The argument that we have entered the era of the Anthropocene—where industrial activities are undermining the planetary systems on which human societies depend—is intended to galvanise urgent action to arrest the deterioration of natural assets, by ensuring that governments and citizens take responsibility for inclusive remedial action at every level (Biermann, 2014; Ison et al., 2018; Lövbrand et al., 2020). The argument is that the pace, scale and depth of change have intensified, leading to cascading negative impacts on interconnected systems (Hom & Penn, 2021). The recent wave of declarations that all societies are facing a climate emergency is intended to galvanise strategic priorities to focus on avoiding future catastrophe; but the political rhetoric of climate emergency could also spark further polarisation and resistance (Patterson et al., 2021). Political leadership is required to ensure that ecological system goals are prioritised. In the past, policymaking on major issues has involved trade-offs between social, economic and environmental objectives, with economic interests generally dominant. Climate change has become the major crisis that highlights these concerns about re-thinking priorities and managing competing objectives. The large and rapid nature of planetary change could even increase the political difficulties of shifting priorities towards environmental goals (Dryzek & Pickering, 2019, p. 98).
The planetary scale of the Anthropocene perspective has also encouraged techo-engineering proposals to ‘save the planet’ (Lomborg, 2010), including solar heat shields, the capture and storage of industrial emissions, and various initiatives for genetic reengineering of plants and animals. However, while some of these proposals may prove to be technically feasible, the environmental and ethical dimensions of identifying and managing the associated risks have not been canvassed (Reynolds, 2021).
There are several reasons why climate change response policy can be termed a field of ‘wicked problems’ (Head, 2014). Firstly, the climate change challenges are actually a series of linked problems, none of which can be resolved in isolation. The interconnections between the UN Sustainable Development Goals illustrate these crucial inter-dependencies. Progress in one field may depend on parallel progress elsewhere, and negative developments in one area may undermine initiatives in other fields. Spillover or ripple effects are common. For example, a transition away from fossil fuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but threats to biodiversity would be exacerbated if the ‘solution’ is to clear old-growth forests in order to expand the farming of crops that produce bio-fuels (Portner et al., 2021). Rural areas are often the subject of competing land uses, some of which involve competing forms of legitimacy, such as the overlay of commercial interests in areas formerly governed through traditional entitlements. Sayer et al. (2013) have suggested some procedural principles, including adaptive management and inclusive participation, which could assist in large-scale processes for reconciling agriculture, conservation and other competing land uses.
Secondly, future-oriented estimates of the costs and benefits of specific interventions—directed at tackling climate change and promoting sustainable development—are likely to be diverse, uncertain and shift over time and place. Policy responses need to account for both short-term and long-term trajectories and adapt to the constantly changing contexts. Thirdly, the risks and impacts are simultaneously local, regional and global. This multi-level diversity makes the understanding of impacts, and the choice of adaptive responses, very difficult. The underlying systemic causes can manifest in specific local symptoms (such as famine and crop failures during cycles of drought or flood devastation in large river-delta cities). Fourthly, despite the solidity of the scientific knowledge base, key findings have been hotly contested in public debate, with scepticism and denial being promoted by some industry sectors, especially in relation to the extent of climate change and the human contribution to causality. Hence, fifthly, the allocation of responsibilities and the ‘ownership’ of change leadership has remained unresolved, and the urgency of change has been widely resisted by particular governments, corporations and political groups. This is true both within each country (industries, localities) and across groups of countries (developed, developing, small, large, etc.). In a polycentric system of governance, there are opportunities for both separate and joined-up initiatives. For example, in the absence of policy leadership by the US national government, 25 state governments formed the US Climate Alliance, which encourages policy innovation and investment to advance the agendas of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Sixthly, there are significant equity issues and moral concerns around impacts and burden sharing. These conflicting perspectives reinforce the polarisation of policy debates. Examples include the argument that poor and vulnerable populations will suffer more from the harmful impacts of climate change; that poor nations should receive special incentives and assistance to make the necessary transitions; and that future generations should not suffer as a result of current inaction and selfishness. Finally, the impetus to prioritise climate action has been slowed in the wake of the global financial crisis and the global pandemic crisis; in particular, a resurgence of economic nationalism and protectionism has hindered international collective action, exacerbated by government leaders having a reduced appetite for shouldering further adjustment costs.
