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Addressing the real 'wicked problem' of climate change

By Jane Fiona Cumming, Dr Jim Ormond, Professor Jeff French

The September edition of Nature discussed whether contemporary democracies are ill-equipped to deal with climate change (Nature 525, 449–450; 2015). This raises an important question as to the role of governments in directing society’s response. A discussion particularly relevant and timely given the forthcoming Climate Summit in Paris this December.

However, one point not covered by the Nature article was the misbalance in the scale of investment in behavioural influence relative to investment in technological fixes. There are a number of reasons for this mismatch of effort and attention, but the simple reality is governments, and companies get nervous when we start talking about influencing behaviours.

Echoing Nico Stehr's (who authored the paper in Nature) concerns around democracy, this nervousness is due to the ethical dilemmas associated with behavioural influence. Governments prefer ‘information giving’ in the hope that people will then put the effort into making thought-through judgements based on available information, and subsequently change the way that they behave.

This approach, whilst ethically robust, suffers from the fundamental flaw that that this is not how people make decisions. If information-provision was enough to change behaviours then smoking rates would have plummeted in the 1980s with the first scientific evidence linking cigarettes to a premature death.

Therefore, if we are serious about addressing the intractable 'wicked problem' of climate change we urgently need to put ’influencing behaviour’ front and centre of every Government agenda. This means channelling funding into developing coordinated, targeted and sustained behavioural programmes. This will also require governments to radically improve their capacity, capability and ambition in relation to designing, developing, delivering and evaluating effective behavioural influence programmes.

After all, if, as the Nature paper cites, “comfort and ignorance are the biggest flaws of the human character” where we must start is with our own human behaviour.


A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of term "wicked" here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil - (Churchman 1967)

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