Judith Curry Addresses the Wicked Problem of Climate Change

Judith Curry is a scientist who has been hard at work unraveling what she calls the wicked problem of climate change. In this particular case, she doesn’t use the word wicked in a moral sense, though her detractors almost always do. In the midst of the UN hearing on climate change, Curry’s testimony was a welcome bit of common sense:

The inadequacies of current policies based on emissions reduction are leaving the real societal consequences of climate change and extreme weather events largely unaddressed, whether caused by humans or natural variability.

The wickedness of the climate change problem provides much scope for disagreement among reasonable and intelligent people. Effectively responding to the possible threats from a warmer climate is made very difficult by the deep uncertainties surrounding the risks both from the problem and the proposed solutions.

In other words, it really doesn’t matter if climate change is due to natural variability or human causes. The issue of real importance is predicting “possible threats” from climate change and determining what responses could actually ameliorate those predicted threats, whatever they may be.

Curry repeatedly calls the climate change problem a wicked problem. A wicked problem has these characteristics:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one shot operation.”
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Curry explains that wicked problems are not solved easily by “command and control” solutions, since proposed solutions often complicate the details of the problem and it is difficult to determine if apparent “improvements” are real or merely correlative.

Unlike most everyone else at the UN hearing, Curry posits that the major wickedness in this wicked problem is the hubris of people who think they know better than anyone else. She concludes:

Robust policy options that can be justified by associated policy reasons whether or not human caused climate change is dangerous avoids the hubris of pretending to know what will happen with the 21st century climate.

Indeed. The best policies concerning climate change are humble robust ones focused in the narrow region where every reasonable possibility intersects. That’s an extremely limited region, in case you were wondering.