Sunday, 1 July 2012

Climate Change is a "Wicked Problem"

NSB read a fascinating article on the "Making Science Public" blog at the University of Nottingham. Written by Professor Brigitte Nerlich, it compared the media coverage of the original (Rio) and current (Rio+20) climate change conferences, noting how the original conference had a large amount of positive coverage whereas the current conference has received scant media coverage.

But what really caught NSB's imagination was the description of Climate Change as being a "Wicked Problem".
A link to a Wikipedia article explained that the term "Wicked Problem" was originally coined to describe problems in social planning but had now become more widespread. Its defining characteristics are that :

1.The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
2.Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3.Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
4.Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
5.Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'
6.Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Examples being global climate change, healthcare, pandemic influenza and international drug trafficking.

Wicked problems have also been described from a social science point of view and it is here that one can see how they describe the issues facing climate change research with a rather uncanny level of accuracy:

1.The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
2.Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
3.The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
4.The problem is never solved definitively.

Winningly, climate change also falls into a special category of problems known as "Super Wicked Problems", so called becasue they have the following additional characteristics:
1.Time is running out.
2.No central authority.
3.Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
4.Policies discount the future irrationally.

It's all thought-provoking stuff, and NSB is looking forward to using the term "wicked problem" with some regularity in the future. If the opportunity to describe something as "having a degree of wickedness" presents itself, well, that will certainly be a bonus.

For some strange reason, a sunset feels like a good metaphor
for the uncertainty of climate change

Image Source : Wikipedia