Climate change is a super wicked problem

Chris Riedy
8 min readMay 28, 2013

In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber wrote a paper in Policy Sciences that introduced the term “wicked” problems. Wicked problems are societal problems that lack simplistic or straightforward planning responses. According to Rittel and Webber:

We use the term “wicked” in a meaning akin to that of “malignant” (in contrast to “benign”) or “vicious” (like a circle) or “tricky” (like a leprechaun) or “aggressive” (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).

Characteristics of wicked problems

Rittel and Webber identified ten characteristics of wicked problems. Their list is a bit dated and I prefer the more recent version from the excellent report on Tackling Wicked Problems from the Australian Public Service Commission:

  • Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define — different stakeholders have different views of what the problem is and appropriate responses
  • Wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal — there may be conflicting goals for those involved
  • Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences — wicked problems exist in complex systems that exhibit unpredictable, emergent behaviour
  • Wicked problems are often not stable — understanding of the problem is constantly evolving
  • Wicked problems usually have no clear solution — there is no right or wrong response, although there might be worse or better responses
  • Wicked problems are socially complex — it is social complexity, rather than technical complexity, that is overwhelming
  • Wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation — these problems cross governance boundaries
  • Wicked problems involve changing behaviour — with all the difficulties that poses
  • Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure — they have become intractable, despite numerous attempts at solutions.

Responding to wicked problems

The point of defining particular problems as wicked is not to sit around and lament, but to point out that these problems require a different kind of response. Defining particular problems as wicked was a challenge to the dominant rational responses to policy development. Instead, responses to wicked problems need to be collaborative, innovative and flexible. The kind of strategies typically employed are:

  • To use holistic, not partial or linear thinking
  • Innovative and flexible approaches built on action, experimentation and evaluation
  • Work collaboratively across boundaries
  • Engage stakeholders (which may include citizens) in understanding the problem and identifying responses
  • Develop core skills and competencies — communication, big picture thinking and influencing skills, and the ability to work cooperatively
  • Envision and explore the future / adopt a long-term focus
  • Understand how to change behaviour.

I’ve drawn on the Australian Public Service Commission report and a piece by John C. Camillus in Harvard Business Review to develop this list.

Climate change as a ‘super wicked’ problem

It has become commonplace to describe climate change as a wicked problem. For example, the Australian Public Service Commission report identifies climate change, obesity, indigenous disadvantage and land degradation as wicked problems.

The term “super wicked problems” was introduced by Kelly Levin, Benjamin Cashore, Steven Bernstein and Graeme Auld in a 2007 paper at the International Studies Association convention. Their 2012 paper in Policy Sciences explores the concept and its implications in greater detail.

Now, 40 years after the original Rittel and Webber paper in Policy Sciences, a 2012 paper in the same journal is arguing that climate change is more than just a wicked problem — it is a “super wicked” problem. According to Kelly Levin and co-authors, super wicked problems are a new class of global environmental problem with four key features:

  • time is running out
  • those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution
  • the central authority needed to address them is weak or non-existent
  • irrational discounting occurs that pushes responses into the future.

Together these features create a tragedy because our governance institutions, and the policies they generate (or fail to generate), largely respond to short-term time horizons even when the catastrophic implications of doing so are far greater than any real or perceived benefits of inaction.

It’s worth looking at each of these features in turn, drawing on the Levin et al (2012) article.

Time is running out

The argument here is that global environmental problems like climate change are different to most social challenges because ‘the problem will, at some point, be too acute, have had too much impact, or be too late to stop or reverse’. We do not have the luxury of coming back for another try the next time the political interests align. With respect to climate change:

Significant impacts will occur; with each passing year, they become more acute; and if we do not act soon, the risk of harm to human communities and ecosystems, as well as non-linear change and catastrophic events, increases.

Those seeking to end the problem are also causing it

It is difficult, perhaps impossible right now, to live without creating some greenhouse gas emissions.

Every concerned person trying to reduce climate change has contributed to climate change.

This means, in essence, that we are partly fighting ourselves when we fight climate change. The enemy is distributed — it is all of us.

No central authority

There is no coordinated global governance system that has proven itself effective in addressing global environmental problems like climate change. The glacial process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations and the lack of any way to enforce global emission limits underscores the lack of central authority on this issue.

