Confronting Complexity: The (Super) Wicked Problem of Climate Change

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of ‘Confronting Complexity’ in Canadian society. ​This year’s conference will take place on March 25 and 26, 2015.

Tara Sackett

In 1973, an article entitled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” was published in the journal Policy Science by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber from the University of California, Berkeley. It described an emerging complexity in the problems addressed by social policy, and observed that the public was becoming increasingly unhappy with government policy solutions. The authors proposed that more deliberate definitions of problems, clarifications of purpose, and discussions of outcomes were necessary:

“…now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn. The tests for efficiency, that were once so useful as measures of accomplishment, are being challenged by a renewed preoccupation with consequences for equity. The seeming consensus, that might once have allowed distributional problems to be dealt with, is being eroded by the growing awareness of the nation’s pluralism and of the differentiation of values that accompanies differentiation of publics.”

The article outlines a number of characteristics typical of complex policy problems. These include a lack of coherent solutions to problems, often due to the fact that stakeholders all view the problem through the lenses of preferred solutions – for example, poverty is understood differently by those concerned with equity than by those concerned with employment. In addition, implemented solutions to complex problems often cause “waves of consequences over an extended – virtually an unbounded – period of time.” And despite efforts made, the problem is usually not solved, or at least not to an extent that satisfies all parties.

Rittel and Webber coined the term “wicked” to describe these complex policy problems. They emphasize that the term is not intended to indicate that these problems share morally dubious characteristics, but rather, have properties such as:

“… ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’(like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).”

Since this characterization of the ‘wicked’ policy problem, it has become apparent that many (if not most) of the large, complex policy problems encountered today could be described as such – from crime to poverty, unemployment, homelessness, aboriginal inequality, immigrant settlement, urban transportation, conservation, and climate change.

Climate change: a wicked policy problem

In February 2015, the government of Ontario released a discussion paper on climate change. Ontario’s most pressing goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and at this point, the province is on track to achieve 70 per cent of the emission reductions we need. This is primarily due to the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation plants, reductions in emissions from The Big Move transportation plan, and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. However, a comprehensive new strategy is needed to reduce emissions by the remaining 30 per cent.

One of the most important pieces of a climate change strategy that will emerge from the current public debate in Ontario is a way to price carbon. By putting a price on burning fuels and producing carbon, individuals and businesses will be incentivized to consume less fuel (and emit fewer greenhouse gases). An effective policy to price carbon in Ontario will be the lynchpin in any effective greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

Ontario’s longer-term goals are to reduce emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, and to be carbon neutral by 2100. To do this, Ontario must develop a climate change strategy that establishes a foundation for transforming multiple sectors of the provincial economy. This will include sectors that have their own wicked problems (e.g., transportation), altering how buildings are made, and investing (wisely) in research and innovation. In addition, Ontario will need to develop policies and programs for risk management and resilience for infrastructure, private property, and the agricultural sector – and it must do all of this while juggling a diverse group of stakeholders and ensuring economic growth is maintained. This is why climate change is a classic wicked problem.

Climate change – actually, it’s a super wicked problem

In 2012, Kelly Levin from the World Resources Institute and her colleagues identified an extension to wicked policy problems – the “super wicked” problem – exemplified by global environmental problems such as climate change. This paper was, incidentally, published in the same journal as Rittel and Webber’s earlier contribution.

Super wicked policy problems have four additional properties than the classic wicked problem: there is a time limit to implement solutions (and it is running out); the same actors who cause the problem are also trying to find a solution; the central authority that can implement solutions is weak or does not exist; and implementation of solutions is pushed forward in time because of a preference for inaction in the short-term (despite evidence of terrible outcomes from inaction in the long-term).

Levin and colleagues suggest these additional challenges can be addressed by designing policies that present in such a way that reversing the policy decisions later on is both difficult and costly. They refer to this as “path dependence”, and suggest several factors for its creation. For example, initial “stickiness” of a policy (difficulty in immediate reversal) may happen if significant investments are made by stakeholders. If benefits to the policy and costs to reversing the policy both increase over time, the policy itself will become “entrenched.” Finally, having the benefits of the policy “expand” over time to more stakeholders creates positive feedback in terms of support.

Jump-starting path dependent processes is just one way to approach wicked (or super wicked) policy problems. Interestingly, many other theories and ideas of how to confront complexity in public policy also centre on understanding human behaviour and choices, and on creating innovative governance, organizational, and process structures that bring people together. These include using cultural theory (different ways of organizing and perceiving human relations) to organize institutions, and optimizing network design and development.

When I first heard “wicked” to describe climate change and other complex policy problems, I was intrigued. It seemed a dramatic term in an area of study that does not generally tend towards the flamboyant. But perhaps the vivid language illustrates the spirit of innovation that will ultimately be required for confronting complexity in all wicked policy problems, including climate change.

Tara Sackett is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She previously obtained a PhD in Natural Resources Science from McGill University in 2007, and prior to attending SPPG worked as a researcher exploring how aspects of global change affect ecosystem processes. Her main areas of policy interests include climate, energy, and environmental policy.


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