Monday, June 25, 2012

Climate Change is a wicked problem

Jay Rosen has given an excellent account on climate change, why it is a wicked problem, and how journalists could cope with its coverage. This was delivered as keynote address to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists, June 25, 2012 at The Royal Society, London.

Here are a few excerpts:

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.
But it gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try things that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money, or political will. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)
Know any problems like that? Of course you do. Climate change! What could be more inter-connected than it? How the hell do we define it? Is it the burning of fossil fuels? Is it modernization? Capitalism? Externalities? The whole system of states? Man’s false dominion over nature? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem– our entire way of life, maybe — and he or she would not be wrong. We’ve never solved anything like it before, so there’s no prior art. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.


stan said...

His idea of a wicked problem sounds like the frustration of someone who can't think his way out of a paper bag.

Louis Hooffstetter said...

If you don't/can't clearly identify/define a problem, you can't solve it.

This article begs the question: "If climate change is so difficult to identify/define, is there really a problem?"

Hans von Storch said...

May I suggest, folks, that you ponder a little about this issue before declaring that the wickedness of a problem is a problem of the people confronted with it. Just consider the possibility that the author is not an idiot.

Anonymous said...

'Wicked' problem is a poor choice of phrase, because the word wicked now has a double meaning in modern English (for people of age <~ 25, it means "good").

Reiner Grundmann said...


Rittel and Webber coined the term long before it acquired a new meaning, see their article from 1973 "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Amsterdam

Heber Rizzo said...

Of course, Mr von Storch, there is a possibility that he is not an idiot, but with so much flamboyant discourse we can consider the possibility that he may be trying to make idiots of his addresseed.

He just said nothing, nada, about anything, but with such brilliance that hints to a very well paid word fee.

Tom R. said...

Rosen’s speech indeed gives an excellent presentation of an often misunderstood concept. You might like to know about this recent publication:

“Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

You can see a description at:

Tom Ritchey

Reiner Grundmann said...

Thanks Tom, for stopping by and alerting us to a very interesting publication!