Wicked and Tame Versions of Climate Change

March 13, 2015 Stephen Murgatroyd

Most complex problems are “wicked” problems. That is, the etiology of these problems is complex, not simple, involving multiple and layered interactions between different causal factors. For example, poverty is a wicked problem – there are a range of causal factors and layers of issues associated with why poverty exists and why it manifests itself in the way that it does. The solution to poverty is also complex – just giving people a living wage helps, but doesn't deal with all aspects of poverty.


Climate change is a wicked problem. We are unsure of all aspects of cause, the interaction between causal factors and what constitutes an impact of climate change versus natural variability.  For example, the role of water vapour, clouds, sun, CO2 and other factors are not fully understood and we have no really robust model of climate which has true predictive power.


Many like to think that problems like poverty, hunger, climate change are not wicked but “tame” problems which we fully understand and which have known causes and effects. Indeed, the whole narrative that “C02 is the primary cause of contemporary climate change” is a convenient, tame narrative since it enables solutions to be proposed which are (in theory at least) “do-able”. The inconvenient truth is that we do not fully understand climate change dynamics and that we are unsure of what causes what when it comes to impacts. We are pretty sure, for example, that extreme weather events are not due to climate change (at least according to the peer reviewed evidence and the IPCC).


The idea of “tame” problems depends on a very strange notion of “consensus science” and the marketing of the idea that “the scientific community is aligned”. In the case of climate science it is abundantly clear that this is not the case. No amount of name calling and labeling can disguise the fact that senior figures in the appropriate disciplines do not subscribe to the tame view of climate change. It is also clear that there has been process corruptions in the way in which science is both gathered and presented, especially by the media.


This is the topic discussed on what I regard to be by far the best blog to read about climate change – that managed by Judith Curry and known as Climate, etc. Judith is a climatologist, a scientist in search for truth, is not funded by fossil fuels and is a genuine scientist of the Popper school (with a deep understanding of the social construction of evidence and scientific practice). But her search is for truth and understanding, not influence and funding. She is a Professor at Georgia Tech.  She is also passionate about not just evidence, but the philosophy of science.



I strongly recommend you spend time exploring Judith’s mindful and insightful blog.

Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.
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