Making Sense of Wicked Problems

Review by Andrew J. Hoffman: “While reading Oxford University professor Thomas Hale’s Long Problems: Climate Change and the Challenge of Governing Across Time, I kept thinking of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s observation that “we have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on Earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to such responsibility, but here we are.”

Countless scientists have referred to climate change as part of a class of issues called “wicked problems,” a term used to describe issues that do not neatly fit the conventional models of analysis. While we may not be suited to solve the wicked problem of climate change and may despair that we will never be, Hale offers an analysis of how we might better understand and therefore address it.

Hale predicates Long Problems on the general observation that some political issues span not only national borders but also time horizons. His central claim is that climate change is a “long problem,” a challenge that “spans more than one human lifetime.” He acknowledges that while “length is not the only meaningful way to understand climate change, … a focus on this one characteristic can fundamentally reshape our understanding of politics” by challenging us to establish policies on longer time horizons and to account for the future in ways we have not previously done. Reenvisioning policy is important because long problems are becoming more prevalent, he argues, for three reasons: our growing technological ability to bump against limits within the environment, our growing understanding of those distant effects, and our increasing willingness to address the needs of the future in the present.

Long problems, Hale asserts, challenge us to “govern across time,” rather than in the short terms of election cycles and quarterly returns. He warns that such challenges become more difficult to address the longer we ignore long-term governance. Indeed, as long problems become more urgent, we become more immediate and short term in our political orientation. Put differently, when we are drowning, we are less concerned with fixing the cause of the flood than we are with surviving. Hale calls this a paradox that “is another of the various cruel ironies of climate change [because] it threatens precisely the political support for longer term governance functions that can best address it.”…(More)”.