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The "super wicked problem" of climate change

The "super wicked problem" of climate change

You've got to look at what people do about climate change, not what they think about it. Ultimately, we're going to be judged on how effective we are, not on whether people remember the brand or message of a program. - David Meiklejohn

Reduce emissions. Eradicate coal. Institute a carbon tax. While all are critical solutions, will any one of these provide "the key" in solving climate change?

In today's tweetable, soundbyte version of reality, people are eager to simplify problems and address them head-on with clear solutions. Yet for many issues, the layers of complexity do not allow for simple, cut and dry solutions. It is these types of problems that people define as wicked.

The term wicked problems emerged in planning fields in the late 1960s and 1970s in response to this need to recognize the complexity surrounding certain issues. These issues tend to have distinguishing features, such as:

  • They have no definitive formulation
  • They don’t have an easy end point or stopping rule
  • They don’t lend themselves easing to simple true/false statements and assessments
  • There are no template to follow in solving them
  • There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem

Then came climate change, which introduced a whole set of additional complexity factors to the equation. Climate change meets all the criteria for a wicked problem, and then some. That's why in 2007, a group of US academics started to define climate change as a super wicked problem. In addition to the levels of complexity touted by a wicked problem, a super wicked problem enjoys

  • Limited response time
  • Problem solvers which are actually causing the problem in the first place
  • Weak or nonexistent central authority
  • Discounting of benefits that prolongs action

So how on earth do we tackle super wicked problems? According to behavior change professional and PhD student David Meiklejohn, shift the focus away from what people think or say about climate change to what they do to cause or mitigate it.

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About David Meiklejohn

David has more than 16 years experience in developing and implementing social marketing programs in both Australia and the UK. He has worked with governments in Australia and New Zealand to build their capacity to deliver behaviour change projects. He has developed and delivered climate change social marketing programs to households in Melbourne, achieving a 26 percent reported drop in greenhouse gas emissions. He has conducted reviews for state governments into the effectiveness of climate change social marketing programs, and as a result of this is currently researching what makes such programs effective. His research examines the target audiences reached by these programs, why they sometimes fail and how they can be better designed in the future to better meet the challenges of climate change.

He also works as as executive officer for a network of nine local governments in Melbourne (www.naga.org.au) working together to develop effective climate change responses.

Follow David:

Website: www.meiklejohn.com

Twitter: (@swingdog46)

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Social marketing and behavior change in conservation

Social marketing and behavior change in conservation

How do we really define social good?

How do we really define social good?