

‘Wicked problems’ have a number of characteristics; they are complex and poorly understood, involve several disciplines and dimensions, have effects separated by both space and time, numerous stakeholders (who use different language and have different levels of understanding) and with solutions that never seem to be complete. Whilst the initial talk approached this from a hydrological perspective it’s interesting to explore climate change through the same lens.

Against the checklist paraphrased by Professor Roberts
  • 1)     Climate change is certainly complex and whilst the science is, for the most part, understood the problem itself is not. Is the problem that the climate will be warmer? Or the effects this will have on ecosystems? Societal resilience? Or the balance of mitigation and adaption?
  • 2)     It certainly involves numerous disciplines; Climate, Ocean, Geology, Sociology, Politics, Law, Engineering and a thousand others each have a part to play.
  • 3)     The complications of time and space are possibly the worse aspect of behind the climate science problem. There are lags associated with historical emissions and current warming, current emissions and future warming and all manner of unknown planetary responses. Take the current warming hiatus for example. Then there are the disproportionate effects. The majority of current emissions come from rich western countries, with poorer globally southern countries far more at risk. Both poles are warming differently as is the equator, whilst the higher land mass of the northern hemisphere and greater ocean content of the south also plays into confusion.
  • 4)     For numerous stakeholders, see every person who currently or will live on Earth.
Whats the problem? Image courtesy of http://understandinggroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/problems-1024x658.png [accessed 21.10.14]

Levin et al (2012) characterize Climate change as a ‘Super Wicked’ problem, adding that the problem is urgent, that it lacks a weak central authority and that policy response focuses on the short-term and are formulated by those that have caused the problem. The move to natural gas from fracking, and Obamas recent control on Hydrofluorocarbons highlight the final point in particular. Whilst steps in the right direction they do nothing to address the total amount of CO2 in or entering the atmosphere. Weak central authority was shown in the NYC Climate Summit with the majority of good news coming from businesses or singular cities and mayors. Emissions targets meanwhile were left to governments to decide nationally on a voluntary basis.  Herein lies the dilemma of the ‘Super-Wicked’ problem, how do you evaluate solutions to a dynamic and flexible problem with each addressing Climate Change from a different perspective or orientation. The above authors all share a conclusion for wicked problems, that solutions are never complete, merely better or worse.

The talk on Wednesday finished on rather a sour note with one member of the audience claiming that any optimism was pointless as the course was set and the problem too entrenched. I feel it necessary to disagree for a number of reasons; firstly the gentleman was significantly older than the majority of the audience. He has already enjoyed the world for several years and I don’t plan on giving up on my chance just yet. Secondly solutions present themselves when we re-orientate the problem.  The science is settled, but communicative strategies are not with engagement and understanding a consistent barrier. Stakeholder engagement, technological advance, education of policy makers and open data/citizen science all now have a crucial role to play. This blog will continue to address solutions but the framing of the problem by Professor Roberts made for fascinating watching and I’d urge you all to attend the next one in early December.

Professor Carolyn Roberts
-The First Frank Jackson Professor of the Environment and only the 9th new Gresham professor since 159
-History in water management but also ran her own water consultancy and communication firms
-Founder of the Knowledge transfer network linking businesses and academia and director of its predecessor the Environmental sustainability knowledge transfer network

-Sideline of consultancy with the police for the way bodies float through water

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