Policy Sciences

, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 123-152

First online:

Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change

  • Kelly LevinAffiliated withClimate and Energy Program, World Resources Institute
  • , Benjamin CashoreAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
  • , Steven BernsteinAffiliated withDepartment of Political Science, University of Toronto
  • , Graeme AuldAffiliated withSchool of Public Policy and Administration, Carleton University Email author 

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Most policy-relevant work on climate change in the social sciences either analyzes costs and benefits of particular policy options against important but often narrow sets of objectives or attempts to explain past successes or failures. We argue that an “applied forward reasoning” approach is better suited for social scientists seeking to address climate change, which we characterize as a “super wicked” problem comprising four key features: time is running out; those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution; the central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent; and, partly as a result, policy responses discount the future irrationally. These four features combine to create a policy-making “tragedy” where traditional analytical techniques are ill equipped to identify solutions, even when it is well recognized that actions must take place soon to avoid catastrophic future impacts. To overcome this tragedy, greater attention must be given to the generation of path-dependent policy interventions that can “constrain our future collective selves.” Three diagnostic questions result that orient policy analysis toward understanding how to trigger sticky interventions that, through progressive incremental trajectories, entrench support over time while expanding the populations they cover. Drawing especially from the literature on path dependency, but inverting it to develop policy responses going forward, we illustrate the plausibility of our framework for identifying new areas of research and new ways to think about policy interventions to address super wicked problems.


Wicked problems Super wicked problems Climate change Policy analysis Environmental governance Path dependency