Category Archives: Environment

The Environment: A Wicked Issue

It is clear that the human consumption of fossil fuels and the aggressive process of industrialisation and continued technological development over the past two hundred years have had a net negative impact on our environment. Furthermore, we are now at a point where seismic environmental change is inevitable unless we act now – however that is – to mitigate the effects of climate change. If we don’t, the results are pretty bleak to put it mildly; human nature will eventually cease to exist. Of course, preceding this nihilistic end, the effects of environmental change will ensue; rising sea levels, desertification, rising temperatures, and mass migration to name just a few. These events alone will be catastrophic, but the consequences of these events will also create their own problems such as starvation and conflict. My point here is that I arrive in a haphazard fashion towards the issue of the environment. We have had political targets, scientific targets, economic targets and social targets to respond to climate change, but we are yet to see a holistic approach to combating environmental change which acknowledges its ‘wicked’ nature.

Wicked issues such as climate change require a holistic and adaptive response, but their severity and complexity often force governments to make instant decisions which are then uprooted as and when the wicked issue adapts and moves across systems – such as international, national and community systems. This is all quite theoretical but provides a perfect explanation for the climate change issue, and suggests that how we tackle climate change must be holistic and adaptive.

What substantive and politically accepted environmental solutions put forward thus far have been wholly economic ones. These have centred on discussion of so called “carbon footprints”, and then attempting to work out how much these footprints “cost”. If we are to really bring about a positive reversal from harmful environmental change we must accept the issue is a wicked one with no single solution, or no single focus – such as an economic focus outlined above. Current emphasis on setting costs for carbon and then attempting to incorporate carbon emissions as a commodity into the international market fail to recognise the multi-faceted nature of environmental politics. It is also for this reason why I have no hope of a lasting remedy being decided upon during Copenhagen. Sure our world leaders wield an enormous amount of power, but again we are relying too heavily on a political focus. What will actually result will be verbal agreements and handshakes as to what the environmental problem is. Indeed, Barack Obama has even said himself that there will be no legally binding agreement out of Copenhagen, and it is unclear whether he will even attend.

The scientific target for tackling climate change is to avoid a 2 Degree increase in average temperatures, the economic target is to utilise the market and set prices on carbon as a commodity, the political target is to reach a global agreement, legally ratified,  which compels government action, the social target is to change our perceptions towards nature. Only by incorporating all these targets together and acknowledging that climate change is a wicked issue, will we be able to effectively curb negative climate change. Furthermore, certain targets have not received a fair hearing. The social target, of changing our perceptions towards nature, is certainly a gap in the environmental dialogue. Often attempts to build social impetus behind tackling negative climate change are made by referring to ‘fear-mongering’ worst case scenarios. Instead, it would be more useful to frame a debate in which we discussed how we treat nature, how we should use nature, and discuss the moral and ethical issues behind our relationship to nature – even if we weren’t compelled to do so because of climate change.

What we must avoid is the reductionism often used when attempting to ‘frame’ the environmental debate to just a security issue, or to just an issue of sustainable development, or to just an issue of resource use and development, and acknowledge that climate change is a wicked issue. The solution – of which here I have only touched upon briefly – must acknowledge the issues wickedness and be holistic and adaptive. The threat faced by environmental change is portrayed as one which could potentially destroy human existence unless we act now. For action to take place now, and for it to be effective, means that Government and individuals alike must be taking unilateral action now rather than reducing the issue to a focus on only a scientific, economic, political or social target. The issue of climate change encompasses all of these, and the issue is itself adaptive and will affect future events we can not safely predict – this makes it a wicked issue. To tackle a wicked issue, we need a holistic and adaptive approach. We need unilateral action at the same time from Government, society and individuals now.

First published November 18th 2009


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