We’re failing to solve the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Here’s a better approach

By Stephan Manning and Juliane Reinecke.

We live in a world burdened by large-scale problems that refuse to go away: the refugee crisis; terrorism; rising sea levels; frequent floods, droughts and wildfires; not to mention persistent inequality and violation of basic human rights across the world.

What do these problems have in common? They resist any simple solution. In policy research they are called “wicked. This is because cause-effect relations are complex and solutions unclear; many of these problems are urgent, yet there is no central authority to solve them; their magnitude is often hard to estimate; and those trying to solve them may even contribute to causing them.

The EU refugee crisis, the topic of a recent U.N. summit, is a good example: Driven by regional conflicts and poverty, and assisted by trafficking networks, people from Africa and the Middle East continue to take enormous risks to enter EU territory by land or sea. For several years now, thousands of refugees have died on this journey each year and no solution is in sight. EU member countries continue to blame their neighbors for either taking in too many refugees or for refusing to help, while there is little shared interest and limited capacity for actually addressing the sources of the problem.

What’s the best way to effectively address these types of wicked problems?

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Facing the Rising Seas: Can we Learn from Climate Mitigation?

David L. LevyUMass Boston.

It’s approaching three years since hurricane Sandy killed over 230 people in 8 countries, and wreaked havoc on the New York-New Jersey region – and put climate adaptation firmly on the national agenda. Sandy, which disrupted at least 450,000 businesses in New York and New Jersey, illustrated how cascading impacts not only damage property but also disrupt businesses for extended periods of time, due to the interaction of power and communication outages, infrastructure damage, and supply chain disruptions. These complex interactions were not adequately understood or anticipated. The reinsurance company Munich Re has estimated insured losses at $25 billion and total losses of at least $50 billion in the US from Sandy. Looking to the future, the 2011 Mass Climate Adaptation report notes that: “Sea level rise of 0.65 meters (26 inches) in Boston by 2050 could damage assets worth an estimated $463 billion”. Cities and states have begun to devote significant resources to planning for sea level rise, more frequent and intense storms, and more intense heat and drought. In one design-for-climate-change scenario, Boston would be transformed into an American Venice.

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Science vs. Business?

By David Levy, UMass Boston.* 

The fossil fuel industry’s campoil refineryaign to deny climate change and oppose the regulation of greenhouse gases is a well-researched and publicized story. Much less is known, however, about the role of corporate scientists in shaping the internal perspectives on climate change in these companies, and the impact on corporate response strategies. Recent revelations by InsideClimate News show that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Exxon funded its own scientists to engage in a serious research program, which pointed to conclusions that broadly matched those of the broader climate science community. Indeed, during the 1980s, Exxon put plans on hold to develop the massive Natuna gas field off the coast of Indonesia, because of concerns that nearly two-thirds of the gas was carbon dioxide, and there was no economically viable way to capture and dispose of it.

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Blogging Highlights: Melting Ice and Arctic Activism

This week, we would like to recommend a series of related debates on climate change, melting ice, opportunistic responses by oil companies, and Greenpeace activism.

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Moving Deckchairs around the Titanic? Further Insights on the World’s Failing Climate Regime

By Elke Schüßler, Freie Universität Berlin.

David Levy’s bleak analysis of the carbon market is complemented by recent research by Charles-Clemens Rüling, Bettina Wittneben and myself regarding climate conferences as the sites of transnational climate policy making. While climate skepticism has long accompanied climate science and the debate about anthropogenic climate change, fresh skepticism about the structure and outcomes of climate policy processes is growing among those serious about saving our climate. The Kyoto Protocol, the much quoted “only game in town” in transnational climate policy, has failed to commit large industrialized countries and major carbon emitters such as the U.S. (in its first commitment period) and Canada (in its second) to binding targets for emissions reduction; the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, a cornerstone of supposedly ambitious European climate policy, has been written off by many civil society groups as well as by the European Parliament, voting against its reform in April; controversial energy production practices such as large-scale hydro-fracking are slowly but surely becoming more accepted even in countries such as Germany, a stronghold of the green movement. Meanwhile, the detrimental effects of climate change are being felt in both developed and developing countries, exemplified by the recent flood catastrophes in Europe and India. As climate policy is crumbling away, evidence grows to show that global warming and its threat to life on our planet is fact not fiction. Why have the decades of transnational policy efforts not produced better results?

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Carbon Fiddles While the Planet Burns

By David Levy.

A milestone on the road to catastrophic climate change was reached last Thursday, May 9th, when the Mauna Loa research center in Hawaii recorded atmospheric CO2 levels above 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. The level during pre-industrial times was around 280 ppm, and has been rising at an accelerating pace due to burning fossil fuels and clearing forests. For the last 400,000 years or so, CO2 levels have fluctuated between about 180 ppm, at the depths of ice ages, and 280 ppm during relatively short warm periods, or interglacials (see graphic). The last time CO2 levels reached 400 ppm was at least 3 million years ago, a much warmer world where sea levels were 60-80 feet higher. Continue reading