As a ‘wicked’ problem posing complex challenges on multiple levels, climate change demands a sophisticated, but perhaps impossibly elusive, dialog among diverse interests.

Climate change, because of its complexity on multiple levels, is now understood to be one of humanity’s “wicked” problems. As an interdisciplinary group of scholars working on climate policy issues put it last year:

“What makes a problem ‘wicked’ is the impossibility of giving it a definitive formulation: the information needed to understand the problem is dependent upon one’s idea for solving it.”


With climate change, the situation is compounded by the numerous stakeholders who view the issue through very different lenses. Some policy and communication experts have concluded:

“Successfully addressing this challenge will require a diversity of messages, messengers, and methods, each tailored to meet the needs of different target audiences.”

President Obama, perhaps seeking the largest possible audience with one message, has made a strategic decision over the past year to shelve any talk on climate change and emphasize, instead, the importance of energy security and clean tech.

Despite the misgivings of some climate advocates, Obama’s approach seems to many like smart politics — at least for the short term.

But climate change is not exactly disappearing from the public dialogue. It remains a highly charged issue, and positions seem to be hardening by the day. That, in turn, narrows the space for mutual understanding and compromise by disputants. Is there no way out?

Peter Coleman, a Columbia University researcher, sees some light where most others would probably only see additional trouble. Coleman is a psychology professor and Director of the University’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. He suggests that introducing “more nuance” into conversations about climate change would make people less narrow-minded and inclined to accept differing viewpoints. In a piece that appeared earlier this week on the website of Columbia’s Earth Institute, Coleman summarized the results of a paper in press:

“In a study I and colleagues conducted on moral conflicts (over such issues as abortion, affirmative action, climate change and mandatory penalties for pedophiles), we found that when participants were given both pro and con information on an issue, and then engaged in a discussion with someone who held an opinion opposite to their own, they typically ended up stuck in their original position, angry and fed up. However, when we presented a different group of participants with the same information, but presented it in terms of multiple aspects and perspectives on the issue, they were much more open and able to learn during the conversation, felt more mixed emotions (both good and bad), and were able to reach a more sophisticated shared understanding of the issue. This is an effect of framing the information in less simplistic (pro-con) and more nuanced or complex ways.”

Sounds good. But in reality, how would this work? You can’t get the world into a conference room. The climate debate is in desperate need of conflict resolution — or more like marriage counseling. But as was discussed in this space previously, many parties to this debate inhabit their own information silos, which has the effect of not only coarsening the larger dialogue but also making it more difficult to reach common ground.

Having a more sophisticated conversation on climate change would be a welcome development. How to make that happen still seems impossibly elusive, like progress on political solutions to reduce greenhouse gases.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.