A wicked problem: climate change

Vaguely aware of global warming back at the end of the 1980s thanks to the Bundtland report on ”our common future”, it was only after observing – from a safe distance on the other side of the Atlantic – the chaos in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrine in 2005 and after reading the key messages of the Stern report published in 2006, that my focus sharpened.[1] Since then I have been actively engaged in various projects and programmes associated with climate change, both in terms of mitigation (aimed at reducing emissions) and adaptation (increasing resilience). In the spring of 2007 I immersed myself in the subject by joining a professional development course at Imperial College in London at which a host of highly qualified experts lectured on the many dimensions of the world’s wickedest problem.

Subsequently, I was responsible for ”screening” Danish development assistance in 17 different countries between 2006 and 2009 in order to determine how climate change could be taken on board and taken seriously in providing aid. These studies came up with lots of proposals for helping to understand the impact of global warming on communities in each country as well as proposals for policies and measures that might help them to adapt. I joined the teams developing the ideas in Cambodia, Central America, Niger and Zambia and I was also involved in monitoring a large-scale ”adaptation and mitigation” scheme in Viet Nam. By 2010 I had become fairly familiar with the enormous difficulties of transforming development pathways in sustainable, low carbon and resilient directions…

For a few years I was also able to participate in decision-making processes with the multilateral development banks when “climate change investment plans” were drawn up and approved. I attended meetings in such exotic locations as Istanbul, Manila and Washington, listening to planners and advisers outlining how to scale up renewable energy, to invest in forest management and to enhance resilience. These opportunities bought me into the sphere of the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation (which became known as REDD+). After negotiators at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached agreement on a series of REDD+ provisions, three agencies of the UN (FAO, UNDP and UNEP) joined forces to provide technical assistance as part of the global effort to improve forest conservation and management. I worked as an adviser to the UN REDD+ programme for two years, based in Geneva from 2014 to 2016, responsible for preparing a strategy to assist national efforts in tropical developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.

In September this year it was fascinating to read a special edition of the Economist magazine with updates on the wicked problem. There are articles about the struggle to phase out coal production and introduce clean energy (wind and solar power, etc.) in Germany, in Britain (with Danish investors) and in China. There’s an analysis of the prospects for a ”green new deal” being promoted by many Democrats in the USA. The magazine’s journalists have visited southern Italy where a destructive bacteria is spreading rapidly through olive plantations aided by warmer temperatures, as well as South East Asia where forest fires are once again getting out of control and pouring hazy smoke into the atmosphere. They have written accounts of the recurrent droughts affecting some of the world’s poorest farming communities in Malawi as well as the reduced rainfall disrupting shipping through the Panama Canal as water levels in the locks fall below critical levels. The fate of coastal Asian mega-cities is illustrated in a report from Jakarta, which is slowly sinking under the weight of roads and buildings at the same time as the sea level rises. Finally, there is an article about negotiating strategies adopted by the members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which are particularly threatened by climate change.[2]

If the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s main message is understood, then the key to solving the wicked problem is to listen to science and act accordingly. However, as she knows, there are massive vested interests at stake, notably amongst the shareholders and bosses of the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations.[3] Furthermore, the lifestyle changes required to reduce emissions significantly in the next few years in order to avoid going beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of temperature increase since the 19th Century, are… significant. Energy, transport, production, consumption, construction and waste disposal models will have to be substantially reformed, for example by scaling up wind and solar power, by using electric vehicles, by capturing CO2 emissions from industrial processes, by cutting back on meat in diets, by re-thinking urban design and by expanding recycling in “circular economies”, etc., etc. In this context, I’ll conclude on an upbeat note, quoting Kate Raworth’s exciting proposals for “doughnut economics” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) in which she (sets out):

“an optimistic vision of humanity’s common future: a global economy that creates a thriving balance thanks to its distributive and regenerative design. Such an aspiration may seem foolish, even naïve, given the intertwined crises of climate change, violent conflict, forced migration, widening inequalities, rising xenophobia and endemic financial instability that we face… But there are enough people who still see the alternative… Ours is the first generation to deeply understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household and probably the last generation with the chance to do something transformative about it. And we know full well as an international community that we have the technology, know-how and financial means to end extreme poverty in all of its forms should we collectively choose to make that happen…” (p. 243).

PS These thoughts are in honour of the gathering of mayors from the C40 group of big city “climate change shakers and movers” in Copenhagen in October 2019. In the hope that they’ll make a difference, not just make speeches… Forward with the green cities movement!

[1] The ”Brundtland report” was the main result of the World Commission on Environment and Development, published as Our Common Future (WCED, 1987). The sustainable development concept was ”discovered” by the Commission. In 2006 the UK Government published the (Professor Nicholas) Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (CUP, 2006), which concluded that strong early action to mitigate climate change would be much better than incurring the much higher costs of inaction.

[2] See: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/09/19/the-climate-issue

[3] The ways in which these companies have been at the forefront of climate change denial, while their research and development people have been aware since the 1950s of the dangers of increasing concentrations of CO2 caused by fossil fuels, are dealt with in recent articles published in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions

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