The following outline of climate breakdown as a wicked problem (Rittel and Weber 1973) is based on a reading of Reinar Grundmann’s (2016) ‘Focus on Climate change and the social sciences’. The work of Jurgen Habermas (1984, 1987) and Wolfgang Streeck (2016) contextualises the exposition of climate breakdown as a wicked social problem and this paper agrees with Grundmann’s analysis that there are no easy answers for the short or medium term, here defined as within 50 years, and adds that perhaps there might not ever be. I am adopting Gramscian ‘pessimism of the intellect’ which requires urgent work on adaptation for a very different and perhaps dystopian world by the end of the 21stcentury.
Regardless of its genesis, whether that be human-induced or natural cycles, climate breakdown requires human responses. Mitigation is now probably too late, as we’ve passed 407 ppm of carbon dioxide. This means we are locked into temperature rises above the 2 degree ‘safe’ level and very probably even more. This has taken us into a new era, the Anthropocene, beyond a ‘safe operating space for humanity (Rockstrom et al 2009). Therefore we will have to plan for, and more urgently talk about, adaptation, disaster management and conflict resolution. However and in what manner we come together, or not, to address the fact of climate breakdown and all of the other ecological challenges, this a ‘wicked social problem’ exacerbated by contemporary changes in the geopolitical, social and technological order (Streeck 2016, Harari 2016). The Anthropocene may well be characterised as a period of insecurity, indeterminacy and dissipation of the social order into a miasma of dystopia. Human societies are experiencing the dialectic between risks arising from modernity and the solutions put forward to manage those risks (Beck 1986).
What is a Wicked Problem?
A wicked problem is the sort of problem that is inherently different from the sort of ‘tame’ problems that natural scientists and engineers grapple with.
‘Wicked social problems’ are never solved once and for all. They can only be better managed. Each ‘solution’ invokes another problem to address. Take, for example, crime. To achieve a society with a 0% crime rate involves either redefining what crime is, leaving unsolved the social problems certain activities previously defined as ‘crime’ invokes, or it requires an enormous and deep level of surveillance and loss of liberty that would have unintended consequences for human relationships and politics. Like a game of ‘whack a mole’ other social, political and philosophical problems would arise from such an answer.
Climate breakdown poses questions and problems regarding carbon reduction in multiple fields: travel, energy, food, production, distribution and exchange within a cluster of high carbon systems in the high carbon economy-society (Urry 2011).
A ‘tame’ problem would be an equation to solve, analysing a chemical compound, designing a bridge or checkmate in 5 moves (Grundmann 2016). Tame problems allow us to know what the measure of success is when they are solved, and success criteria are known beforehand. They have a ‘stopping rule’. The success criteria of wicked problems like crime are inherently political and often underpinned by cultural values within a power matrix of vested interests.
‘Wicked’ here means resistance to solution rather than evil. The problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing elements to them that are also difficult to recognise. The elements making up a wicked problem may be interdependent within a complex system and thus solving one element may exacerbate another aspect of the system and/or reveal another problem.
For climate breakdown what are the ‘success criteria’? What indicators, metrics, outcomes or empirical observations can we make that allows us to claim success? This may depend on how we define climate change. Do we use the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definitions (Grundmann 2016)?
The UNFCCC define it as “a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, that alters the composition of the global atmosphere, and that is in addition to natural climate variability over comparable time periods”.
The IPCC define it as “any change in climate over time whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity”.
The UNFCCC focuses on human activity driving climate change, while leaving to one side natural variability. The IPCC encompasses both. Therefore climate policy would address anthropogenesis (UNFCCC) or everything (IPCC). In each case, we would still need to construct measures of ‘success’.
If we could agree and state that the measure is ppm of C02 in the atmosphere then action would naturally be channelled towards addressing that figure. It is by no means clear that this would or could ‘solve’ the social problem of climate breakdown such actions might entail. Climate breakdown does not have a ‘stopping rule’ characteristic of tame problems. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide might look like one but there are other measures such as carbon budgets, global average warming temperatures or heat content in the oceans. There is also fierce resistance to curbing carbon emissions and environmental regulation in some quarters based on free market and libertarian arguments (e.g. Cato Institute 2016), despite the agreement signed at COP21 in Paris in 2015.
The wider context in which climate solutions operate.
The expression of climate breakdown as a problem, and climate solutions, interact with the social, cultural and political power context in which they operate. They are not ontologically separate from the social or the material and they operate within complex adaptive systems. Knowledge/power discourses frame their expression, their feasibility and their acceptability within often hegemonic, though not unchallenged, frames of reference.
That context is variously called late modernity, postmodernity, post-industrial, disorganised, financial, rentier, or neoliberal capitalism. Wolfgang Streeck (2016) pace Antonio Gramsci, suggests this context is actually a post-capitalist interregnum in which the old system is dying but a new social order cannot yet be born. Streeck calls the current order one of multi-morbidity, climate change being one of many frailties as we head towards social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminacy. Streeck argues that the current context is anchored in a variety of interconnected developments:
- Intensification of distributional (capital v labour) conflict due to declining growth
- Rising social inequality
- Vanishing macroeconomic manageability
- Steadily increasing indebtedness (private and sovereign)
- Pumped up money supply (from quantitative easing)
- Possibility of another financial crisis as per 2008
- The suspension of democracy
- Slowdown of social progress
- Rising Oligarchy and Plutocracy
- Governments’ inability to limit the commodification of labour, money or nature
- Omnipresence of corruption
- Intensified competition in winner takes all markets
- Unlimited opportunities for self-enrichment (for the 1%)
- Erosion of public goods and infrastructure
- The failure of the US to establish a stable global order
- Public cynicism towards economics and politics.
