mixed greens

Doomists and doers

Posted 9/13/23

On September 8, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) released an advance version of its report on the world’s progress in addressing climate change and meeting the goals of …

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mixed greens

Doomists and doers


On September 8, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) released an advance version of its report on the world’s progress in addressing climate change and meeting the goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement.  

Dubbed the “global stocktake,” the report synthesizes stakeholder reports on climate action from around the world, and summarizes 17 key findings on the current status of climate action with related recommendations to help accelerate progress on critical GHG reduction goals and adaptation plans. 

In an important breakthrough, the agency overtly calls for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, instead of the softer “phase down” language of previous documents that has been roundly criticized as inadequate by climate scientists and activist organizations around the world.

In a nutshell, the report concedes that the window for action is rapidly closing, but contends that we can still get back on track to significant GHG reductions needed by 2030. This is only possible through system transformations “across all sectors and contexts,” using a whole-of-society/whole-of-the-economy approach that includes scaling up renewable energy systems, phasing out fossil fuels, ending fossil fuel  subsidies and redirecting those investments to low emission, climate resilient technologies, ending deforestation and improving agricultural practices. 

Media reaction to the report—as it was with the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in March 2023—has focused more on the dire predictions than the specific, practical real-world strategies that could turn things around.    

Just one day before the FCCC released its report, the renowned climate scientist Michael Mann gave the keynote address at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event, titled “The Good - the Bad - and the Wicked,” offered new interdisciplinary perspectives on climate action.  

The “wicked” in the title refers to the social and planning dilemmas scientists refer to as “wicked” problems—problems too complex to have a singular solution. 

Design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, who coined the term in 1973, described wicked problems through 10 key characteristics.  Among them:  they don’t have a definitive formulation, and the way they are described determines the potential solutions; they can’t be tested by trial and error, and they don’t have what’s called a “stopping rule,” meaning that they don’t have an internal logic that tells us the problem has been solved. 

Wicked problems generate multiple approaches and potential solutions, and their solutions can’t be definitively declared “true or false,” only “good or bad.”

To top it all off, the chosen approaches and solutions to wicked problems will affect a large number of people in profound and possibly irreversible ways, so in Rittel and Webber’s estimation, planners “have no right to be wrong.” 

Climate change, poverty and public health policy are considered prime examples of  wicked problems. 

Over the years, Mann has courageously taken on both the climate “doomists” who say it’s too late to do anything about climate change, and those he calls “inactivists”—folks who overemphasize the important role of personal responsibility and individual voluntary action like recycling or becoming a vegetarian, but fail to engage in the more complex policy debate that can drive governments and corporations to take action at the scale required. 

Both camps play into the hands of climate deniers, deflectors and fossil fuel interests. The doomists instill a fatal sense of despair that depresses action; the inactivists run the risk of shifting responsibility away from big-time polluters and the governments that are supposed to regulate them.  

In a way, life itself is a wicked problem. When push comes to shove, we all make decisions, choose actions we hope will work out, often without the benefit of a stopping rule and usually with unintended consequences that must be dealt with down the line. 

Along the way, we learn some universal truths. For example, the longer you wait to fix something, the harder and costlier it gets. Railing against the cost of delay only causes further delay. 

The need for sweeping, systemic solutions hasn’t changed, and the foundational data, confirmed more and more by lived experience, just keeps getting more precise and compelling. The remedies grow more nuanced and fine-tuned. And the window is still open.

United Nations, framework, climate change, paris agreement


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