I was particularly interested in this after a graduate of our master's program forwarded around a link to this blog post, which discusses the interim Garnaut report and concludes:
Here in the U.S., it's the follow on implication that ought to concern us most: that we'll need to slash our emissions much more drastically over the next decade or two than anyone in American political life is currently discussing... In comparison, I'm increasingly hearing science-based realism described as an 80-90% reduction in the U.S. climate footprint by 2030, partnered with massive effort to diffuse the resulting innovations around the globe.
Johann Hari makes a similar point, and further adds that if we think we can get out of this mess by buying Priuses and compact fluorescent light bulbs, we're kidding ourselves.
On the other hand, it is now relatively easy to find counter-arguments about the necessity to impose climate-change-related restrictions -- Alexander Cockburn has been making such arguments in The Nation (subscription only, but you can see a summary -- from a website, Hari would remind you, funded by oil companies) and the co-editor of Arts & Letters Daily is now compiling such skeptical arguements at Climate Debate Daily, side by side with arguments that climate change is certainly man-made, that it is only getting worse, and that drastic changes must be made yesterday.
As I was reading the various arguments, and getting discouraged about the ability to do anything about the problem at all, it appeared that climate change could be fairly accurately described as a "wicked problem" as defined by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 article.
To recap the ten aspects of wicked problems:
1) It is not possible to formulate the problem neutrally -- or as Rittel and Webber put it, "[E]very specification of the problem is a specification of the direction in which a treatment is considered."
2) There is never a good stopping point; it is always possible that greater investment of time or effort will yield a better solution.
3) There is no "right" answer, ever. How a particular group views a policy solution will depend on its interests and values.
4) Any solution, once implemented, will produce consequences for an extended period of time. It may turn out that the consequences make the solution worse than the problem; but there is no way to know these consequences ahead of time.
5) Every implemented solution is consequential.
6) There is no way to prove that every possible solution has been identified and considered.
7) Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8) Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
9) In implementing a solution, it is generally possible to explain away discrepancies. How discrepancies get held up as refuting the original hypothesis, or explained away, depends on the interests and values of the person doing the explaining.
10) Planners are responsible for the consequences of the solutions they choose.
It is hard to think of a more wicked problem than one in which every month's temperature is held up as proof or refutation; where to cite a cause (transport! Big Oil! consumerism! eating meat! no, it doesn't have anything to do with human behavior!) is to imply a political position and a value judgment; and where the consequences could mean drastic changes in quality of life, whether they are meant to solve the problem or ignore it. As I said to my master's-holding friend, an 80-90% reduction in emissions, as recommended above, could mean not having central heating or air-conditioning, in houses and office buildings that were by and large designed to take central heating or air-conditioning for granted.
Or to give another example of consequences: one of the comments on this article references the leadership of Jimmy Carter in establishing CAFE standards, but by 1980 the Carter administration was actually backing away from stricter CAFE standards for fear it would cost too many jobs in Detroit.
All that said, I am not sure how far thinking about climate change as a wicked problem gets us. The wicked-problem formulation insists that there are value judgments on all sides of the issue at hand, but some people (and I am not thinking of anyone in particular) will complain that saying "Human activity contributes to carbon-dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change" is a value judgment is like saying "Species have evolved over time" is a value judgment. And even if we (whoever "we" would be) do agree that climate change is a wicked problem, how would we then solve it? This article suggests that citizen participation can help manage wicked problems; and yet there are suggestions such as Hari's, or this editorial's, that the answer to global warming is not citizen participation but the imposition of standards and legislation from above.