The phrase 'wicked problems' is becoming well understood within sustainability circles, writes our Environment Editor, Giles Crosse.

‘Wicked problems’: Fighting climate change & Covid require a big focus on collaboration


The phrase ‘wicked problems’ is becoming well understood within sustainability circles, writes our Environment Editor, Giles Crosse. A number of definitions exist but the most useful might be this:

‘In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term ‘wicked problem’ in order to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems.

‘Unlike the tame problems of mathematics and chess, the wicked problems of planning lack clarity in both their aims and solutions. In addition to these challenges of articulation and internal logic, they are subject to real world constraints that prevent multiple and risk free attempts at solving.’

Some other characteristics of wicked problems include the fact there is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem, plus the way in which a wicked problem is described also determines its possible solutions.

As you may have guessed, climate change is a thoroughly wicked problem; ‘It avoids straightforward articulation and is impossible to solve in a way that is simple or final.

‘Our changing conversations around climate science and conservation, the unique regional factors that determine the local consequences of climate change and our ability to present endless possible solutions (as well as the irreversibility of these solutions) require we approach climate change with holistic and collaborative reasoning in search of long term, future focused solutions.

To your correspondent these dilemmas sound awfully similar to, you guessed it; Covid and its challenges.

If we solve Covid, then can we solve climate change too?

Without in any way diminishing the immense suffering that’s occurred during the last 12 months, nor trivialising deaths for the sake of an environmental post, recent news suggests vaccines may be on the cusp, in the UK at least, of offering a path out of the pandemic.

Of course, humanity has successfully vaccinated against many diseases in the past, so one hopes this may too be the ultimate rationale against global Covid.

What is interesting from an environmental perspective is the pace at which a Covid vaccine was developed; because climate change requires rapid action too.

BBC analysis suggests that due to the urgent need for the vaccine, governments and donors poured billions into projects to create and test them. In other words, money was made available fast without the usual caveats. The exact sums remain hard to define, but we’re talking big bucks. Billions more in investment and potential trillions in losses are predicted to maintain a global rollout of vaccine to the scale required.

Way back in December 2020, the BBC said governments had already provided £6.5bn, according to science data analytics company Airfinity. Not-for-profit organisations have provided nearly £1.5bn. That’s not even counting private cash.

The BBC also notes that now, certain elements of infighting have begun and that the question of how to profit from vaccines and fears on inequal global supply are becoming more pertinent.

‘But some argue the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis and the public financing means it isn’t a time for business as usual,’ it writes. This too rings strangely similar alarms bells; we in the sector often note business as usual won’t solve climate change.

Can we apply the pace of Covid funding to climate panaceas?

Nature writes that; ‘When scientists began seeking a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in early 2020, they were careful not to promise quick success. The fastest any vaccine had previously been developed, from viral sampling to approval, was four years, for mumps in the 1960s.’

But it continues; ‘The Covid-19 experience shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources.’

Nature concludes our world was able to develop COVID-19 vaccines so quickly because of years of previous research, enormous funding that allowed firms to run multiple trials in parallel and regulators moving more quickly than normal.

It argues; ‘To repeat such rapid success will require similar massive funding for development, which is likely to come only if there is a comparable sense of social and political urgency.’

To all intents and purposes then, it appears the ‘wicked’ similarities with climate challenges really do ring true. We found, globally, the cash, the will, the resources and the nerve to name Covid a true emergency and react accordingly, at unprecedented pace, scale and cost.

And today it looks as though we might have developed a solution.

Will we ever similarly unify around the climate emergency, that could collectively cost us much more, and apply a similar logic to mobilise global will, finance and science to the rescue?


Giles Crosse About the author

With over 20 years of journalistic expertise, Giles is our Environment Editor. He specialises in B2B content for the low carbon, innovation, technology and energy sectors.

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