- Rising populist nationalism and the spectre of fascism and isolationism in the US and elsewhere
- Fracturing political blocs and alliances
- Erosion of Democratic legitimacy and thus a democratic deficit
- Health Inequalities.
- Potential Ecosystem collapse.
- Disruptive technologies: Automation, Artificial Intelligence and digitalisation.
There are countervailing voices. There are those who see a better future for humanity, placing belief in progress (Norberg 2016), reducing global violence (Pinker 2011), the ability of growth based capitalism to solve problems (Ben-Ami 2010, Goklany 2007, 2009) and the citing of improvements in key indicators such as reductions in infant mortality (see Hans Rosling’s ‘gapminder’ 2016). Added to this are of course the voices of politicians who promise to either “Make America Great again” , “A country that works for everyone” or “Russia as a Normal Great Power” or ending China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’.
These latter political narratives may be examples of ‘systematic distorted communication’, i.e. voices and discourses aimed at achieving very particular political ends inimical to that aimed towards mutual understanding and social integration. This form of communication, according to Habermas (1984, 1987), involves one party being self-deceived, it is a form of communication in which power differentials operate and are invisible.
For example, the Cato Institute argues on environmental regulation:
“Science can inform individual preferences but cannot resolve environmental conflicts. Environmental goods and services, to the greatest extent possible, should be treated like other goods and services in the marketplace. People should be free to secure their preferences about the consumption of environmental goods such as clean air or clean water regardless of whether some scientists think such preferences are legitimate or not. Likewise, people should be free, to the greatest extent possible, to make decisions consistent with their own risk tolerances regardless of scientific or even public opinion”.
On the face of it who would argue against freedom to decide one’s own risk tolerance? ‘Freedom’ is a public good is it not? What this statement ignores is the fact that some very powerful and well resourced ‘others’ are more ‘free’ to exercise risk tolerance, they are also more ‘free’ to engage in activities that involve ‘externalities’ – pushing the cost of one’s exercise of freedom onto others. How free were the victims of Union Carbide’s Bhopal ‘death by negligence’ of 1984 where at least 2000 died as a result of the plant’s gas leak? Union Carbide’s freedom to operate involved a power imbalance that denied the citizens exercising their ‘risk tolerance’. How free are Londoners in exercising their ‘risk tolerance’ to nitrous oxide pollution from vehicle exhausts responsible for 9,500 deaths per year (Vaughan 2015)?
The Cato Institute argues it is a research organisation conducting independent non-partisan research on a range of policy issues. It clearly states however that principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace underpin its work. Apart from the nebulous ‘peace’ (who is not for peace?), those principles are very clearly part of the neoliberal imaginary and are thus as ideological and partisan as many other organisations. On funding, Cato states on its home page that it receives ‘no government funding’. What it fails to clarify is who exactly funds it. On page 41 of its 2016 annual report, there are only numbers of $ donated while preferring to refer to individuals, corporate and foundations as funding streams. However, Cato was founded by the Koch brothers, billionaire owners of Koch Industries, who reportedly believe in lowering corporate and personal taxes, minimal social security and less oversight of industry (Mayer 2010). Hardly a non-partisan viewpoint.
Cato argues “Science can inform individual preferences but cannot resolve environmental conflicts…people should be free, to the greatest extent possible, to make decisions consistent with their own risk tolerances”. Well, yes. But physical forces such as Gravity, the Albedo effect, Acidification and Ice melts do not give toss about people ‘exercising their freedom in a market according to their risk tolerances’
Habermas’ theory suggests that communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge, in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. Communicative action is also the process through which people form their identities. The current context suggests that communicative action, orientated towards the requirement for social integration for action on climate change, is extremely fragile.
Cato peddles free market ideology as solution, we should be aware of that as an example of what Habermas called ‘systemic distorted communication’.
Gross (2010) gave three examples of systematic distorted communication:
- The pervasive employment of Nazi language in Europe in the 1930’s in Europe.
- The everyday, routine use of sexist language.
- The prescription languages and practices of Physicians influenced by drug company promotions.
We may consider also:
- The narrative on individual responsibility for health
- The absolute requirement for deficit and debt reduction as a goal of policy
- Free market liberalism in the US and the UK
- An unaffordable NHS in the UK
- Immigration, asylum and refugee control
- Fossil fuel subsidies and continued extraction.
- The hegemonic Nuclear Deterrence Theory
- Koch brothers support for the Cato Institute on liberty, small government and free markets.
- Jordan Peterson’s male = order, female = chaos.
- GDP as a measure of the good economy
Climate breakdown solutions arise and operate within this context. Today we have no easy solutions or even signposts that indicate success on progress to either mitigation or adaptation. It may even be the case that we are actually chasing rainbows. If we are entering a period where social institutions are breaking down, where system integration disappears leaving a mass of individuals to find individual solutions to the myriad problems they face, without grand integrative narratives to provide guidance, then social cohesion breaks down and Habermasian ‘communicative action’ dissipates in the face of the onslaught from the systematic distorted communication of power interests.
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