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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    “Very likely” constitutes more than 90 % probability.

  2. 2.

    Some decision makers and scientists have argued that the number should be actually lower, but few argue it is higher.

  3. 3.

    See http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/cop_16/application/pdf/cop16_lca.pdf.

  4. 4.

    In this sense debates on “rational” discount rates may contribute to the current “irrational” responses in domestic and international policy (see Kysar (2010) for a complementary argument).

  5. 5.

    Most concretely, our effort builds from the Policy Reform scenario advanced by Raskin et al. (1998), which begins to offer advice on the character of policy interventions—such as the need for flexibility and adaptation—necessary to accomplish a set of broad environmental and social development goals.

  6. 6.

    For a powerful illustration of the prevalence of these misdiagnoses, see Mayhew’s (2002) review of US scholarship on electoral realignment, which he argues misses the gradual processes underlying perceived single, short policy punctuations. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  7. 7.

    An illustration of these “easier to change” policy settings is the 2009 US Health Care reforms. A popular provision to allow children who attend college to stay on their parent’s health care plan until age 26 was made within a representative committee, rather than through a Senate vote. Arguably a Senate vote would have been hard to achieve given the practice of filibustering which means 41 senators can trump the wishes of 59. This provision has arguably already had significant path dependent effects, creating an immediate constituency supporting its maintenance, reducing the likelihood it will be reversed.

  8. 8.

    Verba (1971) coined this metaphor, which has became pervasive in the literature, see for example, (Pierson 2004; Hacker 1998; Levi 1997).

  9. 9.

    This point highlights our separation from Ostrom’s design principles to address resource depletion challenges, which has, as a central tenant, limiting access to specified populations and, often, subsets through resource allocation. It would be a tragic mistake to apply such design principles to super wicked problems which, by their very nature, must incorporate, rather than exclude, all populations.

  10. 10.

    Huber and Stephens (2001, p. 28–29) use a similar logic to discuss a policy ratcheting effect in welfare programs more generally.

  11. 11.

    Hence, a spike in US public support is more significant than in Westminster models of government because, once the window closes, policy reversal is much easier in the latter, as illustrated by Canada’s 2011 withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

  12. 12.

    For instance, the US Lacey Act, which was amended, with support from the American Forest and Paper Association and a number of US environmental groups, to give the Justice Department powers to seize wood products suspected to have been extracted, processed or traded in violation of another country’s laws, has received stiff backlash owing to high-profile enforcement actions against Gibson Guitar. House representatives Jim Cooper (D-Tenn) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) introduced the bill Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act (Bill H.R. 3210) in an effort to reel in the perceived ill effects of the legislation (see: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/188915-lawmakers-look-to-ease-lacey-act-regulations-after-gibson-guitar-raid).

  13. 13.

    For instance, a representative of NRDC reflected that the adaptive management plan “…adds legitimacy to the FED [Functional Equivalence Document]” for the impacts of the cap-and-trade rules to do with forest offsets and negative impacts on air quality. See Letter from NRDC to the Air Resources Board, December 16, 2010. Available from: http://www.arb.ca.gov/lists/capandtrade10/1230-alex_jackson.pdf.

  14. 14.

    In Premier Gordon Campbell’s 2007 throne speech, he committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the province by 10 % under 1990 levels by 2020 (Campagnolo 2007). A carbon tax of $10/tonne to increase $5/tonne each subsequent year was then passed in July 2008 (Ministry of Small Business and Revenue 2008).

  15. 15.

    In fact, the Liberal Parties strong ties to business arguably paved the way for such coalition building. It is unlikely that the same intervention could have been pursued by the opposition New Democratic Party, which aligns itself with environmental and labor interests in the province (Harrison 2009).

  16. 16.

    The carbon tax increases were matched with a proposal to cut 2 % in personal income taxes for those in the lowest two tax brackets in 2008, progressive incrementally increasing up to a 5 % cut in 2009 (Ministry of Small Business and Revenue 2008).

  17. 17.

    For instance, BP and Shell have both been lobbying the UK government to oppose the EU’s proposed fuel regulations, which would penalize unconventional sources such as Canada’s oil sands by assigning this crude oil a higher carbon footprint than conventional crude. Thus, even though BP has supported climate change policy, the company does not benefit from all initiatives which advance this agenda. This means policy makers must be careful to identify the reasons different actors are in a winning coalition and the situations when those actors may or may not support the policies that ratchet up action to address climate change. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/27/canada-oil-sands-uk-backing.

  18. 18.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-23/technology-can-nudge-climate-change-politics-charles-perrow.html.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to Graeme Auld.

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Authors contributed equally but are listed in reverse alphabetical order.

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Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. et al. Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sci 45, 123–152 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0

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Keywords

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