Policy Sciences

, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 123–152 | Cite as

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

  • Kelly Levin
  • Benjamin Cashore
  • Steven Bernstein
  • Graeme AuldEmail author


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 



The authors thank two anonymous reviewers whose comments have greatly improved our analysis. We are grateful to Laura Bozzi, Peter Christensen, Jasmine Hyman, Doug Kysar, Matto Mildenberger, Andrew Revkin, and all of the participants of the workshop, ‘Intervening to Constrain our Future Selves: Strategic Policy Interventions to Address the Super Wicked Problem of Climate Change,’ held at Yale University in June 2011.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kelly Levin
    • 1
  • Benjamin Cashore
    • 2
  • Steven Bernstein
    • 3
  • Graeme Auld
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Climate and Energy ProgramWorld Resources InstituteWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.School of Forestry and Environmental StudiesYale UniversityNew HavenUSA
  3. 3.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  4. 4.School of Public Policy and AdministrationCarleton UniversityOttawaCanada

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