There is little doubt that most people tire of hearing about problems only and would like to hear about solutions. But disconnecting the solution from the problem has its own dangers.

Many of the most serious problems facing society today—those in most urgent need of solutions—are so-called wicked problems. These are complex, not amenable to simple cause–effect logic, often deeply systemic in nature, and continually evolving. They cannot be dealt with by a linear process of generating an understanding of the problem and then going on to solutions.

Climate change is a classic example of this type of problem. Our experience with the previous Australian Government’s Climate Commission and now with the Climate Council of Australia demonstrates the dangers of disconnecting the solution from the problem. Our communication works best when we connect the solutions to the problem. Otherwise, people ask: Why do we have to change? If there isn’t a problem, why are you proposing “solutions”?

The need to connect solution to problem is probably more important for non-expert audiences than in academic circles, a fact that is often overlooked when experts attempt to communicate their knowledge to lay audiences.

We quickly learned in the public forums that the Climate Commission held around Australia in the 2011 to 2013 period that we needed to open with a brief presentation on the nature of the problem. If we jumped too quickly to solutions—that is, focused too strongly on policies, technologies, and economic instruments that could solve the climate change problem – we lost the audience. Our most effective and rewarding forums invariably involved a rich interplay between the nature of the problem and the types of solutions that could be effective in dealing with the problem.

Problems such as climate change—and virtually everything else associated with sustainability—require that the connections between the problem, its nature, seriousness, dynamics, and time dimensions, and the potential solutions need to be made explicit and made often.

There are several other good reasons for repeatedly connecting the solution to the problem. First, a focus on solutions only could, in some cases, be a symptom of an immature society, one that only wants to hear good news and wants to avoid confronting or disturbing messages. A society that is unwilling to understand and accept the problem, confronting though it might be, is unlikely to support the type of solutions that are likely to be effective. Disconnecting solutions from the problem could then easily lead to superficial, one-dimensional or ineffective “solutions.” Or worse yet, it could lead to denial of the problem in the first place, as often happens with climate change.

Second, a disconnection between problem and solutions can not only lead to an ineffective solution, it could also lead to a decidedly maladaptive and dangerous one—the “cure is worse than the disease” syndrome. Again, climate change provides a good example of this with proposals to “solve” the problem through various geoengineering approaches. The most common is solar radiation management, where insertion of aerosols into the stratosphere would reduce temperature. But this is a classic example of applying simplistic cause- effect logic. Such an approach would also change rainfall patterns, allow acidification of the oceans to continue unabated, and change the patterns and intensities of light for photosynthesis.

Third, for all of these wicked problems, there is, in fact, an adaptive loop between problem and solutions. As we learn more about the problem, we may need to modify the solutions. And as we begin to implement the solutions, we may in fact change the nature of the problem itself, or unexpected consequences of the solution could lead to additional problems or modify the one we are trying to solve. So we need to periodically go back to the problem to see how effective the proposed solution is and learn how we can deal with it better.

The bottom line is that we need to look at the 21st century sustainability challenge in the context of the Earth System, including of course, the ever-expanding human enterprise as a part of the system. That is, we live in a complex, adaptive system that abounds with wicked problems and complex challenges. We definitely need to think about “solutions” to these challenges, but we also need to frame them in terms of navigating through a complex system space where problem and solution are intrinsically linked.


Will Steffen

Will Steffen is executive director of the ANU Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, Canberra, and also serves on the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and as a climate commissioner.

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