Taken together, these ‘nested’ problems constitute what Garnaut (2008) has called a ‘diabolical’ challenge for science and for politics, and what Lazarus (2009) called a ‘super-wicked’ problem for political and legislative resolution. In the same vein, Levin and colleagues asserted that the ‘super-wicked’ nature of climate change policy has produced a ‘tragic’ impasse, because ‘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’ (Levin et al., 2012, p. 123). Psychological research has shown that discounting the future is common. Citizens and legislators generally prefer the current (and familiar) array of benefits/rewards over the likely costs of mitigating future (but unknown) harms through substantial policy reforms and major behavioural changes. This cognitive process of ‘discounting’ future risks is likely to undermine the rational cost/benefit proposition that any further delay in substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions will generate massive additional costs for remediation that will confront future leaders, stakeholders and citizens (Giddens, 2011; Stern, 2007).
Given that global warming is linked to the scale and composition of industrialisation, the pace of global industrial development has been massive. For example, the consumption of energy in India doubled between 2000 and 2020 and 80% of its energy production utilised carbon-intensive sources (IEA, 2021, p. 11). China recently accounted for half of global coal consumption and 29% of global energy-related carbon emissions (Zhou et al., 2020).
The debate on climate response policy has highlighted the differences between those who deny there is a major problem, those who seek incremental policy adjustments, and those who urge rapid and ambitious transformations. In many cases, the policy action has focused on small tangible steps to manage the symptoms of a broader evolving crisis. Examples include changes in building codes to ensure that urban infrastructure can better withstand storms, floods, fires and other natural disasters; and increased investment in emergency response capabilities. The more ambitious strategies aim at rapid reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases through a mix of incentives, standards and regulations that facilitate transition to new technologies and industry practices. Dewulf (2013) found major differences in policy framing between the mitigation and adaptation perspectives. Mitigation strategies prioritise the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. the goal of ‘zero net emissions’ and phasing out ‘carbon-polluting’ industries), whereas adaptation strategies focus on adjusting to the likely ongoing effects of climate extremes and natural disasters. Dewulf also found that the framing of perceived threats from climate change was sometimes presented as ‘external’ security threats (e.g. the influx of displaced persons or ‘climate refugees’) rather than focusing on the need to protect the health, well-being and livelihoods of citizens. Adaptation policies have become more readily accepted as mainstream priorities because they are seen as practical necessities in the face of tangible disruptions caused by droughts, fires, storms and floods (Adger et al., 2009; Schipper & Burton, 2009; Wise et al., 2014). By contrast, emissions reduction (or mitigation) strategies have been seen as more challenging and have been strongly resisted by incumbent industries and conservative political groups.
Substantive differences on climate policy are evident between those who champion technocratic engineering solutions (e.g., projects to deflect solar radiation or facilities to capture and bury carbon emissions), and those who seek a mix of regulatory and behavioural incentives to foster renewable energy and low-emissions industrial processes. Lomborg (2016) has argued that government leaders’ pledges in 2014–2015 to reduce emissions by over 30% by 2030 would not only be expensive, but would fail to reverse global warming this century. Industry-friendly economists (and critics of ‘alarmist’ green politicians) have generally rejected carbon pricing schemes, instead recommending investment in technical projects, geo-engineering and energy R&D (Lomborg, 2010, pp. 381, 395). More recently, however, Lomborg has argued that carbon pricing could actually be a useful policy instrument for nudging economic change, but that the main thrust should remain with R&D for technology innovation, together with very large investments in adaptation measures for urban infrastructure and food security (Lomborg, 2020).
Climate policy preferences are tied to how people perceive the problems and their affinities with various styles of thinking. Policy research consistently shows that preferred solutions tend to be shaped by the way that problems are framed or constructed, including the way that values are mobilised by leaders and stakeholders (Peters, 2005). The framing of a complex set of issues like climate change occurs at several levels. The cognitive dimension is primarily about science, knowledge and policy ideas; the communicative dimension focuses on how messages are circulated, challenged or reinforced; the organisational or institutional dimension centres on embedded practices, rules and routines, and capacities for implementation; and the political dimension is about power, crisis management and political leadership to defend or change policies and practices. Framing of climate change response strategies should recognise these four dimensions. In doing so, policy actors need to understand the values and concerns of the public—communication with diverse stakeholder audiences needs to be nuanced and use appropriate language. The research on effective science communication has been radically revised in the light of environmental debates (Corner & Clarke, 2017; Lakoff, 2010; Turnpenny, 2012), and increasingly recognises the diversity of values across multiple audiences (Jamieson et al., 2017), as foreshadowed in theories of political-cultural segmentation. There is some evidence that framing the policy reform issues in economic terms can often be more persuasive than relying on the credibility of climate science projections (Cann, 2021).