Policies discount the future irrationally

We know from psychological research that people favour definite present consumption over possible future gain and that this individual tendency is reflected in our collective policy making.

Partly as a result of the above three features, super wicked problems generate a situation in which the public and decision makers, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the risks of significant or even catastrophic impacts from inaction, make decisions that disregard this information and reflect very short time horizons.

What does all this mean?

The argument that global environmental problems, particularly climate change, constitute a new class of problem is not new. Clearly, climate change is challenging the capacity of humanity to respond like no problem before it. As a truly global challenge that stems from the very structure of our techno-economic systems, it demands responses of unprecedented scale and depth.

Identifying the four characteristics of super wicked problems is certainly a useful contribution. However, like Rittell and Webber’s paper, the most important reason for defining a new class of problems is to draw attention to a new class of policy responses. Levin et al suggest that those responding to super wicked problems need to ask:

  • What can be done to create stickiness making reversibility immediately difficult?
  • What can be done to entrench support over time?
  • What can be done to expand the population that supports the policy?

In other words, policy responses to climate change need to find ways to lock themselves in, or create path dependency.

In Australia, it seems very likely that we are about to see the consequences of failing to find ways to lock in climate policy. The likely election of a Coalition Government in late 2013 is expected to lead to the repeal of Australia’s fixed carbon price. Could the Labor Government have done more to lock in an effective climate policy?

Applied forward reasoning

Levin et al argue for a new epistemological approach to policy development called applied forward reasoning. This kind of approach looks forward to identify ways in which new policies can consciously generate path-dependence through lock in, self-reinforcing, increasing returns and positive feedback.

In this approach, the key strategies become:

  • Identifying interventions that have the potential to create lock-in, perhaps by focusing on small changes to existing sticky institutions or looking at lower policy levels where small changes could ratchet up over time
  • Short-term coalition building, to expand the supportive population and entrench that support over time
  • Creating new interests whose identities align with ameliorating the super wicked problem, for example through training and education to build skills needed to address such problems (e.g. in solar panel installation)
  • Paying attention to how norms and values might play a role in policy trajectories, generating new “logics of appropriateness” that are self-reinforcing.

Returning to the example of carbon pricing in Australia, the Labor Government did employ some of these strategies. For example, it linked the carbon pricing policy with income tax cuts, on the good logic that creating a wide constituency benefiting from the policy would entrench support for carbon pricing and make it sticky. While a good strategy, it was perhaps let down by extraordinarily poor communication and the toxic oppositional tone of current Australian politics.


My first response to the concept of super wicked problems was that the additional clarity added little value. Wicked problems are hard enough to deal with and defining climate change as a super wicked problem just underlines that climate change is a really hard problem to deal with — we know that!

On digging deeper though, I can see the value in naming the characteristics that make climate change a new kind of challenge. Most importantly, Levin et al make an important contribution by focusing our attention on ways to make climate policy self-reinforcing and self-protective.

Climate policy involves imposing costs on the present to reap gains in the future. For me, the most telling point that Levin et al make is that we are psychologically inclined to wriggle out of those kind of commitments. We might make them in good faith, but when the costs begin to bite, we give in to temptation and let the future take care of itself.

Carbon pricing in Australia is a classic example. Kevin Rudd’s Labor Government came to power in 2007 on a wave of concern about climate change. But when the real, present costs of climate policy became clearer to us, the backlash began. Six years later, we have a carbon pricing mechanism that is under severe threat of being rolled back if the Coalition is elected later this year. What looked like progress may end up in stalemate because the Labor Government was unable to find ways to lock in a progressive climate policy.

My personal response to this situation, and one I think is supported by the Levin et al analysis, is to work towards bipartisan support for an effective climate change response in Australia. This means broadening coalitions and constituencies for action and continuing to position carbon pollution as a social bad to activate social norms. A super wicked problem needs a super broad alliance to make real progress.

I am indebted to Stephen McGrail for introducing me to super wicked problems. His related post on super wicked problems and the role of foresight is an excellent read.

Credits: Photo: duck farm on deviantART



Chris Riedy

Professor of Sustainability Transformations at the Institute for Sustainable Futures